Art for Art’s sake, change for God’s sake

It starts off just like any other work day. The alarm buzzes at 7.30 a.m. A quick shower and then downstairs for breakfast. Peter is already up, the coffee’s made, the table’s set and as I step into the kitchen, he pops bread into the toaster.

‘Soon be ready, darling. There’s a new marmalade to try,’ he says like a doting father. Peter is my husband, he is thirty years old. He chats away as we eat; I remain silent or maybe I contribute the odd word or two.

A fifteen minute walk to the Underground station, engulfed in the fumes generated by stationary cars. I dodge cyclists on pavements to reduce the risk of death even though it means increasing the chance of injury to pedestrians. On the Central Line platform I have a decision to make. Do I squeeze into a sardine can and nestle under the armpit of a tall man or take a gamble on the next train being just slightly less crowded with short female passengers who use antiperspirant? Running late, I take a chance with the first train and regret it when I feel a hand on my left bum cheek. It isn’t possible to manoeuvre a turn to confront the culprit and though tempted, I decide against yelling out ‘get your bloody hand off my arse!’

By the time I reach Bond Street I’m dripping with sweat. I stand by the chilled units in the Marks & Spencer Food Hall, resting my hands on two Red Pepper, Feta and Spinach Quiches until a sales assistant gives me a funny look. I leave smear marks on the cellophane packaging. I buy lunch and saunter down New Bond Street, glancing at high priced tat in the shop windows as I go.

Working in the art gallery has become less and less satisfying. I have no interest in what I sell and I despise most of the customers. My boss is okay, just about. Today is a Special Day. ‘This isn’t art,’ I have to state as I look at the new exhibits.

‘Don’t be a dinosaur, Samantha,’ my boss Bradley responds as we stand by a 3-D frame housing an opened and quite possibly used condom stretched towards a scrappy ink sketch of a vagina. ‘It evokes the degenerate pursuit of short-term self-gratification in the twenty-first century.’

‘You don’t really think that, you can’t.’

‘Actually I read it, it’s how Graham Henderson describes the piece.’

I first met Henderson when we were setting up the exhibition earlier that week – he is a pretentious ignoramus. ‘The condom piece has to go next to the crushed plastic bottles,’ he’d declared. ‘The two materials are in harmony, I’m sure you appreciate that.’

‘Absolutely. They’re a must together,’ I’d replied. I have developed a style of sarcasm that recipients don’t pick up, I think based on the fraudulent encouraging nodding that I’ve perfected. Just as well or else I would have been sacked long ago.

Graham Henderson is flavour of the month, an artist of working class origin who hadn’t lifted a pencil or paint brush for his first thirty-two years. Then he was arrested for graffiti offences in Sidcup and the art critic in the Sunday Telegraph, under direction of the editor to introduce avante gardism to attract the attention of younger readers, claimed there was an intense energy in his art. A minor art college offered him a place with fees waived and a full bursary. Since he had no portfolio to show other than non-portable brick walls, there was a widespread assumption that the decision to take him on was based on the lure of publicity. It took a little over two months before the college kicked him out, a leaked email from Henderson’s tutor to the principal describing the artist as a talentless no-hoper. Henderson’s marketing skills were clearly at a higher level than his artistic merit. He took the college to court for defamation of character, the case is as yet unresolved, but he used it to gain publicity and now this supposed new BritArt star is selling his work like hot cakes.

I persist with my disdain. ‘He can’t draw, he’s useless. Abstract artists must go through the discipline of drawing, you know that, Bradley.’

‘It doesn’t matter what we think, we’re a business. I got these works for a great price and I bet we sell them before the end of the month.’

Bradley’s wrong to think we’ll sell out within a month if the first day is anything to go by. At this rate, they’ll be gone within a week. And good riddance!

At just after eleven o’clock on this, the opening day of the exposition, a young couple come into the gallery. He is dressed in a pinstripe suit with powder blue shirt and metallic silver tie. She has on the casual clothes of the young and rich, a pseudo-destitute look with skimpy, scruffy jeans and frayed leather jacket. The designer labels give the game away.

‘I’ve ‘eard you’ve got some Henderson works in. Let me see ‘em,’ the man asks me with something approaching a Cockney accent. I take an instant dislike to him and have a strong urge to tell him off for not adding ‘please’. I lead them to the ten or so exhibits on display. His first sighting is the condom artwork and he roars raucously.

‘Bugger me; come ’ere doll. Look at this!’

I’m not a snob, but the ’ere grates. Is this the remnant of a past at odds with his new-found City wealth or the attempt of a posho to be seen as one of the lads? Doll is manicuring her nails. She looks across. ‘Blimey.’

‘Fuck me, and this one,’ City boy exclaims, looking at a diaphragm surrounded by specks of red and to its right, a poorly drawn cartoon of an erect black penis. ‘These are great,’ he announces. ‘Aren’t they?’ he orders rather than asks his girlfriend.

The young woman glances up again, irritated by the disturbance. ‘If you like them,’ she mutters as she lifts a lipstick out her handbag, ‘then get them.’

‘How much are these things?’ he asks me. The use of the descriptor ‘things’ makes me smile, a fitting choice of word even though this idiot isn’t aware of the fact. I wonder whether he might be illiterate because prices are listed along with the titles and the artist’s name on large cards underneath each work.

‘You might want to take a look at these cards,’ I say, pointing to the label below the nearest exhibit, another 3-D frame housing a squashed dart pointing towards a red shape. There is a dotted line between the tip of the dart and the red splotch of a heart. The last dash has an arrow on it, just in case the viewer doesn’t appreciate that the dart is going towards the heart rather than the heart making its way to the arrow. Well done, Henderson, very clever!

I summon up false enthusiasm as we continue our inspection. ‘Have you seen this sculpture, sir?’ I’ve led him to the crushed plastic bottles. ‘If you decide on the condom you must get this – the two materials are in perfect harmony.’

‘Yeah, I see what you mean, they are kinda similar. Bit pricey though,’ he adds, having taken the trouble to read the giant print labels. They cost £24,000 each. ‘Would you do a deal if I bought both?’

‘This is an art gallery, not a supermarket. We don’t do deals.’

Bradley is by my side. ‘Apologies, sir, Samantha is having a tough day. We can take ten percent off if you purchase both.’

The transaction is made with me loitering in the background. Bradley is casting dark looks my way. I adjourn to the small kitchenette to consume my Marks & Spencer avocado and pine nut sandwich, tropical fruit cocktail, and cranberry juice. I wonder what Peter has prepared for dinner. He will dash home from work, light the fire, set the table, empty the dishwasher, put on his slippers, get mine and leave them by the front door, and quite possibly a host of other jobs.

Bradley comes in for his own lunch. He ignores me.

As soon as I step back into the gallery another customer enters, heralded by the ping of the wind chime on the door. He is considerably older than the first; this one has a thick mane of salt and pepper hair. I think his smile is actually a leer and decide to keep a physical distance.

He is another of the pinstripe suit brigade, though not nearly as style-conscious as the previous man. His suit is an old-fashioned cut and his red and yellow polka dot tie is cataclysmically at odds with the navy and white striped shirt. Sir, why are you considering the purchase of art if you are totally devoid of aesthetic taste? I would have liked to have asked. I soon discover the answer to my question.

‘Rumour has it you’ve acquired some Hendersons in this treasure trove.’ He has a booming, pompous voice. ‘Oh, there they are.’

He brushes past me and strides across to the Henderson area, now with red stickers on the corners of the sold works. ‘Two gone already, eh?’

‘Yes, though in my opinion nowhere near the best,’ I say, resigned to drumming up sales to boost my commission. We approach yet another 3-D work encased in glass, an appalling attempt to draw a table on which rests a syringe and a flattened can of Red Bull.

He examines the information below the work – this one is priced at £31,000. Since it is no more skilfully painted than the others, I can only assume price is set based on size. It works out at about £50 per square inch and I consider informing this and future customers to demonstrate value for money.

‘I think they’re awful but they are shooting up in value, eh,’ the polka dot man says. He takes out a Filofax and turns to a page with jottings. I glance across and note dates and prices. March £12,000. July £21,000. December £26,000.

‘I’ll take it,’ he says. ‘It’ll be up to over forty by the end of summer, eh.’

And that is that. He takes out his cheque book and Parker pen and as he writes I consider the significance of the ‘eh’ used so frequently by upper class men. Are they taught to use it at school? Repeat after me, boys. ‘To be or not to be, eh.’

‘Jolly good value, eh,’ I jibe as he hands me the cheque. I note the name, he is a lord. I catch Bradley giving me a filthy look and don’t care. Three pieces of absolute crap sold within a couple of hours for over £70,000, and a furious boss.

‘I feel terrible, do you mind if I leave early?’ I ask as soon as polka dot plonker has left.

‘Good idea, I think you should,’ Bradley replies.

I put on my coat and leave without casting an eye over the artistic offerings on display. Henderson is bottom of the talent list, but there are some close calls for runner up.

It is only mid-afternoon but already the light is fading as I walk along New Bond Street, heading towards the Underground station. The Central Line is down again due to signal failure so I resort to edging through London on an overcrowded bus. I don’t mind the slow progress home – to the fire, the spotlessly clean everything, the slippers. I’m tired of it all. Tired of the daily commute, tired of what the West End has to offer, tired of selling poor quality, high-priced so-called art to buyers only interested in the shock of the new or the investment potential.

The bus is at a standstill and we’re still in Oxford Street. Police cars and ambulances edge past, sirens blaring, lights flashing – it can’t be fun being ill or injured and waiting for help what with this traffic.

I wonder whether I’m arrogant, categorising art into good or bad with such authority. After all, in the early days many had laughed at the Impressionists. It was left to pioneers to buy their works, quite likely for the same two reasons as my customers today. I think back to my time at school and college, something I’ve done rather a lot lately. At school I’d been inspired when introduced to Impressionism, that’s why I’d gone on to take an Art degree. College was such a disappointment, for a start because of the lecturers’ attempt to wean me off the movement; according to them it was too mainstream and no longer challenging. And the classes were absurd, too. Drawing with eyes closed and using rice, coffee and chocolate instead of paint to fill a canvas. After a couple of months I quit. Me and Henderson – we lasted about the same length of time at college! Now I regret my decision, pride got the better of me. It was a mistake and the outcome is that I’m just a glorified shop assistant.

The bus is chugging along at pedestrian pace, it comes to a standstill in Trafalgar Square. I leap up and get off, a spontaneous decision, but I’m in desperate need of a shot of Impressionism. So I spend an hour wandering around the late nineteenth-century rooms in The National Gallery. To me, the colour, the movement, the sheer emotion of the works, relegates modern stuff to hollow insignificance. It looks like others agree, the galleries are mobbed.

The visit has done little to lift my spirits. Tomorrow back in the gallery and this evening a slippered evening at home with my slippered husband. I sit on a less crowded bus as it heads through the City. It’s raining by the time I get off, a sort of sleety rain. I saunter home, I don’t mind getting wet.

I step inside.

Peter rushes up. ‘Poor you, darling. You’re soaked. Here let me take your coat, I’ll hang it up in the utility room.’

I hand it over.

‘Slippers right there,’ he adds before walking off, feeling the need to point despite this being the place where he always puts them.

I take a deep breath, a gasp for air, as he returns.

‘How was work today, darling?’ he asks.

‘Awful.’

‘Poor you. Well never mind.’

‘Extremely awful.’

‘I’m sure tomorrow will be better. Let me get you a drink. Dinner’s nearly ready.’

I follow him towards the kitchen. It’s a nice kitchen, stainless steel silver and red, spotless and well-equipped. But who cares because I’ve made up my mind. My job, London, Peter. They all have to go.