Parental Discretion Advised
From Monday to Friday, nine to five, my job was to look at porn. By that I mean I used to work the day shift at the Whitney on the Upper East Side, and I have seen a lot of weird things pass as art. Weapons in showcases. Black and white videos of people pacing an empty room. Large paint splatters, like pigeon crap. What looks like a first grader’s attempt at drawing his house. And every time they brought in a new exhibit, I thought I could have done that, but that’s just it, isn’t it? I could have, but I didn’t. Someone else did. And now they’re probably living the good life. Maybe not Vacation House Along The French Riviera Good, but Attending Gallery Openings With An Open Bar Good, and that’s better than what I had.
What I had was five days a week of staring at four walls filled with things I could have created, but didn’t. A constant reminder of my wasted potential.
The summer I got divorced, the Whitney—all four floors—had just opened their Jeff Koons exhibit. He mostly does sculptures that look like they’re made of that balloon material. But they filled the third floor—my old station—with porn. Giant larger-than-life oil on canvas paintings so real they look like they blown-up photographs. The recurring naked body of a blonde lady and Koons himself, either with his face buried in some part of her or staring point-blank back at you with this smug smile, and all his teeth are showing.
And my job was to look at that all day. To look at that, and to watch people look at that, which I admit was kind of entertaining when it was a family with small children. Except nine times out of ten, I got yelled at for not issuing a warning. During times like these, I pointed to the small sign painted in thin black letters in the doorway: PARENTAL DISCRETION ADVISED.
Sometimes parents shrank away, covering their kid’s eyes, but sometimes they used these so-called signs as fuel for their fire and lecture me for a good many minutes more on the preservation of innocence and childhood. Sometimes they asked me, rhetorically, “If you were a parent, would you be okay with your kid being exposed to this?!” In these instances, I could have said a lot of things. Yes—obnoxiously, flippantly, for one thing. No—apologetically, shyly for another. I could have been a pretentious asshole and lectured back about how deeply submerged our culture is in media, where images far worse than these are readily available.
But I liked those parents best because the truth is I’ve thought about this a lot. If I had kids. If I had kids. Would I cover their eyes, skip this gallery altogether? Or just let them look? Would they even want to? Would they be museum-going types? Would they be curious about art—spectators or creators? Would there even be two of them? Boys or girls or both?
For a boy: Jon—without the “h.”
For a girl: Sarah—with it.
After my divorce, my therapist thought I needed a change of pace, so now I work the night shift. There are no people to discourage from using flash photography. There are no people, period.
Once, I stood naked in front of a Jeff Koons painting on the third floor. I stripped down completely, fingers clumsily untying my uniform tie, kicking my khaki-colored pants from around my ankles as Jeff Koons stared down at me. My eyes bleary, maybe a little confused. His, full of intention. My thick neck, a double-chin. His one. My stomach, obstructing view of my lower half. His, close to the bones, structured. My arms, shaking, weighed down with flesh. His, toned but not overly muscular, spread out in ecstasy but also as if to say Look at all I’ve done.
I stood there, goose bumps piling onto my body. I read the painting plaque. Jeff Koons is divorced too. From a former porn star who was also a member of the Italian Parliament. Now he’s married to another artist and they have six kids. At night, I think about what their names might be.