Just thinking: Do I Matter?

Hermit Crab by Masayoshi Matsumoto (http://isopresso.tumblr.com/)

At various times in my life, a nagging voice has appeared, sometimes in the back of my head, sometimes in the front, asking, “Do I matter in the world?” “Do I really matter?” And even beyond that, “Do I matter enough?” However I answer the question, when I weigh the amount I matter, in my mind’s eye I see a scale, and the pointer is always sitting at some place lower than I had hoped. Of course, I have never had any idea of what mattering should weigh — where that pointer should fall. Do you? In your mind’s eye, do you have some measure of whether you matter, and how much you should matter? And is there any point at which you can say definitively “I now matter — enough”? Or, as the Buddhists would say, once we get going on that idea, is enough never really enough?

When I think about it — take that feeling out of my gut, and get it into my head to break it down into rational elements — it is, of course, a meaningless question. How can you define worth in the bigger picture by any logical means? Is my worth measured by what I think or say? By what I feel? Or in American culture during the second decade of the 21st century, does “mattering” boil down exclusively to recognition and compensation for what I do or what I’ve done? Even so, does Donald Trump really “matter enough,” because he 1) has lots of money, 2) had a hit reality-TV show, 3) was able to get the rights to build an entirely undeveloped section of Manhattan Island — Riverside South — after 1990, or 4) has a long entry in Wikipedia?

Or, at the other end of the spectrum, does the artist Jeff Koons “matter enough,” because on Nov. 12, 2013, Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sculpture sold at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York City for $58.4 million, above the $55 million estimate? That made it the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction. And if that is what makes him matter, what is it about Koons’ huge metal version of a balloon dog, commonly created by low-wage-earning street peddlers and clowns at birthday parties, that makes him and his work matter so much?

The “mattering” of Donald Trump is relatively easy. He has the standard touchpoints of mattering: money, power, and real estate — real estate mattering the most definably, because it’s made up of ground underneath our feet that we can actually see and touch, and know to be decreasing or increasing in availability for humans to stand on. If I do or don’t have a place to stand (i.e. live), it matters quite a lot — even if to no one else, then at least to me. Money and power are really just symbols for the degree of our ability (or lack thereof) to survive and procreate.

Carrying it further, mattering to what you could call “the second power,” is the hope that we can get an extension on our mattering, and be remembered even if we’re dead. I, the dead person, won’t remember you’ve remembered — which makes it somewhat sketchy as to the value of all of that work at mattering, but I will have been remembered. Alexander the Great conquering most of the known world, Louis XIV building the grand palace of Versailles, Robert Moses designing and constructing the Long Island and Cross-Bronx Expressways. I’d venture that all of them wanted to extend their importance so as to matter beyond their death. But to them, who I suspect cared so much about their standing, I’m fairly certain it doesn’t matter at all now that they’re dead.

Then there’s the very much alive Jeff Koons. The mind boggles. I am almost absolutely positive that if I were to build ever-larger inflatable versions of balloon dogs — starting from, say, 12 inches, and working my way up to Koons’ 10-foot by 12-foot sheet metal version, which looks exactly like the 12-inch version — that I still would never decide at some point that this balloon dog mattered to anyone. Or that a large balloon dog is what made me matter. Perhaps I would take my 10-foot by 12-foot metal balloon dog out on the street, and a passerby would say, “Egad! That’s amazing!” Would one person saying that convince me that I mattered? Or 12? Or 12,000? And is that what convinced Jeff Koons that he mattered? The vast admiration of his huge reflection of a street vendor’s 12-inch twisted balloon dog? I don’t think so.

But I am not the one building them. And this is where the mysterious part of how we define “mattering” comes in. Because while I could never build a 10-foot by 12-foot sheet metal balloon dog that mattered, because I do not believe it matters, Jeff Koons has built a 10-foot by 12-foot sheet metal balloon dog that matters in part — at least — because he believes it matters. And has convinced us of the same. Has believed for decades, for whatever reason — true belief, parody, earnestness, business acumen — that building trite, cute, silly, and sometimes very oversized objects mattered. And somehow over the decades of his building banal and meaningless art, and pointing that out to us (as in naming a series of sculptures “Banality”), and believing that banal and meaningless art matters in some way, he has Made. It. So. Which means that we now believe (and art critics have a variety of explanations as to why) banality and meaninglessness — the opposite of mattering — matter.

And then I am stopped dead in my tracks. Because I see that scale again. And Jeff Koons on it. And though the pointer that says “matters” and “worth it” is way off the charts in the opinion of those who buy his work, I still have no idea whether Koons himself believes that he now “matters enough.” But in the meanwhile, there is that same low-wage-earning street peddler sitting on his milk crate in the park, making balloon animals for most of the weekend, earning $75 for eight hours of work and barely able to pay his rent, wondering whether he will ever get a real job and make something of himself — because what’s he doing with his life anyway, making that endless stream of balloon animals? He doesn’t even matter.

Ms. Patton is well aware that art critics spend a good deal of time deciphering and/or justifying the popularity, meaning, and nonmonetary value of Jeff Koons’ work.
She wishes them luck.

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