On a stale, watery day we found ourselves on the way to an art world party in a loft in Brooklyn to celebrate the New Year. It was not the kind of gathering that you might see in a Hollywood movie, there was a lack of beautiful young people with brightly colored, asymmetrical hair styles wearing revealing clothes and there was no conceptual artwork to perplex onlookers and ridicule artists. The couple throwing the party are friends, but we are not close, their lives being so different from our own. They are artists in the old fashioned sense, sticking it out with their work and being part of a real community. My guess is that they are not altogether successful in a commercial sense, their work is good but not fought over, yet they seem to make a living one way or another doing what they want to do. and it’s inspiring that this possibility still exists in New York, at least for this generation. But I also confess to being struck by its conformity; his art is fashionably cartoonish, softly political, her ceramic’s possess a punkish-ness just on the right side of kitsch, both strategies a cynic might conclude is a little too targeted towards the market.
The Uber driver made a compelling case, getting us from midtown to our destination in thirteen minutes. No wonder Brooklyn’s real estate is so valuable. However, driving through this part of the borough I was dismayed by the cheaply built, indifferently designed suburban neighborhoods. I predicted correctly that Mary would say that she could never live here, she picks up something in the mood of the place that I don’t. I think it may be the scent of dreams failing, adolescent fears of never escaping the suburbs and adult dread of returning to them which we both share. I am haunted by the ghosts of lost weekends in places like this and she in turn is someone who invests a lot of emotion and pride in her surroundings; for her New York City still shouts success, most other places, failure. Whereas I see something both familiar and alien, the concrete industrial landscape, its 1970’s architecture, it’s down market brands and forlorn demeanor, yet in my case the objection is much more prosaic; it is the subway I couldn’t manage, I need a city to walk in.
At the party there was no effort to dress well, in fact the opposite seemed true; the men greying, wearing their clothes with indifference, the women equally apathetic; no makeup, homey, comfortable shoes. There were some academics and critics and a couple of artists whose names you might know if you cared about the art scene of the 1990’s. Even I, who want no part of this world, knew it was not an “A List” event, there wasn’t any evidence of the electricity that follows those with real power and influence in the tight art world cartel. For that reason it should have been a relaxed affair, but walking around the room knowing so few people I detected an edge of hostility at my presence, I quickly felt regret for coming.
It’s not always easy to mingle in the New York art world as you cannot be sure of the outcome. There doesn’t seem to be any of those easy going, mature social skills that you find in other professional worlds, where strangers will introduce themselves, jump into polite small talk and seek common ground. I sensed a jungle mentality in this lofty space, an edgy social vulnerability. Perhaps it is the solitary studio life that makes this so awkward? The internal dialogues that take place when making their work, or perhaps it is a career chosen precisely to avoid people. It is also a bitter place sometimes, I have found myself being put down by art critics and artists during social events for no other reason than cruel territorialism and so I too am wary.
I had started to chat to a couple nearby. There was a stack of business cards selling natural tick spray which became a prop to start a conversation as I knew it is a subject much on the minds of those who go upstate during the summer months, Lyme’s disease being a disproportionate and constant anxiety. The woman, who I imagined was just a little older than myself was dressed with the typical casualness that screamed “feminist artist!”, a wildness to her un-kept, apparently never brushed hair and clothes that might not be so far away from someone sleeping in a homeless shelter. But if her appearance had a predictable artists anarchic left wing conventionality, this was nothing compared to her conversation. I learned that she once had Lyme disease but “did I know it was introduced by the Government?”, from a small Island off Montauk, where an infected deer had swam to Connecticut. Unfortunately this led to how all information was suppressed by the government, at which her partner abruptly walked away, a red flag I should have paid attention to, which I later guessed was because he knew the ugly direction this conversation was headed.
She started to become visibly agitated at any sign of reasonableness, the fact I loved NPR (“Government broadcasters!) That I thought that the media was doing a great job against Trump (“you need to do some research! All the news is fake”) when I suggested that calling the news fake is as much a right wing stance as it is left wing (“Ha! You need to do some research!”) I felt a new stillness to the room, other conversations had drifted within earshot, the sound of a siren outside of a window which had been open to allow a soft breeze to circulate. Then I noticed in a moment of shock that she had angrily stormed away leaving me alone, a few heads turned quizzically in my direction. I had apparently committed the crime of being balanced in this apparently radically left, anti-government, anti-establishment cabal, and left by myself wondering what had given away conservative tendencies.
It was a hurtful way to behave towards a stranger and I felt perhaps a little angrier than I should. The root of this is the presumption that she knew me and didn’t possess the ability to respect a different position, that I was the enemy. Could she have heard misogyny in my voice or prejudice towards my accent, or seen something in my appearance that told her I was not worth her time? It was that cold certainty on her part, a dangerous inability to listen, a misguided sense of her own value, at one point she said she had “a responsibility” to tell the world about what she knew. She reminded me of Donald Trump in her arrogance and unearned self-belief, which is the worst insult that comes immediately to hand. I could have allowed anger to take hold, but this was supposed to be a party. If I had time I could have thrown things into the mix, that both my parents were signed up members of the communist party having joined in Paris in the late 1950’s, but that was style over substance I suspect and never felt real urgency or depth in their politics.
A little later I saw her talking to an art dealer I knew, and when I asked him later who she was, I heard her once famous name in disbelief. Going home in the taxi Mary said sadly to me, well maybe next year I’ll go by myself and I gratefully agreed. The New Year was not supposed to start like this and over the next few days the conversation crept back, but my true feelings remained partially opaque to me, I was weary to unravel and reopen that minor but persistent wound, it was as if I had drank a cocktail which was two parts anger and one part self-remorse. Naturally I blamed myself at least a little for the exchange and the clumsiness of the social engagement, but that is my burden. Most of all I faulted myself for not being someone of substance, someone big in the art or political world, who would have made her think twice before steamrollering the conversation, I wasn’t looking for her approval, but the opposite, to squash her in return, and again heard the whisper of Auden in my ear, those to whom evil is done…..