Once, months ago, my family went on vacation. We drove up the coast, to the Best Western BayView Plus Carmel, at the corner of Ocean and Sixth. This is a perfect place. The ice machine hums by the stairs, the breakfast room serves sausages and eggs in a stainless steel warmer, and our room, our glorious room, came with a glassed-in fireplace and a balcony with a view of the Pacific. We had a door that closed between the bedroom and the living room, such that adults could put children to bed and stay up to open wine. For a few days, we were the one percent.
In the cool fog of a coastal morning, I went for a walk with the baby in her carrier, twenty pounds of sleeping child strapped to my stomach with canvas. I stopped in a shop and looked at fancy shoes. Something about their proportions made me think of candy and Paris. I fondled the shoes. I asked questions about them. I palmed their soft leather. The sales woman offered to let me try them on. I was on vacation, so I pretended that I was seriously considering buying them, that I would come back without the baby, that I wear candy and Paris on my feet all the time. But while the Bayview Plus could make me feel rich, it could not mark down those shoes.
Carmel is a tiny beach town full of very, very expensive things. I stopped next in one of its many galleries. One of the painters in this gallery had a biography, on a color printout, which read:
“Paris born artist and France’s most prominent living artistic asset…
From his first finished painting, he has been represented professionally. This rare talent is present but a few times in each generation. [His] paintings are in the most exclusive collections globally, including an NBA team.”
This copy also appears on the ArtBrokerage website for the artist, where the asking price for one of his paintings, of a woman in a black cocktail dress striking a sassy pose on the beach, is $22,500.
In this artist’s work, the sinewy brushwork and elegant cafés are the anachronistic love child of Edgar Degas and Toulouse Lautrec. The paintings look, in fact, as if Toulouse had repainted one of Edgar’s café scenes, and then removed any details that might precisely locate the image in historical time–carefully suspended between modern French people at a costume ball, and nineteenth century people with really fashion-forward hats.
More copy claimed that the artist is the “first in generations to re-interpret Degas and Lautrec.” This “first” claim is brought into serious question by the other paintings that appear on the ArtBrokerage website, under the headings SIMILAR ARTISTS and LISTINGS YOU MAY LIKE.
In the gallery, I became intensely annoyed. The hyperbolic claims were harshing my mellow. Instead of bringing Paris closer, the copy reminded me of the distance between me and Lautrec’s bohemia. It made it hard for me to inhabit my vacation-daydream, full of Italian leather and cobblestones. I had the fleeting impulse to approach the actually-French tourists who were in the gallery with me, and say, “Bonjour, I used to live in Paris, and I’m just so sorry about that living asset business.” Or perhaps just, in my good French accent, “Bah, euh, les Americains!”
Another landscape painter in the gallery did poppies—very large, very red poppies. Some of the poppies were so red and so poppy they burst off the canvas into the third dimension. I actually quite liked those bursting poppies. But again, the curation: The artist was described as “today’s most Important Landscape painter” [capitalization in original], a woman who had been so deeply inspired by the seaside landscapes in Provence that she was the “first to paint them with real emotion.” She was now being imitated “by all.”
Something about the real estate prices in Carmel gave me a burning need to police these factual insults to the French and Art. How could anyone who had ever been to a museum or a college art class believe that these painters were the original, the only, to re-heat impressionistic Provençal landscapes? What do you mean the first person to paint Provence with feeling? It’s an insult to the language.
But who cares? Who goes on vacation and wanders into a gallery on a morning walk with coffee and a baby and becomes enraged by the relative aesthetic credibility of claims made in a beachside gallery? What is wrong with me?
Important Landscapes and Living Asset are undoubtedly good, kind humans, trying to make a living with art. But I couldn’t shake it. I walked and tried to imagine who was buying those paintings. Carmel is littered with real estate offices, all trying to lure you into putting money down on the glory of the California central coast. It’s littered with staggeringly beautiful and wildly expensive homes. Were the people living in that $12 million glass-and-beam fantasy, built into an ancient grove of redwoods, were they buying Living Asset? I would bet no. I would bet they own five homes and two Lautrec originals. Artistic assets of a different class, not Important Landscape, grace the foyer of the gently undulating sculptural modern that hangs off a cliff on the Pacific side of Highway One.
In such moments, I try to breathe and imagine Pierre Bourdieu. What Would Bourdieu Do? He would chide me for my petit bourgeois commitment to Art, capital A. The rich have better structural luck. When that luck is dynastic, it often brings with it the social distinction known as taste. Meanwhile, the more nouveau riche get the rules wrong and buy French-ified beachside art. Maybe they buy it because it’s marked Very Important and maybe that’s a mistake, but if they can resell it for $25K, it’s not a serious mistake. I’m the mistake — me who failed to go work in finance, me who builds castles to intellectual and artistic truth in the sand. My own impulse to reproduce the dictates of good taste is a mechanism that itself perpetuates the class distinctions that enrage me.
WWBD? He would say, “Bah, euh, les Americains!”
But still… France’s most important living artistic asset? Come on!! It’s so absurd!!
I got to the shore, in Carmel, and walked a few steps out onto the sand. The baby was stirring, so I just stood looking out at the cypress and purple ice plants. Carmel is everything I wanted—sea, fog, air, tide pools, a balcony with $18 wine—and yet it cracked open an abyss of further wanting. Is it relaxing to spend time near the lovely fortresses of the mega-rich? Americans often find it declassé to talk about class out loud. It’s definitely crass to think about one’s wasted merits as a trophy wife. It’s vulgar, to think about how one would be so good at being rich, about how one would wear excellent shoes and choose excellent paintings. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake the urge to escape my life — the urge to escape the inside of my own skull and all my past mistakes — for the urge to buy fancy shoes. That failing is my own. Because I am already lucky, already rich. And so is that dude who paints lovely ladies at the beach in fancy hats, who gets to be an American artist.