Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Branding of Leonardo

Post-Thanksgiving for me is a calm time-- no more pre-Christmas frenzy in my current state of financial deprivation; my son and I managed to snag the very last tree of the Whole Foods Black Friday Event; it was deemed unsaleable because of a trunk defect-- tall and skinny, it was the one for me, and as it turned out, harbinger I hope it is, the ugly duckling Frasier swanned into utter holiday perfection.  A work of nature's art.

Anyway, with the scent of the forest, I was dared by an old friend to take an entire night 'off' and binge on reality television.  To parallel the US 'marketplace', the Housewives have morphed into a brand rather than the ridiculous parody of what happens when you mix the ingredients of mediocrity, extreme cosmetic prosthetics and Twitter with absolutely no content but scenery-- real estate-- restaurants, bad behavior, etc.  Their share of the store-bought network pie, from the jewelry, cars, homes-- is now huge.  The Kardashians have become a dynasty-- it's like the Partridge family with 21st-century values and portfolios.  Everything is scaled to enormity... and the words 'real' 'reality'.. 'real-real'... are everywhere, reminding us that we are being not just scammed but duped and insulted.  At least the cooking shows have some entertainment value although it baffles me that an audience is so hooked on an experience which depends primarily on the two senses missing from television.  Would we watch a Dylan concert with no audio? Doubtful.

It's been many years that we've overused the term 'really'; as a teenager I doubled it for emphasis... because like so many things, we need these words to prop up and convince.  Authentic-- another one.  Art these days often comes with a certificate, a pedigree or document.  Why?  Because its authenticity, in this sea of mysterious Monopoly money, is uber-questionable.  There used to be a chain of command... things were traceable and there were stamps and marks for ownership.  Things were commissioned-- things were kept in institutions or palaces-- churches.  Yes, things were stolen, occasionally.  But talent was unique and copyists were copyists.  Scholars kept logs of these things, which became catalogue raisonnĂ©s.  I studied Art History... connoisseurship and restoration.  It was a responsibility.  We looked and compared, had many hours in museum basements looking at forgeries, copies... comparing to masterpieces.  We discussed and often failed to conclude.

Then money entered the equation.  Art is one of the least regulated businesses.  It is mysterious and incomprehensible for many.  Collectors rely on 'experts' for advice and education.  Besides an important jewel, it is one of the few instances where one man can own something rare and unique.  Priceless, they say.   There is one Mona Lisa.  But we read about scandals-- even catalogue raisonnĂ©s where the authors received fees for certificates and inclusion.  The question of authenticity becomes dubious... which only seems to fuel the market further.  Cut to the Leonardo da Vinci sale... the star of the Post-War and Contemporary auction-- does this not, in itself, speak to us?  Okay-- since the $110 million Basquiat, all bets are off.  Wall Street loses and gains many billions each day.  This is the way money moves in a world where the managers make the market and profit either way.  A million dollars has become cheap in Manhattan culture.  Money has grown geometrically for the rich.  The housewives might have begun in apartments, but now they have jets... mansions; the Countess looks poor compared to her friends with the diet margarita-mixes and personal enterprises.  Their twitter audience is massive.  They rub shoulders with the celebrity culture and now our President himself is the greatest American reality show.  His brand and personal wealth will be many multiples of its pre-election worth.  Stupidity reigns and Greed is its Prime Minister.

But seriously... the Salvator Mundi-- it just doesn't look right.  There is a reason this painting was shelved and sold for a mere 45 pounds in my own lifetime.  No one claimed it.  The experts who taught me, way back, are gone. I doubt they would have been fooled. The restorer, from the IFA-- my alma mater, although I dropped out of the program because the ethics of restoration began to worry me.  This is big business now... and piles of crooked money are laundered through the art market-- masses of fakes are certified and authenticated and carry this like a vintage sheepskin.  I owned a Jean Michel Basquiat and a couple of things Andy gave me.  Did they have certificates?  No, they did not need paperwork because they were actually real.  At the time, of course, they were inexpensive.  Unmarketed art is affordable and sometimes very, very good.  There are artists quietly suffering and painting small masterpieces.  For the ultra-rich, this is not sexy.  Hedge funds do not buy a man selling home-goods on the street; they are invested in the geometrics of money.

Art, like religion, is suffused with belief.  The art market exists because collectors believe in the value of what is really a few dollars' worth of linen and paint.  It is a symbol, the way this da Vinci has become a symbol, to me, of the way anything can be marketed and deified-- not unlike those TV evangelists.  I hated this painting... found it uber-ironic that the number 45 was still in the figure-- with an additional string of zeroes.  The Christ figure crosses his benediction fingers... he reminds me a little of the king on the new BBC Versailles series-- the handsome and indulgent sovereign who is beginning to get a little fat and just corrupt enough to try to use religion to consolidate power.  Glam piety.

How many scrappy start-ups have gone public and raised a billion dollars overnight-- the market pushes up share prices and investors sell for profit?  Another kind of 'belief'.  Not to mention this is the way they can afford these paintings.  Monopoly money buys hotels, golf courses, mansions and art.  It's a whole network, an incestuous web of artifice and fantastic wealth.  Look at our president.  The Midas asshole of quackery.  The man-who-would-be King, if he could only....

At 3 AM, we watched a back-to-back of My 600-pound Life.  More dubious reality? You can't really make up this kind of thing.  What struck me is these people who consume food all day until they are literally paralyzed--  they are all poor.  They are mostly suffering from some childhood abuse issue... and they are not alone.  They have a partner who loves them-- enables, yes-- that, too.  But they have some kind of love the housewives lack?  The scale of obesity-- well, it maybe parallels the obscene scale of wealth on the other shows... this is a different kind of greed, though... it is some kind of inverted need that becomes desperate and personally destructive.  And they all have TVs.  Large ones.  They are victims of this culture, trying to make their way and failing on a massive scale.

I took a break and went up to Harlem to see what I could buy for $1.  I got 5 pounds of slightly defective but decent tomatoes.  A haul.  On the street I stopped to pick up a penny.  What you want that for, a man asked me as he smoked a butt in the mild night air?  Because it's real, I said.  I know it's real.  And it's free.  And I can trade it in anywhere.  Unlike the Salvator Mundi-- a very large title for a painting that enriched those involved in the deal... but saved no one. Certainly not the world.  My bad, Jesus might say.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Homeward Bound

On the way home last night, I hitched an uptown First Ave bus; it was after midnight-- my card was near-empty but the driver was kind and waved me on.  The ride uptown took nearly ninety minutes.  It seemed every stop was crowded with the down-and-out crowd.  By 34th Street the bus was jammed with passengers-- many of them homeless men and women with oversized carts filled with stuff.  The stench was strong, but the driver patiently rolled out the handicapped ramp and let them all board, mostly without paying.  it occurred to me that they wait for this man-- maybe the beginning of his shift, and they know they can rely on transport, these forgotten untouchables.  Maybe some of them ride all night to stay warm.  A few disputes erupted among cranky territorial passengers, but for the most part people were complacent; many came from the VA hospital, Bellevue… a drunk man kept yelling he needed a hospital… but then he passed out and slept like a baby.  It was a kind of pre-Thanksgiving reality check.

When I was young, I used to visit my friend's grandparents in the same building where I now live.  It was a little far uptown to be fashionable, in those days-- a great old turn-of-the-century prewar with a grand lobby but no doormen or luxury services.  Their space was massive-- lofty-- with skylights and high ceilings, and resembled my imagined version of a successful European artist's studio c. 1900. It stretched from one end of the building to another, with huge windows onto upper Madison Avenue.  Sparsely furnished, there were plenty of loungey sofas and reading chairs with quaint lamps-- tables and ashtrays-- window-seats and desks.  As they were part of an important publishing firm, they entertained writers and intellectuals; there were books everywhere… yards and yards of shelves, and piles and piles of treasured volumes, magazines, journals.  The radiators clanked in winter; in summer, in those pre-air-conditioned years, the top floor was sweltering.  The park was half a block away, and there was often a breeze on the roof, if you climbed up at evening.  It was a source of gossip and rumors-- secrets were exchanged here, a few inappropriate relationships, many drunken dinner debates-- a million cigarettes, deals inked and stories begun.

The sprawling apartment-- undecorated and decorous as it was, felt like the heart of adult New York.  This was what I would be when I grew up and got old--  a host-- a home-conversationalist in a book-lined room alive with  dialogue and energy-- ideas and excitement-- like a sort of club whose membership required no dress-code or mindset, but a passion for literature and art.  But more than anything-- it was a home.  You knew where you were when you were there; you could wander and browse, sit and lose yourself in a poem or look out the window… but you felt 'embraced'.

Thirty-five years later, I bought into their building-- a funky back-door apartment in need of renovation but with the pedigree and bone structure that had become part of my Manhattan dream.   It was cheap and a little dilapidated, but I was a young single Mom and felt so empowered to have bought what would really be my own true home.  My first Thanksgiving was blessed, for so many reasons… but I felt the tradition of that building, even though the publishing family had died long before, and that grand space had been divided into smaller units.  There were neighbors who had grown old in this place that seemed magical to me;  there were senior couples with piles of books and great art and they welcomed me into their homes with the often shabby old chintz curtains and the beautiful but worn Persian rugs; they spoke the cultured and human language of old New York; they had ideas-- they loved music-- they wrote, still read Latin and Greek, many of them… they treated their neighbors with kindness and generosity.

In those years the old building had a single employee: a superintendent who'd been born here… he was in his 60's, had raised his family in the ground floor rear unit.  He painted, polished brass, cleaned the old marble.  The rest of us chipped in and tended the garden, had lobby parties-- we were a true cooperative in the old sense-- a group of tenants who all cherished our home, who seemed to agree that our space and privacy were sacred.  Our individual priorities included maintaining a low public profile, modest monthly fees, a non-pretentious simplicity of style.  The architecture spoke for itself-- a quiet, old elegance, without luxury.  They welcomed me-- financially limited as I was, because they knew I was happy to be part of this lifestyle.

It took years to fill what seemed like a massive space to me-- to furnish it with my books, the art I've collected over the years, the finds and objects, the old furniture I've gathered at random auctions… It is quite full now-- my instruments, the things I love… I have quite everything I ever longed for as a young woman… and yet I am no longer content and secure the way I was twenty years ago.  In the early 90's, I helped a senior woman in my building-- Jane, was her name-- to pack up her spartan belongings.  Regretfully, she told me she had intended to die in this apartment, but her very modest pension from years of brilliant editorial work no longer covered rising maintenance costs.  I recognized so many of the wonderful books we carefully piled into these boxes like relics from a life well-lived and no longer valued.  The economy had changed,  New York had undergone a massive progressive facelift; the Wall Street culture had created a greed-bubble that has not just priced most of us out of the market, but has altered the rank-and-file New York City human profile.

While Jane was forced to move in with her son somewhere out of state, I find myself living on $3 a day most weeks--- having given up all luxuries including the subway, some days, in favor of walking, rice-based meals… my entire annual clothing allowance is less than some people spend on lunch.  Haircuts… movies… vacations… a day at the beach… have been so long left behind… but these days I dare not buy myself even a coffee.  Until last night's ride, I have been plagued with my annual Thanksgiving dinner anxiety-- putting on a brave face while calculating how I will pull together the meal on a skeletal budget, how it will set me back.  But turning the key into my place-- like a souvenir-shop of my life, a three-dimensional photo-album of memories-- I realized I was 'home' and the idea of these people on the bus having nowhere to 'let down' just seemed tragic and inhuman.

In recent years young bankers and hedge-fund managers have recognized my old building as the potential cash cow they envisioned. These families renovate, destroy, combine, disregard… and then sell. They have way more space than anyone requires; they are rarely home and they have no observable sentimental possessions or books. They have architects and designers, and mostly photoshoot-ready but soulless apartments.  The ghosts of former tenants and the spirits in old walls and floors sigh and creak at night.  The old radiators still bang, although they will manage to eradicate these eventually.  They have forced doormen and lobby improvements-- fancy elevators. They have usurped the great old roof with their equipment and air systems. Even as the smallest shareholder,  monthly costs nearly exceed my very humble income as a musician/poet.  My slender spending habits have become emaciated.  And tonight, as I listen to the soft roar that is New York City seep through my leaky windows, I wonder if these people feel 'home'.  As in home-less.

There is some George Segal movie on from the 70's and this is New York, the way I remember it… before clothing advertised things.. when even rich people's apartments were comfortable and slightly messy and filled with things... when hair was not perfect and women had wrinkles and the buildings looked habitable and a little dirty.  I realize I am of a dying or defeated generation here-- hanging in, holding on to what I know and love-- my building, my old guitars… sentiment...

Things change-- I know this, and not all change is bad. But this Wall Street generation changed the rules for many of us who thought we had secured some kind of tranquility for our older age.  Our trusted annuities and medical plans have been up-ended, our modest pensions have been diminished and decent healthcare is precarious and prohibitive.  I naively bought shares in a wonderful institution, only to find myself a tiny minimized partner in a corporation with an agenda of money and attitudes and little regard for human values and the great cultural mesh upon which this city was founded.

I will be home for Thanksgiving, and I will try to forge onward and resist what feels like a tidal insult to everything I am.  My neighbors will never share a bus ride like the First Ave. M15 at 2 AM; they don't want to see or smell this kind of thing, and they seem to enjoy the demolition of old walls as much as they enjoy their indulgent vacations.  They will grow old, too-- not as gracefully as this building has, and maybe one day they will discover nostalgia or homesickness-- that nothing is ever as precious as that which has been lost.   By then I'll be sharing a cigarette with the old ghosts on the stairs while, God willing, someone might be enjoying a home-cooked turkey in what will always be the old rooms with the book-lined walls.