BREAKING A $250,000 PIECE OF ART WITH YOUR ASS: A GUIDE
Lubricate your schadenfreude with my glorious misfortune at the hands of an object worth more than I am.
A few years ago I was asked by a museum to deliver a two hour lecture on fashion, as part of an exhibit featuring a famous designer. I was very excited.
I had never been to this major American city before. (I’d be more forthcoming about specifics, but I made promises never to reveal the details of this catastrophe to the various people I’ve harmed.)
There was a lavish dinner held in my honor the night before my lecture. Driving up to the venue with my friend Joey (not his real name) I thought I was in the driveway of the museum itself. It was one of those vast modern feats of architecture primarily composed of giant sheets of glass all stacked impossibly in space, resembling a German symphony hall.
I had to be told again that I wasn’t in the museum itself once inside the house. There were no indications of normal human life. Set-up museum style against high white walls was a vast field of immediately familiar artworks. This, I was told, was the gracious home of a pair of art collectors, who themselves were not present that evening, this being merely one of their many giant architectural mansions filled to the rafters with museum-quality art. ( I would be grateful for this later. )
I was introduced to a charming man, the caretaker of the home, who had taken it upon himself to arrange this dinner for me with approximately 30 of the most important artists, collectors, museum donors and glitterati of the area. Glamorous, shimmering scholars of deep intellect and high style.
The dinner was large and formal, in a modern style banquet hall. A giant black table that had surely once been a thousand-year-old tree sat in the middle of the vast white room.
The meal, some locally-sourced masterpiece of expensive cuisine constructed by one of the area’s top chefs, involved many meticulously presented courses . Candlelight was twinkling; the conversation was of a particularly high IQ. Rich women were trilling with interesting political viewpoints. Extremely suave gay men in exciting jackets were discussing Art and Fashion.
I was, needless to say, on what I thought was my best behavior, trying to be charming and not too loud and not making any sudden arm movements. I believe I used the correct salad fork. My friend Joey was a perfect escort, pulling out my chair, leaning over to clue me in on who the wildly important people were at the table, and their various roles in this palace.
As I got up after dinner from my chair, a small group of people walked toward me to speak to me. I walked backwards a few steps in order to accommodate them, and stumbled on a wooden box that was behind me at the level of my heels, which made me stumble backwards. It was then that I felt my ass hit some sort of wooden podium, which I could feel was tipping over.
I could hear a man’s voice say “No!…..No!!!!”
And then I heard the wooden podium crash, followed by the unmistakable sound of an incredibly precious glass object shattering into rice-sized shards on the concrete floor.
The room was suddenly flash-frozen, and staring at me. All of the guests were motionless and drained of color with their mouths wide open, clutching their faces like Macauley Culkin painted by Edward Munch, unblinking, unmoving. It was as if they had all suddenly turned to stone, and I was Medusa.
This haunted tableau continued for what seemed to be the 30 longest seconds of my entire life. I had no idea what to do. My guts turned wormy and the sky turned black. I didn’t have the heart to look behind me and look at the I carnage had wrought. The guest’s faces said it all: I was fucked, forever.
Finally, having no idea what to do, I announced “I am going to have a cigarette,”
I skulked outside in absolute silence, with the entire party still frozen in its kabuki pose of abject horror. I had done something so monumentally unthinkable, I managed to traumatize everyone in the room as surely as if I had somehow burned the dog alive.
While in the parking lot lighting my cigarette, I tried to comprehend the magnitude of my disaster. I figured my life before this event was like pre-9/11 — the rest of my life, I figured, would be defined by my destroying this work of art. It was, I felt, about tantamount to having been drunk driving and run over a small child.
I literally thought, “ I am going to have to offer myself to the owners of this home in indentured servitude.”
Joey came up to me, holding my bag. “OK,” he said briskly, handing me my purse and coat. “We need to leave.”
My heart shriveled into a miserable prune. I had committed an offense so egregious I wasn’t even allowed to apologize.
Joey hustled me out toward the car. Other guests had also hurriedly gathered their belongings and were whispering and skittering toward their cars, away from the crime scene, shooting me wild, orange-eyed looks like raccoons caught on Polaroid.
This is what it is to be a murderer, I thought, crawling over with the kind of raw, concave, trapped-creature agony that Peter Lorre so deftly portrayed in “M.”
I thought, I have murdered something irreplaceable, beloved and precious. The glass object probably had more intrinsic value than most human children, who could be purchased for far less money than what the owners must have paid for this delicate art piece, which was now, I imagined, being swept off the floor by crying servants with white gloves; its remains were probably being tipped into a wooden box that cost more than my car for some kind of solemn state burial. I would go down in history as being someone who could never be invited anywhere valuables were present, for the remainder of my unenviable life.
The ride back to the hotel was like riding in a tumbrel cart to my own beheading. I had to deliver a 2 hour Powerpoint presentation the next evening and had no idea how I would pull myself together. As soon as I closed the door to my room, I went into hyperventilating hysterics.
I called my ex-boyfriend, a retired colonel, to tell him of my doom. An ordinarily unflappable man of good humor, he too was beyond horrified.
I thought about all of the things in the world I would trade to undo that deathly moment I had just experienced. I thought about the performance artist Chris Burden. One piece of his, from the early seventies, involved his being shot through the fleshy part of his upper arm by a .22.
“I would rather have been shot in the arm with a .22 than to have lived through that,” I told the colonel.
“Me too,” he said. “Actually, I would have rather been shot through both arms.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I would much rather have taken a gunshot in both arms. That would have been heavenly in comparison.”
Maiming myself in various ways, I thought, would have been infinitely preferable to the humiliation and disgrace I felt in that room full of paralyzed, silently screaming guests.
Joey called me a bit later with more details of the accident. The piece had been made by a famous artist whose name I knew. It had been valued at somewhere near $250,000. I figured I would have to sell everything I owned, and it wouldn’t be enough, and there would be some kind of draconian lien attached to my entire future income.
As if the Gods were not content with my punishment that evening, the external hard drive that contained my entire Powerpoint presentation for the next evening fell off of the hotel bed onto the carpeted floor and utterly died.
I had 14 hours to rebuild a 45-slide presentation from scratch. I would have to stay up all night. I was so poisoned with shame and pure adrenalin, this seemed somehow fitting. I was changed, now — I was an accursed person, and nothing in my life would ever be OK again.
At around 6:30 in the morning as I was blearily assembling my new lecture slides, I got an email from the host of the dinner party. I felt a raw electrical twang of nervous pain shoot through my spine. It was an exceptionally kind and gracious note, informing me that the art piece had been one of a series of fifty. It had been insured, and a replacement for the piece — another from the series, had already been secured.
This blew the strings out of my gourd. I had been in the darkest gulag of my soul all night, crying my eyes out and wishing grievous bodily harm on myself — and suddenly, within hours, everything had been restored and made right again with a few phone calls.
Rich people lead different lives than non-rich people, I realized for the fuckity-zillionth time.
It really struck me as an object lesson concerning the politics of value. I had judged myself as being of lesser value than the art piece I had broken, even sincerely preferring the idea of grievous bodily harm to myself than to it.
The host requested that I write a note to the owners of the home, apologizing for the mishap. I went to the internet and found a photograph of a dead shark, which looked exactly how I felt. I photoshopped over it, I AM SO SORRY I KILLED YOUR ART.
I told a group of friends on the internet what had happened, and they found it all uproarious.
“You’ve probably increased the value of the art piece, overall,” one told me. “There used to be 50 in the world, and now there are 49. You could probably make a whole business out of destroying pieces of art with your ass,” he wrote.
“I have a tremendous future career behind me,” I wrote back.
I delivered the lecture the next day, and all went reasonably well. Although the event had wrapped up quickly, I felt I had been marked forever.
Later, I remembered that the artist who had made the piece I destroyed had been the creator of another conceptual piece I had seen years before at a museum in San Francisco….and absolutely hated.
“That shit is not ART,” I had said at the time.
After some weeks had passed, I told myself I was almost glad that the accident had happened. If I was going to kill anyone’s art, that was the artist whose work, I figured, could be assassinated without causing too much pain to the art world, or anyone else.
The humiliation of the event, however, lives on forever in my blood. Paradoxically, the little glass piece I knocked over with my ass ended up shattering ME.
Needless to say, I have never been invited back to that city. I am reasonably certain I never will be.
Please do not invite me anywhere with tiny glass objects. The damage I do will derange me forever.