Yesterday, I took a break from the banker cocktail party circuit and did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I went to an art exhibition opening. The last time I went to an art exhibition of any sort was to the george pompidou ‘artist and their muses’ thingie when it came to HK in November and before that when I was in Europe in July. There was a time when I was in India when I would go to openings and galleries and meet artists every week or so, because I wrote about it and it really made my job worthwhile.
Anyway, yesterday out of the blue boss asked what I was doing later and I said nothing in particular, quite sure he was going to suggest a drink at Einstein, our pub around the corner from work, when he said he had this gallery opening to go to and he didn’t want to go alone. So, instinctively I said yes and then later was like – oh no… I’m ditching V again. Anyway, the good news was that boss’s friend said that he could bring more people so I got V to come too.
The exhibition was held in one of the more snazzy office buildings. It was some old Chinese artist from Shanghai, but the work was thankfully contemporary. We had wine while he expanded, in Mandarin, on each of the paintings. I found myself feeling a sense of exhileration that I haven’t felt in a long time. There is something about not just viewing art but being in the same space as people who want to talk about it that is very satisfying.
In our group, my boss and V were totally artistically illiterate but that doesn’t mean insensitive. V has a way of getting to the heart of the matter without any training whatsoever which makes me believe he is misplaced as a banker. My Chinese colleague has done a BA in English Lit, though her English itslef is kind of strained, but she could translate the Chinese characters in the paintings and also help us talk to the artist. Another girl has just spent a lot of time looking at art and enjoys it. The last has also spent a lot of time looking at art but is of the kind that would associate herself with it for the schmoozing benefits while being slightly contemptuous of art and artists.
Thus, she kept asking questions that were taking a piss out of the artist, which he, being a goodnatured Chinese and the edge of the questions being lost in translations, gamely was answering. Her attitude was that of a lot of prosaic people who make their careers making money, who think the latter is the real business of the world and that art is just floaty stuff that should be revealed for what it is. But there wsa also an arrogance to her questions that indicated, to my surprise, that she also thought they were good questions. Which they weren’t. The answers were obvious to anyone who has a little background in art, and to someone like V, who has an instinctive appreciation, they were obvious too. Like all prosaic people, what she was looking for in the art was a “message”.
What I explained to her was that the exciting thing about art is the ability to play with ideas – to juggle abstract concepts in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. To do it in a way that is both old and new. To suggest these ideas without resolving them. There are really no answers.
Anyway, because PR girl of the gallery is a friend of the artist, he actually wanted me to interview the artist. This would be difficult because of the language barrier but not impossible. Chinese friend I think was angling to do it. What I said to her was this: “I love writing about art. If I had a choice I would do it for a living. But this is Hong Kong.” Got strange look from boss.
But this, then, is the bottom line. I can’t paint but I can write. I have to make a living writing and I can’t make it writing a novel – as I probably want to. Both because I don’t think I have anything poignant enough to write just yet apart from frivolous musings of this sort, and because even if I did, would I find a publisher? Maybe I could try but in the meantime I have to earn my daily bread.
And so I have landed in a career that lets me write in some form – even though to some extent writing finance is almost like prostitution. Like a very beautiful woman who sells her body, I am selling my talent for a price and sometimes I do have a dirty taste at the back of my mouth when the dullness of it all gets to me. Yes, there are people who could write about finance or male pattern baldness (as I used to do) with elan – but I’m not one of them.
If I had to pick the ideal career, it would be writing about art, theatre, literature. Yes, I suffer from what all critics do – I cannot paint, act or write (yet). But I can communicate to people, in words that are probably a sub-form of the art/theatre/literature what it is all about and urge them to see for themselves. Even if there is no merit in doing this except the pleasure it gives me – there is that, and the numerous opportunities it would afford to view art, to meet artists and the kind of people who like discussing ideas and aesthetics for their own sake.
The reason being a banker or an accountant is seen as sort of abhorrent as a career choice for many of those in the arts (unless you are the kind of accountant that realizes beauty in that interminable flow of numbers) is that everything comes down to the commercial value – the ability to make money. And yes money does make the world go round and we all need it, but at some level, all wisdom realizes that the ultimate goal is to be beyond money. There is something about constantly measuring the world in terms of money that is distateful. In this sense, I am on the same page as the aristocratic distate of money – even though that stems from having enough never having to think about it.
There are those people involved in money who are structuring the deals – which can be an aesthetic act in itself. As one banker said – elegant. That’s different. And at the risk of contradicting myself – I have respect for those people who have dedicated their life to making money and are crassly frank about it.
It’s the in between people that I’m uncomfortable with.
The difference between them and us is that at the end of the exhibition, the final comment friend had to make was – “You guys should interview these artists and take along a canvas and ask them to do a small painting.” I have a grudging respect for this kind of unflinching commercial instinct. But I cannot identify with it at all. Which is why I will never be admiring of bankers unless they can prove that there was something that they did which was beautiful in structure over and above the motive or if it really does make life better for some people other than themselves.
Ultimate insult of the day: PR girl to us – “Oh you guys are journalists. I thought you were bankers.”
Disclaimer: If this came across as judgemental, it isn’t as rabid as it seems. But we all do have our prejudices and maybe, these are mine.