Andy’s Snuff

19 Apr

Andy had spent three years at art school. His angle – because in the arts one always has to have an angle – was that he painted things at microscopic level. Encouraged by his tutors, he referred to this as “Interiorization of External Space”. Andy liked cauliflowers a lot, he was always painting cauliflowers, because he couldn’t think of anything else to paint; initially, a friend had recommended them to him, because of their “interesting structure.” Sometimes he’d leave them lying around for a couple of weeks until they went brown. He was always mindful about giving his paintings industrial-sounding names: “Rotten Cauliflower, Batch I”, “Rotten Cauliflower, Batch XXII”, etc. One of his best compositions was called “Rotten Cauliflower, XIX”, he painted it one morning when he was badly hung over and suffering from nicotine withdrawal and therefore full of spontaneity.   

After graduating from art school with respectable grades, Andy felt he had paid his dues; he was filled with the importance of demonstrating that everything had an interior; this interior, even if people as a rule didn’t think much about it, was “the crux of the matter”. His professor wrote an endorsement to help Andy in his quest to find a gallery willing to exhibit his work. It read: “Andy is one of the finest Interiorization painters of his generation, with the most painterly understanding of microscopic vegetable fibers that I have seen in thirty years of university teaching.” 

Andy spent a few months in New York, where he went to many parties frequented by artists. He noticed that his interest in cauliflowers caused puzzlement among the Manhattan artist fraternity. One of them, a tall woman with enormous freckles covering every visible part of her skin, confided in Andy. She said: “Andy, you’re cool and your cauliflower paintings aren’t bad. But what’s your angle on them?”

He said: “It’s not cauliflowers I care about. It’s what they represent.”

She said: “What do they represent?”

“You’re missing the point”, said Andy, with a goofy smile, trying to work up the courage to ask if she’d let him paint a life study of her pigmentation molecules.   

Soon after, perhaps partly influenced by the New York art scene, Andy had the idea of trying a new way of painting. It involved no paint and no brushes.  

All it involved was a tin of Swedish snuff. The price of the tin of Swedish snuff, he decided, would be $14.5 trillion. The tin was absolutely empty, because obviously art has nothing to do with snuff. A few weeks later when he got his first opportunity, he sneaked his $14.5 trillion snuff tin into an exclusive gallery on the Upper East Side. He was escorted off the premises by security men. But once they found out that Andy was, in fact, a recent art school graduate, they dusted him off and let him back inside. The snuff tin stayed in the gallery and a few days later there was an article about it in The New York Times by a critic known as Bon Tobzgratñ, who extolled the snuff tin’s sensuous round form and uniform grey tone, “like a pregnant cloud of emptiness”. Bon Tobzgratñ felt that this might be a new departure in the World of Art. No one had ever dared put such a high price on a work of art, and this was the main focus of Bon Tobzgratñ’s praise, “for in the extemporizing, contemporizing universe, we must learn to see the infinite value of Matter.”

Bon Tobzgratñ also wrote that art was no longer anything to do with making things – painting or carving or molding or photographing. There was no need to make anything, because there was already too much Matter all around us. It was more important to take something already in existence and elevate it into an Art Work. Of course if some logger from Wisconsin tried to sell a rusty chainsaw, this would not be admissible, unless he agreed it was just an old chainsaw worth no more fifty bucks or so. But if Andy exhibited the chainsaw as Art that would be a different matter, because Andy had a gallery that believed in him, and Andy also had powerful backers such as Bon Tobzgratñ.

This dogma even had a name, to give it an air of respectability. It was known as Institutional Art Theory. Certain philistines argued against the new movement, citing a certain lack of logic in it. Surely art had to be Art because of some inherent quality in it, not because some chump decided so? Bon Tobzgratñ huffed and puffed in the media and called this “mere semantics”.

All the important people agreed with him. Gallery owners liked the idea of selling works of art for $14.5 trillion and artists liked the idea of not having to get themselves covered in paint or dust. When the rent was due, they only had to pace about thoughtfully in their apartments, find a couple of used tea-bags or stale biscuits, attach price-tags and make themselves a million or two.   

There was one problem, which even Bon Tobzgratñ acknowledged. The fabulous Swedish snuff tin had been on display for almost two months without any art investors pouncing. Apparently the market was in a bad way, if even important works like this were not being snapped up by national galleries or wealthy collectors.

Andy had a long talk with the gallery and argued fiercely for a price reduction; he would be happy enough to reduce the price from $14.5 trillion to $14.5 billion, but the gallery was furious and claimed he was “ruining the market for everyone else.” When Andy offered them his cauliflower paintings for a mere $100,000 a pop they told him to get out.

Even Bon Tobzgratñ went quiet. After a few weeks Andy caught a Greyhound back to Michigan, where he rolled out his sleeping bag in the attic above his uncle’s hardware store. He spent several days drinking black unsweetened tea and contemplating his struggles in the world of art.

Then one day at lunch time when the store was closed, the telephone rang downstairs. “Bob’s Hardware Supplies”, Andy answered with a sinking feeling, wondering whether from this point on he would be reduced to the meaningless task of selling useless things like wood, nails, hammers and screwdrivers.  

“Andy, this is the President of America speaking to you, and what I have to say to you today is probably one of the most important thing I have ever said, and almost definitely the most important thing you have ever heard.”

“Try me”, said Andy, who was fond of smart ripostes.

The President sucked in some air and continued. “Andy, are you a patriot?”

Andy thought about it. “I reckon I would be, given the right kind of opportunity.”

“So here it is, I’m gonna lay it on the line for you, Andy”, said the president. “You’re an artist, I know, and artists are not known for laying it on the line, the way I’m gonna lay it on the line to you now.”

“Go on…”

“Laying it on the line is a great national virtue, it’s almost a religion in this land of ours to lay it on the line, no one else in the world lays it on the line like we do…”

“Go on”, said Andy. “And when I say go on I mean go on.”

The President sucked in some more air. “Andy, are you a patriot?”

“You just asked me that”, said Andy.

“Because if you are there’s something you can do for me and now I’m going to lay it on the line…”

“I know what you want”, said Andy. “You want my cauliflowers.”

The President stopped short. “Let me be frank”, he said. “I want the Swedish snuff box and so I need you to show some patriotism here and give it to me.”

That night, while Andy lay in bed thinking about all the things he could do with $14.5 trillion, he recalled something St. Augustine had once said, and like the artist he was, Andy adapted these words and made them his own. In the morning he sent the President a fax, on which he’d scrawled in large red letters: “Oh Lord, make me a patriot but not yet.”

Ten minutes later the Oval Office was on the phone again, and the relentless pressure on Andy continued to build.

In the end he folded and donated the tin of Swedish snuff to the U.S. Treasury.   

At the last moment, his gallery caused a stink about its 10% cut and blocked the deal, but after intense negotiation, agreed to reduce its commission to $875 billion, which Andy insisted must be spent partly on buying out his cauliflower collection – the gallery refused at first, claiming that the market for cauliflower paintings was not what it used to be. Collectors had swung more towards snuff tins, dirty buckets and jars of dried peanut butter. In the end the gallery offered him five hundred bucks for all eighty-six canvases.

Andy nonetheless felt he had not done too bad, considering he’d never even gone to Harvard Business School. 

 

II

Andy, who had been spending a lot of time with his uncle and had thus picked up some of his skepticism, found it difficult to understand how, by simply attaching a price tag to an old tin of snuff, he had managed to generate such an enormous sum of money. Yet in spite of this, he was not a rich man; he was even worrying about the expense of going down to the corner shop and getting himself a fresh consignment of cauliflowers. Andy saw that he had been royally screwed, and with this insight came a realization that maybe he should have gone to Harvard Business School, instead of wasting his time learning the difficult, not to say impossible, art of painting.   

Nonetheless, life carried on as per normal. Andy helped out his uncle in the shop in the mornings, and then in the afternoons after sharing a chopped liver sandwich or two, got busy with his paintings of interiorized, fibrous vegetable matter.   

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that the Federal Reserve had deposited the tin of Swedish snuff in Fort Knox, and were selling government bonds on the basis of this priceless asset. They had already raised some $5.8 trillion and were now considering selling the tin of Swedish snuff to an art museum in Ridhya, even though it had only made a derisory offer of $1.8 trillion. Congress wanted to go ahead with the sale, while creating a cinematic 3D projection of the snuff tin in Fort Knox, so that symbolically at least the asset was “still there”. But the Oval Office was holding out, claiming that this was the most valuable object in the world and they had no right to flog it, particularly as they had just raised $5.8 trillion on the back of it and hoped to sell bonds for at least another $89 trillion, a crucial amount of money given that the air conditioning bill of the armed forces had risen to $3.5 trillion per week.

Andy tried to explain all this to uncle Bob, but Bob had not been to Harvard Business School either and whenever he could not understand things he liked to say they were “baloney”.

Bob thought the snuff tin affair was “baloney”.

He also thought the cauliflower paintings were “baloney” but he didn’t have any kids of his own and he liked his nephew more than anyone else in the world and thought he might see sense in the end, once the cauliflower “baloney” blew over; maybe Andy would even take over Bob’s hardware store one day?  

Andy tried to concentrate on his painting, but it’s hard to concentrate after you have given away a snuff tin worth $14.5 trillion.

He grew even more fragmented when he learned that Bon Tobzgratñ was exhibiting a collection of little-known North Korean snuff tins in the Guggenheim Museum and had simultaneously opened a gallery in the West Village where collectors could get their hands on Finnish snuff tins, which were a good deal cheaper than Andy’s Swedish snuff tin but still sufficiently expensive to net Bon Tobzgratñ a tidy sum of money – enough to buy himself an apartment in the Trump Tower and get on first-name terms with the great man with the nicotine-streak running decorously through his hair.  

Andy grew embittered; he spent his days in a dressing gown and lived on pop tarts and black tea and could not even afford soap and razor blades. He no longer cared about the Swedish snuff tin debate, he decided he was a simple man, a painter of vegetabilia.

Then, one day, the President called back. “Andy, we need more snuff tins”, he said. “And you’re the man to supply them. Can I be frank with you, Andy? Can I just blurt it right out?.. Can I elucidate?..” The President explained that as a result of Bon Tobzgratñ’s invention of Institutional Art Theory, an artificial monopoly had been created. Governments had been excluded from the emerging snuff tin sector. There were trillions and trillions of dollars just waiting to be released, like a river dammed up at the head of a valley. “One day we’ll get there, Andy, one day we’ll be able to sell all the snuff tins we can lay our hands on. And that’s where you come in. Because with your artistic integrity backing up the project, with you artistically signing off the proper certificates we can develop a more aggressive stance in our Swedish snuff tin policy.”

“I’ll do it if you pay me”, said Andy, who had learned that the only way of making money was to ask for it, and absolutely insist on having it.  

 

III

Years later, when Andy was an old man whose hands were covered in freckles (which he spent several years interiorizing in a sequence of acrylic miniatures), he realized that Power had a way of twisting people until they no longer knew what they were. Men were turned into Nem, and Women into Nemow and this was the inversion at work in the world of Snamuh. Andy changed his name to Ydna and felt more and more comfortable in his skin, even as his wrinkles deepened and he realized, with a thrill of insight, that in the final analysis his life had been utterly changed by something as inconsequential as a tin of Swedish snuff, thus confirming his “Interiorization” theory. For if a tin of snuff changes the whole world it is not because of the quality of the snuff or indeed the perfection of the tin, but some other aspects that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Times changed in America. The President passed away, and was succeeded by a disreputable sort who finalized the Ridhya deal. A black-as-oil Boeing landed in Kentucky to pick up the snuff tin. Saudis in gold-braided burnouses emerged briefly to enjoy the Derby and top up their stud farm stock with a few choice geldings. After they had left in their winged chariot, leaving Fort Knox empty as an old tin bath, a banking crisis followed; financiers everywhere complaining about the shortfall of Swedish snuff tins “impacting” on market lending mechanisms. Eventually Bon Tobzgratñ stepped in and the Stock Exchange accepted his claim to be an “artist by proxy” – in other words someone with the necessary clout to be able to issue snuff tin stocks. Thanks to Bon Tobzgratñ, the international market was eased by a flood of snuff tins from Uzbekistan, China, Mongolia, Finland and Sweden. Credit lines were open once again, life returned to normal levels of unsustainable debt. 

Ydna moved to Greenwich Village, where he decided to live and die in a room that would never be cleaned or aired.

And he also succeeded in this; his masterpiece.

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