How to be naïve

Liam Kelsey

About the artist himself I knew very little, except that he was considered to be naïve, anda genius.

“Naïve about what?” asked a journalist.

“It means untrained,” someone said. “Formally.”

The journalist frowned slightly as he digested this information, and sat like that for a long time. The statement seemed to bother him, but he was apparently unable to explain why, and instead remained quiet. We moved down the road in silence. The Hudson swam in and out of view through the passenger windows.

A curator in the front of the van whose name I did not know began to lecture everyone about the artist’s background. He was Polish, she said, and barely literate in English, though he had lived here for almost 30 years, having arrived in New York after the fall of the Soviet Union. “His works are, I would say, a technically uncomplicated and fresh interpretation of the immigrant’s story. This is what the naïve artist provides, a raw and unformed perspective on already extrapolated events, a raw sense of joy, a simple...”

She went on for a long time. People nodded in agreement. It was, I thought, a really stupid, and possibly offensive comment, but I said nothing.

The exhibition was scheduled to take place in and around an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, about an hour from the city. The gallery was paying to shuttle everyone therefrom a bar that the owner ran in the east village. Members of the media, certain prominent members of the art world, and others who did not fit into either category but were deemed sufficiently important, like myself, were transported in a separate vehicle, all together. It was a little euro van. It was hot. My balls were sweaty. This was what I focused on for the duration of the trip.

“You know it used to be,” someone said, “that ‘naïve’ meant untrained, but now there are actually academies, you know, for that sort of thing. For naïve art. It’s become a learned skill, just like everything else. You can get a degree in it.”

This started off an intense and unfocussed debate between three of the attendees, which I was unable to follow. Two of them, I thought, seemed to believe that it was perfectly fine, and perhaps even good, to be able to study, in a traditional setting, an artform whose only defining characteristic was that it was not studied or taught, but simply practiced. The other believed—rightly, I thought—that in fact this was a really dumb thing to do, and kind of absurd, and that “naïve”—if it was a valid distinction at all—would be rendered completely obsolete and meaningless as a term if it was now possible to learn (at a school, no less!) how to be naïve. They went back and forth like that for a long time. I don’t remember what they decided.

Everyone was slightly drunk when we arrived. The gallery had left little shooters in the car that people had been knocking off during the trip, which might have explained, I thought, some of their really idiotic opinions and concerns. Perhaps they were just drunk. We stumbled out of the van like we were walking for the first time, shielding our eyes from the sun.

Our arrival was observed, and noted. People looked over discreetly and whispered, though of course none of that was meant to be discreet. It was all part of the exhibition. We were the intelligentsia. The elite. Our presence lent everything around us an air of complexity, and sophistication. It imbued the event itself with a sense of importance. They admired us, wished to be included in our group, wished to have whatever we had. I stepped outside second to last, and dabbed my face on my shirt. I really, really had to take a shit.

The exhibition was centered on an old farmhouse, though it also extended through to a greenhouse around the back, and the lawn in the front. The property was in a small clearing at the end of a long wooded driveway, accessible by a remote country road. The place was supposed to evoke “the simple bucolic, American existence that the artist hoped and yearned for,” according to a statement by the curator, which was printed onto a large canvas in all capitalletters, hung banner style from the edge of the front porch.

“Apparently,” someone said, “You are all here to see me.”

I turned around to see a tall, muscular man of about 40 standing behind our group. People laughed. He introduced himself as the artist, not giving his name, but simply introducing himself that way: “the artist.” Our group gathered around him in a semicircle, like a Greek amphitheater, as he made jokes, and answered questions. I took the opportunity to, as they say, relieve myself of my burden.

In addition to my relatively cushy—and also, somehow, unbearable—job as an English teacher at the Manhattan Country School in New York City, I was a writer for pretty unpopular(but culturally somewhat significant) news and entertainment blog. Technically, the blog was an “online magazine,” as this was how it billed itself, but it was, even more technically, I thought, a blog, since it had never been published in print, did not really do any serious copy editing, and made absolutely no money. It was through the blog that I was invited to report on the event, even though I had, basically, zero qualifications to do so.

My qualifications to do anything were actually quite minimal. Teaching was pretty much it, and not with a very high level of competency, and certainly not past secondary school. I had a masters degree in Literature from a Midwestern state school, where I had enrolled as a PhD, and dropped out after four semesters. That was it, basically. That was all I had, and to be quite honest the MA degree was, more than anything else, a humiliation. It was a sign that I had failed, that I had fallen short, because indeed I had fallen short, and not for any particular reason, either. I hadn’t dropped out because I had something better to do, really, or because I had any big objections to the program, or to the way things were run. I just sort of stopped doing it. It was a thing I did for a while, and then stopped doing it. That was all. It made me embarrassed to even think about how feckless I was.

The MA didn’t really set me apart from my peers at the Manhattan Country School either, almost all of whom had PhDs, some from very elite institutions. But that wasn’t so bad, really, since in fact most of them had failed even more dramatically than I had myself. They had, after all, gone to school for, like, four more years than I had, and most of them attended far better schools, and yet, in spite of this, we all ended up with the same job. That actually made me feel slightly good, to think about how they had failed by comparison. This was because I was a selfish and conceited person.

The only real bona fide I possessed—my one hard, stone cold accomplishment—was a published collection of short stories. This was something I was still astounded I had even done, in spite of the fact that it had made me no money at all, and attracted almost no attention whatsoever. It was my one real triumph, possibly the only triumph, I thought, of my entire life.

This was not a pleasant thought to have, but it was probably true, so I let it occur to me often. I was pushing 40. Single. Neither over nor under employed. This was it. I was myself. I hated it.

As I was in the bathroom, I tried to think of what I’d be doing today if I weren’t here. Probably smoking weed, I thought, or watching movies, or eating or doing something disgusting. Yep. That was all. I was a really gross person. But at least I wasn’t one of these people, I thought. This was itself a small accomplishment. At least I didn’t hide behind a degree, or fake metropolitan standards. At least I was, in some small way, my own man. I had seen the way things really were, I thought. I had seen—as they had not, I suspected—that all of this was basically just a bullshit charade. None of it mattered. None of it was good. No one really had anything interesting to say.

Still in the bathroom, I decided to text Angelika about this experience, except I couldn’t text her, I realized, because she wasn’t in the country, so I sent an email instead.

Text: “Taking a huge dump! Lol!”

I took a selfie, and attached it to the message.

Angelika was a full professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at the University of Vienna. We met when I was miraculously selected to present at a conference there during one of my four very unremarkable semesters as a scholar of literature, and had stayed in contact ever since She basically thought I was a silly child, which I did not appreciate or agree with, but I felt that I could be myself around her. We met about once a year, usually in the summer, sometimes less often than that.

On occasion, during some very long days of the school year, when my students were being cruel, or overly neglectful, I had long and elaborate daydreams of the life we could have together. An apartment near the university, long afternoons in the coffeehouses, healthy little Austrian-American children with EU passports, etc, etc. I had a deep longing for this, even though I knew, somehow, that it was impossible to accomplish. I sent the email.

After my shit, I wandered back out to the circle of media people, curators, and critics. Everyone, I thought, was slightly drunk. They were fawning over a sculpture. It was a child’s size converse shoe with some graffiti done around it. No one was really commenting on it. I stood there like an idiot for a little while, holding a drink, and listening to their conversation.

Two people—a curator, and either a critic or a journalist, I didn’t know which—were caught in a debate over whether or not the artist, who had left the crowd moments ago, could be considered a genuine outsider, or whether he was in fact a fake. Whether he was a fake naive; a nativism, a maker of pastiche.

“But he has no formal training!”

“He has some formal training.”

They went back and forth like that, and for some reason I had an idea of something important to say. It was a critical idea, I thought. Yes. It was an idea that could show them how wrong and cynical they really were. They were the elite after all! The metropolitans! I had some sort of insight to offer, I thought, which would prove them all wrong! So wrong! When an opportunity arrived I chimed in, but it didn’t land. Everyone just sort of looked at me, and then proceeded with their conversation.

“Hey! I know who you are! You’re that guy!”

A man on the opposite side of the converse shoe sculpture was pointing at me, andgetting kind of excited.

“You’re that writer! I’ve read your book!”

I didn’t say anything, but I nodded.

“Aren’t you from Wisconsin or something?”

“Michigan,” I said.

“Oh.” He paused. “Well what are you doing here?”

“I live here,” I muttered.

I blushed, and looked at my feet. The conversation continued. After a while I left, and walked back toward the farmhouse.

I looked at my phone. No calls, no emails, nothing from Angelika. It was past nine in the evening and the sun was almost set. Strings of 60-watt Edison bulb lights ran all over the porch and front yard. People were happy.

Mixed in amongst the many distinctions between naïve art and primitivism, outsider and not, is the distinction between the provincial, and the metropolitan. The provincial artist, unlike the metropolitan one, has some knowledge of the metropolitan standards, but his knowledge is incomplete, and so he will always strive for, but always fall short of, the base requirements for high art. It wasn’t until then that I realized this was actually who I was. I was not savvy, or competent. I was not edgy, or anti-establishment. I was provincial. I was mediocre.

I stepped into the house, walked through the kitchen, and ducked out through a door. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t want to be there any longer. Somehow I emerged on to the back porch, which did not appear to be part of the exhibition. There were no lights on. It was dusk. Behind the house there was a small hill covered in knee high grass. At the top of the hill, I saw the Polish artist wearing a t-shirt and jeans, playing with a small group of children. He threw the ball down the hill. The children ran after it, retrieved it, and ran it back to the artist. They did this many times, over and over. No one seemed to tire of it. The children were happy. Their shirts were stained with sweat.

Liam Kelsey is a writer from Minneapolis, MN. His fiction has appeared in Silver Needle Press: Volume 2, and his writer interviews in Interlocutor.

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