Tuesday, August 30, 2016

#215: "The Art Business" by Jeff Fleischer

~This story was previously published in Chicago Tribune Printers Row Literary Journal (2014).


"How much did you say again?" Davis Javits had heard the number perfectly clearly. He didn't doubt his hearing; it was his imagination that he mistrusted.
The heavyset man seated across from him grinned, unconsciously straightening the lapels on his obviously expensive suit. He casually leaned back in his chair, about as far as he could without tipping over. "One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars." He'd said it as "one-point-two-five million" the previous time, but took the question as a lack of understanding. When that second response was met with only a quiet stare, The Suit leaned his girth forward, opened his metallic briefcase, and removed a strapped-together stack of bearer bonds that totaled the quoted amount. He handed the bearer bonds to Davis, who examined them in silence for so long that The Suit half expected him to bite one to verify its validity, like a cartoon version of a nineteenth-century merchant. "Satisfied?" The Suit asked, leaning back again.
Davis Javits drew a breath and looked around his gallery. The man in the suit was the only thing inside the whole former field house that carried even a coincidental smell of success. That uninspiring reality started with Davis himself, with his thrift-store clothes, hand-me-down shoes, and generally scraggly appearance. He liked to think that his beard — a thick but untrimmed mess that didn't quite connect with his sideburns, leaving an uncomfortable gap on each side — gave him a vaguely hipster look. He also thought it was cool how his hair, which didn't grow as long as he would like and was thinning a bit in front and on the top of his dome, bunched up in the back and always seemed to have a natural bedhead look. In reality, he looked more like a newly homeless man or a college student who'd recently ceased to care, although his hygiene suggested better than either of those scenarios.
Not quite thirty, but not far from it either, Davis Javits didn't lack for work ethic. His art had been a lifelong pursuit, a hobby he'd chosen to make his career when he found he lacked the qualifications for any other appealing option. He'd gotten in on the found-object art trend long before it became overexposed, and continued to toil away at it despite a complete lack of financial reward. When he failed to find success, acclaim, or even acknowledgement in the medium, he refused to alter his basic style but doubled down on quantity. He decided he simply wasn't coming up with enough pieces, and began to work at an almost superhuman pace, producing a new work of art nearly every day.
He'd discovered his affinity for found-object art back in elementary school, when he would spend almost every recess alone, collecting sticks and rocks from the fields and fashioning them into eccentric trinkets he tried to peddle at class fundraisers or through door-to-door sales to townspeople, many too concerned about looking cheap in front of their neighbors to refuse. Until The Suit arrived, those sales for a few dollars each represented the most lucrative stretch in the art career of Davis Javits.
His gallery was an abandoned school gymnasium he'd rented back when his finances were in better shape, when he took a few thousand dollars of inheritance money his great uncle had expected him to spend toward a college education and instead invested it to fund his theoretical career. The building had seen better days, with several contradictory coats of paint visible through cracks in the wood, and more than a little rust showing on the hinges. The gallery had started out as a barn but, like many such buildings in eastern Indiana, it had been repurposed several times. It endured stints as a speakeasy, a munitions storage facility, a town hall, and ultimately as a basketball court for several area high schools before each built their own. When he learned the building's history, Davis Javits felt it fit his own extremely well. Before the small inheritance, he'd scraped by financially as a bartender at an often-empty dive, a checkout clerk at a gas station, and a greenskeeper at a third-rate golf course. The landlord didn't really use the field house anymore, and gave him a good deal. When the building's rightful owner died, Davis and his monthly rent somehow got lost in the paperwork, and he saved even more money when he decided to live there too. For three years, he'd slept on a mattress in the old visitors' locker room, using the showers there and storing his few possessions in the vacant lockers. That way he could work to the point of exhaustion anytime he wanted, then collapse for as long as he needed to recharge.
As he looked around his makeshift gallery, contemplating the magnitude of The Suit's offer, Davis Javits started to consider how much money his existing collection could bring in if a single piece was suddenly worth more than a million dollars. Every wall in the field house was lined with art. Every corner held stack upon stack of completed pieces. Every locker in the abandoned home locker room overflowed with supplies, with incomplete scraps of incomplete ideas. A good percentage of the building's square footage was filled with raw materials yet to be put to use or, more accurately, in need of repurposing. The ability to stock up with virtually no overhead was one of the advantages of practicing found-object art, so the parts of the building not visible to the public looked like a cross between a city dump and the aftermath of a small, localized hurricane. Finally, Davis thought, it had all amounted to something. Something far more financially viable than he'd ever imagined. "Thank you," he told the fat man, extending his hand. "It's a pleasure to do business with you."



*          *          *

Davis didn't know this, but The Suit had first noticed him about two weeks before he sat there with his briefcase full of bearer bonds. He'd seen the thin man scrounging around an oversized dumpster in back of his marketing firm's office. The firm shared the dumpster, and the alley where it sat, with both a construction supply company and a hardware manufacturer in the same complex. Davis used to stop by that alley pretty regularly, because experience had taught him that the construction folks would dump massive amounts of usable material at least a few times a week. When The Suit first noticed him through an office window, he was throwing an assortment of found items into a shopping cart. It was a large haul — about a dozen paint cans, part of a former ladder, a broken table, partial sheets of drywall, a bent metal frame, some pieces of two-by-four. The Suit took immediate interest in what he assumed was a homeless man, and rushed downstairs to try to intercept him for a brief talk before he left. Unfortunately, the elevator was a little too slow, and the building's security guard made him sign for a package that had just been delivered, so Davis Javits was long gone by the time The Suit got to the alley.
With his usual rapid pace of work, Davis took only about five days to repurpose the fruits of that day's labor into more than a dozen works of art. He'd converted the paint cans and broken chair into an uneven mobile, something of a back-alley homage to Alexander Calder. He'd painted each sheet of drywall in a different bold color, making careful use of his brushstrokes to subtly suggest patterns too intricate to fully absorb on a first viewing, but which would reveal themselves to any future patron who paid attention to them every day. Of all the works he created, however, he considered his finest the massive angled cross he'd made from the remains of the former ladder. By tilting the parts of the cross at just enough of an angle, he hoped to convey the diminishing role of faith in the modern world. He held the wooden boards together with a full roll of packaging tape, reinforcing the angles with a few judicious nails he felt matched the work's theme. To make it less austere, he inlaid the whole thing with rocks he'd found in a paper bag left in a drawer of the broken table, spacing them without a discernible pattern so they'd reflect the messiness of modern life. Davis Javits often feigned modesty, trying not to let on to fellow struggling artists how much he actually considered himself an unappreciated genius. Even with enough self-awareness to know his tendency to like his own work too much, he thought the cross was genuinely brilliant, one of the best pieces he'd made to date. He said as much to the fat man in the pinstriped suit, just a few days before the offer.
"I quite agree," the man had said. "This is one of the finest pieces I've seen in its genre." The Suit had shown up unexpectedly on a Wednesday, pulling his sleek town car up the patchy asphalt driveway on a particularly rainy afternoon. Davis had years earlier fashioned a sign advertising the gallery out of a broken-down calliope he'd procured at the state fair, framing the sign's rectangular shape with chasing lights. Placing it on the roadside in front of the field house had enticed the rare visitor to stop by and briefly browse. Visitors usually treated his gallery the way they'd treat any other roadside attraction, as another giant ball of twine where they could stretch their legs and feel like they'd seen a sight before continuing on to their destination.
The senior vice president of corporate and multi-platform marketing — Davis had focused on the title as soon as he saw the obviously expensive business card the man handed him when he walked in — was a different case. He was motivated to buy. Something in his body language signaled it to Davis, the way The Suit casually strolled around the entire gallery on that rainy afternoon, carefully inspecting the works on the walls as well as the free-standing pieces. At first, Davis had to admit to himself, he'd assumed the man was simply wasting time to avoid going back outside before the downpour abated. But the visitor paused at literally every piece, looking at each intently and from multiple angles, in the clear manner of a discerning collector.
After a while, a form of faint terror struck Davis Javits. This man was actually looking to buy something from him. And for all his experience and all his work, Davis had absolutely no idea what to charge.
He had to make the first offer; that much was clear. Otherwise, he assumed the marketing executive — who clearly had far more experience with this kind of thing — was going to lowball him and negotiate only up to what he was willing to pay in the first place. As Davis was in a position to benefit financially from literally any offer the man would make, he felt impotent when it came to guessing a price that the other man would accept but would also be more than he wanted to pay. The artist was terrified of setting a price so high the man would just walk away, but only slightly less terrified of negotiating himself out of a potential windfall. It felt mentally paralyzing.
Davis also realized that this sale could be his entrance, while not to fame exactly, to the kind of respect and recognition among the cognoscenti that he'd long sought. Like all the other local artists he knew, Davis Javits worked every day with one eye on a future break, the one sale or one exhibition or one review or one mention to the right person that could change his years of artistic expression from an all-consuming hobby into something resembling an actual career. If a senior-level-multi-platform marketing executive liked his work, who better to spread the word and promote him? The Suit would be working out of self interest, after all. If Davis Javits became a next big thing, or a thing worthy of any attention, whatever price his first real sale brought would become a bargain in retrospect, and The Suit surely knew that. Davis wouldn't have to exploit the man's connections, because he'd be smart to exploit them himself.
"Let me show you some of my new collection," Davis had said, hoping to give the man a hard sell without being too pushy. He led the visitor from the far wall, where he had been checking out a series of faux tribal masks fashioned from corrugated metal, and brought him to the side housing his most recently repurposed pieces. "Each of these is designed to represent a different perspective on the drudgery of our modern..." Davis began, though he realized the other man was too engrossed in the work itself to listen to his improvised tales of inspiration.
The Suit seemed to like the Calder homage, as he watched each paint can travel its little ovular orbit. He peered deeply at each of the color studies on drywall, taking the most interest in the dark green one, which even Davis felt provided the best variety of textures. As soon as he brought out the wooden cross, though, Davis knew he had a sale. The man's eyes widened, and he examined the cross from every side as Davis explained its postmodern take on theological relevance. When the man had inspected it thoroughly and seemed satisfied, and they'd exchanged their mutual assessment that this was an outstanding work, The Suit asked Davis a question the young artist had never heard in that context before.
"How much?"
Davis knew he should have had an answer at the ready, as nearly half an hour had gone by since he'd realized this man might actually buy something. He knew he had to aim high but be willing to negotiate down, had to let this man know his work was valuable if he was going to let The Suit build his reputation and enrich them both in the process.
A number of numbers raced through Davis Javits's head, but none came readily to his mouth. "What do you think is fair?" was all he found himself capable of saying, while he chastised himself internally. Surely he'd opened himself up to the lowball offer he feared, and provided no recourse for a productive counteroffer. What the man said next, however, surprised him.
"Tell you what. Let me think about it, do a little research, and I'll make you an offer tomorrow. I promise you it'll be fair." The would-be customer took the artist's blank expression as agreement. "Just don't sell that piece to anyone else without giving me a chance to match." The marketing executive shook his hand, with the firm grip of someone used to taking meetings, and exited the gallery. Davis spent the evening in the grip of disappointment, wondering how he'd allowed a potential career-making sale to slip through his paint-caked fingers and drive off in a town car worth more than everything Davis Javits owned.

*          *          *

True to his word, though, the heavyset man came back the next day. Just in case The Suit showed up, Davis spent the morning tidying the room up a bit, sweeping years' worth of sawdust, cobwebs and loose nails and screws into a corner behind a series of hyperbolic Soviet-style propaganda posters he'd painted on drywall in a younger, more active time. He dressed up as best he could with his limited wardrobe, buttoning up a dress shirt he usually wore open over a t-shirt, and slicking his hair back with a part on one side. To give the impression of a business setting, he set up a desk and a pair of office-style chairs — all procured on dumpster runs and not yet repurposed — in the middle of the gallery.
Davis was too nervous to do real work that day, perusing his workshop like a visitor until he heard the expected vehicle pull up next to the old barn. After propping the door open, he sat at the desk in the hope of looking official. The Suit entered the room, carrying the briefcase and plopping down on the empty chair. After brief small talk, the fat man leaned back and said, "So let's talk business. I've brought what I consider a more than fair offer for you, and I'm ready to make the buy today." Davis steeled himself with his best neutral expression, prepared to reject the presumably lowball first offer. Then he heard, "One-point-two-five million."
Now it was his turn to ask, "How much?"
"One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," the man said, betraying a smile at the artist's obvious shock. That was the point when he'd removed the bonds from his briefcase and handed them to Davis. "That's the offer. Take it or leave it."
"Yes, um, definitely. That sounds... Well, that sounds amazing," Davis said after his long silence, looking at the pile of bonds in his hand. Even in denominations of ten-thousand dollars, the bonds made a heavy block, with a palpable sense of how much money they were worth. Not only had Davis never seen that kind of money — after all, most people never had — but he'd never expected to even know someone who'd seen so much. All he had to do now was cash the bonds in, and he'd be the richest person he'd ever known.
Well, more like the second richest, after the man handing the money to him.
"Thank you so much," Davis said, instantly forgetting any pretense of trying to bid up the offer. "I hope you enjoy the piece. You've made an excellent choice."
"Just so we're clear, that offer is for everything you have here, including the building," the marketing executive said, casting his hand in a loop to indicate the entire gallery. "You didn't really think I was going to give you that much money just for the one piece? That's more money than you'll ever need."
This gave Davis pause. The Suit was right that the bonds he now held were more than ample for the rest of his life. It was an incredible amount of money to a man used to subsisting on fast food and cold-cut sandwiches, but it would also mean giving up more than five hundred works of art. Admittedly, many of them were subpar efforts he just completed for the sake of completion, and the field house had gotten uncomfortably cramped from the sheer quantity of work. It was still a lot to walk away from. But it was also a lot of money.
"Are you sure you don't want to just pick all the pieces you want?" Davis asked. "Otherwise, what am I going to sell? What if one of the pieces I sell you generates demand?" A phrase he'd heard a more business-oriented contemporary use once, and which he thought sounded apt.
"Oh, you can't sell any more art. This is it. The pieces only become valuable if you're dead."
A chill struck Davis, who stared at the marketing executive's right hand, and noticed it was in his suit pocket. Realizing where the artist's eyes were focused, the heavyset man laughed and withdrew his hand. "No, no, nothing like that. I just meant the work has to be the product of an artist everyone thinks is dead if it's going to justify the money I'm spending on it. Think of it as an elaborate marketing strategy."
"What I am supposed to do? People will see me around. Plus I have to get a new place to live if you want this one; whatever I rent or buy will be in my name." Davis had never before told a relative stranger that he lived in his workspace, but figured there was no reason to be coy about it now.
"You just leave the country, change your name, start a whole new life. This is no way to go on, after all. You just start over, build a better life for yourself. Then once we wait enough time, I present your art to the public as the work of a great lost genius. If it works, I can make you one of the most famous found-object artists of the century. But it only works if I come up with the right backstory. Ideally something with a tragic death, something noble. Maybe saving someone from drowning or a fire, the kind of heroic story people will remember. I promise I'll think of something with the right impact. I'm usually pretty good at this sort of thing."
Davis protested briefly, explaining that he didn't have a passport, had never traveled abroad, and didn't know how to speak any foreign languages except a bit of conversational Spanish he'd picked up in high school. The Suit countered, not unreasonably, that more than a million dollars in cash would solve all those problems rather easily.
The more Davis Javits thought about it, the better the proposed arrangement seemed. Really, nothing was keeping him there. His parents were long dead back in Arkansas. He had a grandmother alive somewhere in Oregon or Washington, but they'd lost touch years earlier. He never had a real romantic relationship, just a series of inebriated hookups with women he would probably never see again. His few friends were really just acquaintances, other struggling artists who met at bars from time to time to punish their livers and vent their spleens about the success of presumed hacks younger than all of them — and he knew most of them would regard him as just such a hack now that he'd made an unexpected and lucrative sale.
Besides, he'd always heard Argentina was nice this, or any, time of year. He shook the man's hand, promised to move to Buenos Aires in the next two or three weeks, and agreed to send a blank, telltale postcard to the marketing executive as soon as he was set up abroad. Davis wisely insisted that he cash in the bonds before turning over the keys to the field house, but the money proved genuine. Once enough time had passed, The Suit assured him, his work would be presented to the world, and his genius would finally be known. Now a financial success, he would soon also become a critical one.

*          *          *

Jeremiah David, as the artist chose to rechristen himself once safely moved into a beautiful Argentine villa with a panoramic view of the South Atlantic, did in fact have enough money to last the rest of his life. Between the favorable exchange rate in his new homeland and a comfort with inexpensive living honed by years of experience as a struggling artist, he never had to work another day. Sure, art was still part of his life, something he dabbled in from time to time. But without the same driving hunger, it became just a hobby to his mind, as it had always been to his pocketbook. After working nearly every day of his adulthood, he took a few months off immediately after his move to handle necessary tasks like finding a home, getting his accounts set up, buying an all-terrain vehicle, and teaching himself the language. In the process, he discovered he didn't miss his old schedule all that much, and spent another few weeks seeing the country, traveling around the pampas and checking out the attractions of several cities. When he decided to try his hand at art again, it was more out of boredom and a fear of his skill atrophying than any real need to work.
Strangely, the lack of ambition actually made his art... better. Nothing that would ever hang in a modern gallery or fetch an inflated price at auction, certainly nothing that would have impressed his found-art colleagues back in the States. But with the exception of one marketing executive and himself, nothing he created impressed anyone that much in the first place. His work in Argentina was less pretentious, more practical and accessible, applying his limited talent to pieces that had everyday uses.
He soon wound up making mobiles for the newborns in his new neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, applying his old technique but with recognizable shapes of animals and toys instead of repurposed rusty cans. New friends often received gifts of unusually shaped, but sturdy, furniture from the American who lived in the villa, and who spent many a Sunday afternoon leading outdoor workshops on carpentry or painting for as many local teenagers as cared to attend. Because of his comfortable but modest lifestyle, and his continued lax approach to his dress and presentation, few of the people Jeremiah David met understood just how wealthy he'd become.
His only obvious vice was the Internet alerts. Just hours before he left America, Davis Javits had sat in an airport lounge with the thin laptop purchased with his newfound wealth, making sure every search engine would let him know anytime the name Davis Javits made news. With his disappearance preventing meaningful contact with anyone stateside, he figured it would be the best way to find out when he became the posthumous star of the found-object universe.
In the first few years of his new life, he checked those alerts obsessively, searching for his old moniker almost any time he went online, then less so as time went along. Within three years, the alerts had been forgotten, though they stayed in place as an afterthought. There was simply never any news to report, and Jeremiah David — or, as he eventually learned to pronounce it, "Heremiah Daveed" — had stopped actively seeking such information.

*          *          *

Because The Suit had pegged Davis Javits as a street person that first time he'd seen him rummaging around the dumpster, he thought it would be easy to locate him again. While he never interacted with them, he recognized that most of the homeless people he passed on his way to and from work were consistent faces, and had kept an eye out for the thin, bearded young man. Failing to find his target and getting desperate, he started inconspicuously checking other alleys and dumpsters for signs of him.
When he came across him at another dump site a few days later, he followed Davis home. Upon discovering that the forager was an artist looking for material, The Suit began to form some ideas about how to shield his real objective, and his sharp marketing instincts generated a perfect solution. He had correctly assumed that the untrained eye of Davis Javits wouldn't recognize the eighty million dollars’ worth of uncut jewels The Suit had hidden in a paper bag inside an inconspicuous old table in the building's storage room. When he realized the maintenance crew had unexpectedly removed the table that morning, he wrongly assumed it would be left alone in the dumpster for a few hours on a non-pickup day — though he checked the window constantly to be sure, planning to retrieve it the instant nobody was watching. Once in the field house, the relieved marketing executive spotted the gems instantly on the huge wooden cross, and began to devise an offer that would guarantee both the return of his merchandise and the artist's silence. He knew he had to pick an overwhelming amount of money, a total he could spare that would be enough to buy off the artist, instantly and for good, and knew the old canard about fame only after death would be an equally effective motivator.
He had used the posthumous success line before in his dealings with creative types, and always wondered why they fell for it so often. He knew that Van Gogh had died penniless and unknown, and had earned his recognition only after that point, and figured that was where the trope came from. But while no expert, he also knew enough about art to know the Van Gogh story was a big exception, no matter how often it was noted. He knew Goya had been the court painter of Spanish royals, that Michelangelo's patrons showered him in riches, that Degas was the son of a rich banker who never wanted for money. All he could figure was that it made a handy crutch for the unsuccessful, a built-in excuse for their failures that doubled as a reason to keep going. It didn't matter that it was untrue. After all, he reasoned, lemmings didn't really commit suicide, and ostriches didn't hide their heads in the sand.
Not only did his deal with Davis Javits allow The Suit to reclaim the reward of one less-than-legitimate side project, it also laundered the dubious income he acquired through another. Even before he confirmed Davis had cashed in the bonds and left the country, the fat man had meticulously removed each jewel from the cross with one of the artist's leftover screwdrivers, careful not to scrape them in the process. He made sure to stay in his job and keep his wealth well hidden for a few years to avoid any suspicion, before making his own move to a penthouse suite in New York. He took one of the paint-can mobiles with him, both because he'd legitimately admired it on the first visit to the field house and because it served as a constant reminder of his greatest marketing triumph.

*          *          *

Most of Davis Javits's old art stayed in the field house where he'd worked for so long, with the obvious exception of the diamond-encrusted cross. The Suit had left the sign advertising the gallery out front, though the chasing lights from the old calliope eventually ceased working. Even with the gallery essentially abandoned and the door left wide open, somehow fewer visitors than before bothered to see what the sign was advertising — though the occasional squatter would use the locker room to avoid the worst of the winter snow, and local teenagers sometimes stole leftover supplies or tagged the side of the old barn with spray paint. After it had sat vacant for a couple of years, the local government used eminent domain to claim the barn and the land it sat on as part of an incorporation plan, giving the former marketing executive a generous tax break in the process.
After a few more years of inactivity, the newly formed city razed the old field house to build a state-of-the-art, booster-funded football field for the nearby high school. In the days before the demolition, crews of workmen went through what had been Davis Javits's old gallery, perusing his life's work and checking to see if there was anything of value worth saving. Some of the artwork wound up repurposed, broken down into pieces to serve as building materials, scrap metal, or firewood. A lot more of it wound up right back in dumpsters.









*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

I often collect possible titles for future stories, and sometimes I’ll just select a title from that list and start writing whatever it evokes. This story started out that way. For “The Business of Art,” I first came up with the main character, this outsider artist with no sense of how to place a value on the work he does, and the story’s central dilemma came from that.

*****

ABOUT JEFF FLEISCHER


Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in publications including the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row literary journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket Third Coast Review, Pioneertown, Crossborder Journal, Zoetic Press Non-Binary Review, Chicago Literati, and Indiana Voice Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including ROCKIN' THE BOAT: 50 ICONIC REVOLUTIONARIES (Zest Books, 2015), VOTES OF CONFIDENCE: A YOUNG PERSON'S GUIDE TO AMERICAN ELECTIONS (Zest Books, 2016), and THE LATEST CRAZE: A SHORT HISTORY OF MASS HYSTERIAS (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

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