The Empire of Conversation

Photo by Dushko Petrovich.

The British Empire is now the Empire of Conversation. The distant lands are lost, but the language has increased, and its experts, still there on the island, are practicing nightly, drinking their way through the rain, refining their understatements somewhere inside the gray labyrinth of human feeling. No one suffers their expertise quite like the American, who will also be down at the pub, also losing an empire, often getting more loudly (but never more charmingly) drunk than his hosts. His empire consists of something else entirely. He tries to think what. Something gangly and violent, is all he can think.

This was some years ago. London kept attracting money and people, but New Labour’s magnet had worn off. Tony Blair’s dependable grin was now purely automatic. He ended up a warmonger, the little shit. Still, after just twenty seconds of Prime Minister’s Questions, our visitor was burning with envy. His own legislature couldn’t be called a parliament, he thought—its members don’t even know how to speak. Not to mention the president, who was so inarticulate he’d reduced himself to an initial and reduced several nations to war. Or that’s how it seemed to our visitor, staring at the TV, mesmerized by the overhead view of Westminster’s green leather.

But our visitor had come for culture. He had been invited, he reminded himself, for culture. That same evening, he had to attend a panel comparing the art worlds in America and Britain. He found a seat at the back, and settled in. From behind an intricate podium, in an accent that hovered somewhere over the Atlantic, the event’s organizer introduced a curator, an artist, and a journalist—all British. The tall man who had recently taken a job in Cincinnati expertly presented the American experience: everything was big and new and basically friendlier.

In the library, over a glass of claret, our visitor couldn’t but confirm this testimony for his inquiring friends. American art schools did tend to have newer facilities; people sometimes smiled at one another; and yes, the curricula often blurred into a kind of career development seminar. America was always entrepreneurial, and these were the boom years. At openings, yes, but also at drunken parties and staff meetings, or even at a hungover brunch, cheerful self-promotion spread like a vine in the protective shadow of the market. Everybody was shaking hands and kissing. Our visitor never thought he’d miss it.

The British are modest, but they do not mind being called polite. They tend to rest, you could even say reside, in their politeness. At first, our visitor found it hard to square his hosts’ famous manners with their equally famous former empire. He brought this up with his Pakistani friend who had experience in these things. “The British are always so polite, except when they are colonizing you,” our visitor offered, and they had a little laugh. It seemed rude to bring this up with his English friends, but when they were down at the pub he repeated the line anyways, and the awkwardness broke into a chuckle. That’s how it worked, he thought: this overbearing politeness was relieved by wit. It was as if the social pressure, sometimes indistinguishable from the atmospheric pressure, squeezed everything into banter.

But what was banter? The words bounced back and forth across the lunch table. It was like ping-pong, was our visitor’s first idea. The quick serve gets a quicker return; phrases bounce so fast the players seem possessed. Noticing how it happened, our visitor still didn’t know what it did. It passed the time on rainy days, he knew that. And it did impress the outsider, he had to confess. In fact, his admiration was what confirmed him as an outsider, because everybody who was really involved acted like it didn’t matter. It would have been weird to congratulate them on their indifference, so our visitor resisted the temptation. Nor could he interrupt: “Hey guys, what is all this banter?”

Still, our visitor was managing to make some important friends; they were nominated for big prizes, showing at the right galleries, museums even. Tipsy, they patrolled the circuit of private views, charity auctions, and dinner parties with an aristocratic (and hedonistic) diffidence. Somebody usually had a V.I.P. pass or an invitation card, and they followed these wherever they led, coaxing bouncers and hosts or whomever until they got in, at which point they could begin complaining about the quality of the event. After one show, they dined with Tracey Emin, her large breasts perfectly curtained by a starched white blouse. (They were not impressed.) After another, they danced in a basement club that displayed beautiful women, in modified Victorian outfits, in semi-private cages. (They would not pay for sex.) Most of the time they just ended up in regular bars, but you had to know which ones. (Maybe they’d text you later.)

London was on top. Some combination of a strong pound and the EU’s immigration laws—those were the more obvious reasons—had made it the European center of art. As if in an instant, all the investment money, all the right philosophies, and all the cool foreigners had converged. Berlin was for squatters.

Between rounds, our visitor would find himself reflecting on this. The high seas had been British, but not high art. The establishment had been Italian, Dutch, Spanish; the revolutions were American, French, and Russian. Britain began primitive and turned retrospective: going from simple royal portraits to Pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts, whatever movement David Hockney represented. They refined breakthroughs from other places. Howard Hodgkin seemed a polite de Kooning; Patrick Caulfield was a more subtle Lichtenstein; Damien Hirst, a business-savvy Warhol. They never had a Picasso and probably never would. (Turner would have to be the anachronistic exception that proved the rule.) It made sense that 20th century Brits tended their green and gray plots as everyone else went in for bold (or nihilistic) monochromes. Our visitor pictured Stanley Spencer mixing white into everything, Lucian Freud piling nudes on rags, Gwen John painting nuns, Frank Auerbach never going out.

Then the YBAs came around. Friends kept telling him the story: it was all landscapes and honorifics until the shark, the bed, and their entourage burst on the scene. Our visitor hadn’t thought of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin as revolutionaries. Seen from America, they looked more like washed-up self-promoters, and closer inspection only confirmed this: Hirst’s polka-dot boats floated down the Thames from Tate to Tate, and Emin was joining the ranks of the Royal Academy.

But our visitor had been naive to oppose revolution and advertising, especially since the YBA revolution had been achieved through advertising. Not in the sense that they had bought good advertising—or that an ad man was at the center of things (as Charles Saatchi happened to be)—but in the sense that the artworks themselves knew how to advertise. They announced themselves quickly; they prepared themselves for a larger crowd; they made themselves available to journalism. The objects didn’t literally speak, but they always started conversations—down at the pub, in the cafeteria at the Courtauld, even the one our visitor was having now, in his head. The Victorian idea of a conversation piece had been reborn as an artwork that promoted itself. This was happening all over, but it occurred with a special fervor and skill in London, which didn’t seem coincidental to our visitor.

The artists he knew could talk for hours before going back to their studios to construct, as if in reverse, a brand new conversation piece. At the Academy, where our visitor had a residency, he watched students discuss simulacra before making an installation of giant ballpoint pens, or talk about commodity fetishes before spray painting some bricks gold. This system did have a problem: people were invariably wittier than their art—a point they mostly proved indirectly, by being wittier than other people’s art. Overhearing so many perfectly worded dismissals, our visitor often wondered why, in such a literary country, anyone would want to go to art school in the first place.

The clues would often assemble as our visitor was checking his email. One day, a cluster of students gathered in the computer room with a benign suggestion. Would he consider printing his new journal on cream paper? They were dyslexic, they explained, and studies confirmed they had an easier time reading off tinted backgrounds. Not just a few of them were dyslexic, they casually informed him: most of them were. (Our visitor concealed his surprise.)

But there must have been other reasons to be an artist in the Empire of Conversation. Class was the likely suspect. Our visitor knew, as everyone did, that Britons deduce intricacies of status by exchanging vowel sounds, and he imagined, as a preliminary thesis, that a more visual discourse would be a way to sidestep all that. An object that generated conversation without thereby having to foreground class—or any of the other vulnerabilities of language—represented a serious coup: dialogue would still take place, but other people would have to do the talking.

Variations on this theme reappeared in the social world. At dinners and openings, one of our visitor’s friends consistently introduced him as a writer. When our visitor (politely) inquired why he hadn’t been presented as a painter, which he primarily was, the friend apologetically explained that the English were more likely to respect a writer. This seemed true enough, but the English were also willing to correct a writer’s grammar and spelling, as they regularly did for our visitor, pointing out his wayward American spelling and funny grammar. If the corrections weren’t made in earnest, that was probably because the American language was inherently risible, in the same way that American sports were, or American beer. The mediocrity of their development, which was to say their independence, apparently still threatened the empire and had to be laughed off.

Surprisingly, the American art world didn’t belong to this category. In this one area—our visitor tried to think of a precedent, maybe rock ’n’ roll?—Britain stood to inherit leadership from America, rather than the reverse. Young Londoners were therefore keen to learn the manners and techniques of art-world superiority from our visitor. Students who had been aloof or even dismissive (when discussing food, fashion, foreign policy, etc.) were suddenly very friendly when the American art world came up. They were curious, did our visitor recommend this gallery in Chelsea? And the Lower East Side, what was that all about?

As he mouthed his answers, our visitor had a recurrent thought: if New York was what Paris had been a century ago, it would eventually become what Paris is now. While American dealers were frosting glass at the edges of Manhattan, shows were popping up all over London; as MoMA was charging more and more to tourists, the Tate stayed free and attracted everyone; Artforum subscribers—half-expecting to find a perfume sample among the floppy ads—glanced longingly at Frieze, with its slim figure, interesting prose, and eponymous art fair. Even in the unrelenting gray, our visitor sometimes considered staying in England.

It rained more than any year on record. Friends in basements joked nervously about evacuation plans; Sheffield flooded. Almost every day, in strange solidarity with the elements, our visitor took a bath. Sometimes he would drink tea before his bath, sometimes beer. Everything was turning to water. The sink in his room started to make sense. His friends had warned him that one day—out of desperation or drunkenness, for fun or out of spite, or maybe just for variation—he would end up pissing in that sink.

As the rain continued into summer, people sought proverbial shelter in Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull. Everyone told our visitor about it: unlike most contemporary art, you had to wait in line to see it, and you had to pay; it cost £14 million to make, and it sold for £50 million; just purchasing the diamonds had reportedly boosted the international market by 15%; the thing had three times the jewels as the Imperial Crown. The talking points went on and on. If our curious visitor asked a few more questions, he would often discover that the person describing the skull hadn’t actually seen it. (But they planned to!) One friend who had seen it was nonchalant: “Of course I did—I know the guy who made it! I can introduce you if you want.”

“To Damien Hirst?”

“No, to the Georgian jeweler on Bond Street, the guy who made the diamond skull.”

Our visitor was tempted, but he never did get over to Bond Street to meet the skull’s artisan. He also just missed meeting Mr. Hirst, who had been a friend of friends but now looked the other way in restaurants. In fact, our visitor didn’t even make it to White Cube to see the skull itself. In the chaos of his last weeks, he got sick, packed in a hypochondriacal stupor, and ended up sleeping through his appointment with the gallery.

As consolation for missing the show, a friend emailed our visitor an interview, which featured the famously astute Hirst piling up abstract nouns like a teenager: “What’s the most you can really throw at death? What can you pit against it? Wealth? Money? Art? Power? I thought about diamonds being forever.…” Maybe this English artist wasn’t wittier than his art, but it wasn’t totally his fault: anyone who took up the diamond skull’s big themes—death, beauty, the art market—didn’t usually get very far. Their words, presumably like their gaze, couldn’t really depart from the artwork’s simple terms. Or as Hirst himself put it: “You get those for, you get those against; you get hate, you get the love; you get the beauty and you get the horror. That’s great.”

Our visitor recognized the trap: the piece invited commentary, but anything you said would be used against you. If you ventured a thought about death, or beauty, or the art market—well, you were competing against something already dead, very beautiful, and unbelievably expensive. If you aimed for something witty, you missed these larger themes. Any gesture toward the skull’s inadequacy (as art) would be greeted with: “But that’s part of the point!” or some intimation of your latent jealousy. Most people clung to the staggering facts, or to simple visual descriptions; those who didn’t drifted into the vague and binary territories Damien Hirst had gotten lost in—either that or they attacked the man himself. Whichever way you turned, the conversations that emerged were inane, the kind that made you want to stop talking, maybe offer your friend some more booze. What made the skull a mesmerizing conversation piece also made it a bad one.

Our visitor ended up taking some solace in this. Even if this was the culmination of Hirst’s lifework, or the culmination of his time in London, it was fine. He had tired of talking about art. The experience—repeated in art schools, at parties, on academic panels, in studios, at galleries, in magazines—began to remind him of that awful phase when a couple, having exhausted all other topics, talks only about their own relationship. He felt like the art world—especially, but not only, in London—had also reached this point: plagued by doubts about its own efficacy, it habitually covered for this with protracted, self-reflexive discussion. It too had declined into an empire of conversation.

Our visitor wanted to map it precisely, but he couldn’t. How to describe a language drifting from power? When he heard it in the pubs and galleries, he had initially been impressed. With the goal of practical gain exhausted, speech could carry an increased moral weight; its view was more tenacious now that it wasn’t aspiring. It also harbored fewer illusions about power than those who hadn’t had it, brandishing that famous world-weary humor. This tone and rhythm, which had initially been intimidating music to our visitor’s ears, now sounded more like noise, and this noise was getting louder and louder as our visitor packed his belongings, said his farewells, and returned to the empire of friendliness.

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