Driving through the fields of capital: Torn pages from an Art Handler’s Notebook

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?

― Michel Foucalt

 

 

Another long road trip and the absence of the Internet in my single room domicile, I sit gazing through a hipster cafe wondering why I’m still here. The coffee is only adequate and costs twice as much as the corporate chain offerings, but I suppose this is the price for using free Wi-Fi and patronizing local business. Surrounding me are mostly young people who do seem to be trying very hard to present themselves as a “caricature of cool”. All the familiar signifiers are present, tattoos, body piercing, large horn rim glasses and second-hand clothing that portray an ironic sense of style. However I must find something attractive here, otherwise why didn’t I just go down to the local Starbucks?

 

It is nice having a day of my own. Since I moved to Santa Fe, most of my time has been spent traveling through the Southwestern United States, moving artwork for an art handling/ delivery company. In three of the past six weeks, I have driven nearly 9000 miles. I spend long days in the driver’s seat, picking up and delivering art for collectors, artists, galleries and museums.

 

mural_wall_tree

 

Ostensibly, my position requires specialized skills for handling art, but really there isn’t much difference between a UPS driver and me, except I’m not sure their driver routes don’t extend over 3000 miles in the course of a week. I don’t consider driving a van between 70 and 80 hours a week the most ideal situation, but it beats the alternative of being indigent in “the land of opportunity”.  The physical demands of this job aren’t conducive to one’s optimal well-being, but the upside is that I am enjoying a long American narrative while I am on the road.

 

Before I took my first trip I swore I would take elaborate ethnographic field notes, but that is before I knew that I would end up sleep deprived most of the time.  Even so I was able to acquire enough context to achieve what anthropologist Clifford Geertz expressed as, “thick description”. While navigating my van between the interplay of cultural realities of the Southwest, I was thinking of some theoretical concepts and hypothesis of cultural sociology. In other words, in any given day I explore the moving boundaries of what Pierre Bourdieu referred as cultural habitus.

 

According to Bourdieu, habitus is composed of:

 

“systems of durable, transposable dispositions predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.” [1]

 

Although the cultural concept is key to this formulation it is one of the most complicated words to use in our language due to historical developments and vague definitions across academic disciplines. However any definition one should assume, it should include the complex whole of morals, beliefs, knowledge, art, law and customs in the historical context.

 

 

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Captain’s Log

August 11, 2013

Dallas and Fort Worth Texas

 

I pull to the front of a commercial gallery with a large Mercedes Benz at the front of the door. The art in the window could be described as decorative. It is the kind of art that people buy when they are trying to match their sofa. It is 8:35 AM and through the window I could see movement in back of the gallery. I rang the bell.

 

Walking towards the door was a highly manicured woman who appeared to be in her mid-forties. Her hair was quaffed and recently died blonde. The door made a clank noise when opened and out rolled a strong scent of perfume.  She was wearing a set of bangle bracelets and was squeezed into a tight fitting dress. Immediately she bulked, “we are not open yet and move your van from the front of the gallery; there is a door in the back!” I tried to explain that I had a schedule to keep and it would be helpful if I could start loading sooner. “That’s not my problem; you’re going to have to wait for my staff to get here.”  It is at this moment that I wanted to teach her a lesson on civility, but I just said it is a beautiful morning and there is no reason we can’t be polite. I also added that her rude tone was not dignified and that I would not be delivering her art if she continued to address me in this way.

 

After a long pause, she pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and began to smoke.  A resolution had been met and her demeanor began to change. She began to speak to me in a respectful way. She told me she would have the art ready in a few minutes. I entered through the back door and she showed me the paintings that I would be delivering to a gallery in Houston. It took me about twenty minutes to load and reorganize the van. The necessary paperwork was signed and I was off to ten more stops in Dallas and then back to Fort Worth.

 

I just ended my final delivery in Fort Worth Texas. At my final stop, I dropped off thirteen paintings and three sculptures at a fifteen thousand square-foot house nestled on top of a high ridge in an old Fort Worth neighborhood.  The former home was torn down to make way for a contemporary design with a very large in door swimming pool and spa, an eight-car garage with a collection of exotic and vintage automobiles, a large theater and lavish horticulture.  As I enter the foyer a young girl and her King Charles Cavalier pup greeted me. The puppy and little girl looked like the subject of a painting of French gentry before the fall of the old regime.

 

The owners weren’t present for the delivery; I was directed by their interior designer on the art placement. Due to the claimed insurance value of the artwork everything had to be unwrapped and carefully inspected. I was asked to place the 100lbs sculptures on top of four-foot pedestals. A big part of what I do involves customer service or as my former colleagues liked to say, “Our job description is to make rich people happy”. Yet I have learned that it is convenient for the owners to be absent to avoid any expectations for gratuity.

 

Drifting down the steep driveway I considered where I was going to sleep this night. Management encourages me to sleep in the van when I can and so far I have complied with management’s wishes, but tonight I craved comfort. I have noticed after three days in the summer heat of Texas, there is a pungent aroma in the van, so on this night I thought it was best that I cut into the company profit margin and stay in a hotel.  The strategy is the same whether I am sleeping in the van or searching for a room. First thing I must do is get away from high-end real estate.

 

Booking a hotel room in these high-end neighborhoods is not an option because it would break my traveling budget and experience has taught me if I try to sleep in my parked van in affluent residential neighborhoods someone will automatically report me to the police. Inevitably awakened in the middle of the night by flashlights and authoritative voices, I will be ordered to step out of the van and hold my hands high. On one of my trips with a different company, ten police cars surrounded me with all guns drawn and forced me to the ground because someone from a neighborhood crime watch thought I looked threatening.

 

This has motivated me to sleep in less desirable neighborhoods. Driving through an urban core I navigated away from the land of American Express, high rise office buildings with their brilliant lights, corporate logos and spectacle scale, I literally crossed the tracks where the “ecology” became more industrial.

 

The roads were lined with warehouses and tall fences. I continued to drive, because with any luck I could find a truck stop or cheap hotel.  I came to a section that had historically been a place for cattle stockyards. Some of the lots seem to still be operating, but sections of it had been gentrified and obviously a place for nighttime entertainment. On the main boulevard were restaurants, cafes,leather and boutique cowboy stores. Retail spaces were selling fashionable boots, clothing and accessories to anyone who wanted to look like a cowboy.

 cafe_beer_sign_neon

 

In a quarter mile the area quickly eroded with iron bars on storefront windows, used car lots, signs for pay-day loans, check cashing services and cash for automobile titles. There were several liquor stores, independent Chinese and fried chicken restaurants and several tacquerias.

 

It’s around nine o’clock and contrary to the urban core, here the streets are filled with people coming out of the heat. Lethargic lines of people are walking from under the highway underpasses carrying bags of clothes, tarps and some are pushing shopping carts. Next to a police precinct is a community center with a large line forming outside. Most of the people look beaten, tired and hungry. Just passing by I couldn’t tell what kind of services they provided, but it was certain from the looks on the faces that they were offering support for basic needs.

 

Two blocks from the community center the center seemed more alive. I noticed a few budget hotels, but it was apparent from the frenzy of activity in front of the open doors that I would not be spending the night and that I would not be getting my rest in any of these places.  While I stopped at a traffic light, a teenaged girl marked with several tattoos was smiling at me and appeared to be trying to get my attention. I must admit her presence surprised me a bit, because I thought it to be unusual for someone her age to be marked with so much ink. Her clothing was provocative and it looked as though she was beginning her evening shift as a working girl.

 

After the light turned green I noticed more indicators that this part of the city was riddled with vice.  I drove a few more miles were I found a room for the evening. In retrospect I would have slept better in the van but at least I was able to get rid of three days of road grime.

 

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From the driver’s seat, Bourdieu’s cultural habitus offers explanation as I interact with collectors, museums, galleries, artists and support staff along with the relationship of power of these actors. Bourdieu observed the structure of culture as fields. He described a field more as a system of social positions and the power relationships between those positions.  He called it an arena of struggle of the appropriation of capital in its significant forms. He rejected the Marxist notion of capital as only economically determined. He referred more to capital of status and status markers that in turn do produce economic capital. Fields are vertically and horizontally organized proportionally to the relational distinction of social agents and the boundaries of the field.

 

Post 1_Painting_ The Fields of Capital

(Painting; The Fields of Capital, by Dennis Dodson)

 

The effects of capital in the form of social capital, cultural capital and symbolic capital demarcate fieldsCultural capital is the collective embodiment of mind and body; it is the objective state of cultural forms (that come by way of art and art delivery in this case) and in the institutional state, which includes pedagogy and presumed signifiers and expectations. Social capital is the appropriation of tangible and intangible resources linked to institutionalized relationships and networks where there is mutual recognition. “Oh what school did you go to?” For those who retain the power of and credential exclusion of “the other” into their club is imperative.

 

Symbolic capital is the convergence of social and economic capital. In other words, it is cloaked, re-cognized and recognized as a legitimate. Over a course of time it produces economic guarantees. Obvious examples of this would be an Ivy League education, membership in exclusionary societies or fraternities, and club memberships. It’s what Bourdieu called the “mask of moral ties of charisma or meritocratic symbolism.” (Bourdieu 1980.)

 

Bourdieu’s protégé David Swartz explains: “All cultural symbols and practices from artistic tastes, style in dress and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy, even language itself-embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions.”  [2]

 

 

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 Captain’s Log

August 14th 2013

San Antonio, Texas

 

I have been on the road five days and the effects of sleep deprivation are starting to set in. I slept four restless nights in the van and I am beginning to think that I am hallucinating.  I’m within five miles of San Antonio and I approach a traffic light. I’m convinced that the voice coming from the GPS is Isaac Hayes, “At 800 yards bare left”.

 

I pull up to the traffic light where I see the sign of a tall African American man that reads, “I’m not homeless but I have three daughters.” He was wearing a cross around his neck and didn’t look like he spent the night on the street. His eyes pierced into mine as I rolled down the window and said, “Sorry my brother but I too am short of funds”. He said, “that’s OK I’m just glad you spoke to me. Very rarely do people talk to me and I really appreciate it when they do” I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to, but there just isn’t enough good work to go around”.  He said that often people just throw money at him just to watch him pick it up like a dog would pick up scraps that fell off the table. He said what is most painful when people are afraid to look at him as if he were invisible. We talk as long as the traffic light will allow for I had just made a friend. Then he starts to talk to me about being blessed by Jesus as I became relieved when the light turned green.

 

I pulled into the parking lot of an asymmetrical medical building remises of 70’s era architecture, made of flagstone and heavy timber. The client, a dermatologist bought a painting in Santa Fe by a renowned artist that is now deceased.  I didn’t have clearance to get the van in the underground parking area so I had to carry the painting through a large maze of hallways and three flights of stairs.  As I entered the office a portly middle-aged physician with wiry beard and curly salt and pepper locks looks pleased to see me.  We engage in some small talk as I unwrap his painting. Proud of his procurement, he proceeds to tell me the history of the painting that involved family scandal.

 

After inspecting the painting and signing the insurance paperwork, the good doctor asked if I wouldn’t mind hanging the painting on the wall for twenty dollars. I considered his question carefully and it was over a hundred degrees outside and I certainly wouldn’t mind taking a little break from the heat. I chuckled as I told him that minimum that I do art installation work in $75.00 an hour, but that I had an idea for a win-win situation. I told him since he was a dermatologist and I don’t have health insurance, that I would exchange my labor for his since I could use his services as well. I hung his painting in about fifteen minutes and he diagnosed my skin concern and gave me a prescribed treatment.

 

Feeling pleased with the exchange I just made, I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything all day. On the other side of the road I see what appears to be a greasy spoon diner. As I get out of the van a middle-aged white dude approaches me and says, “Excuse me sir, I’m not a bum, but…” I interrupted him and asked, “Why would you preface your question like that?”  He told me that that’s how he felt that most people treat him most of the time. Granted this was not the most attractive person that I’ve ever seen, his front teeth were missing, his glasses were hanging crooked on his sunburned face and his loose fitting clothes were at least two sizes too big. He appeared a bit manic and his speech was forced and repetitive. He said, “Look man I’ll be honest with you, I’m an addict but I’m in recovery. I’ve been clean seventeen days.” He lifted his shirtsleeves to show me that he didn’t have any track marks.

 

He went on to tell me that he needed twenty-five bucks for an overnight stay at the Salvation Army. Now I like to assume that everyone I meet is honest and not attempting to pull a con, but in this case I could read the pain of junkie’s eyes. I said, “My good man, don’t you know that you can’t fiend an old dope fiend?”  I saw this as an opportunity to make a human connection. I saw in him someone that could very easily be me and I told him that twenty-three years ago I had a life that wasn’t much different from his. I lived on the streets and doing whatever I could to escape the pain. I said for a time the drugs worked, but eventually they stopped having their effect.  I told him if he is to remember anything that I am about to say, that is to surrender to the fact he can’t kick alone. I was as brutally honest with as if I were talking to my own kin and told him where he could get help.  I said that he would find relief of his bondage when he surrenders to the fact that drugs are not the answer. I gave him ten bucks and said, “Do with it as you will”, knowing that he would likely seek an alternative state that would remove him from reality “but before you go just know that your life doesn’t have to be this way”.

 

 

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In her work, Diane Crane exclaims the major ideal in modern sociology is a study of a dominant class imposing a rational consensus on the population, either in the form of an ideology or as hegemony and disseminates it in all spheres of everyday life to the degree that it goes unquestioned and accepted as authentically true.

 

As the protagonist in this story my goal is not to claim an objective reality, but disclose an interpretive social construction. I play the role of antagonist to expose the mythical worldviews of those I encounter traveling from one cultural field to the next. The metaphorical cultural road is one that is embedded in social structure and I often feel like I am driving a small passenger vehicle. Like the road, culture is a structure of signs and symbols to help us find our way from one place to the next… which only suggests there is an infinite road to travel.

 

 north_texas_car_in_ground

 

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© Dennis Dodson, 2013

 

 

Notes:

 

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre (1990). “The Logic of Practice”. Polity Press.

[2] D. Swartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p.6

 


 

 


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