What is Art? A Lesson for Dudes Who Want to Sound Smart About Art

A search for the answer to the age-old question. 'What is art?'

jon-warechby jon-warech

There comes a time in life when your college fraternity shirts stop fitting, your hairline starts thinning and that poster of the monkey drinking “Liquore Da Dessert” no longer belongs over your bed.

It’s called growing up and it happens one day unexpectedly while you’re plucking a rogue hair out of one of your ears or counting the grays just above them. You stare at yourself in the mirror and realize it’s time to act your age, find interests beyond video games and oh, I don’t know, add a little culture to your life.

Usually a few drinks takes care of that nonsense, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and head to Miami Beach for Art Basel, the country’s largest celebration of art, where the painting and the partying go hand in hand.

I needed this for several reasons. One, it’s embarrassing to not know anything about art. Two, several women told me that. And three, I believe it was Lisa Turtle of “Saved By the Bell” who asked, “What is art? Are we art? Is art art?” – and by all tabloid accounts, that actress never got her answer and has since gone batshit crazy, and I do not need that happening to me.

But here’s the thing: I don’t get it. I see a painting that looks interesting and I have no idea if it’s worth $50 or $5 million, or if it’s a classic work of art or simply ripped off the refrigerator of proud parents of a kindergartner. I could stand and stare for 20 minutes, take a swig of Gentleman’s Jack from my flask, turn to the girl next to me, and the best thing I’d be able to come up with is, “That’s something, huh. I bet his teacher gave him a gold star.”

“Never say things like ‘my child could make that or this is not art,'” says Tim Nye who hosted the ‘Rebels in Paradise’ exhibit at the Delano Hotel during Art Basel. “Nothing makes a novice look more insecure than ignorance and make me feel like throwing the novice out of my gallery or booth.”


But, even if I like what I see, I still often think I can easily scoop it up to replace my monkey boozing poster for a few bucks and then am shocked when it costs as much as the poster plus my car and possibly a kidney.

“When it comes to value with art, sometimes it has more to do with who created the piece than what is actually created,” says Rhonda Long-Sharp, of Long-Sharp Gallery, who presented “Politics, Peace and Passion” at SCOPE Art Fair during Art Basel week. “If two artists created paintings substantially similar and one was Andy Warhol and the other one was painted by your neighbor, the Warhol is priceless and your neighbor’s is not.”

Got it.

That all makes sense, but how do I know good art from bad art? How do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? And most importantly, how do I impress the ladies at these swanky parties?

That’s when I met Peter Tunney (pronounced like “money”), a Wall Street big shot-turned-accomplished artist, who was willing to help me “get it.” He’s a passionate, fast-talking Long Island native, who “smoked a lot of weed in college and dropped out,” before working at The Playboy Club, selling cars, crushing it on Wall Street and eventually following his true calling. (CONTINUE READING BELOW)
For 30 minutes he told me about his life – going from a “pimply kid like in ‘Stand By Me” to “traipsing around the world with Peter Beard” and changing the business of art all without sacrificing the art of art.

“I really just recently learned how to make art to be honest,” he said despite 20-plus years with a paintbrush in hand. “I have something to say and now I know how to say it. This is the first time I’m really satisfied with my own show.”

He taught me about the value of art.

“One, it’s a visual thing,” he said, “There’s a lot of disgusting art out there that sells for a lot of money. I don’t want to live with a piece of art in my house that says, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck. Do you?”

He taught me about the game of art.

“I was in an auction once and this photograph sold for $700,000 and I saw it in a gallery two weeks before for like $250,000,” he said. “I said to this guy who was standing there, ‘how could this be $700,000? What happened in the last two weeks to this artist?’ He said, ‘Peter, you don’t understand, this is how rich people have fun.’ That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard in 30 years.”

In the same 30 minutes he also grilled me on hard work and dedication.

“I saw this interview with this Mr. Brainwash guy and they said ‘you don’t even make any of this stuff. You hire prop makers,’ and he said, ‘you think Damien Hirst is sitting there gluing two pieces of paper together?’ My whole life really, what I do eight hours a day is I glue two pieces of paper together – do I overlap, underlap, offset, burn the edge, make the edge, color in between – those are my decisions. I make thousands of those decisions every day. I live in that spot. It’s the exact opposite of Mr. Brainwash. And I like that, and I think in the end I’ll win by attrition.”

He also taught me why the Brainwashing of the hipster doofuses of America doesn’t mean much of anything.

“No, it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Same as it doesn’t bother me that Kim Kardashian makes $50 million. It doesn’t make her the greatest living actress. That would bother me. I’m not looking for fame. I’m not looking for glory. I’m not looking for private planes. I’m not looking to get invited to Kim’s party or any of that stuff. As soon as I gave up wanting all that, it came to me. I like being here.”

But, Tunney admits it’s all part of the art game and partly what makes the whole Art Basel thing fun. He quoted MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who said that it’s better to be a living artist than a dead artist, but added his own Tunney spin.

“You can get high with them. He can fly on your private plane. You can have him over for dinner. That’s got a lot of standing in today’s celebrity mania,” he said. “You want to have dinner at your house with Damien Hirst? That’s pretty cool. You probably have to buy a $40 million entry ticket but then you’re the coolest guy on the block.”

After all, Hirst is creating a line of luxury backpacks with the Olsen Twins, so yeah, everyone’s got a price. But money isn’t everything. Many young artists echo Tunney’s “I do it for me” attitude, and nothing says that with more irony than spray-painting the Monopoly man on the side of a building in Los Angeles.

American street artist Alec Monopoly, who is known for his satirical Monopoly man artwork, is one of many making waves in the world of street art.

“I think people are drawn to street art because there is a sense of authentic human connection that might not be as prevalent in other artist mediums,” said Monopoly, who brought his talents to South Beach at the Freehand Hotel, Rec Room at the Gale Hotel and Wall Miami. “There is a rawness and an illicit underworld element that makes it intriguing, and it also has the ability to aesthetically transcend neighborhoods and buildings.”

(Pictured: Alec Monopoly at Flaunt Magazine’s Basic Space dinner, powered by DELL at the Mondrian Hotel in Miami Beach during Art Basel weekend.)

Peter Tunney isn’t about to go spray-paint “Grattitude” or one of his other messages on the side of a wall. That’s not his style – he’s a man on mission with sellable art to produce and some 10,000 more painting left to create – but he gets why it appeals to some art enthusiasts. He just doesn’t care. He focuses on his work and his work only and in the end, he hopes his stuff will stand the test of time.

“I think about each thing I make, and that you should be able to look at it in 50 or 100 years and be like wow,” he said. “I think you’re going to look at ‘Time is Always Now’ and ‘Gratitude’ and ‘Don’t Panic’ in a thousand years from now and get the message.”

There were a lot of messages in our 30 minutes together. And that’s the key to talking shop in the art world. Understanding the message, knowing the artist and seeing more than colors on a canvas. But, most importantly, it’s about knowing who you are and what you enjoy, and in those same 30 minutes he also taught me something about my own life.

“I’m into the creation part. I’m into the process of what I’m doing. I 100 percent knew when I started this, it would not be commercially successful and I would fail financially,” he said about himself while unintentionally coaching me through life. “I was prepared to just be broke and do it. I had come to a crossroads and I was going to make what was in my heart instead of trying to be cool and make what they wanted, and I knew it would fail. And as soon as I walked through that door, the world showed up and started buying it. That’s a fucking powerful lesson.”

He might as well have said, “stop fucking crying about everything you fucking loser and enjoy something for a change you whiny little fuck” – because that’s what I heard. To me his art became about how I could better myself.

And just like that, I didn’t just know a little about art, but I also knew a little about me. So, yes, Lisa Turtle, we are art.