Tastemaker: a short story by John Miskelly

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Tess took a moment to establish exactly what she was looking at. There wasn’t any fake blood or prosthetic genitals, or any other kind of noticeable center piece that might have indicated the start of another of Seb’s bizarre installations. Burglary was, of course, a possibility, or a small localized tornado. Whatever the cause, there was no denying the sheer thoroughness of the mess that lay before her.

The floor coverage was total. Not an inch of carpet showed through the blanket of debris that stretched from the front door to the kitchen. The ripped pages of sketch books and magazines made up the bulk of the mass, while the wrecked remains of furniture and various household appliances poked through the carnage like bent and broken trees in the aftermath of a landslide. Canvases of various sizes were soiled, singed, or punched through. She noticed, with regret, that some were originals, either bought for or gifted to Seb by the artists. Even her own work hadn’t  been spared.

She shut the front door, ajar when she’d arrived, and picked her way through the destruction and into the living room. He was sitting against the base of the sofa, the mangled remains of a guitar on his lap, scrunching up individual pieces of irregularly-sized paper and tossing them into a wheelie bin. If he was aware of Tess’s arrival he showed no sign of it, his narrowed and glaring eyes glued to a spot in the near-middle distance.

“Well it’s good to see you’re finally playing that guitar,” she said, stepping over the remains of a smashed turntable and settling down on the sofa.

Seb’s mouth twitched into the merest of smirks. “Do you like my newest piece, Tess? It’s called ‘Destroy Every Fucking Piece of Art in the Whole Entire World.’”

“Was that TV a piece of art then?” she replied, gesturing at the television lying broken in the fireplace.

“‘And Anything Pertaining To or In Any Way Related to Art in any Possible Way.’”

“I see. Well, it’s very expansive. Did you have had to do it in your own house though?”

“You’re always saying my stuff lacks the personal touch.”

Tess reached into the bin and fished out a piece of paper.

“What’re these?”

“Shit from school. Gonna burn it all.”

“In a plastic wheelie bin? This one almost got you suspended, if I recall. Nice shading though.”

He said nothing but continued to feed pages into the bin, one by one, ritualistically.

“I’m going to assume this is about Simon’s…thing,” ventured Tess. “I did say it was…”

“That’s what I get for following my artistic passions, like you always said I should ‘have some integrity.’ Well now I’ll never sell another T-shirt or keyring or slip mat or…bloody… anything again. How’s that for integrity?”

There was a lot Tess could have said in that moment; that this was small payback for the contempt he’d shown to all of them, to her, to the idea of art itself, for reducing the medium to consumer junk. But, for now, she said nothing.

And then the phone rang.

* * *

Seb slid a photo across the table. They were sitting, two months prior to that evening, in a café a strategic equidistance between modish Shoreditch and the acceptable wealth of Highbury and Islington.

“So what am I looking at here?” asked Tess after a moment.

“What do you think you’re looking at?” Seb responded, with that knowing, self-satisfied grin he always wore when he showed his friend his newest work, like a child harbouring a delicious secret.

“It’s a woman…” began Tess.

“Yep.”

“With urinals…”

“Uhuh.”

“…instead of breasts.”

“Correct,” Seb said.

A long pause followed as Tess stared with bemusement at the latest addition to the portfolio of “Britain’s most exciting and challenging young artist” (Elle magazine).

“Have you worked out what it actually means yet?” she said, finally.

“We’re working on that; the press guys I mean. A line’s going out to the usual lot by tomorrow night. The urinals are papier-mâché by the way.”

“So are they…can they…be used?”

“I don’t know—maybe you could try them out at the opening? Like that time at uni when you…”

“Yep, okay,” clipped Jess, pushing the photo back across the table. She lifted her coffee cup to her face and fixed her eyes on the inky blackness within.

“We’ve already got some T-shirts printed, and some shower curtains which look pretty cool,” said Seb, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head like a fat, contented stockbroker.

Since their lessons together at school, Tess had always been the first person outside his immediate circle to see his new projects. At first it was for approval; his paintings were sincere back then, and good. Now, though, she suspected these meetings were arranged for no other reason than for him to savor her revulsion at the latest capitalist depths his cynicism had reached, she playing the disproving parent to his goading teenage angst.

Though Tess made a more than decent living through her commissions and exhibition sales, she felt outmodedly staid and idealistic in the face of Seb’s own relentless ambition. “Art by focus group” was one rogue journalist’s unknowingly literal description of Seb’s techniques. In truth, his PR company really did tour the country, almost constantly in fact, doling out free coffee and a sense of validation to anyone whose opinion they thought might be representative of a potential market demographic. Data was correlated and reports written up until Seb had a national census on what exactly the population considered decent; what people’s limits were; which taboos could be bent and which ones broken; what people wouldn’t wear on a T-shirt, but would hang on their living room wall; what could be shown on TV newsreels while still retaining that all important bankable controversy. “An underground niche aesthetic with mass market appeal” was the mission statement, a paradox they had, Tess had to admit, largely accomplished.

More galling was the high-brow art world’s acceptance of Seb’s everyman output, an attempt, Tess suspected, to pre-empt any possible accusations of snobbery on their part. Curators from Williamsburg to Prague fell over themselves to fly the Sebastien Burbank flag, and Tess would regularly read the regurgitated drippings of Seb’s press releases rehashed as reviews in broadsheet newspapers and weekend color supplements. It was debatable whether these hacks knew exactly what type of operation they were promoting—whether they knew about the focus groups, the legions of interns that did the brunt of the work, or the clandestine political campaign tie-ins. But, regardless of ethics, it was a mutually beneficial relationship: Seb got the coverage and the papers got some copy.

“Where’s the installation going?” Tess asked.

“We can’t decide between Stoke and Sunderland, one of those two probably. We want to get it as close to a brothel as possible but we need the local council involved. Don’t know how that’ll go down with them. Or, we could put it in a wealthy place; increases the shock value that way. Basically it doesn’t really matter as long as the journos go where we say to and they swallow the line we feed them.”

“Right. Well, that’s…” Tess trailed off, letting the silence hang for a second, heavy and loaded.

“Don’t know if you saw Tess, but The Telegraph put me in their top twenty tastemakers of the year,” proffered Seb with affected off-handedness.

“I don’t read The Telegraph Seb, neither do you. That’s how I know you’ve been googling yourself.”

“Not me, someone in the office, and anyway it’s business not vanity.”

“So who’s tastes are you making exactly?”

“Just people’s.”

“Twats’. You’re a twatmaker. Well, more like a twat enabler.”

“What’s the difference?”

Tess stared pensively into her cup for a second.

“You bring out people’s inner twat; you give them permission, a vehicle.”

“Don’t twats deserve to be happy too?”

“That assumes you’re making them happy in the true sense, which is completely subjective and thus impossible to prove. But let’s not split semantic twat hairs. I’ve got stuff to do, and you’ve got stuff to tell other people to do.”

“Okay, I need The Northern Line. You going that way?” Seb asked.

“Don’t need the Tube, I’ve got my bike.”

“Of course you do.”

“So good luck with your piss tits, or whatever it’s called.”

The dynamic of these meetings barely changed. On an almost monthly basis Tess would answer her phone to the unmistakable upper-middle class drawl of the embittered art intern.

“Seb wants to meet you. Three pm Thursday, The Victoria, Mornington Crescent. You have his number, yeah?”

There was rarely time to answer before the dial tone kicked in.

But, there was something immediately different about Seb during their following meeting, in a stuffy basement corner of The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. He was flustered and fidgety, and there was none of the cocky conceit he usually held himself with. It had been years since Tess had seen him exhibit such unguarded, uninhibited enthusiasm.

“Okay, so this time I really don’t know what I’m looking at,” said Tess, staring down at yet another photo.

“Whaddya mean? It’s right there.”

“Where?”

“It’s the only thing in the fucking picture.”

“All I see are some hoardings. I guess there’s a building site behind them. Is it the crane? Couldn’t you have got a bit nearer?”

Seb jabbed at a point on the picture; “It’s on the hoardings. Can’t you see quality penmanship when it’s staring you right in the face?”

“You mean that bit of graffiti? It’s just a cock n’ balls.”

Seb’s face lit up in a smile the like of which Tess had never seen him wear before, the wide-eyed grin of a person in the midst of a passion that no amount of reason could ever hope to extinguish.

“Tell me that isn’t the most perfect cock n’ balls you’ve ever seen in your life,” Seb said, his finger still resting on the photo, that glassy-eyed grin seemingly indelible.

“Seb, it’s a cock n’ balls. I’ve seen a million of them before…” Tess paused. “There’s not really a way I can talk about this without sounding gross is there? Is that the point? Put words in people’s mouths, put dicks in people’s mouths; some kind of obnoxious metaphor word-play thing?”

“Tess, there’s no point. Just great work, great art.”

“But there’s always a point, eventually.”

“Just look.

She looked, and saw nothing.

“Look beyond the cock n’ balls,” implored Seb.

“You know this is exactly why people hate the art world, Seb. It’s beyond fucking parody.”

But Seb wasn’t listening. He was staring down at the photo like a gooey-eyed father fawning over his wife’s first pregnancy scan.

So she looked again, mostly because it was something else to look at other than Seb’s expression, which was frankly unnerving.

The penmanship was good; there was a definite dynamism to that cock. This was a penis with a plan, a mission. It was a cock that was going places, stretching towards the future with courage and trepidation and grace. You could put it on a flag, if it wasn’t a penis. The hand that drew it was a natural one too; blue marker on white hoarding. There was no planning, no opportunity for pencil lines; this was a do-or-die, teacher-right-behind-you-better-get-it-done-quick kind of cock n’ balls. Whoever drew this had an organic talent, a great hand. This was a great free-hand job.

“So where is it?” Tess asked, exasperated.

“In my garage; I bought the hoarding from the construction company.”

“Okay. I mean, where did you see it?”

“That building site by the train station, right after I did that banner drop. You know the one with the map of the Middle East with Israel colored in like a swastika, and Palestine…”

“The Star of David? Yeah, it’s in every student union in the country, probably.”

“I’m going to find the person who did it and then make him famous. And make his cock famous.”

Tess frowned. “Did you hear what you just said?”

“What?”

He was oblivious.

“Nothing. So what does the team think? What’s the strategy on this?”

“There is no strategy,” said Seb, his eyes widening, the whites impossibly bright in the pub’s dingy gloom. “It’s all me, Tess. This is my passion project. Just like you said I should do!”

“Seb…I…I didn’t mean like this.”

“Why? Why shouldn’t I? I’m a big deal. I can do it. I’ve done loads of cocks before. You’ve done cocks.”

“Hey, we’ve all done cocks. You can’t not do cocks. But…not cocks like this cock. This is graffiti…”

“Snob.”

“It’s just some kid from an estate…”

Snob.”

Tess sighed. It was futile.

***

Of course it all went down just as she predicted.

Seb found the kid; a scrawny, scowling fifteen-year-old from Brixton. Simon had seen their type before, of course. They were the same ones he saw gentrifying the neighborhoods where his mum grew up, and, as if from some staunchly held sense of principle, he maintained a cool air of detached condescension throughout the prevailing circus that engulfed him. Whenever Tess saw Simon—on TV, or in the flesh, or in the magazines and newspapers—he was never without that look of guarded reproachfulness. And she respected it. That surliness was probably what saved him; he never seemed to buy into the hype that Seb was so desperate to create around him. He drifted through with aloof indifference, as if he’d won a competition he’d never meant to enter, the prize for which he had no interest in. When Seb asked him to draw he drew, and drew well; he gave nothing else away except his ability.

That was the tragedy of it of course, cruel and Shakespearean in its knife-twisting irony. Seb had unearthed a genuine talent that might well have otherwise gone unnoticed, but the context—Seb’s insistence that Simon’s immature phallic scrawl be the central masterpiece to all Simon did, and his previous penchant for the pretentious and adolescent—stretched the credulity of those who mattered to their limit. Critics who had thus far written favorably of Seb, many only under editorial duress, saw a chance for revenge, and savaged him, not just for his My Fair Lady championing of Simon, but his entire portfolio. What they’d previously dubbed challenging and provocative was now one dimensional, simplistic, and obnoxiously lewd. From the outside, it appeared as a mass epiphany, as if a hypnotic trance had been lifted over art media land. From the inside it was a case of abandoning a sinking ship and putting as much distance between Seb’s self-contaminated brand and their own carefully crafted images.

The virtuous circle of credibility and taste had turned vicious, and this new ire was trickling down from the critics and broadsheet press to the wider market. Merchandise sales dried up. Seb’s stock plummeted. There wasn’t a PR department or press release in the world that could spin this falling star back into favor.

***

The phone continued to ring,  then stopped, and then started again.

“I don’t think they’re going to settle for voicemail,” Tess said.

Seb had finished with the ceremonial binning of his past and was now sitting against the sofa with his knees under his chin. “It’s probably my accountant; I think he’s a bit concerned what with my being bankrupt and all.”

“I’m going to answer it,” began Tess, “but not because I want to help you—I think this might be good for you in the long run—just because it’s putting me on edge.”

“That’s…thanks? I think it’s somewhere…over…there.”

Seb flung the mangled guitar across what remained of his living room. Tess negotiated her way over to the spot and started sifting through the debris, unearthing the phone from under the roots and soil of an upturned pot plant.

“Hello?”

Tess didn’t speak for a long time.

“It’s some American called Axel going on about something or other.”

The malevolent glare Seb had worn since Tess’ arrival fell suddenly away, replaced now by an expression of absolute bafflement.

“Wha?” he said.

“Some guy called Axel from L.A.; something about positive brand contamination, I think that’s what he said. What a stupid name.”

“His mum…Sunset Strip; it was the eighties. Give it here.”

Seb snatched the phone away from Tess and began walking briskly round the flat, biting his nails, nodding, and not saying very much—the antithesis of the previous minutes’ lackluster malaise.

Finally, he hung up, wide-eyed and with an open mouthed grin. It was the look of a man experiencing a profound enlightenment.

“Jesus, you look like Doc Brown,” Tess said. “What’d Axel say?”

“I’m going to L.A.”

“No. No, you’re not. You don’t have any money. You’re bankrupt, remember? You’re finished.”

“Not there I’m not. Well, I am—I’m finished everywhere—but I’m still useful. I can still be a real person!”

He darted out of the room. Tess followed him into the bedroom and watched, stunned, as he grabbed fistfuls of clothes out of drawers and wardrobes and stuffed them into a large hold-all.

“Axel’s an agent; a Hollywood agent,” Seb explained, raising his voice as he headed into the bathroom, emerging a second later with a washbag. “He’s got some clients he reckons are too popular, too clean; needs to contaminate them, make them more real, more edgy; less…lame. He reckons I’m his perfect poison.”

“Poison?” asked Tess, increasingly more confounded with every word that spilled from Seb’s mouth. “Contaminate?”

“Yeah, you know. It’s all PR stuff. Everyone needs flaws, a bit of vulnerability; otherwise they look too polished, too contrived.”

“So you contrive for them to look…bad?”

“Exactly!” yelped Seb, “I hang out with them for a bit, some paps take some photos, and everyone wonders why Hollywood actor guy is hanging out with a disgraced loser.”

“A loser like you?”

“Yes!”

That’s fucking insane. That’s…” She could only shake her head in disbelief—in disgust at the cynicism and madness of it all, of the confused logic, of his complete lack of shame. “You’re worse than you were before,” she muttered, half to herself.

“Well yeah,” said Seb, misunderstanding, “I know, but this will make me better again.”

He ran down the stairs, dropped his bag in the hall, and began rummaging through a desk drawer.

“Your passport’s on the doormat,” said Tess, forlornly.

“Why the fuck’s it there?”

“Why the fuck is anything anywhere?” Tess said, gesturing to the world in general.

Seb ceased his frenzied exit and looked bemused for a second. “What? Look, I’m off. Can you call my mum and tell her what’s up? Oh—and FYI—you’ve got soil in your hair.”

He opened the door and left without a look.

“What about Simon?” she shouted after him, but the door had already slammed shut.

John Miskelly lives in Bristol and is known throughout the U.K. for being the only person in his late twenties who doesn’t know HTML. He has not changed his bass strings for four years but writes a semi-regular blog.