Bathroom Philosophy


What's the purpose of art? Why bother with it? I was cleaning my bathroom today, which is when I'm at my most darkly philosophical, because there's nothing like physical labor to let my mind wander freely and angrily in wondering why no one's invented an easier way to clean my damned bathroom.

I suppose I should be happy the worst of my worries is scrubbing crud out from between 80-year-old tiles when so many people don't even have bathrooms. I could be worried about malaria or diarrheal diseases. Of course that makes me ask even more about the point of art; there's a yearly Holocaust happening out there, ten million or more annually from pestilence, and in the face of that, another painting seems kind of stupid. Shouldn't more of us be working as engineers, scientists, and doctors, or at least as aid workers, really helping people?

Maybe the idea is, art is something for everyone to do once we, as a species, have solved all those problems. Except we already know what humans like to do when all those basic worries are taken care of: We party.

This past weekend I attended not one but two of what we Americans refer to as barbecues, or BBQs, or, heaven forfend, barbeques. This is an event where a group of people sit around in someone's back yard cooking meats and other foodstuffs over open, usually propane-based, flames while consuming beverages with varying percentages of ethyl alcohol. Perhaps there is also a small enclosed body of aseptic water in which the children may frolic.

From my ridiculous description you can tell I don't enjoy myself at these events. I used to think this was because I was meant for higher things like Art, Science, and Philosophy. After observing myself on this planet for 38 years, however, I've concluded it has nothing to do with that. I don't enjoy myself at parties because I'm profoundly broken. Something is wrong with me. My nervous system reacts incorrectly and when other people find things enjoyable, my brain puts out chemicals corresponding to anger and sadness. I am incapable of experiencing joy.

Maybe that's what art is for: Keeping occupied those of us who are fucked up. Personally I'd rather have a bathroom that's easier to clean, and I'd rather have fun at parties.

I abandoned the barbecue on Sunday early on the pretext of going looking for my house keys, leaving my wife and kids to have the massive amounts of fun denied me. At home I put on the Van Gogh installment of Simon Schama's Power of Art. By the end I was crying. Old Vincent and I have a lot in common. I wonder if many painters like to think they have a lot in common with old Vincent. I also wonder if old Vincent would play as much Battle Tetris as I do.

Schama quotes Van Gogh at the beginning and the end of the program. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet I have the full quote here and I've added it to my quote rotation up there. It goes like this: "What am I in the eyes of most people -- a nonentity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person -- somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then -- even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love despite everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion."

That's a great quote, quite lovely. But, Vincent, darling, I have to ask: If the lowest of the low has this wonderfulness in his heart, if it's something everyone has inside them, something we all have access to, then why, dear Vincent, do we need you? What's the point of showing us something we already have? Why should we stand in front of Wheatfield with Crows instead of standing around in our yards amidst the smell of chlorine and roasting pig?

Just because some of us are broken? And the bathroom's been cleaned, however drudgingly?


I don't know whether to feel encouraged that there are others out there who feel the same way I do or defeated. Should I continue to make "nice" little bits of art or suffer along with countless others? Should I go to this party of professional neighborhood women this Thursday or should I skulk "happily" at home? Nobody wants to talk to the freakish artist anyway?

Great post. How I wish I could stand in front of one of Vincent's paintings right now.

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