Photo Credit: Chicago Artist Coalition and Nathaniel Paul Joseph
“I made sixteen thousand dollars last year,” I told the guy sitting next to me.
“Sixteen thousand? Jesus,” he replied. He had claimed to be a financial lawyer with an apartment in River North. “That’s what I clear on my Amex bill every month.”
There’s a profound discomfort that comes from interacting with people who can sneeze out your yearly income without notice. We were both sitting at the bar–that great equalizer–at Vera; I was nursing a beer, and he had already drunk enough $11 cocktails to be wobbling in his seat a little. I was killing time before heading to Starving Artist, a fundraising extravaganza put on by the Chicago Artist’s Coalition. Starving Artist funds go to support local artists through the CAC; ticket sales directly feed into its Maker Grant.
Artists need funding, and patronage is a system with deep historical roots. Much as my inner anarcho-syndicalist wishes that all artists could live solely by the fruit of their labor, I can’t literally eat my words. Artists need more than black coffee, frozen burritos and 3am inspiration to survive. We wouldn’t have Beethoven’s symphonies or the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of the rich and powerful.
An interesting note about Renaissance-era patronage: to give money to an artist was considered a way of spiritually cleansing funds that had been gotten through usury or loaning out money at interest. Funneling such ill-gotten gains into the arts was a way of making things right with a god that explicitly disapproved of money-lending.
Money, art and food — the three are intractable, and yet meditating on the ways that they interact can make folks uncomfortable. We creative types like to believe that our creations are somehow above the mundane world, tapping into something eternal and vast, things that deserve proper noun status like Beauty or Spirit or Universe. There’s a tendency, especially when you’re a young idealist living off student loans in crappy apartments, to believe that poverty ennobles your creative endeavors. Blame the Ascetics and Cynics on this one. Materialism is a game with no winners, but poverty still blows.
I wasn’t thinking about this while talking with the financial lawyer at Vera, though. I was mostly wondering how the hell someone spent $16,000 in a month.
This confusion lingered at Starving Artist, which was, indeed, an extravaganza, a multi-sensory experience that reminded me of a Burner party without the free-flowing hallucinogens. It’s an amazing idea: chefs and artists collaborating to create installations of experiential food art. The line-up of talent was impressive, representing some of Chicago’s best and brightest.
Cheerleaders announced the entrance of each dish: Hennessy popsicles, olive poached salmon, seared scallops with roast beet gel and squid ink vinaigrette. Fabio Viviani provided some of the best gnocchi I’d ever shoveled into my mouth, topping it with small squares of perfectly cooked pancetta, smoky and creamy. Abraham Conlon provided another mind-blowing creation, an insane combination of flavors and textures that is hard to verbally recreate: creamed cauliflower and mushrooms with strawberries, salmon roe and fried fish.
Chrissy Camba of Bar Pastoral collaborated with designers Blandon Conner & Aaron Pahmier to create a beautiful room that was set aside from the main action of the party, with a long table made of a split tree, lit by hanging lamps made of skinny copper tubes. The table was spread with pork rillettes and cherry macarons. Andrea Morris created a sort of lunar cave with tinfoil stalagmites, speared with tiny circles of marshmallows impaled on toothpicks. Adrienne Lo of Mama’s Nuts and Lesley Jackson had created a pop-up landscape that evoked a field of prairie grass, with nuts and microgreens packaged into pages torn from a book of Wendell Berry’s essays. I grazed while eavesdropping on conversations around me.
As I did, my discomfort came back. Or maybe discomfort is the wrong word. A lack of comprehension, a vague sense of cultural shock. People were talking about dog walking services and their second homes, spa retreats and spinning classes. I perused the listings of the silent auction, looking at the vintage Chanel bags on display that cost a month’s rent at my apartment. I became overly aware of my clothes, my scuffed Doc Martens and the jeans that were stained with bike grease. I thought again of the financial lawyer in Vera, he of the massive Amex bill, who claimed to have three cars and went skiing all over the country.
In his essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace gets paid by Harper’s magazine to go on a cruise. In an atmosphere of professional-grade joviality, he’s miserable, despairing and wretched. In Starving Artist’s atmosphere of catered creativity, I felt oddly uninspired. There were half a dozen bars offering free beer, wine, booze and water. There was amazing food and art from the bright stars of Chicago’s art and food scenes. There was a fancy taco competition between Big Star and Antique Taco. Astrowifey was painting amazing designs on people’s nails. A woman on an acoustic guitar was wailing Patsy Cline covers. Why couldn’t I enjoy it? Was I too sober, too drunk? Was it PMS? Was I a self-righteous cynical hipster? Did I have too much baggage from childhood poverty, from spending my formative years in Puritan-influenced New England, from long-association with anarcho-socialist creators, from a spartan post-college life that eschewed many luxuries?
But what is luxury anyway? I cringe at the idea of spending $60 on a pair of jeans, but have dropped that much and more on dinner or a night out. Air conditioning seemed prohibitively expensive, but I spent $800 on a half-sleeve tattoo last summer. It’s a matter of perspective. At Starving Artist, the dissonance between the party scene and the art was disconcerting; money and creativity, the mundane and the transcendent colliding. I took a moment to breathe at Astrowifey’s table, getting my nails painted while looking at Nicholas Sagan’s prints and photos of the night sky, distant stars appearing as soft points of light on the dark background. Perspective, I reminded myself.
In Vera, the rich guy had asked me, “How do you live on $16,000 a year?” I told him I spent money on books, food and booze, and not much else. He bought me a second drink, toasting to living within our means, whatever they were.
Right before Nate (my date for the evening) and I headed over to Starving Artist, the lawyer stepped outside for a cigarette. Almost immediately, a police car pulled up and arrested him, handcuffing him and putting him in the back. “Apparently, he rang up a huge bill at another restaurant, left a hundred dollar bill, and then stole a waitress’s phone,” the bartender told me. Presumably, he hadn’t paid his bill at Vera either.
“What an asshole,” I said, and finished the beer he’d bought me.