My son Jacob is an apprentice in the Motivationalists, an avant-garde art movement for teenagers — sort of like Little League for conceptual and performance artists.
This all started when my wife Carol suggested we force him into an extracurricular activity, anything to increase his chances of getting into a good university. We spent an hour flipping through a guide book from the Community Recreation Centre. She suggested a beginner’s sushi class, something that will, apparently, separate him from the crowd. He always enjoyed cooking for us, that is, until I jokingly called eating his veggie burgers a human-rights violation. After my suggestion of tai chi was shot down, I settled for a weekly arts night. Jacob came home from the first meeting and handed us a pamphlet entitled The First Manifesto of the Motivationalists. After he went to his room, and over another pot of coffee, we learned that this group embraces subversion and civic pride. Also, painting, sculpting, or learning how to do anything useful is frowned upon.
His interest in art began with a poster he bought in junior high with his “lawn-mowing salary” (a Salvador Dali painting, the one with those weird-looking giant elephants with skinny legs). But now it’s painfully obvious, according to our budding critic, that Dali is merely wallpaper for middle-class people with no sophistication. He now prefers to create his own art from things he finds in the trash, or sketching Brueghel’s depictions of hell onto his bedroom walls with the aid of a projector — with a level of sophistication only slightly above his former crayon etchings of dragons and fairies.
I’m sure most fathers of sixteen-year-old boys are too busy worrying about late-night parties, insolence, unprotected sex, and experimentation with drugs to care about “sufficient gallery lighting in their garage.” Actually, a substantial drug habit might help explain Jacob’s behaviour over the past few weeks. I’m sure if I submitted his latest work to a group of psychoanalysts, at least one would drop all their clients to study this new phenomenon exclusively. Jacob is unemployed; the least he could do is make someone else’s career. He should be graduating from high school next year and has no plans for the future. I realize this is the last summer where we can rationalize his behaviour as just another phase. Soon we’ll have to face that he’s a grown man, and this is no longer idle experimentation, it’s a lifestyle.
At least an interest in sports or some form of conventional performing art would lend itself to conversation. Even if he played tennis, or took up theatre, I could think of something to say to him or questions to ask afterwards. Carol and I never meet with the other parents or the equivalent of his coach, Mr. Nero — that’s his “professional name.” After retiring as a high-school art teacher, this man decided to volunteer his time inspiring the next generation of kids to take their eccentricity to full-blown paranoia.
Jacob spent most of last week in the garage preparing for today’s inaugural show — something my wife and I were both hoping might be cancelled. Or at least that’s what I wanted Carol to think. Jacob rode his bike into town this morning, presumably to give into anxiety, but it turned out that he just needed to buy more supplies: two packs of foil, a can of gold spray paint, Halloween masks, and several plaid shirts from the Salvation Army. When I asked Jacob why he had to hold his show in the garage, he pointed to a piece of paper taped to the floor which read: We are afraid of our neighbours; garages become decompression tanks that connect our homes to the outside world but insulate us from social contact. Today, we expose this once private property to cleansing sunlight. This small room becomes a site for revelations and confrontation.
I had to admit that first part made sense. I just wanted it to be someone else’s garage. We’ve only lived here for two months. Barely enough time to make any real connections. This kind of thing would be fine among old friends, or long-time acquaintances. Now we’ll be forever branded as that weird family, the ones to watch out for. I was already concerned when I noticed parts of the Conservative Party’s logo being used in his artwork. A rash of political activism had recently created quite a stir in our tiny suburban corner. I never suspected him at the time, but at least he democratically raided all parties, even tracking down the sole Green Party banner.
To open his show, Jacob raised the garage door while blaring “Ride of the Valkyries” from my car stereo system. It all looked like a yard sale because he’d arranged several tables and filled them with things he found in the garage. Although nothing was being sold, our dignity was free and people were taking as much of it as they could with each snide comment or photograph (a reporter from the local newspaper prowled around — did he send out a press release?). The key, Jacob later told me, was allowing the spectators to walk into the site thinking it was a yard sale. The longer he could sustain this illusion, the better.
I found a pristine hammer swinging from the rafters by power cords and held by a pair of work gloves which still smelled like the factory. I rubbed my thumb over the price sticker. All the questions I wanted to ask came out at last.
“Where did you find this?”
“It was in a plastic bag. I’m using the receipt to create my collage.” He pointed to an illuminated patchwork of old photos and paper scraps in the corner.
“So what’s the point of all this?”
“Well, this whole show is really about denying the cultural heritage that’s been programmed into me from birth.”
“Okay, what does that mean?”
“Everything is slated and determined for me to be a music-loving teenager banging away on three chords in the garage. Basically, I’m recontextualizing Kurt Cobain.”
“There’s really nothing wrong with that, son. You know, I used to play Nirvana songs when I was your age.”
“Yeah, Dad, I know. That’s kind of the whole point here. It’s simple; I’m questioning the gender roles of heterosexual males in a post-consumerist North America in the 2010s.”
“I thought that was it but I had to ask to make sure.” I realized that instead of talking to my son, I’d somehow managed to engage a Theory Instamatic, a contraption that dispenses jargon and rhetoric without being provoked. “Kurt Cobain sometimes wore a dress on stage, you know.” My son stared at the hammer without acknowledging my comment.
What truly shocked me was hearing this kind of extreme cynicism and objective rationality from a boy that once (not too long ago, in fact) believed SpongeBob SquarePants was his best friend because you could “always trust someone who lived in the sea.” And we’d always been such good friends in spite of my unexpected role as the parent that provided the discipline. I will give Jacob credit for one thing; he made me think about my father.
While walking around the “gallery,” I imagined a future conversation with Jacob’s grandfather: How’s the little guy doing these days? Well Dad, he’s challenging the institution of masculinity through an ironic use of pop-culture aesthetics. Always thought that one would turn out gay, then again, that was my prediction for you. Chuckle, chuckle, click. Sigh.
Jacob needed to invent some tyranny, orchestrate a little oppression to topple over with his aesthetic dissidence. So of course there had to be a grand finale, something to bring the house down. At least a dozen people were waiting for him to unveil his final creation. Jacob pushed a female mannequin to the centre of the garage. She was nailed, by the feet, to a plank of wood resting on four wheels. Instead of a head, this figure had my old television set from college placed on her shoulders. Jacob pressed play on the attached VCR; a stream of images flashed in a loop: Nirvana playing Saturday Night Live, Jacob’s Christmas pageant from grade 5, a commercial for Molson Canadian, and me (unsuccessfully) attempting to install a satellite receiver.
Was it my responsibility to stop him? I’m still uncertain where he stole that mannequin. I wasn’t willing to reprise my role as the crusher of dreams, not even during the final scene. As a sporadic round of applause and awkward nodding from the audience subsided, our brooding artist slumped in a lawn chair, smoking my cigarettes. Without a word, he flicked the cherry into a gasoline-soaked plaid shirt wrapped around his masterpiece, and laughed as his fans fled from the burning woman.
Carol, who’d continued filming throughout everything, gave me a warm smile which seemed to say: See? I told you he’d come around.