Benjamin Wachs on Art as Something that is Absolutely Useless, as Worship
Benjamin Wachs may be the only journalist to have covered local news on both coasts at once. He writes a column on local politics in Rochester, New York, and has covered local government in San Francisco at the same time. He is currently SF Weekly’s bar columnist, among other things. Wachs is the editor/co-author of Chicken John Rinaldi’s book, The Book of the Is. His first solo collection of short fiction, A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, has just been released by Strange Castle Press.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
I give them a business card that says “Fascinating Stranger.”
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
To finally defeat the Amazing Spider-Man. I’ve tried everything! But it’s like he has some kind of … how to describe this, a kind of “spider-sense,” that warns him of approaching danger. I can’t get the element of surprise!
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Many years ago I dropped out of grad school, quit both my jobs, gave up my sweet rental, and hit the road, draining my life savings in order to travel around the world.
People would sometimes say “Oh, you’re so lucky to get to do that!”
And I would always think “Lucky? You could quit everything too, you know. Throw your life away. There’s nothing stopping you.”
It’s like that.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Oh God no. I’ve been snubbed by Dave Eggers at a restaurant. When I can snub Dave Eggers in a restaurant … then, and only then, will I be successful.
I’ve tried, too. It’s not easy. Damn his whimsical sense of theatricality!
Interesting side note: I was also once called a terrorist by Lech Walesa. But I’m not vengeful: he was the first democratically elected president of Poland, and we all owe him a great debt.
Eggers, though …
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
God help me, it’s the autotuning of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. What’s wrong with me?
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I come from a long line of terrible, terrible, people. Really, you have no idea. Murderers and mercenaries and villains. The only person I’ve told the whole story to is my old friend Peter Parker, but we’ve grown distant recently. It’s too bad. He’s always so busy.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Dr. Doom. He had mastered both science and the occult, had his own country, and had hidden his horribly scarred face beneath a cool mask. I also really wanted to be The Phantom of the Opera. He was a brilliant singer who was the only person who truly understood the inner catacombs of the Paris Opera House, and he had hidden his horribly scarred face beneath a really cool mask.
Hey … is that a pattern?
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I get kidnapped by a group of Knights Hospitaler who don’t know the Crusade of 1420 is over. They believe I am an agent of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, who was known to employ Jews as members of his court, and take me to their hideout in Muir Woods for interrogation. Unfortunately their chief interrogator, Jacques de Pearlmutter, left his instruments of torture at home because he grabbed a bag of potatoes by mistake. So instead of questioning me about troop deployments, they ask me whether I know a good recipe for potato pancakes. I do. It’s from my dad, who got it from his mom. Luckily they have applesauce, and one of the park rangers has sour cream, so we have a pretty good meal.
This is a true story.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
A man who fantasizes about hiding his horribly scarred face behind an elegant mask does not generally perform a strip tease.
I’m much more likely to enclose myself in armor, like some modern “iron man.” Which … actually … might help me finally vanquish my foes!
Who’s getting kicked out of the table by the fireplace now, Eggers?
How many times do you fall in love each day?
An embarrassingly large number. I crush so easily. If you could only see the man behind this iron mask … if you could only see how I love you … But no! You must never know the truth!
What’s wrong with society today?
Spider-Man. That wall crawler is a menace! Why is he allowed to walk free, after so many Daily Bugle exposes? After what he did to my face? My once beautiful face! But I’ll stop him. Someday. Somehow. No matter what the cost.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I follow Oscar Wilde in this: art is something that is absolutely useless, but that we love and value anyway. A symphony, a play, a stained glass window have no practical value (or no more than an ordinary pane of glass) — but the treasures of nations and kings have been spent to create and preserve these useless things past the decay of stone and steel.
There is no concrete benefit that can be pointed to, yet these largely immaterial things move us in ways far more profound than any physical thing short of starvation.
Art points us toward our capacity for transcendence, it reminds us that we are not as bound by the material, the practical, the tangible, as the world tells us. It’s no accident that for much of the post-modern world, “art” has replaced the sacred — something that moves us and inspires us, that we believe in for its own sake, even though it has little objective reality that can be defined in worldly ways.
Art is worship. Even, especially, when we admit to no God.
What are you working on right now?
I’m trying to camouflage a pit full of hot glue so that Spider-Man will land on it, thinking it’s an ordinary hot dog stand, and then fall to his sticky demise.
It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s easier than creating a robot army now that Google’s gobbling up all the robot manufacturers. Seriously, how am I supposed to compete with that? They’ve got SO much money! If they’d loan me one of their buses and 60 robots for, like, an hour, I bet I could wipe that Wall Crawler off the map!
But does Google get involved in community actions like this? No. They’re just interested in making money. No time to kill Spider-Man. The most they’ve done, according to inside sources, is force him to join Google+ in order to access his YouTube account.
That’s awful, but it’s not enough.
I’ve also just had a collection of short stories published, A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, and am working on a second collection — a cycle of short stories featuring recurring characters that is my attempt to process San Francisco, and my experiences in it, at this particular snap shot in time.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
In the acknowledgements of my book I thank Florence King, an arch-conservative writer (she’s in favor of bringing back the monarchy) who I think is one of the greatest popular essayists in the latter half of the 20th century.
Beyond that? Borges, of course. Clive James. Terry Eagleton. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Andrew Ferguson. James Thurber. Zora Neale Hurston. The entire Algonquin Round Table. Ta-Nahesi Coates, whose work I am jealous of past the point of reason: and when I’ve finally gotten even with Dave Eggers, he’s next.
Do you hear me, Coates? You are the Reed Richards to my Dr. Doom! Only your power to stretch your limbs to great lengths can save you now!
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
It has always bothered me that the Westfield is east of the Warfield.