Money. There’s never enough of it. For most of my life I was the starving artist, and then suddenly I wasn’t, but I still somehow never had enough. There was always something new to make you hungry. Like the bard said, ‘Mo’ money mo’ problems.’
After I’d started looking into digital art, NFTs, I got a little bit… not obsessed, but interested. Invested might be the word I’m looking for, so many people doing amazing work. Many more people than that are making a (literal) mint with 8-bit-trading-card-looking bullshit. Not going to single anyone out here, don’t want to come across as a bully, but some of it is… yeah. It confused me to see the vast sums of money changing hands on the blockchain. I’d not been so excited and disgusted since I was a kid at the 7-11 dessert buffet. Which is to say, I wanted in.
Also, for the first time in a long time, I wanted to create something. To contribute my own little viewpoint on the world of NFT collectables. A sort of homage to one of my favourite artists, Andres Serrano.
I made a little something. I wanted anonymity, so dusted off my pseudonym Basis Coppola (an anagram of Pablo Picasso, don’t judge me, I got on social media right in the middle of the most earnest part of art school). Set up a Twitter alt and designed a bit-art collection. I won’t tell you what it’s called. It’s not important here, a lot has happened since, but it’s still out there, doing its thing. Not exactly what I wanted it to do, but I suppose I wanted to dip my toe in. That led to the next thing, and the next and well… anyway.
There’s something else I should mention; The Girlfriend is gone. She was upset when she found out about the little NFT art project I’d created, which I didn’t think was entirely fair. Sure, I used a little of our savings (mainly hers, admittedly) to get it off the ground, but you can’t make money without spending money. I tried to explain that to her, but it only made her angrier.
Anyway, that’s not why she left, at least not the main reason. We broke up, oddly enough, over Ben. Who, of all the strapping young bucks I would have thought might threaten my (admittedly tenuous) relationship, I didn’t see as one of them. He was:
A) Not a sexy man.
B) Not alive.
Anyway. A few days after Ben’s dramatic exit, The Girlfriend and I were sitting in front of the TV, ladling Pad Thai into our mouths from takeaway containers. When she reached across for the remote, muted the television, and turned to me.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘What you said before about your friend?’
‘How’s that?’ I wasn’t really paying attention. I was noodling about with the laptop open, trying to figure out how to mint an NFT and get it to market, still buzzing from the compliment The Boss had given the artwork.
‘That thing you said about him being a Star Trek character,’ she frowned.
‘That was kind of messed up. It was actually a really mean thing to say.’
‘It was a joke.’
‘Then it was a terrible joke.’
I didn’t think it was terrible. Or rather, I did think it was terrible, but I didn’t think it was so terrible as The Girlfriend did. Or, to be more accurate, she thought it was terrible that I wasn’t more upset by the whole thing and thought she would intervene by making me upset.
She wanted, as is the way of things, to talk. Which inevitability, given my reluctance to talk, turned into her yelling at me.
So, fast forward a little bit, and we had broken up. It happened the way it does, which is not the way it does in literature, where there is a dramatic confrontation and then she disappears out the door. Leaving her perfume in the air and a wisp of cigarette smoke as she slams the front door for the last time. Instead, a drawn out, days long exchange of text messages, a missing toothbrush in the holder next to the bathroom mirror, a great deal of stalking on social media.
Why did she leave? To paraphrase, in no particular order:
• It was ‘messed up’ that I wasn’t upset about Ben.
• It was ‘even worse’ that I got annoyed at her getting upset about it.
• I had no ambition.
• I was bitter because what little ambition I had, had been wasted while I spent my life complaining about other people’s success.
• I was a talentless hack.
• I was a narcissist.
That second to-to-last one was the one that stung. When someone is walking out the door and wants to get a barb into you. There’s always one of them that gets under your skin. I’m not a hack. Or at least, I wasn’t. In any case, I’m not a narcissist.
Even if I was, that was fine by me. At least narcissists are interesting. One of the finest paintings in history was of a narcissist by a narcissist. Caravaggio killed a man over a tennis match. He would seduce boys, break their hearts, paint them, and then throw them away like a Turpentine soaked rag. By all accounts, a 24-carat piece of shit was our man Caravaggio, but also a genius.
So, he was a monster, but he also painted The Narcissus. Caravaggio’s Narcissus At The Source. My God. It would take another 500 years and the birth of Kurt Cobain (not even a painter, unless you count that one time with a shotgun) to come close to capturing the bleakness of adolescence looking in the mirror.
A young man kneels by a pool, his eyes locked on those of his reflected image. His arms brace against the edge of the pond and the perfect dark behind him. The only source of illumination falls on his bare knee and shoulder. His arms strain with the effort to hold himself and search out his own face. So that, between him and his reflection, a perfect, unbroken circle of self-absorption.
The boy is isolated by the darkness, by himself, by the reflection of the dark pond. He will be suspended for eternity between the search and the reflection. What he finds in that reflection, we’ll never know. Caravaggio was too much of an edge-lord for easy answers.
It’s a true masterpiece in an oeuvre that creaks under the weight of masterpieces. It’s astonishing. No-one had ever used darkness like that before – it was a work painted with one eye on eternity and one on the looming influence of the Church, who were the only people back then likely to pay money. A painting of a rent-boy was not worth as much as a picture of the Christ. Even if one was used as a model for the other.
The painting needed to be one that would scream for attention in churches and gloomy Roman antechambers lit by flickering candles. It centered the darkness, made a symphony of the night. It was life reflected in a twilight world where all you could perceive were shadows.
How did he do it? Technology, of course. A mirror, hung in his studio just so, that harnessed the light and bent it to his will. The mirror itself made it into the painting as the broken pool of water. How are you meant to paint without a mirror? How are you meant to create art without staring into your reflection for so long that all else falls apart? They weren’t shy of it back then. They knew that art was just an act of –through painting – finding a way to embrace the surface of the pool.
You don’t paint like that unless you have something to say, and he said it all on that canvas.
Isn’t the same true for art? We take everything we are – all we are given, all we can steal – and use it as fuel. Any artist who hasn’t turned every relationship they’ve ever had upside down and shaken it until the change fell out of their pockets like a schoolyard bully has failed. Love affairs, heartbreaks, disappointments, all of it onto the fire; pile it up in the hope it burns hot enough that people will start to notice you, that it’ll keep on burning long after you are gone.
If you’ll forgive me a moment’s cynicism – isn’t that all art is? The totality of your viewpoint, emotional wreckage and training. A product of our experiences in the canon and fashion of the day. Chop it up, turn it over, melt it into a slurry and serve it up like a McNugget. Here it is! Here is my essence! Please, tell me you like it?
My problem with the soul was that – it was all so much plumbing. Put some stuff in, see what comes out. Anyway, I suppose that’s what art is.
I just didn’t have enough time or money to develop properly. The only difference between me and my contemporaries who had made it – growing fat on royalty cheques and thin on party drugs – was luck. We had the same talent, the same education, the same mediums. But they’d had the money and the resources and the connections to the art-world going in.
Picture me on my first day at art school. You can easily imagine me, tall, thin, gangly, sliding into class like a squashed spider, folding my legs in a complicated ballet to fit under the little plastic tables of the teaching studio. Picture those legs in tight black jeans, the black t-shirt, the dyed black hair. The nails of one hand, only one, panted with matte-black polish. Also? Rings; silver and onyx, three of them. It was a look I was trying out back then.
I had been the most pretentious kid in my high school, which did not prepare me for the sheer amount of effort art school takes. The all-day workshops and the long nights spent making work. I got into the course on my portfolio, a modest sort of scholarship. I was good at painting but not overly so, not enough that I didn’t have to work my ass off, which I did and still came away flailing. My peers had some downtime in which to ruin their lives – messy affairs, drugs, bands, but I could find time for nothing except the work.
For that reason, I took all the wrong lessons from art school – spent my time sketching and painting and breaking the world down into concepts. Into cylinders and triangles and learning to sculpt – and no time flirting with professors who were placed to get me representation and gallery space.
So I emerged, gaunt and exhausted, from art school with a sense of triumph and a portfolio of canvases that nobody would ever buy.
Memories of those years play with a ketamine-dream logic. Picture what it’s like for me – I’m lying very still on the sticky carpet of a student share house while the world moves around me in jerky freeze-frame. There I am, lying on the floor listening to Death Cab for Cutie as a parade of friends, lovers, and enemies lie down next to me. Get up, zip about the room, and leave. Ten years pass, the song ends, the sun is up, it’s cold. Nearly everyone has left the party, and of those that remain, I’m the only one without a trust fund.
I was angry with them, certainly. The expensive cosplay as starving bohemians and then growing bored with it all. Decamping to beach houses and real-world jobs, partnering off with architects and other economically appropriate partners, giving up on polyamory and parties and settling into their actual, real lives. But angrier with myself for not paying attention as the world turned around me.
Of course, my friends had been secretly wealthy all along. One only pursues a career in arts if they are mad, stupid, or launched from a cushion of immense privilege. The most successful, it seems, make the hat-trick. Or should that be the triptych? This is a word I learned in art school, which I will never use again after graduation.
Just like that, my youth was gone, never to return, and I do not know with what I was supposed to replace it.
In the end, that was The Girlfriend and the job at the Digital Agency. Because it turns out you can’t build a life without some kind of income.
At some point, I had to grow up, get a job and walk away from the mirror. I’m not bitter. It’s my own fault for not paying attention to how the world worked until it was too late. I would have needed a whole other life to keep going, be that self-absorbed, and become what my rivals went on to be. I was, I admit, brooding, having a proper sulk. My fists clenched in intense contemplation like the boy in Caravaggio’s reflection. And then it struck me.
I did have a mirror. If I could teach the AI anything, I would make it a mirror of myself. I’d teach it what I know – start with the classics, then move on to the modern, then the post-modern and so on and so on. I’d give it everything I had experienced from life – every formative brush with art, every emotion, every heartbreak – and use this knowledge to create artworks.
If it learned to paint better than I did – fantastic, good for it, I hope it made me a million bucks. If it didn’t – well, then I guess I was right all along. Talent isn’t everything – it’s just opportunity.
I opened up the laptop, I went online and found a decent photograph of the Narcissus, and dragged it into the AI’s dropbox. The file disappeared the second it was dropped in, and the laptop whirred briefly while the image was whipped off to the robot’s consciousness.
‘Alright mate,’ I said to the little green light next to the camera, ‘We’re going to make you into a real artist.’ I would give it the whole of art history. Then I would teach it about life. Then we would see.
I couldn’t keep calling it ‘It’ forever. ‘AI’ was naff, and ‘The Robot’ sounded slightly derogatory.
It would need a name. I decided to call it ‘M’, for me. After all, it would be a ‘mini me’, a pocket Max. ‘M’ was also for ‘Money’, which art has been all about for decades now. Also for ‘Mischief’, ‘Mendacity’ and ‘Moralising’. But, mostly for Caravaggio, who changed his name often to avoid the police and his debtors. Who, across the bars and brothels and sports courts of Rome, would be called by his friends as ‘M’.
Anyway, that’s how ‘M’ was born. Wait until you see what it could do.