A few months ago I spent about forty minutes staring at my computer screen, debating whether or not I could afford $75 for an un-usable table mirror. My argument for was this: it wasn't just any table mirror. It was a piece of art, Issue 14 of The Thing Quarterly, a table mirror on which the most beautiful, talented, beautiful, man of our time, James Franco, had written "Brad Forever" in lipstick. There was a picture of Brad Renfro (the tortured, now-deceased child star of The Client) stuck in the frame. It meant something, clearly. And $75 was really a steal. This table mirror would only increase in value as Franco's star rose. It would be the first real piece of art I owned. It would be the beginning of a collection.
The argument against was: I didn't have $75.
James Franco's Brad Renfro mirror, courtesy of Anisse Gross
Ultimately, my desire to pay PG&E won out and I did not purchase the Franco Renfro Mirror. But I was not completely convinced I made the right decision. As much as part of me found the mirror gimmicky and pretentious, another part of me really, really wanted to touch it.
The Thing Quarterly, based, like a lot of hip projects these days, right here in the Mission District of San Francisco, is a mix between a literary journal, Zappos and a mail-order art project. It is, according to its website: "a periodical in the form of an object. Each year, four artists, writers, musician or filmmakers are in invited by the editors (John Herschend and Will Rogan) to create a useful object that somehow incorporates text." For me The Thing is the next logical step in the McSweeney's Quarterly tradition, another magazine out of San Francisco that morphed from a straight forward literary journal into a quarterly design-project-in-the-mail. The new format allowed its creators to experiment with book design, packaging, juxtaposing music and text and trying to figure out what a literary journal even was anymore.
When I was in college I somehow convinced my parents to buy me a year-long subscription to McSweeney's and I was completely enthralled, but not by the stories. What I liked was the object-y-ness of the packages I received in the mail and even more than that, the proximity these objects had potentially had to the hands of my hero, my personal secular god of everything, editor of the journal Dave Eggers. I read his earth-shattering A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when I was 18 -- and very susceptible to having my earth-shattered. And I was not alone; even then the magazine was selling because of the cult of his personality. I mean, the stories were fine, the art was good and the concept solid, don't get me wrong, but without the star quality of Dave Eggers, McSweeney's would not be what it is today (a literary empire).
Early editions of McSweeney's in a place of great importance between the Bible and the Space Camp Fund
It's easy for arts and literature people to brush these magazines off and even get mad at them for existing. I may have moved to San Francisco partially because it was the home of my idol, but once I got here, I encountered a lot of Eggers-hate from my fellow fiction-writing grad students. He was a sell-out, he wasn't cool anymore, his whole pirate thing was a publicity stunt, he only published super famous people, whatever. In the same way, it's easy to get angry with James Franco dominating popular media's talk about art while not seeming to care at all about the actual "art world."
In July, when James Franco reportedly sold a piece of "non-visible art" (that's exactly what it sounds like, by the way) to a woman for $10,000, I and every other sort-of-artist-who-doesn't-get-paid was scandalized. Why should he get that much money for straight-up air, when I have friends that wouldn't come inside at my book launch because they didn't want to spend $10 on my book?
And then there is the other question: what are these magazines producing anyway? Is it art? Kitsch? A cheap trick to get us to spend money? As humans, we like categories. How else do we know what is cool and what we should ignore and what we should hate? And also, why do I want that mirror so badly? I could make the exact thing myself for under $10.
And then, at some point, something occurred to me: these objects actually transcend the fine art that we are so used to. They defy categorization because they have become talismans that make us feel like we have a personal connection and a direct link to our idols who are basically our modern-day gods. When I got a McSweeney's in the mail, for that one blissful year, I touched it and cherished it, showed it off, tried to find the best places for it to sit on my bookshelf. I didn't appreciate it in the way you appreciate a painting on a gallery wall or a sculpture in a park, I loved it like the pencil the boy I had a crush on in sixth grade dropped that I kept in my desk for the whole year. In the same way some people love the Shroud of Turin. Like I imagine ancient humans loved the paintings of horses on cave walls.
James Franco's newest project for The Thing, courtesy of Lenny Gonzalez
What's amazing to me about James Franco's pieces for The Thing (his next project is an outrageously expensive, limited-edition Brad Renfro switch blade) is that he is creating an altar for his god (Brad Renfro) and selling it to us so we can use it to worship him. This reminds me of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman asking people who want to chant his name to chant to his beloved guru Rama. Or Jesus telling his followers to pray to God.
So maybe James Franco isn't just a pretty face trying to scam us after all. Maybe he is tapping into the roots of art, back to where it was completely intertwined with mystery and religion, removing us from an art world that is predominately about aesthetics and ideas and putting us back in touch with the spiritual properties a picture or an object can hold.
I still haven't found the funds to purchase the table mirror. I did discover though that a friend of mine owns one. She's sent me some pictures and invited me to come over and touch it anytime.