Art For The Millions (excerpts)

Just finished working my way through a promising neighborhood and didn't sell a thing. Everyone was irritated, even the children and the dogs had the angry eye, the immaculately trimmed jungles in the front yards pulled my hair and hooked a hole in my stockings, the flowers reeked of garbage and from every door a fume of boiled cabbage and simmering meat and hate... I've had it for today. I spit in my own face. Half of my brains are preaching to the other half. Why aren't you at home writing your masterpiece? Coward. Weakling. Fraud. Consumer. All my life I've been full of promise. And now what me and my beast know we must write keeps fighting back, like trying to trap a giant octopus in a net of words... Then you deserve no better than to die unseen. And don't start crying here now. You know what you have to do.

I'm walking past a row of houses no one would ever want to see in a frame on a wall. Ringing doorbells here would be a complete waste of time. My favorite hobby. I stomp my heels and push myself off against the sidewalk with each step like I'm trying to lift off into the air, growling rhythmically Enough, Enough, Enough... Another day lost and I didn't even make any money. And now I give up. I'm going home to write something even I don't want to read. Might as well do a few of these doors on my way to the bus stop. Good evening sir... Not interested? So what. I mention the portraits anyway. The man asks if I do dead fathers. I can do anything, I tell him, even an exquisite portrait of your dirty dishes if that's what you want to pay me to do. Drawing is drawing. Expensive? You think so? Do you have any idea how hard it is? He stops to think. No, he admits he doesn't have any idea. Maybe I should come in and meet his mother... Mother, this woman tells me she can paint the dead... Mother offers me a chair, a glass of wine and a cigarette. Opens her wallet where she keeps a snapshot of her dead husband's soul, right next to the money. The sweet smell of money... Maybe this day wasn't a complete waste of everything after all. Tonight I want a big bag of smoke and three action movies. But first I'm not leaving this room without a big fat advance.

I only take on a portrait when we really need the money. Which is always too soon. When I'm working on a portrait I can feel the model pulling the muscles of my face from the inside, and whatever they're feeling is never something I want to undergo. Like a real salesman I always guarantee the likeness. Not the way the customers' children really are, but the way they want to see them. Big radiant eyes, no pimples or spots or bumps, no hard brittle lines that might indicate any kind of friction... And for the dear departed ones, a flattering selection of their best wrinkles... I could never get it done without my beast. Together we are one craftsman. He even designed my signature. For portraits we use a different technique. Draw, erase, smudge, erase, draw... A face is so much harder to capture than a building. I push the pencil and my beast tells me what's wrong and when it's finished. This cheek should be rounder, this tooth has the wrong shape, this shadow looks like dirt, it's perfect except everything is too dark, yes you can cry but don't get any tears on the drawing, we're almost done, I'll go roll us some smoke while you do the corner of this one eye and then we'll both be finished at the same time.

I unveil the portrait like a magician pulling a dead rabbit out of his sleeve, hoping it will hop to life. Is it him? It's him. It's completely him. It's even more him than the photo. "How did you do it? You must be telepathic." Tears. Smiles. Silence. And again cigarettes and wine. "Why aren't you rich and famous? Now that's what I call art." Art? I'm careful never to use the word art. What I'm doing here is craftsmanship. No more and no less. The satisfaction of a job well done. Your money's worth and all according to what I hope is your taste. What my beast and I call art only costs us money. The portrait stays behind and lives a life of its own on their wall. Five hundred years guarantee, nothing but the finest materials. Whenever they miss his wisdom or his company they talk to the portrait. And they say the portrait answers them. The photo album is already back on the table, this time they want me to do the grandchildren. All of them so special and unique, just like everybody else's. And once again I'm the loneliest in a world of warmth and happiness. Why can't I believe what everyone else believes? Now wouldn't that be convenient for a change. But I don't. Not in the warm safety of Family, not in the sanctity of Art, and above all not in Believing. I'll always be a stranger in their world. But I must be doing a good job because everybody's happy. They're happy with my work and I'm happy with their money.

I should be working for really rich people. Then at least I could get ten times more for the same product. Because the more you charge, the better they think you are. But how to get to them? I tried ringing their doorbells but I only got to speak to their personnel, their children, their dogs, their security... And the houses are farther apart and the driveways are longer and the lights are always on in every room so I can never tell from the road if there's anybody home... Sometimes I get a personal recommendation, a business contact, "just mention my name." Sometimes it actually works. And that's how we meet this real estate tycoon who does everything by helicopter. Our drawings become an original promotional gift for his best customers, and so he's our best customer, until of course the novelty wears off. Sometimes he phones and then we have three days to make a highly detailed washed pen drawing as big as the table. We're meeting him in a bar and we can order anything we want. We just have a cup of coffee. Rich people naturally trust us because they can smell we're never jealous of their wealth. We both grew up with big houses and land and horses and power and we could have had it all too, if only we hadn't sold our soul to the devil... The devil that has us under contract for a book, and then another one and another one... But in the meantime something has to pay the bills. What we're really drawing here is bank notes. In the tradition, like real classical artists from before the days of photography, immortalizing the rich people and all their expensive stuff. We can even adjust our colors to match the customer's wallpaper if that's what they want. Our work isn't a monument to our ego, but to theirs.

"Got to fly," says our real estate tycoon, "here's a hundred for the taxi." We walk three minutes to the bus stop and use his hundred to buy some records instead. We take turns working in layers, first my beast does the photography and the technical pencil work. Then I do the inks. That's the secret of our style. Realistic and yet not too realistic... We drink strong coffee to stay awake and smoke sticky black hash to drive away the boredom. Until the drawing is finished and our tycoon's chauffeur drives by to collect it. And pays me in cash and no receipt right there on the front seat like a street whore.

So why don't we set up this business professionally, have an exhibition, invite all the walking money bags, a friendly article in the press, with a smiling photograph, the lady artist and her charming assistant, no more working on a corner of the kitchen table but instead get a real studio with big windows in the ceiling facing north where I can receive and impress the customers... People always think it's so unique and wonderful, all this talent producing exactly what they want to see. So why not become a face, a personality, a real artist? We could make a lot more money than we're doing now. Even have some financial security for a change. So why don't we do it? Because the only way to do something like that is to become something like that. No longer a drifter without a name and without a past, a fresh start at every new doorbell, a stranger who comes and goes without leaving a trail, nothing but drawings in frames on walls in houses that all know nothing of each other... But no. Stop. Enough. Because that's not what I want to be either. We have to get out of this whole business before it's too late. People are always asking what you do. So they can know who you are. But we're nothing at all, and what we really do doesn't even exist, a living myth from a place where no one lives, a chronicle of the impossible. Anyone can write a book that's never finished and never gets published. But how do you make your money? A writer is someone who sells books. An artist is someone who sells art. There's no way out of it, you have to be something, otherwise you can't even eat. You are what you sell. And I sell therefore I am. Kafka was just a bureaucrat, Van Gogh was a parasite, Gurdjieff was a carpet salesman... And me and my beast go from door to door peddling drawings of rich people's houses and children. That's what we do so that's what we are. At last, something they can all understand. Admiring faces, compliments, how courageous of you, now that's something to be proud of, why didn't you say so before?

I'm on my way home, sitting in a train full of commuters that don't want to look at each other, because the sight of their mirror image would upset them, they're all so tired, they can no longer keep up their defenses, the newspaper is fine as long as it's all about people you'll never meet... The sun is already down but the clouds are still red. Glistening puddles of rain upon the floating leaves of water lilies. Flowers that not only grow out the mud but are made out of mud. Four white swans in a field, three herons in the reeds, two cormorants drying their wings on posts sticking out of the water, a bird of prey suspended in silence above a highway... I'm almost home.

All words and images copyright 2008 by Vanita & Johanna Monk

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