Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Benefactors of the Arts

One of my job tales I haven't yet shared on this blog involved working for a private school. The clientele - er, students - were, let's say, a certain class of people. Just for example:

We were setting up the gym for the annual fundraiser - an auction. There were TONS of items arranged in the gym, many of them expensive and breakable. And into this came four or five rampaging middle-school girls. I told them they couldn't run around and touch and look at the stuff, and that they'd have to leave. One of them looked me right in the eye, cocked her head, put her hand on her hip, and said, "Do you know who my mother is?"

Her mother was president of the board. And, in point of fact, her mother did not seem like the kind of a mother who would allow her daughter to speak that way - but this kind of gives you an idea of the feeling of entitlement that pervaded that school.

The kids would routinely try to outdo each other by hosting elaborate birthday parties. I remember one was a lavish dinner cruise - for a thirteenth birthday! (As my mother would say, "if you're going to have the dinner cruise on your thirteenth birthday, what's left for the wedding?") Some of these middle school parties were also well-stocked with things like, oh, I don't know, cocaine. I found this out because one parent was brave enough to come forward, though the school swept it under the rug - I know, because I was the one who reported it to school officials - and she was likely ostracized for it.

Anyway. So this was a place where money talked (and they talked about money, which is, by the way, the sign of the Nouveau Riche (Old Money doesn't talk about money, ever) and everyone felt entitled and I got to witness a lot of ignorance and arrogance that folks tried to hide under their money.

Perhaps these attempts to hide ignorance and arrogance under money are most evident when it comes to art. Case in point: One of the auction items that someone had donated was a limited edition print by Magritte.

The piece was "le viol" (the rape):

Now - my boss, who talked about money a lot and was somewhat obsessed with having the "right" shoes, bag, show tickets, whatever - thought this was obscene, and so - god, it's painful even to write it - she ROLLED IT UP and PUT SOME RUBBER BANDS AROUND IT and STUCK IT ON A SHELF. You know, the way you did with your old Duran Duran posters when you left for college. God knows what this was worth before she put all kinds of dents into the print. Or, more to my point, it was something of artistic value, and she crumpled it.

The piece didn't go in the auction and the owner was not informed, as far as I know. My boss seemed to think she could sell it privately, but I don't know what collector would buy a crapped up limited edition print. This incident seems to me, in some way, to be a perfect metaphor for the school and for the way it tried to present itself: it was the right place to be to look as though one had experienced art and culture, but the administrators and parents didn't know art and culture when it looked them in the eye. (The teachers, though, were pretty good - it must be said.)

All of this ran through my mind when I saw this story. At first, I thought, oh, too bad. But then I started to think a bit more about the people involved in this story. And there are two things that really bug me. First, there's Nora Ephron's take, which is fine. It's funny. It's typical Ephron. But I couldn't help but notice her mention of Joe's Stone Crab. I immediately remembered this post. And I realized that Nora was hanging with a guy who owned a painting that he could sell for over 100 million dollars, and then I realized that Nora wasn't one of us, but one of them. So I was annoyed, thinking about these rich people bumbling around and destroying fine art.

But second, there was this piece in The New Yorker, which somehow made it worse. Because now, crapping up art has somehow become a witty little story to be shared at dinner parties among the very rich.

I suppose I should be grateful that, at least, very rich people like Nora Ephron and her friends recognize the value of art when they see it. In contrast, I have also worked a couple of "art" auctions, auctions featuring (often poorly-done) work by overpriced and kitsch artists. At these auctions, people who know nothing about art itself - though they may know of a few artists who are currently "hot" - shop for art that will match the living room couch. I wish I could say I was kidding. I heard repeatedly "but it doesn't GO with anything" and "where would I PUT that?!"

These are appropriate comments for discussing the choice of wallpaper. Art is not wallpaper. And that brings me to the point of this rant, which is simply this: Art is not, or should not be, a conversation piece or decoration or a way to bring together the colors in a room's interior design. It is ART. Its point is to enlighten, move, challenge - to speak something real that will affect us. If it doesn't do that for you, then don't buy it.

And frequently, though not always, the "benefactors of the arts" are the most ignorant of all.


Nicholas Nemec said...

Spoiled brats like those are a pain in the butt. Their parents are usually worse. Where is this school that the parents provide cocaine for 13 yearolds dinner cruises?

plain(s)feminist said...

Whoops - I should have clarified. The parents didn't provide the cocaine. There was only one case that I heard any details about, and there I believe it was provided by an older (high-school age) sibling.