I have a routine: I work most of the day and then look at things on the internet. This winter I have been very effectively working on burrowing myself into a small depression hole.
Once, after work, I googled Henri Rousseau for no reason other than boredom. I remembered looking at Rousseau’s jungle paintings for the first time in a museum, knowing that he had never left Paris. I imagined him painting these foreign landscapes when he got home from his job as a toll collector – dreaming of a more exciting life. My fault is that I can’t divorce the artist from the art object. I have this obsession. I am always drawing parallels to the past and from this stealing from artists became a lifestyle. My biggest embarrassment would be to think that I was original.
Anyway. I like to look at great art because I know that it was the result intense longing. Viewing them, Rousseau’s jungle paintings took on the absurdity of a Frenchman trying to imagine the Other. I sat in bed, staring at my laptop, trying to remember what a jungle looked like other than green. Though he was poor and ignored until death, there are now 1,810,000 results that come up when you search for Henri Rousseau. I have these delusions of being known for my work while I’m alive but I’ll settle for being missed. I found comfort when I read the words, “The most important thing you should know about Henri Rousseau is that he had a completely boring life - with the exception that he became convinced, somewhere along the way, that he was a superbly talented artist.”
I realized (I was always realizing and it was exhausting. I felt stuck on the hamster wheel of my mind, realizing that I was just a dumb animal.) that there is a point when we decide what to specialize in: ideas or labor. When I started concerning myself with ideas every act of physical labor was suffering. I knew that I had to quit my job and get serious about my art but I also knew, that practically, the valued labor of my body causes the money in my bank to increase with hours worked. It’s sex work, an unfortunate reality. At the end of every week I can touch the effect of my body through a plastic debit card. The effect of my body is $10 an hour. At work I learned that the mop goes through the rung of the bucket and expends what it can. I know this motion and if you asked me what I felt when I watched the gush of dirty water release from the head of the mop I would say that I felt glorious. And if you asked what glorious felt like I would say that glorious feels like my hand against the wooden mop handle, displaying all the ugly, incongruous shades of brown. It’s like how it is always surprising that two socks, matched perfectly out of the dryer, don’t have a faint glow pulsating around them. Something out of place was now where it belonged. In the monotony of the everyday I had learned to find both comfort and surprise in the incongruities. Slowly my definition of beauty started to look very similar to the definition of absurdity. I accepted it.
I will accept beauty in the form of my hands against a mop. I will accept it in the form of another story to tell. I will accept. I will accept. I will accept. The hues of brown that can infinitely exist became wonderful to me. Every day that I go to my job the touch of the lonely arm increases. It became exciting to work so thoroughly with just my hands. I could bite into the juicy fruit of my labor. I learned to distinguish my work from my art. I get paid at my job and I write for a higher purpose. I write for free. I write to feel less alone. I write to make you feel less alone. I write for art. Or was it for Art? Or… what was it for again?
At a party last weekend, or maybe it was a few weekends ago, a writer friend of mine started pointing to girls in the room, other writers: “You know how S. makes her money? You know how L. makes her money? Sex work.
But then I realized (I was always realizing), maybe the dichotomy between labor and ideas is too simple. We’re all selling ourselves. Our labor, our ideas, our bodies. I had a conversation with a friend over text message. I was on the bus, back from spending Christmas with my family in Virginia, headed toward New York. I was tired and rambling and the conversation went like this. I was positing that art is a form of labor and he viewed it as a lens:
"By ‘lens’ I mean it’s a way to see things. Like, I don’t know how else to interact with the world. And my hope is that, when someone reads my writing, they can, like, borrow that lens from me. And then have a better/worse/easier/more complicated understanding of their world. Like, it’s not me simply dictating my experience - it’s a moment I’m sharing with my reading. And that’s what dictates what I do - not money, or fame, or whatever. It’s that glorious, amazing connection. And I’d rather connect with ‘real’ people than like, academic/rich fucks."
Glorious. I understood this glorious connection. Something divine, or outside of the governance of common thinking. I could relate to this desire to want writing to be glorious. When a writer finds their story or their poem or their expression, something out of place is now where it belongs. But to me, this came with a cost, or rather, without one. Maybe art must function within capitalism. That’s why there is an art market. It’s an unfortunate reality. Sex work. All of my friends are writers/[insert shitty job here]. This makes me sad. There is no money in writing, but why? I don’t fully understand it but I know that I am a part of it. I create content which I allow a publication to publish for free. Instead of money, a sort of culture capital is bestowed upon me. Maybe this is all a part of paying my dues. I gain access to an audience. I gain exposure. I gain the chance to challenge someone’s worldview. And isn’t this my goal, as the noble writer?
"That’s admirable. I agree with that, I think. I want people to be affected by what I write. I don’t necessarily think it takes out the labor aspect of it though. It seems like a type of emotional labor… to um, provide someone with your lens. That seems like a service, to me. [I agree but] there is a part of me that hates this viewpoint. But only a small part. And only because, I feel, a lot of institutions with money don’t pay artists or writers but pay fucking everyone else because they don’t view it as a labor or a service. They view themselves as giving the artist a platform or visibility or the opportunity to affect people, which they view as the main goal of the artist. Which is true to a degree but it’s also like, ‘fuck you, pay me.’ […] It seems wrong, to me, to allow institutions to make a product from our words, whether it’s a journal or a website or whatever, where our form of payment is ‘exposure.’
And then my phone died. And then I gave up on life. And then I curled up along the length of the bus seat, pulling my coat up over me, and tried to sleep.