In this city?
The sign said Omni’s Art Material – For the Artist in Everyone. But everyone was already an artist. The coffeeshop waiters and waitresses were, of course, actors and actresse; and the people they served were all librettists and scenarists, harpists, pointillists, ceramicists, caricaturists, contrapuntalists. The little boys were bladers and jugglers. The little girls all ballerinas (bent over the tables in freckly discussions with their mothers and mentors). Even the babies starred in ads and had agents. And it didn’t stop there. Outside, sculptors wheelbarrowed chunks of rock over painted pavements past busking flautists, and a troupe of clowns performed mime, watched by kibitzers doing an ad lib and impro. And on and an and up and up. Jesters teetered by on ten foot stilts. Divas practiced their scales from tenement windows. The AC installers were installationists. The construction workers were all constructivists.
And for once, Sir Rodney Peel happened to be telling the truth: he was terribly busy. After many soggy years of artistic and sexual failure, in London, SW3 Rodney was now savouring their opposities, in New York. You could still see this failure in the darkened skin around his eyes (stained, scarred, blinded); you could still nose it in his pyjamas, unlaundered for fifteen years (when he got out of bed in the morning he left them leaning against the wall). But America had reinvented him. He had a title, a ponytail, a flowery accent, and a pliant paintbrush. He was an unattached heterosexual in Manhattan: something had to give. And Rodney now knew the panic of answered prayers. Like a bit-part player in a dream, he looked on as his prices kept doubling: all you needed was an aristocratic wag of the head, and a straight face. Under the floorboards of his studio, in brown envelopes, lurked ninety-five thousand dollars: cash. And every afternoon he was climbing into an aromatic bed, speechless, with his ears whistling like seashells.
Rodney still felt that he had a chance of becoming a serious painter. Not a good chance – but a chance. Even he could tell that his artistic universe, after ten months in New York, had undergone drastic contraction. The journey into his own nervous system, the groping after spatial relationships, the trawl for his own talent – all this, for the time being, he had set aside. And now he specialized. He did wives. Wives of wealthy professionals and executives: wives of the lions of Madison Avenue, wives of the heroes of Wall Street. His brush flattered and rejuvenated them, naturally; but this wasn’t especially arduous or even dishonest, because the wives were never first wives: they were second wives, third wives, subsequent wives. They gazed up at him righteously, at slender Sir Rodney in his smudged smock. ‘Perfect,’ he would murmur. ‘No. Yes. That’s quite lovely . . . ‘ One thing sometimes led to another thing; but never to the real thing. Meekly, his lovelife imitated his art. This wife, that wife. Rodney flattered, flirted, fumbled, failed. Then change came. Now, when he worked, his paint coagulated along traditional lines, and conventional curves. In between the sheets, though, Rodney felt the terrible agitation of the innovator.
Martin Amis,1949. The Coincidence of the Arts,1997