A Powerful Indictment of the Art World

A Powerful Indictment of the Art World

In 1970, the American painter and conceptual artist Lee Lozano began planning her final project, a large-scale work of performance art called Dropout Piece. It entailed Lozano’s leaving her successful career, withdrawing from the New York City art scene, and eventually moving to Dallas, where she lived until her death, in 1999. As a multiyear, lived action, Dropout Piece is ephemeral, impossible to display in a gallery. The only record of its inception is found in 11 notebooks full of Lozano’s neat, all-caps handwriting, in which she included ideas for the work as well as for other ambitious projects: “Investment Piece,” “‘No Movies’ Piece,” “Dialogue Piece.” One of these notes, from April 1970, serves as the epigraph to Hari Kunzru’s new novel, Blue Ruin: “Poverty Piece: Remain poor until the war ends.”

When we meet Jason Gates, known as Jay, the middle-aged narrator of Blue Ruin, he is living like Lozano might have in Poverty Piece. He’s been sleeping in his car during the coronavirus pandemic and working as a grocery-delivery driver. He is also undocumented and, after catching COVID, was evicted from his shared apartment in New York City; he’s still suffering from long COVID. One afternoon, he pulls into the driveway of a gated upstate property and begins to wearily unload a trunkful of groceries, only to find that the woman waiting on the porch is Alice, an ex-girlfriend from his art-school days in London. Alice sees how ill Jay is and offers him a place to recover: a vacant barn on the other side of the estate where she’s been quarantining with her husband, a painter named Rob (another former art-school friend of Jay’s), and Marshal, a gallerist who has been renting the home from a millionaire acquaintance.

After Alice leaves Jay in the barn, imploring him to remain hidden because guests are forbidden on the property, he reflects that her “familiarity was a small miracle. It changed time’s straight line into a plane, a landscape across which, for a while, I could move in any direction.” Jay’s convalescence gives him time to trudge into the past. Twenty years ago, as a couple, Jay and Alice enmeshed themselves in the avant-garde art world of London, running a collaborative warehouse gallery space with Rob. When the gallery was sold, Alice sank into a depression and eventually left Jay, running away to Greece with Rob. One day, Jay returned from a lecture to find himself evicted from Alice’s apartment, unable to contact her, and stonewalled by his friends. Reeling from betrayal, he had no choice but to move on.

Kunzru’s attention to how history haunts the present, on scales both personal and political, animated his previous two books, White Tears and Red Pill. Together with Blue Ruin, the three novels make up his own version of the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1990s Three Colors trilogy. Kieślowski named his three films Blue, White, and Red, after the colors of the French flag; they represent, respectively, the French Revolution’s ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Kunzru’s trilogy, meanwhile, is attuned to the history of the U.S. (and, to some extent, the U.K.). In White Tears, two white men accidentally reanimate the voice of a long-dead blues singer and become haunted by him, illuminating a wealthy family’s legacy of exploiting Black people in the South. In Red Pill, the unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with a cop show called Blue Lives, growing convinced that the program’s creator is “red-pilling” the American public by inserting alt-right propaganda into the show. In Blue Ruin, Kunzru turns his attention to visual and performance art, examining its intersections with issues of labor and consumerism. Through Jay, who has lived both as an artist and as an undocumented gig worker, Kunzru shows that these two lifestyles are perhaps not as different as they might seem, deflating the idea of art as a noble pursuit: Being an artist is just another job, and art is just another commodity.

Much of this indictment of the art world occurs through Jay’s reflections on his past, present, and future as an artist. He is rigidly principled, even ascetic, bound by commitments to aesthetic ideas over material success. Jay loves painting, but he gave it up in art school because he felt that there was something “rotten” about the final product. He hated the medium’s “aura of luxury consumption, the knowledge that whatever you did, however confrontational you tried to be, you were—if you were lucky—just making another chip or token for collectors to gamble with.” Trying to resist the commodification of his art, Jay started to make performance pieces. These culminated in a three-part series called THE DRIFTWORK, which explored the idea of his own disappearance from the art world, perhaps in homage to Lozano’s Dropout Piece.

THE DRIFTWORK’s first piece, No Trace, had Jay obsessively cleaning his apartment and erasing his presence from the internet. In the second part, Return, Jay gave his ID, passport, and credit cards to three “artworld authorities” in Paris. He then sailed, covertly, across the English Channel, hid on a train to London, and met the authorities at an appointed time in the city to collect his belongings—a reference to the “clandestine crossings” of migrants. The third piece, Fugue, began with Jay burning his official documents, his belongings, and even the clothes on his own body, while standing in front of a gallery audience. He left the building naked and began a total withdrawal from the art world: After he walked out the door, the audience was told that “the performance was ongoing.”

When we meet Jay, 20 years later, he has remained completely removed from the art scene—he has not entered a gallery or museum, does not seem to have even looked himself up online, since Fugue. He’s been living without ID or papers, joining autonomist communes, sailing on yacht crews, entering the U.S. without documentation, and, until the pandemic, driving for a ride-share service in New York City. So it comes as a surprise to Jay that, in his absence, Fugue has made him famous. He learns this when, having ignored Alice’s warnings, he goes on a walk around the property and is found by Marshal, the dealer who has been renting the property, who zip-ties him and holds him at gunpoint. Marshal sees Jay as a Black man trespassing on the valuable estate. But when Marshal realizes that he is holding Jason Gates, the creator of THE DRIFTWORK, the dynamic shifts, and he starts apologizing.

Later that week, Jay comes to the main house for dinner and gets the chance to tell his story to willing listeners, filling in the gaps of his past two decades. He reflects that “someone or other once said that art is purposeful purposelessness. I was trying to make something less defined even than that, a kind of artwork without form or function except to cross its own border, to cross out of itself and make a successful exit.” With THE DRIFTWORK, Jay tried to undermine the borders not just between nations but also between life and art. But he has changed in his 20 years away, his exposure to precarity as an undocumented gig worker making his past reflections seem naive. “When I thought of my past as an artist,” Jay muses after dinner, “the person I saw didn’t seem outrageous or bohemian. Just the opposite. I’d believed that by making art I was swimming out to sea … Actually, I’d just been on my way to work, ready to spend another day at the office.”

In Blue Ruin, the art world and its inhabitants are unmasked. Artists don’t live la vie bohème; theirs is a job like any other. Even work that promises to resist commodification still manages to uphold the status quo. Jay sees how art circulates as a product; he believes that a piece’s social critique is dulled when it is bought and sold. In response to these conditions, he refuses to be a part of the system. This stands in stark contrast to Rob, who has enjoyed enormous commercial success but only at a great cost to his artistic vision and integrity. The novel’s title, Blue Ruin, comes from a painting of Rob’s that was passed off as the work of a much more famous painter. This painter had hired Rob as an assistant and invited him onto the glamorous art scene. The price for this access? Rob’s silence when the painter took a canvas from Rob’s easel and sold it as his own. This is the consequence of material success in the art world, Blue Ruin seems to say: You can gain the whole world but lose your artistic soul.

Even Jay’s withdrawal from the art world was, in a way, commodified by others—his absence was, after all, what made him famous. But Kunzru ends by imagining the artist’s ultimate power: refusal. Jay’s stay at the estate comes to an abrupt conclusion when Marshal calls the cops about an incident on the property. As an undocumented person in the United States, Jay is at risk. He packs up his car, says goodbye to Alice, and drives away. Is Jay leaving to start anew, to reenter the art world with a new piece? Maybe. But he reflects that his time upstate felt like “no more than a dream,” suggesting that his disappearance will remain ongoing. Jay has seen the smallness of the art world, the obsession with selling pieces, making money, getting famous. When he turns out of the driveway, the reader hopes he’s on his way to something more than just another day at work.

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