director of the arts center asked me to speak to you all tonight, I said
I said I've got
a speech on the Top Ten Mistakes People Make when deciding what to do with
And she said,
uh, not appropriate for this audience
So I thought
about the audience that'd be here tonight, and what they need, and gosh -
I got just the thing. It's a speech that trains you all to have perfect
memory recall, so that you'll never have to peek at a nametag again to
remember someone's name.
She said no,
she didn't need me to give that speech. You sure, I said. I sing in that
speech. People want to hear me sing. No we don't she said.
So I have this
other speech, I said, that teaches people a breathing technique that gives
them the most intense orgasms they've ever had.
She said no,
she didn't think the big donors wanted to hear that one.
I was running
out of ideas. I suggested I tell you all how I am part of a cabal of 500
international business leaders who meets in Boca Raton to set the price of
rice in Jakarta and the price of oil in Arabia and decide who will win the
2008 election in Brazil.
No, she said,
she wanted me to give a little reading from my book and to talk about the
benefits of community to artists.
Great, I said,
I can do that. Maybe.
that's a bit like dancing about architecture, which is like
writing about music, which is like swimming about running
you can do
it, but it's a challenge to do it artfully.
What makes a
group of disparate individuals a community is extremely subtle. A lot of
writers tell me, I've got an office with other writers around in their
offices, but not a community. A lot of artists tell me they've got a
studio in a cooperative, but not a community.
begins with a place. A place that, when you walk into it, you want to be
there. It's about privacy but not isolation. It's about spontaneous
interactions, but not bothersome interruptions. A place that soothes
loneliness and triggers conversations that somehow feed positively back
into the creative process. Finding such a space is not easy. Little things
matter, like the amount of light in an office, or whether the doors are
safe to leave open, how big the common spaces are and where the kitchen is
located and how that causes people to walk past each other.
requires fostering the right attitude. It's an attitude of generosity to
each other, not competitiveness. So you feel safe jumping into the hallway
and saying, "The Times is running my essay!," without fearing
that behind every other door is a writer steaming with envy. So you feel
safe offering up the name of your agent, or your gallerist. And you feel
safe showing someone the rough draft of that short story that uses a very
risky narrative device in its first paragraph.
We do have our
eccentricities, one guy puts tape on eyebrows, another guy writes in
closet, a third guy brings his dog every day, another guy putts a golf
ball up and down the hallways .. okay those are actually the same one guy,
So let me leave
you with some parting thoughts. My parting thought is, I'm a big filet of
salmon. I'm a filet of salmon because I had some salmon tonight, and
because I believe in the old edict, "You are what you eat." Some
people think Surgeon General Koop was the author of that memorable line,
but it was just one of his speechwriters, who had eaten some beans.
Anyway, you are what you eat, and in the same way, you are what you read,
what you see, and what you watch. Every piece of art, or page of a book,
or paragraph of a speech that you've enjoyed is in you. A little bit. At
least for twelve hours.
Now this isn't
true in all cases. For instance, if were listening to NPR this week, and
suddenly Vice President Dick Cheney came on, your brain has a cluster of
neurons behind the left ear that's constantly monitoring all brain inputs,
checking for ideological viruses and other bullshit. And so when it hears
the first syllables of the Vice President, it wraps the entirety of his
words in a sort of mental prophylactic that allows the Vice Presidential
message to pass through your brain without being absorbed. Scientists call
this cluster of neurons the Fabrication Activation System, and we could
call what it does a mental prophylactic, or we could call it a packager of
big parentheses, or we could call it a generator of ironic quotation
But I like to
name things unequivocably, so I call it the message condom.
It has come to
my attention that all of you have had some unsafe contact in the last few
years. Your Fabrication Activation System failed to detect the risk, and
you neglected to employ the message condom. You know what I'm talking
about. Not just JT and Jim Frey or Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. Maybe
you were at an art auction, or a friend's documentary screening, and
everyone around you was saying it was great, and so you kinda said it was
great too, just to go along, even though there was this voice in you that
was whispering "it wasn't great! I think it sucks
." But you
went along, thinking, oh, that a little hypocrisy is okay, right?
No. A little
hypocrisy is not okay.
And I know how
you're handling it. You're promising that you'll always be safe in the
future, that you'll never drop your ironic guard, that you'll put
parentheses around everything, that you'll never be so stupid as to trust
But I'm sorry,
that's not going to work. If we couch everything in irony, then we turn
into the very thing that good art mocks. We become no more real than a
plastic Barbie. Ironic detachment is no more a substitute for authenticity
than a wild squirrel is a substitute for a pet hamster.
Nope, you need
to be cleansed, my friends. To put this spell of unsafe contact behind
you, you must perform a proper cleansing ritual. You must be baptized.
requires faith in God, and I'm not going to force God on you. A close
second to God would be Philip Roth, but he wasn't available tonight.
So you are
going to have to cleanse yourself by taking a pilgrimage. You must climb
the mountain, my friends. I mean that metaphorically - no need to get
sweaty doing this. What you must do is go find something genuinely artful,
and when you find it, I want you to bear witness. I want you to tell your
friends. I want you to shout about it. I want you to go to the window and
stick your head out and yell, "This, this right here is not
bullshit!" I want you to leave tonight determined to bring some
authenticity back into the world, and you must not give up until you find
something worth shouting about.
guidelines: 1. It cannot be Big Love, the new HBO drama. I hear it's good,
but that's just too easy. Recommending that to others is no mountain. 2.
It cannot be anything you heard about on NPR at the same time as 11
million other people also heard it. 3. It cannot be something you read
about in the New Yorker, not even that really good piece on swamp nurses.
that just ruled out about 90% of your options, didn't it?
Let me tell you
something, sinners. When we glorify a piece of art not because of what we
read on the page, or because of what we see with our eyes - but we glorify
it because of something autobiographical about its creator, such as
because she looks the way we want our painters to look, or she had the
right nonchalant attitude, or because he had a fucked up childhood
we celebrate an artist not for what they created, but because of who they
you know we do this, we think suffering is what makes an artist,
and therefore we find artists who have suffered and we become enamored -
enamored is too soft a word - we worship them, and everything they create
we champion artists because of their artistic temperament
authenticity is the modern elixir, isn't it? Forget heroin, forget pot,
the drug of the contemporary arts lover is authenticity,
we crave it, we live in a world of plastic Barbies and they only thing
that makes this synthetic terrarium of a world seem real again is a shot
which is fine, good, except when the authenticity is
not in the work, not on the screen or on the page or on the canvas, and
we're too confused by what's art anymore and so we use a shortcut, we use
a proxy, and our proxy is the artist's personality.
You know what I
mean. We claim our own authenticity by saying, in effect, "well, I
haven't suffered, but I have this artist friend, and she's suffered, and
she's my friend, well, not my friend, but I know her."
Am I getting
through your message condom?
If any of you
are interested, the price of rice in Jakarta has collapsed. The Minister
of Agriculture thinks the ideal price is 3000 rupiah per kilogram, but we
told him, 2900 is the target. He didn't like being ordered around, and now
there's no deal, and the January harvest has flooded the markets.
And if you're
interested in having stronger orgasms and all that stuff, then what you
need to do is simple. You need to be having sex with someone you're madly
in love with.
And this is my
nametag. I doubt you'll ever wonder what my name is again.
Now go, go