Who, exactly, is responsible for hotel room artwork? Who would actually concede to allowing their artwork to be shown in such a generic milieu? This thought had to cross Carlo’s mind–himself a painter, or an aspiring one, as it is called when one is not paid for his work–as he sat on the bed staring at the expectedly hideous canvas. Or maybe hideous was a word that connoted too visceral of a reaction. Pointedly blasé was probably more accurate.
Stroking himself as he looked at it, he wondered how many men before him had masturbated in this very room. Six? Six hundred? It was a relatively new hotel, but still, all hotels in New York were decidedly old. By U.S. standards, at least. They had an unquellable mustiness about them–not just in smell, but in aesthetic. Thinking about this made Carlo lose his already rather flimsy erection, and he decided his time would be better spent reading up on the course catalogue for the Visual Arts and Sound Art department at Columbia. This is what it had come to, he reckoned. Those that can’t do teach, and he had finally reached the point where he had to admit that he could not do. Yet he was forced to do something that would pay for his livelihood. After the divorce from Maurizia (an artist should never get married, he now realized, but not before the indoctrination of his cultural heritage had gotten the better of him), his finances grew inevitably more tattered and torn. Even as a person with no assets, the dissolution of a marriage does not come cheap. Nor does it appear to help much in the way of inspiration. Even when it forced Carlo into hotel living for this period of time as he “found a different situation” in between calling in one too many favors from his various still married friends, whose wives didn’t like the sight of him–and his signification of failed matrimony–on their couch. He was a scourge, a besmirchment to the very institution they still clung to–at least for the benefit of tax purposes.
Carlo, thusly, found himself here, at the appropriately titled Starving Artist Hotel. It was a boutique, naturally, on the Upper West Side, close to the school, and well out of the limits of his budget, which was zero dollars. Ain’t that the American way though? Carlo reasoned. He had been here long enough at this point–twenty years–to identify more with his American identity than his Italian one. Or so he had to tell himself. Because going back to Orvieto was simply not an option. Picturesque or not, the town was a tomb built for old people or ill-dressed tourists fiending for “great Italian wine.” But you could pour anything into a tourist’s glass in Italy and they would swoon. It was the very idea of “being in Italy” that did it for them. Was enough to make them believe in the lore they had contributed to creating. And, speaking of self-created lore, Carlo had already told his mother and father that he was doing so well with selling his paintings that he had bought a loft in SoHo–just like Jean-Michel Basquiat (whose style he liked to compare his own to)–that they could come visit anytime. Assuming that they, like Italian parents, would never actually come to see him in America (the figlio always had to be the one to go back there), Carlo was appalled to learn that, the week after telling this “harmless” lie, his mother called him to let him know that she and his father would be flying over in two months. It didn’t give Carlo much time to figure out a way to develop some smoke and mirrors that could adequately create the illusion of him having the posh loft he had described.
No, all he had was this here painting by “unknown artist.” For even with the indecipherable signature at the bottom righthand corner, there was no way of interpreting what this man or woman’s name could possibly be–though he strongly suspected it was a man despite knowing that inherent sexism was not the fashion anymore. However, there was simply no way a woman could be capable of something so soulless, so utterly banal. He contemplated whether or not he, too, might one day be offering to peddle his art to a hotel. If the price was good enough, why not? Maybe he could even offer to re-outfit all of the current artwork in this very hotel in exchange for free lodging. Or, at least, discounted lodging. Wasn’t there any value in art left anymore, after all? If it couldn’t even be used as a bartering chip, Carlo reckoned, then maybe it truly had lost all value if it couldn’t even serve its originally technically valueless purpose of lifting people’s spirits. For this dull, muted painting was only making him feel all the more disaffected. Morose. It was as bland and forgettable as he currently felt.
He looked away from it once more to turn his attention to the course catalogue, which described Columbia’s Visual Arts Program as “taught by internationally celebrated artists, allows students to pursue moving image, new genres, painting, photography, printmaking and sculpture.” He couldn’t help but laugh at the description of himself as “internationally celebrated.” He was barely international, let alone celebrated. He wondered if any of the other staff felt as fraudulent as he already did without having even made eye contact with any of the overpaying students yet. Or, rather, the overpaying parents of the students. That was another thing he knew was going to further sully his views of life in the U.S. That it was a pay to play game he had never known how to afford. Maybe he was too European, even still. Couldn’t avoid believing in the more viable perks and natural humanitarianism of socialism (when undiluted by dictatorship).
Feeling his lids grow heavy from reading the false portrait painted by Columbia’s vision of what their arts program entailed, Carlo jolted upright to study the signature on the painting once more, as though perhaps finally the knowledge of who this person was–or at the bare minimum, what his name was–could be gleaned after some light rest. No, still indecipherable. Just like his own career.