A long time ago, as a neophyte, I had a large piece in the Whitney Annual, and I was working the opening crowd vigorously as I had seen my elders do. I tried to move as they did: sulky, circumspect, effecting the sang-froid of a new elite, a costume not of the expressive lunatic, but of the intellectual. I recognized the hip young dealer Klaus Kertess, a tall, lean, dour man; I made my way to him, walking the walk, and introduced myself. As we began to speak, suddenly god and physics deserted me, and I fell down. Stunned, I lay on my back, my face an inch from his wing-tips.
I had been speaking to him with a deference understood by both of us; after all, there were few of him and many of me; I was one of the ten million sperm wiggling mindlessly and furiously to be the one - the One! - to enter that great loamy egg. And suddenly I was on my back. There are no auspicious reasons to be on the floor in a place at which gathers the class for whom uprightness, a stiff spine, is a totem. Dolefully I looked up at him; in that awful suspended moment we regarded one another intimately. To a witness, it would have seemed to be an allegory; The Naked Soul of the Artist Prostrate Before the Regime, a parable of the disempowered, of one's certain sense of insignificance. Had he shown horror, I could have imagined that he saw something of his own worst fears in my dilemma, and that I carried, as the saint does, some essential disquiet of the human spirit for him: in this life, in this moment, I was down and he was up. A good man is down! Let's all help! Or perhaps he might have anticipated that someday he would be down, certainly he would be down in the grave, subject to the contempt of the living, who will look with sober superiority upon his putrefaction. But no; instead he chose to regard me imperiously. I was an untouchable; I was nothing, less than nothing because I had aspired for a moment to Somethinghood, and had fallen on my ass instead: I was a fool. The equation was this: a fool of such great proportions doesn't make art worth looking at. Another sperm, with a wiggle more politic than mine, would take my place.
Only a lumpen with cheap shoes like myself could have ended up on my back as I did. I couldn't have fallen down in front of, say, some artist's father, one of those bewildered souls who wander disoriented through the impenetrable codes of the art world; he would have picked the leper up, dusted him off, and told a little story about when he was made a fool; kiddo, he would have concluded, we all fall down in the end. But I had to fall down in front of a virtual Renaissance prince, with alarming, teutonic-sounding K's in his name instead of C's, I had to feed the perennial self-effacement of Americans when it comes to anything European. And he writes, for chrissake, he's a thinker, he's not just the owner of an art store.
Later at the same opening, a woman of means, wanting what could be had by one like her at a museum opening, asked me (and this is the whole truth), "Are you somebody?" "No," I said, miserably, "I'm nobody, I am anathema, God hates me."
Now listen, brothers and sisters, can't we artists admit to disaster? Can't we? Hasn't enough time gone by? Haven't so many smart people said so? Are we babies? Do we continue to imagine that we're the authors of our work? Isn't it so clear, how things work, how The Good is determined, to whom we are beholden for our self-regard and our daily bread? Can you admit what you feel when you stand before the clever young gallerist with the little round tortoise shell frames? Don't you just want to climb over the little Bauhaus desk and smack him right in the pie-hole? Don't you just want to poke him in the eye with his MOMA collection pen and run into the street shouting? Can you admit that when you stand in front of a collector, when you're trying to arrange your features and your body and your syntax and the goddam part in your hair just right, to imply that you're his kind of man, that you know your cigars and your cuisines and your wines, that you're equal partners on the scene, when you know in your heart of hearts that in this culture of aspiration, in this America, he's got you in his pocket, he's got the goods and you don't, that he wins, no matter that you know what heuristic means, no matter that you might have shown real genius, no matter that you sacrifice your wits and your relationships and your money and your space to make your work, no matter that you've been in denial and rationalized your shame for half a lifetime; you wank your life away trying to figure out how to separate this thief from his lucre. He wins. But: isn't there a little voice that wants to tell him that he must have done something simply awful to end up with the kind of surplus, the glut that buys art, that he wants to buy into the sex of the art world with his chump change, to leech coolness, to be around women who smoke weed and talk dirty? Don't you just want to say, oh, you dyspeptic self-important gas-bag, you bilious hypocrite, you cancer on the commonweal? Don't you just want to pop him one? Pull his hair? Don't you want to waggle a finger in his smug face and say for shame! What have you done!? You give back all that money right now!
Now, I'm not naive, I know that everything is in place to regard me as bitter. I have, after all, like most citizens, lost most contests in my life. I haven't been number one, nor have I been number two. Or number three, or four. And so forth; the world constructs itself in ways I can't fathom. When I was a kid, and the boys in my neighborhood had the inevitable contest to see who had the longest tongue, mine was found wanting. And in this life I didn't get a Guggenheim. The pain of the two losses was identical, do you understand?
So, yes, I'm bitter, and I say, why aren't you? When you felt the first luminous impulse to look deeply into things and tell stories about the world and its subtexts, when you first realized that you saw things in a special way, is this the way you thought it would be? Is it the way you were told it would be? If, for a moment, you accept in loco parentis as a reasonable organizing principle, then mom and dad have turned out to be monsters, cold and mean-spirited and venal; they don't like you any more.
So bitterness is my manifesto. I embrace bitterness as a right way to live. How could it be otherwise? I say, if you're not bitter you're not thinking, if you're bitter, then, compadre, fellow traveler, I salute you. I say, come, come out, let's all be bitter about the grand theft of our good intentions. I'm not just bitter, I'm: