I’ve been waiting all this time on the wrong platform and the train just sped by in the wrong direction. The first drops of rain are falling now and I see a taxi idling under the tracks. The driver is an older man in a baby-blue suit and he wants to talk.
What do you think, he asks me, of art painted by elephants? If you’re asking if I think it could be beautiful, I tell him, then I think it could, even if the elephant had no intention of making something beautiful. But if you’re asking if abstract art isn’t really art because it could be made by animals or children, then that’s another question. What did you study in college? he asks. He studied architecture, but there wasn’t any work for him when he graduated, with debt. And that’s how he became a taxi driver. It’s good work, he tells me, in that it pays the bills.
Do you think it’s wrong, he asks, to make your living teaching something that won’t earn your students a living? No, I say. And then I pause over why. The service I’m doing for my students, I tell him, is teaching them how to find value in something that isn’t widely valued. And I think it’s a gift to give another person permission to do something worthless.
But I’m aware that what makes my job a “good” job is that I work at an elite university, where my pay is relatively high and my teaching load is relatively low and my students are already well educated. Many of them are also already rich. And if they aren’t rich, they’re likely to leave with debt. Debt that, yes, can’t be paid off with anything I teach.
I’ve just been to a talk by the author of Debt to Society: Accounting for Life under Capitalism. After the talk, a woman in the audience said that it wasn’t clear to her how her value to the university was determined—was it in the number of students she taught, or how much they learned, or what kind of work she prepared them to do? None of the above, I thought. Our value as teachers is determined the same way the value of any commodity is determined, by the market. The surest way to get a raise is not to work harder or teach more students, but to be offered a better job at another university. This is how I came to make $20,000 more than John, working the same hours in the same position, teaching the same subject. I don’t believe my work to be worth more than his, nor do I believe it to be worth less than the work of the professors who make over twice what I make. There is no system of accounting here that I want to internalize. In the final tabulation, what I value—the practice of art, the cultivation of care—doesn’t even appear on the ledger, inside or outside the university. Art is freeing in this sense, in that it’s unaccountable.
There’s a poem by June Jordan, “Free Flight,” where she writes about finding herself awake at night, hungry for something she doesn’t have, making a list of things to do that starts with toilet paper. Then she asks, is this poem on my list? Followed by, light bulbs lemons envelopes ballpoint refill / post office and zucchini / oranges no / it’s not.
Every year, I’m required to fill out a form for the university that lists my contributions and accomplishments. polish shoes file nails coordinate tops and bottoms / lipstick control no / screaming I’m bored because / this is whoring away the hours of god’s creation. I list the classes I’ve taught, the theses I’ve mentored, the committees I’ve served on, the essays I’ve published, the talks and lectures I’ve delivered. But is this poem on my list? What I want to report is that I’ve done absolutely nothing of value and that is my accomplishment.
Finally, I ask the driver what he thinks. He says, I think it’s wrong.
I don’t believe that you think what you do is worthless, my sister says. I don’t. I just mean financially worthless. Writing poetry doesn’t usually produce money, for most people. Free verse is doubly free, in that it is unfettered by meter and it has no market value. I can pass as a writer who is not a poet, and my writing sometimes has market value, but it has never paid the rent. The money I earn from writing is unpredictable, more like an occasional windfall than a salary. But I don’t measure the worth of my work in dollars. You should clarify that, my sister says. Is it too scary? she asks. She’s not talking to me, she’s talking to her son, who is watching James and the Giant Peach.
EAT A PEACH was the slogan John wrote for a banner that hung above a table of peaches in the local food co-op of the town where we met. He did marketing for the co-op until he quit to work on his writing. It’s an Allman Brothers album, John explained when I laughed. I still think it’s funny. Not just the slogan, hanging above a pile of ripe peaches, but the very idea of marketing peaches, which the slogan seemed to mock. Aren’t peaches their own advertisement?
“The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication,” Cyril Connolly writes. “And that is why so many bad artists are unable to live without it.” The value of what I do is that it makes me feel alive, I tell my sister. Even more than alive. She isn’t satisfied with this. Art has value for people who aren’t artists, she insists, you should explain that value. Is it too scary? she asks again.
I think it’s inherently scary, I say, being inside the pit of a peach, rolling along, not knowing where you’re going, getting carried across the ocean by birds. It’s a life marked by uncertainty and absurdity, the life of an artist. Maybe the value of art, to artists and everyone else, is that it upends other value systems. Art unmakes the world made by work.
Do I dare to eat a peach? asks J. Alfred Prufrock in his love song. Do I dare to eat a peach, he asks, after indecisions and revisions, after toast and tea, after a life measured out in coffee spoons, and after having already asked, Do I dare / Disturb the universe?
Women shouldn’t have to work for nothing, I tell my sister, and neither should artists, but I feel the way some women once felt about the Wages for Housework movement—if I were paid wages for the work of making art, then everything I do would be monetized, everything I do would be subject to the logic of this economy. And if art became my job, I’m afraid that would disturb my universe. I would have nothing unaccountable left in my life, nothing worthless, except for my child.
My sister’s son is shrieking now. She says, It’s too scary!
I’m considering adding up everything I’ve ever been paid for writing, starting with thirty-five dollars for a poem published twenty years ago. After some hours spent sifting through all my check stubs and tax returns and royalty statements, I could know for sure if the amount I’ve just been offered for one book is, as I suspect, more than the total of what I’ve earned for all my writing over the past twenty years. But then, if I added it all up, I’d have to wonder what I did with that money.
Marx was once promised 3,000 francs for a book. That was more than twice the annual salary of an average worker at the time. He asked to be paid 1,500 francs up front, but then he didn’t finish the book and couldn’t return the money, which he had already spent. Marx made some calculations by hand on the back of that book contract, calculations that are reproduced on a postcard Mara sent to me. She signed only “M,” and I momentarily wondered if the postcard was from Marx, sent from his grave. His math was messy, and the caption noted that “history’s greatest economic theorist appears to have turned to schoolboy division and addition in order to understand the finances of the agreement. Perhaps in frustration, he seems to have finally resorted to tally marks when his other calculations went awry.”
Income’s Outcome is a project that began when the artist Danica Phelps made drawings of everything she did with the money in her bank account until that balance was spent down to zero. She drew her son putting a coin into a parking meter, her hands opening bills, boots on her feet, a scooter, her son pushing a grocery cart. When she sold each one of those drawings, she recorded the income and drew everything she did with that money. The drawings are full of bodies, rendered in long liquid lines, overlapping in embrace, and hands holding things, cookies and eggs and apples. “Each time a batch of drawings is sold,” she says of the project, “it creates a window into my life where I draw what I spend money on until that money is gone and then the window closes.”
Her art is an accounting. When a drawing sells, she records the income by painting a green stripe, a tally mark, for every dollar. Money spent is painted in red stripes. Credit is gray, as it occupies the gray area between earnings and expenses.
In 2012, she exhibited a series of twenty-five plywood panels covered in 350,000 red gouache stripes for the $350,000 she lost in the foreclosure of the home she had shared with another woman, her former lover. The Cost of Love was the title of this work, which included words drawn from a housing court ruling: “animosity,” “eviction,” “mortgage.” When she bought the home, she hired assistants to help her paint the 627,000 gray stripes that represented the loan of $627,000. But when it foreclosed, she painted every red stripe herself, which took five months. “It’s like letting go of the house, every single penny of it,” she told a reporter. “And once I’ve painted it, it’s gone.”
Not all the drawings she made for Income’s Outcome were good, in her opinion, but she had to keep them all because they were part of the financial record, which was also the body of work. And so she priced them according to how much she valued them as works of art. “When I started showing my work, I put the price right on the drawing,” she said. “In my first exhibition, there were pieces ranging from $7 to $1,600, based on how much I liked the drawing.” The determination of the price, as one gallery noted, was her “final aesthetic decision.”
How much a work of art is worth is usually determined by the market, not the artist. As Barbara Bourland explains, “Market prices can be set with no money exchanged and no tax obligation: one dealer has a Warhol for sale, previous sale at, let’s say, $1 million. He sets the auction minimum at $10 million; dealer two buys it for $10 million. The record of value is set. At the same time, dealer two sells a similar work, from the same period, in a private sale to dealer number one, for the record-set price of $10 million. The net change is $0, but they have created, for the public record, a $10 million value for each painting.”
Art, in this exchange, is a vehicle for market manipulation, a form of insider trading. Money for nothing. The value of Phelps’s art, as she sees it, is inscribed on the art itself, art that illustrates what is done with money paid for art. Her work is both a rebuke of the art market and an acquiescence to that market. Because, as one dealer puts it, “there would be no drawing without the collector act of buying.”
“As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people,” William Faulkner wrote in his resignation from his job as postmaster. “But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”
His resignation had the ring of rebellion, but it was a sad surrender to the system. Faulkner was postmaster at the University of Mississippi, where he had dropped out of college. He was in his twenties then and a friend had gotten him the job. Faulkner was asked for his resignation after an inspector discovered that he was writing a book in the back of the post office while people waited out front. He was also throwing mail in the trash. Faulkner went on to work the night shift in the power plant at the university. There wasn’t much work to do between midnight and 4 A.M., so he used an overturned wheelbarrow as a desk. And that’s where he wrote As I Lay Dying.
I was fired from a job once, in my twenties. The job was waitressing in an Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue. All the other waiters were men, so I knew I was out of my league. I had never waitressed, but I told the manager that I had worked in a diner one summer. That seemed somewhere between the truth and what he wanted to hear. He looked at me closely and asked where my people came from. Poland, I said, which was partly true. He was Polish, too, and he wanted to know what my father, who he assumed was an immigrant, did for a living. My father, a doctor, was born in upstate New York, where his Polish grandparents were farmers. He was a farmer, I lied. What kind of farmer? I thought of the woods around my father’s house, woods where mushrooms grew on rotting logs. I was the daughter of a Polish mushroom farmer. Could I speak any Polish? Just one phrase, which my grandmother had often spoken to me as a child: Kiss me, I’m begging you.
That got me the job, but I was not a good waitress. By the third day I had already been demoted to taking drink orders and serving coffee. By the fourth day, only coffee. On the fifth day, I caused an accident with the espresso machine and spilled coffee all over the manager’s white shirt. The chef handed me a twenty-dollar bill, because in New York waitresses don’t earn anything for their first week of work. He didn’t want to see me sent away with nothing.
I was fired, but the manager still felt responsible for me. He couldn’t put a poor farmer’s daughter out on the street. So he brought me to the Museum of Modern Art. He knew someone at the restaurant there who would hire me as a hostess, which he assured me required nothing more than a pretty face.
Several higher-ranking hostesses at the restaurant were not happy about my hire. They huddled together while I stood to the side, studying the seating chart. After a week or two, the top hostess came over to discuss the problem with me. I needed to wear some makeup, lipstick at least. And I had to shave my legs. They had standards, she said. My other choice was to be sent downstairs, where I would sit behind the information desk.
The job downstairs paid $5.15 per hour and it didn’t come with one free meal per shift like the job upstairs. But I didn’t mind because I could spend most of my time reading. And what I read at the information desk, having been demoted to doing what I really wanted to do, was As I Lay Dying.
Eula Biss is the author of four books, including the New York Times best seller On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the ten best books of 2014 by The New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, The Believer, and elsewhere, and has been supported by an NEA Literature Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
From Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Eula Biss.