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“Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner
Go ahead lean on that s--t Blue
You own it”
Oh, a father’s tender words of instruction to his daughter.
The dad, Jay-Z, offers the perhaps hypothetical directive to baby Blue in his song “Picasso Baby,” the video for which was shot in artful, high-profile fashion last week, a fascinating example of the confluence of celebrity, art, fashion and participatory media in modern culture. The rap delivers a complicated, reference-laden argument concluding with Jay-Z’s assertion that he’s “the modern day Pablo, Picasso baby.” Every line is loaded (some with language and sentiment not printable here); the one above triggered recall of an anecdote a designer told me during an interview for W magazine in 2007.
Had the story belonged to anyone else, I might not have thought of it so many years later. But given the source, it rushed back. “We grew up with [art] around us as kids,” Stella McCartney said. “I remember once we were having dinner at my grandpa’s apartment in New York, and he had a huge, massive de Kooning on the wall in the dining room. As children, we used to have to go and eat in the kitchen and the adults would have dinner in the dining room, and this was one time we were all allowed to have dinner in the dining room and my brother — you know how kids, like, push back on the table? — pushed back and went bash right into this massive de Kooning. Everyone just went completely silent.” It was clear from the delivery that the group silence wasn’t code for “No problem, kid. We’re rich. There’s more where that came from.”
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The contrast of the two viewpoints, chez Z and chez Eastman, one verbally explicit, the other no less clear for its silence, got me thinking not only about the obvious — the messages we send to our children — but our relationship to things.
Though often associated with the Eighties, conspicuous consumption was neither a concept nor a phrase new to that era. (Economist Thorstein Veblen invoked the expression in his 1899 work, “The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.”) There have always been flaunters, the King Midases, the Marie Antoinettes, the Imelda Marcoses, those who seem to value wealth and its symbols above all else. They can afford the very best and want you to know it. Some are obsessively protective of their acquisitions, while others assume the Jay-Z attitude, it’s mine to wreck if I want to. History and literature haven’t been kind to flaunters. It’s an unattractive human condition to be too wrapped up in things, too boastful about their splendors and the fiduciary good fortune that made possible their acquisition.
Still, things get a bad rap.
Ours is an industry of things. Most of us who work in this industry must believe to some degree in the power of things, a power with a positive potential beyond employing a lot of people and making some of those people very rich.
At their most basic level, things provide the essentials — a roof over one’s head; the clothes on one’s back. Further up the consumer chain, things have a psychological function, nonnarcotic conduits to feeling better, forgetting the mundane or troubling, if only for a while; to indulging in a little fantasy. Things can be a joy to give, to receive, to wear, to use, to look at, to ponder. Things can make us think.
Things, even those for which we’ve paid out of pocket, are more than our possessions, the acquired “s--t” we bought and can thus destroy at will. Things are also an expression of their creators’ toil, craft and sometimes, art. Things deserve respect, and not just expensive things because they cost money. Whatever their function, things were made, at least partly by people, some in labors of love, some of necessity, and at times by people’s whose lives were very literally at risk, the case with the cheap T-shirts to which most of us don’t give a second thought.
Things should be respected, which only happens long-term when those in their formative years are taught to be respectful. That doesn’t mean that life and its spoils shouldn’t be enjoyed: Kate and William aren’t coming; break out the good glassware for the family now and then. A broken flute? It happens. The pricy party dress — relax; if something spills, that’s life. It does mean, sticky-fingered nephew, wash your hands before you plop down on my sofa. And by the way, meet Mr. Coaster. Certainly it means, or should, “Blue, that canvas is important because someone worked really hard on it, because he had something to say. And also” — no shame here — “because Mommy and Daddy worked really hard to be in a position to buy it. Let’s take care of it. You might want to know more about it someday.”
As for the de Kooning, it survived, and Stella’s little brother James lived to push back on his chair another day. How soon he was welcomed back to Grandpa Eastman’s dining table remains unclear.