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What Art Is and Where it Belongs

The first piece of art I ever bought was a small painting of a dead DJ. Walking down the street in New York one day, I came across a man selling small- and medium-sized portraits of slain hip-hop artists, casually displayed on the sidewalk. They were painted in bright, simple colors. The one that caught my eye was Tribute to Jam-Master Jay, which I assumed to be the title because it was written in thick gold paint on the lower left corner of the painting. Months before, Jay, the DJ for the pioneering rap crew RUN-DMC, was tragically shot and killed inside a recording studio in Queens. In the work he once again stood proudly, wearing the iconic black T-shirt, fedora hat, and, around his neck, the standard-issue gold chain, thick as a boa constrictor. I bought the painting for thirty dollars.

It took me months to figure out where to hang it in my bare apartment. There was plenty of wall space: nothing was up. But no place felt right. One wall was too bumpy and another wall was too water-damaged. The kitchen area looked too cramped and the space next to the worktable was too dark. Jam-Master Jay had nowhere to go. I had no clue as to where the painting could fit in my apartment. Only much later did I realize why. It had never occurred to me that art belonged in a home.


Things belong in a home. Tables and radios and stuff you find outside. But art? I have more work up now. And the truth is that art exists in countless homes large and small. Art is not diminished by its place in a home. On the contrary, some art glows anew in the presence of other things, like a strange light bulb that draws invisible energy from the inert matter around it, to radiate from within its essential shape. Not all art does this. But the works that do not are no worse for it. They stand, or lean, or hang with little fanfare, next to the coat rack, or the bookcase, or over the couch, waiting to be noticed. The constellation of things in a home—including artworks—creates a network of uses and meanings that connects us to a place and grounds us in a sensible reality. Things are things because they help us belong in the world, even though their place in our lives can sometimes dispossess us of the sense of being at home with ourselves.

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