Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Ever since the son came home from his college graduation to find the father passed out drunk not on but next to the toilet, soiled underwear around his ankles, little bits of fecal flotsam speckling the ground around him and, somehow, his belly too, their communication had been limited to the father reacting to the son’s Instagram stories with one of three emojis: red heart, face with red heart eyes, or red number 100 underlined twice. The son never wrote anything back. He never reacted to the father’s Insta-reactions. This silence, emphasized by the small word “seen” always appearing below the emoji a minute or two after it was sent, didn’t deter the father. It seemed to encourage him, and the result was a staggeringly one-sided DM thread that consisted of a year’s worth of the son’s expired Instagram stories, each one adorned with one of the three red emojis.
Sometimes, if one of the son’s friends was complaining about a parent, he would show them the DM thread. At first glance, the friend would laugh, seeing the father’s quirky digital behavior as a classic example of an older person misunderstanding the nuanced etiquette of a new technology. As the son scrolled and scrolled and scrolled, the friend would usually stop laughing. At some point, the father’s persistence—the quantity and consistency of the emojis—combined with the father’s laziness—why not take the time to type an actual sentence?—would read as tragic. Eventually, this digital show and tell grew sad.
The son didn’t feel angry at the father. The father, adored by the public as one of the great conceptual artists of his generation, resented by his family as one of the great functional alcoholics of his generation, had been absent from plenty of the son’s important life events. Missing a college graduation was no big deal really. Unreliability and flakiness were symptoms of both the disease that made the father hateable and the disease of character that made him charmingly idiosyncratic. For the father’s handful of loved ones, he was predictably unpredictable, in ways both good and cruel, a known quantity.
It was the nature of the scene the son stumbled upon in the bathroom that precipitated the unofficial, year-long silent treatment. Standing in the doorway, very much having to pee, still wearing his dumb, ill-fitting cap and gown, the son knew he was, at that moment, seeing a patheticness he would not be able to unsee. The father, in a sloppy fetal position, snoring on the cold, white ceramic tiles, could have been mistaken for an enormous neglected baby, the sort that social services rescues from some diaperless horror scene, except, unlike a baby, he was very hairy, his penis barely visible in the dark forest of his crotch. So, the son was surprised when, on an unremarkable Thursday afternoon, the father DMed him a post about an opening at a gallery downtown that night with the words, “Wanna go?” The casualness with which the yearlong streak of emojis was broken momentarily infuriated the son. It not only reaffirmed his suspicion that the father barely registered their recent distance, but the son had also grown attached to the neatness of the DM thread, its ridiculous symmetry. Now, with the two-word invitation and the forwarded exhibition poster in the mix, the conversation looked, at a glance, normal.
Scrolling back through the thread, the son decided there were three possible explanations as to what precipitated the father’s invitation. The first and most likely explanation: the mother had broken her own unofficial silent treatment—the result of a recent argument about a technicality in their ancient divorce agreement—and awakened the father to the fact that his relationship with the son had quietly transitioned from status quo estrangement to relative non-existence. The second possible explanation: the father had, for the first time since the son was a child, given sobriety another try and was in a reparative phase of that process. The third possible explanation, the least likely in real life but the most likely if their family drama was scripted: The father was sick. Cancer would be appropriate.
Turning down the invitation might lead to a more complicated negotiation than just accepting it. If the choice was between spending a polite hour in public with the father looking at art or spending a complicated week disjointedly arguing with both the father and the mother about why he was refusing to see the father, the son’s choice was the former. He didn’t want to devote that much energy to the issue. He wanted to focus on his budding art writing career.
Since graduating, with a relatively useless degree in art history, the son had been going to as many museums and galleries as possible, pitching every editor at every somewhat culturally relevant magazine ideas for interviews, essays, profiles, and reviews. Making a name for himself in the industry without his intriguing last name (he now used the mother’s) and without any real connections (he refused the father’s occasional offers to help) turned out to be a very demanding endeavor. It required him to be strategic with his time, and attending the opening with the father was simply good strategy. A decent therapist might have pushed back on this logic, recognizing it as a crystal-clear defense mechanism against processing the father’s paternal ineptitude, protecting the son from a great deal of pain. The son might have replied that, at this point, the father no longer carried enough weight in his emotional marketplace to hurt him.
There was also the fact that the exhibition the father wanted to see looked good. It was a group show featuring a long list of young, buzzy artists, some of whom the son had emailed while interning at a prominent arts magazine, some of whom he had emailed in recent months when doing interviews for an arts website, all of whom he followed on the Internet in some way. If he was able to convince the editor at the arts website to allow him to review the show, the time with the father might feel like less of a chore, more justified.
The son forwarded the post the father sent him to the editor with the words, “Can I review this?” The word “seen” appeared immediately, as if the editor was waiting for the message. Then the word “typing” flashed for a moment, followed by, “Sure.” The son reopened the thread with the father, and held his thumb over the words, “Wanna go,” until the options for possible emoji reactions popped up. He studied the thumbs up, thinking the way Instagram designed it was truly perfect, the platonic gesture for affirmative, and he clicked it.
The father was early, standing outside the gallery, waiting for the son. The father was never early. This made the son think he must have cancer. As the son approached from about half a block away, he tried to discern whether the father looked sick, maybe skinnier or sunken-eyed or splotchy, but with each step closer, he showed no typical signs of decomposition. Actually, the father, a tall, overweight Marlboro Man who always seemed to move through the world unaware of how much space he occupied, looked pretty good.
When the son arrived at the door, the father didn’t go in for a hug as expected but just smiled and said hi. The son smiled and said hi. The father said hi again, seemingly forgetting he’d already said hi. Two women who were trying to enter the gallery said excuse me, and the father over-apologized for standing in such an inconvenient place and made a grand show of opening the door for them, laughing at himself a little. The son watched the interaction unfold, watched the women politely thank the father, clearly not wanting to engage beyond a polite thank you. He realized it was the first time he’d ever seen the father socially awkward.
They entered the gallery, which was already about half full even though the opening had just officially begun, which meant, within the hour, it was bound to be packed. The father was quickly recognized and approached by the gallerist, a woman, who, it turned out, was an old acquaintance from the ’70s. That decade, with its cheap real estate and avant-garde energy, was always a source of acute nostalgia for people like this. It was also the decade in which the father was at the peak of his powers and was popularly agreed to have made his best work.
The son had always found it kind of ridiculous and inexplicable that the father was still revered, still somewhat part of the conversation, even though, as far as he could tell, the father hadn’t made any work in a decade. Yes, he still had his large downtown studio and kept a full-time assistant, but the son knew for a fact that the assistant mostly just reorganized the father’s archive, answered his emails, and did his laundry.
The father introduced the son to the gallerist as the next great American art writer. The gallerist craned her neck and widened her eyes, a playful expression similar to the face she might have made if the son was a basketball-loving seven-year-old and the father had introduced him as the next Michael Jordan. The son knew she did not intend to be condescending. She was a veteran of the art world, where people of her standing tend to operate under a binary system of those who are to be taken seriously and those who are not.
The father and the gallerist struck up a conversation about mutual friends, implying intimacy with a few famous male land artists by referring to them by their first names. The son observed the posturing for a minute before excusing himself to explore the show. The gallerist said, Enjoy it, and write a review if you do, but turned back to the father before the son could confirm he was writing a review. The father, though, was looking at the son expectantly, avoiding re-engaging with the gallerist, and it suddenly occurred to the son that the father was hoping to be saved from art world small talk. This too seemed strange, as it positioned them as firmly on the same team in the room, whereas normally, they would have navigated the gallery more like social and spatial free agents who just so happened to look a lot alike.
Out of reflex more than thought, the son asked the gallerist if she’d mind if he stole the father for a moment so that the two of them could look at the show together. The gallerist said, Of course, of course, go, go. The father shook the gallerist’s hand and said it was good to see her. She moved on to another conversation, and the father and the son walked into the gallery’s main space, drifting slowly toward the first piece in the sequence—a large, still life of a can of beer with a flower in it—in silence.
The father brought his face inappropriately close to the canvas, his nose nearly touching it. The son stood behind him taking notes on his phone about how the painting was kind of ridiculous, only excusable if the ridiculousness was intentional and self-aware, which it didn’t seem to be. He also took a note about how only men of his father’s age feel the need to get so close to visual art. He took a final note about the nauseating symbolism available in this moment: an alcoholic and his sole offspring examining a painting of a single flower blooming from a toxic beer bath.
When the son felt he’d exhausted his thoughts on the piece, he moved toward the next work. The father followed. It was a sculpture mounted to the wall, a simple recreation of a primitive tool used to saw wood centuries ago. The father once again got very close to the object, and the son once again stood at an appropriate distance and took notes. He wrote a few sentences about how artists have always fetishized tools because they are utilitarian, while art is useless. He set a reminder on his phone to do some research on the conceptual differences between craftsmanship and artistry.
The son moved to the next work, a vinyl text piece affixed to the wall. A handful of gallery-goers were crowded around it. The father followed, and they secured a spot from which they could read.
DID YOU ENJOY THE PIECE?
If you are viewing this piece with someone, it is likely that, upon leaving the space, one of you will ask the other, “What did you think?” or “Which was your favorite?” or “Did you enjoy the piece?” The likelihood of this kind of question being posed makes having an opinion about this piece an inextricable part of experiencing it. So, with that in mind, see below, a series of ideas, points, and questions one might consider while viewing this piece:
The father let out a loud snort of disgust. The son ignored it. The father began looking around the gallery like someone who just found a bug in his salad looks for the waiter. The son ignored this too. The father returned his gaze to the piece, rereading it to confirm its existence, shaking his head in exaggerated disbelief. The son was about to begin typing notes on the work, as he was sure he’d want to mention it in his review, but the father’s agitation was too agitating. He put his phone in his pocket and asked the father, in a mocking, capitulating tone, So, did you enjoy the piece?
Before the son even finished the question, the father said no, it was terrible, it offended his very being, it was what was wrong with art today. The handful of people around them giggled at the father’s melodramatic vitriol, his over-the-topness. The father pretended not to hear their giggles but they were what fueled him to push further, saying the artist should be tarred and feathered, the gallery should be fined and shuttered, anyone who had laid eyes on the piece, including him, including the fine people currently gathered around him, needed to have their memory wiped.
There were more giggles and now a few of the gigglers seemed to have recognized the father, maybe from art books, maybe from magazines, probably from his Instagram. The son asked, in a voice a little louder than he meant it to be, why the fuck the father hated the piece so much. The inclusion of the expletive was not intentional. The question was, as he knew for certain that the father would not be equipped to answer it.
The son had seen it many times, at dinner parties, on panels, in interviews. The father would come out with a strong opinion, then when prompted to back it up, had nothing, would ramble, treading rhetorical water until it was clear he was out of his intellectual depths. The rambling would only come to an end if someone interjected and saved him or if he remembered to go on the attack, sometimes parroting photographer William Eggleston’s parroting of the zen monastic, Huineng: art, like truth, has “nothing to do with words.”
These scenes used to make the son squirm. They seemed like the moment when the father’s fraudulence would finally be revealed. Many artists aren’t good at talking about their work but the son thought the father’s fans always saw what they wanted to see, projecting meaning and value into works that might, after a quick conversation with the father, start to look a little different, kind of obvious, creatively vapid. The son, even at an early age, considered the father to be a lucky artist, in the right place at the right time.
The handful of gallery-goers who had become their audience seemed put off or confused by the son’s aggression. As they looked to the father for his response, it occurred to the son that these people, whether they knew it or not, favored the father, were rooting for him to respond well. The son wondered if the father felt this as he began pounding his chest, recycling well-worn clichés about art as a medium of the soul, not the intellect. The son said that the father didn’t really believe in souls, that he believed in them the way most people believe in God, not actually believing in its existence, but simply having a strong attachment to the story of the belief and the resulting ability to stand in the middle of a room telling that story.
The father didn’t follow the son’s line of thinking, so he ignored it, reiterating his point differently, saying that art should be felt in the moment, tasted, smelled, touched, that you shouldn’t have to talk about it or think about it or go home and read a book by some philosopher in order to experience it. The son said that the piece addressed this exact point and transcended it, and that, though the father probably didn’t realize it, he was expressing pretty antiquated and typically masculine, modernist perspectives about what art could or could not, should or should not be.
The father opened and closed his mouth a few times, started and stopped, looked back at the piece, scratched his chin in order to buy some time. During this pause, those who had been watching the interaction began to move along, uninterested in seeing their chosen fighter flounder. The father mumbled some word salad, and then arrived at a vaguely coherent sentiment, a long-winded, poorly articulated version of the idea that sometimes you love or hate a thing and cannot explain why.
The son formulated a response in his head, but now, with their audience gone, he remembered he had a job to do. He smiled at the father to signal their little debate was over and took his phone back out to photograph the piece so he could refer to it later. As he was lining up the photo, tapping the screen to focus the camera properly, the father reached out and snatched the son’s phone. This action surprised them both, the son staring at his now empty hand, the father staring at the phone in his, unsure how it got there. When they both grew confident that what just happened, happened, the son said, What the fuck?
When the father didn’t respond, the son reached out to snatch the phone back, but the father quickly swung his arm up above his head and away from his body, a classic keep-away pose. The son jumped up and tried to snatch the phone again but the father was too big, too tall. When the son landed from his jump, he suddenly felt self-conscious. He had jumped as high as he could in the middle of a crowded art gallery. He tucked his shirt back in, which had come loose during the action, and whispered hard, What the actual fuck are you doing?
The father remained silent. The son shook his head incredulously, waiting for an explanation, but the father’s face just contorted into a slightly pained expression, as if trying to relay that he wasn’t enjoying this game either, that it was hurting him too. The son looked toward the front door and felt the impulse to run through it—through the actual glass. He would have to lower his shoulder and get a running start. Even then, it probably wouldn’t break, might not even crack. In all likelihood he would bounce right off the door, and the thump would be followed by a gallery-wide gasp, which would be followed by the silence of a hundred people trying to discern whether this was performance art or just the inexplicable behavior of a sick young man. Then the son would probably collect himself and leave the gallery in the conventional manner. Only when he was a full block away would he realize his shoulder was dislocated. Only when he reached into his pocket to call an Uber to the hospital would he remember who had his phone.
The son turned away from the door, back to the father, and asked, What do you want? The father slowly lowered his arm. He held the son’s phone at waist level, cradling it gently in his large hands, like a baby chick. It was clear he was not offering the phone back to the son. It was also clear that the son would not attempt any more sneak-attack snatches.
The father asked the son if he’d ever heard of Chris Burden. The son said, yes, of course he’d heard of Chris Burden. He said that he didn’t just know of him because he studied art in school or because he wrote about art “for a living,” but because he actually had fuzzy memories of meeting Burden as a child. Until the divorce, the mother and the father hosted large dinners on the first Sunday of every month mostly attended by artists and artist-adjacents. Burden was a semi-regular at these dinners for a period of time.
The father asked the son if he’d ever heard of Burden’s piece, Shoot, in which he had a friend fire a .22 caliber rifle at his arm. The son said, yes, of course he’d heard of Shoot. He said that he didn’t just know about the piece because it was one of the most controversial artworks in history or because he wrote his senior thesis about physical violence in performance, but because at one of the Sunday dinners, Burden actually showed him the scar on his arm. It had scared the shit out of him.
The father took a step closer to the son and leaned in a little in a way that implied the son was meant to do the same, as if the father was about to offer a you-didn’t-hear-it-from-me stock tip. The son did not lean in. The father continued anyway, saying that for his next big piece, for a museum show that nobody knew about yet, he was going to recreate Burden’s Shoot. The son blurted out a single inappropriately loud laugh, and then slapped his hand over his mouth. He could feel more laughter coming up through him. He squeezed his lips together to stifle the spasms.
He wanted to explain to the father that recreating Shoot was a hilariously bad idea, that anyone with a brain who knows contemporary art would read it for what it was: a pathetically unoriginal, tragically nostalgic, desperate stunt from an out of touch artist. But the son just couldn’t stop laughing. He stood in front of the father, laughing and trying not to laugh until tears gathered in the corner of his eyes and he feared he would urinate in his pants. The father interrupted the fit, saying that he wanted the son to be the one to shoot him.
As soon as the words left the father’s mouth, the son’s opinion of the idea flipped. He tried to flip it back the way one does when staring at an ambiguous image that contains two ways of seeing—the old woman vs. the young woman, the duck vs. the rabbit—but could not. He could see only the camera crew that would follow each of them around for the month leading up to the performance, and the quirky marksmanship coach who would give him pointers and some light training. He could see only the father consulting with doctors and lawyers, and the father’s intern jumping into action, excited to be busy for the first time in years, securing a space for the performance, arranging contingencies, printing waivers for the witnesses to sign. He could see only the Walmart or some other gunslinging superstore where he would purchase the rifle, saving the receipt for the project’s archive. He could see only his mother who would have to be interviewed at some point. The museum would pay for everything.
Of course, when the big day finally arrived, the camera crew would ask the father if he was scared the son might miss his target, and the father would say no. The camera crew would ask the son if he was afraid that he might miss his target, and the son would give a long response, citing historical examples of artworks that tested familial bonds, not really answering the question. And then, when it was time, there would be the matter of whether the son could actually go through with it, whether he had the nerve, the audacity, the courage, the guts, the heart, the cojones to pull the trigger.
The son wasn’t laughing anymore. The gallery was packed, at that stage in the evening when actually looking at the art on the walls was not an option, rendering the opening little more than a networking event housed in a room so loud that it was difficult to network. An attendee tried to introduce themselves to a friend of a friend, and the friend of the friend just pointed to her ear and mouthed, I can’t hear you, let’s talk later. People had to maneuver through the crowd carefully to be sure their bags and jackets didn’t knock into any art. There was a very long line for the bathroom.
The son asked the father if he had a title yet. The father said he didn’t. The son said he should call it, Bad Dad. He said it was good, that it would probably go viral. The father gave the son his phone back.
Gideon Jacobs is a writer who has contributed to the New Yorker, Artforum, the New York Review of Books, Playboy, VICE, and others. He is currently working on a collection of short fiction.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.