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Dessert Speech


When the director of the arts center asked me to speak to you all tonight, I said sure.

I said I've got a speech on the Top Ten Mistakes People Make when deciding what to do with their life.

And she said, uh, not appropriate for this audience …

So I thought about the audience that'd be here tonight, and what they need, and gosh - I got just the thing. It's a speech that trains you all to have perfect memory recall, so that you'll never have to peek at a nametag again to remember someone's name.

She said no, she didn't need me to give that speech. You sure, I said. I sing in that speech. People want to hear me sing. No we don't she said.

So I have this other speech, I said, that teaches people a breathing technique that gives them the most intense orgasms they've ever had.

She said no, she didn't think the big donors wanted to hear that one.

I was running out of ideas. I suggested I tell you all how I am part of a cabal of 500 international business leaders who meets in Boca Raton to set the price of rice in Jakarta and the price of oil in Arabia and decide who will win the 2008 election in Brazil.

No, she said, she wanted me to give a little reading from my book and to talk about the benefits of community to artists.

Great, I said, I can do that. Maybe.

Talking about community … that's a bit like dancing about architecture, which is like writing about music, which is like swimming about running … you can do it, but it's a challenge to do it artfully.

What makes a group of disparate individuals a community is extremely subtle. A lot of writers tell me, I've got an office with other writers around in their offices, but not a community. A lot of artists tell me they've got a studio in a cooperative, but not a community.

A community begins with a place. A place that, when you walk into it, you want to be there. It's about privacy but not isolation. It's about spontaneous interactions, but not bothersome interruptions. A place that soothes loneliness and triggers conversations that somehow feed positively back into the creative process. Finding such a space is not easy. Little things matter, like the amount of light in an office, or whether the doors are safe to leave open, how big the common spaces are and where the kitchen is located and how that causes people to walk past each other.

And community requires fostering the right attitude. It's an attitude of generosity to each other, not competitiveness. So you feel safe jumping into the hallway and saying, "The Times is running my essay!," without fearing that behind every other door is a writer steaming with envy. So you feel safe offering up the name of your agent, or your gallerist. And you feel safe showing someone the rough draft of that short story that uses a very risky narrative device in its first paragraph.

We do have our eccentricities, one guy puts tape on eyebrows, another guy writes in closet, a third guy brings his dog every day, another guy putts a golf ball up and down the hallways .. okay those are actually the same one guy,… me, actually.

So let me leave you with some parting thoughts. My parting thought is, I'm a big filet of salmon. I'm a filet of salmon because I had some salmon tonight, and because I believe in the old edict, "You are what you eat." Some people think Surgeon General Koop was the author of that memorable line, but it was just one of his speechwriters, who had eaten some beans. Anyway, you are what you eat, and in the same way, you are what you read, what you see, and what you watch. Every piece of art, or page of a book, or paragraph of a speech that you've enjoyed is in you. A little bit. At least for twelve hours.

Now this isn't true in all cases. For instance, if were listening to NPR this week, and suddenly Vice President Dick Cheney came on, your brain has a cluster of neurons behind the left ear that's constantly monitoring all brain inputs, checking for ideological viruses and other bullshit. And so when it hears the first syllables of the Vice President, it wraps the entirety of his words in a sort of mental prophylactic that allows the Vice Presidential message to pass through your brain without being absorbed. Scientists call this cluster of neurons the Fabrication Activation System, and we could call what it does a mental prophylactic, or we could call it a packager of big parentheses, or we could call it a generator of ironic quotation marks.

But I like to name things unequivocably, so I call it the message condom.

It has come to my attention that all of you have had some unsafe contact in the last few years. Your Fabrication Activation System failed to detect the risk, and you neglected to employ the message condom. You know what I'm talking about. Not just JT and Jim Frey or Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair. Maybe you were at an art auction, or a friend's documentary screening, and everyone around you was saying it was great, and so you kinda said it was great too, just to go along, even though there was this voice in you that was whispering "it wasn't great! I think it sucks …." But you went along, thinking, oh, that a little hypocrisy is okay, right?

No. A little hypocrisy is not okay.

And I know how you're handling it. You're promising that you'll always be safe in the future, that you'll never drop your ironic guard, that you'll put parentheses around everything, that you'll never be so stupid as to trust another writer.

But I'm sorry, that's not going to work. If we couch everything in irony, then we turn into the very thing that good art mocks. We become no more real than a plastic Barbie. Ironic detachment is no more a substitute for authenticity than a wild squirrel is a substitute for a pet hamster.

Nope, you need to be cleansed, my friends. To put this spell of unsafe contact behind you, you must perform a proper cleansing ritual. You must be baptized.

Except baptism requires faith in God, and I'm not going to force God on you. A close second to God would be Philip Roth, but he wasn't available tonight.

So you are going to have to cleanse yourself by taking a pilgrimage. You must climb the mountain, my friends. I mean that metaphorically - no need to get sweaty doing this. What you must do is go find something genuinely artful, and when you find it, I want you to bear witness. I want you to tell your friends. I want you to shout about it. I want you to go to the window and stick your head out and yell, "This, this right here is not bullshit!" I want you to leave tonight determined to bring some authenticity back into the world, and you must not give up until you find something worth shouting about.

Now some guidelines: 1. It cannot be Big Love, the new HBO drama. I hear it's good, but that's just too easy. Recommending that to others is no mountain. 2. It cannot be anything you heard about on NPR at the same time as 11 million other people also heard it. 3. It cannot be something you read about in the New Yorker, not even that really good piece on swamp nurses.

Well, geez, that just ruled out about 90% of your options, didn't it?

Let me tell you something, sinners. When we glorify a piece of art not because of what we read on the page, or because of what we see with our eyes - but we glorify it because of something autobiographical about its creator, such as because she looks the way we want our painters to look, or she had the right nonchalant attitude, or because he had a fucked up childhood … and we celebrate an artist not for what they created, but because of who they are … you know we do this, we think suffering is what makes an artist, and therefore we find artists who have suffered and we become enamored - enamored is too soft a word - we worship them, and everything they create … we champion artists because of their artistic temperament … authenticity is the modern elixir, isn't it? Forget heroin, forget pot, forget vodka … the drug of the contemporary arts lover is authenticity, we crave it, we live in a world of plastic Barbies and they only thing that makes this synthetic terrarium of a world seem real again is a shot of authenticity … which is fine, good, except when the authenticity is not in the work, not on the screen or on the page or on the canvas, and we're too confused by what's art anymore and so we use a shortcut, we use a proxy, and our proxy is the artist's personality.

You know what I mean. We claim our own authenticity by saying, in effect, "well, I haven't suffered, but I have this artist friend, and she's suffered, and she's my friend, well, not my friend, but I know her."

Am I getting through your message condom?

If any of you are interested, the price of rice in Jakarta has collapsed. The Minister of Agriculture thinks the ideal price is 3000 rupiah per kilogram, but we told him, 2900 is the target. He didn't like being ordered around, and now there's no deal, and the January harvest has flooded the markets.

And if you're interested in having stronger orgasms and all that stuff, then what you need to do is simple. You need to be having sex with someone you're madly in love with.

And this is my nametag. I doubt you'll ever wonder what my name is again.

Now go, go shout.