Art for Art’s Sake

By Morgan O’Neal

Not too long ago, I got on the bus to go out East Hastings to Commercial where my Addictions Counselor has her office. I’ve been clean and sober now for almost two years, but I still have not stopped vibrating in certain situations. I get the shakes; I weep. My meetings with this woman are essential to my ongoing recovery. I don’t need a psychiatrist (at least not yet). I want and need someone I can trust to listen to me without judgment. This person helps me to get a perspective on what my life has been about up to now and where I am going now that I cannot fall back into old ways of dealing with fear and anger and anxiety and resentment by drinking and drugging. The recovery dance is one day at a time, and just like in the good old days, I only pay a dime. The government pays her to be my friend, and that’s okay by me—especially because when I was out there following my nose around after immediate gratification, I had alienated most of my real friends. I really became a one man show, and no one wanted to watch or be a part of it.

It is my preference to sit in the rear of the bus, only because that is where the vacant seats usually are. Its far less likely that you will have to get up and offer your seat to some ancient Asian grandmother loaded down with groceries from the Chinatown market stands or a young mother of two and one half children pushing a stroller, and there is nothing better than relaxing into the very back seat on the right hand side with my feet up on the metal projection behind the seat in front of me. There is also (almost inevitably) a wrinkled copy of one of the waste paper dailies folded open to the celebrity news section, which seems to be what people pick these rags up for, rather than what little information they contain about significant events of the past twenty-four hours. I mean who wants to read about giant oils spills, government corruption, pedophilic priests, murderous cops, missing and murdered Native women, and so on. Anyway, I’ve done this trip at least once a week now for almost two years, and I get so relaxed that I have more than once missed my stop.

On one such trip, I became entangled in an exchange that weeks later I still have not come to terms with. Two young brothers got on the bus; they were in very high spirits, helped along by the can of beer that each carried. One of them carried a piece of particle board about a foot or 18 inches square, on one side of which was a colorful circular Aboriginal motif routed by machine or by hand enclosing an eagle in its centre. It was quite typical of Native art from this part of the country, but I am no expert, and by typical I only mean that the lines were distinct and geometrically recognizable, and the animal (bird) at the center was in a strange way both concrete and abstract at the same time.

The brother in charge of the lumber was clearly tired of its bulk and weight. He was ready to let go of it in more than one sense. He was the louder of the two, and before too long, he was hocking the piece on the bus. No one seemed to mind. It was sophisticated art—it could, I supposed, also have been used as woodcut for making prints, and in this sense it was even more valuable. Every time the brother took a drink from his beer, he returned to auctioning off his creation, starting lower and lower in price with every drink that altered the expression on his face. He clearly knew the value of what he was trying to sell. He knew he was as much as giving it away. Although the bus was full, no one seemed interested. Having started out at a two hundred dollar price (perhaps too dear; after all we were on a bus) he was (now that his can of beer was empty) down to five dollars. His spirits had been visibly dampened by the lack of response, and his auctioneer’s persona disappeared to be replaced by a rather belligerent man who wanted something he was being refused.

Throughout the entire sad spectacle I resisted interrupting this guy who had clearly seen better days. I went along with him, wholeheartedly in fact, because I believed as he did that this was an original piece of art worth a figure far in excess of the five dollars to which he had now sunken. He was hocking a piece of art that at the very least was worth forty or fifty bucks, and by now he had turned to individuals enlisting from them agreement as to the artistic merit of the piece. I looked white, at least white enough to have some ready cash, and it was yours truly on whom he finally settled now that his can was empty and his partner had begun to make faces from across the bus at him as if to say, “Lets get off this goddamn bus!” “Brother,” he said to me in as sober a voice as he could muster under the circumstances, “you got money. Give me twenty… ten… five.” Meanwhile, I was frankly disappointed that I did not have enough money. In the best of all possible worlds, I should have been able to offer him what it was worth and take it off his hands so that he and his friend could continue their party or debauche or whatever it was they were in the middle of. One thing was clear: their plans and their bellies were full of beer, not art. The two are in fact incompatible in large enough quantities to get drunk. Creativity is for the most part a sober affair.

I looked like I had money. I was clean and sober and dressed in clean clothes. I was the picture of recovered health, but I had a twenty dollar bill and change in the entire world at the time, and I needed cigarettes for the day. I wouldn’t be seeing any money for at least another day or two. I got it in my head that I wanted to save this piece of art from its certain fate, which was to be given away to someone less sympathetic than I for just enough money to buy a few more beers. I needed to see if there were some way to get this eagle to safety and give the brother what he needed without my ending up feeling as if I had ripped him off.

I don’t know if I did the right thing, but I did a deal in art that day. I gave the guy my twenty dollars. He gave me the piece of art. I turned it over and asked him to print his name and number, and then I printed a description of the exchange that had taken place, and then told him my plan. On that bus I had become either an art dealer or a pawnbroker—a business I had never aspired to, but then neither had I aspired to the vocation of art collecting either. I wrote on the back of one of my counselor’s cards (she is an employee of the government after all) the address of her office, where he could retrieve the art if he wished to on the morning after the effects of the days drinking had worn off and he had taken the time to think about the transaction. I know that even the white man in me (which is by far the greater portion) thought it neither ethically right nor politically correct to pick up that piece of art for pittance.

I wondered what kind of person would have taken advantage of that situation and bought that piece of creative work for next to nothing (a five dollar bill would have taken it home that day) to hang it on the wall as a good example of indigenous art of the west coast among whatever else a person like that hangs on his or her walls, and I thought to myself that this probably happens all the time all over North America. After all, there is a correlation between creativity and addiction and Indianness and poverty as opposed to that relation between greed and the white ruling class and all the art for art’s sake on the walls of corporate boardrooms and the mansions of the British Properties.