Radical Domestics, by Thomas Phan

The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas-for my body does not have the same ideas I do.
Roland Barthes

What wine does one drink? What bread does one eat?
Wallace Stevens

I mop. I iron. I clean algae off basketballs. I polish bunnies, sweep Andres, and vacuum around Hoovers. I change fluorescent tubes and dust lightbulbs stuck in lemons. I change the lemons once every two days, and I make sure moths don't get into the felt suits. That would be a real tragedy. I whisk Courbets and polish Judds. Have you dusted a Brillo box or fluffed a floating pillow? I have. I clean art.

I'm also a home philosopher, but no Socrates.

In the early seventies I was at the School of Visual Arts, majoring in Philosophies of Art, Home, and Cleanliness. We read Roland Barthes, (Mythologies, particularly the essay on soap powders and detergents), Susan Sontag (Styles of Radical Frill), Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space, in particular the chapter on drawers, chests, and wardrobes), Claude LÈvi-Strauss (The Raw and the Cooked), Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Patina), and Ludwig Wittgenstein (The Blue and the Brown Books). Wittgenstein was influential to homebuyers and minimalists in the seventies. In 1926 he designed a house for his sisteróvery basic. He forbade curtains and carpets. Naked lightbulbs dangled from the ceilings. His friend and collaborator Adolf Loos wrote a paper called ìOrnament and Crime.î He felt that suppressing decoration was necessary for regulating passion. Why you would want to do that is beyond me.

My studies also included John Ruskin (Seven Lamps of Architecture), Walter Pater (Marius the Epicurean and The Child in the House), Johann Joachim Winckelmann (The History of Ancient Homemaking Among the Greeks), and, of course, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Domestic Judgment. From Kant I learned the difference between practical thinkingósuch as what soaps clean whatóand the sublime.

I began my career at the top, cleaning the apartment of a gentleman named Fred who worked for Andy, the famous artist. I'll never forget the time Fred took us to the midtown restaurant called Un Deux Trois, jumped on the table, and dropped his pants. I have no idea what he was trying to prove, except perhaps the size of his penis. But friends or no friends of Andy, we were all thrown out. God bless you Andy! You were a good Catholic. You painted the Last Supper of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and found redemption. There is nothing so sacred or so domestic, for that matter, as drinking wine and eating bread.

Art hangs in the foyers of flutists, the mezzanines of magicians, the bathrooms of ballerinas, the parlors of politicians, the bedrooms of brokers, and the staircases of statisticians. Some art, because it is considered ìgood,î eventually gets relocated to a museum and separated from the other objects that inhabit our everyday lives. There is prestige in this relocation, but all of a sudden we have chairs we can't sit on (Kosuth) or bed's we can't sleep in. I am thinking of Bob's bed with that antique quilt that he smushed up with paint. Now what do you think that quilt would get on the Antiques Road Show?

Art is not obligated ìto do,î like other household objects, only ìto be.î A soap dish, beautiful as it is, has an obligation to soap, a Murano ashtray to ashes. An iron must press, and a hammer must nail, but not the hammer or sickles of art.

I was actually around the day Andy came home from Bologna and painted those still lifes of hammer and sicklesóhow ironic, the bourgeoisie paying so much for sickles and Maos. He told me that while he was in Italy he hung out with the son of the Communist mayor of Bologna, Maurice, twenty-two and cute, from the Polaroids I saw. All Maurice wanted to do was shop and go to the opera.

I appreciate silence in a way I didn't when I could still come three times a day. That's why I like art. Because most often it is silent. It can accommodate domesticity. Questions like ìHey, Ho, what's for din-din?" ìHow's my honey?î ìWhere's the clicker?î or ìWho's a good boy?î

ìRadical Domesticsî refers to artists and art cleaners loosely bound by a common interest in domesticityóoranges in a wooden bowlóand in their adulation of household incident. Radical domestics take their objects seriously. Frying bacon in my Calvins, slipping on a nylon, or pulling on a tight pair of jeans over a crisp, clean pair of white pantiesóthese activities accompany the silent and still occasions of art.

Radical domestics create a dialogue between homemaking and art through simple household activities that would otherwise be taken for granted, like oven cleaning or watering begonias. As Wallace would say, ìMerely living as and where we live.î

Andy lived in Manhattan and painted soup cans. Morandi lived in Bologna and painted bottles and jugs. On the surface they could not be more differentóthe supple grays of Morandi's jugs against the stark cadmiums of Andy's cans. But bottles and soup coexist in the pantry. They come out of the closet as the subject matter of paintings, and through this transformation they are reified on the walls of a home. Morandi's bottles line up like so many words in a sentenceónouns and adjectives, subject and predicate. Andy's cans are nouns. But the phantasm of eating what's in them (their content: tomato, green pea, or onion) reifies the content and gives them a verb, an ìI Want to Hold Your Handî of art and domesticity. Did you know that the Campbell Soup Company began making its tomato soup in 1897, the same year that Oscar Wilde was released from prison? Tragically, Oscar died two yeas later, still in love with Bosie, the undeserving bitch who got him into trouble in the first place. Oscar exploded, literally. Blood and puss spewed from every orificeóhis nose, his mouth, even his ears. Talk about Dionysius!

Imagine the symphony of chore and artóa cleaning boy's first day vacuuming around a Hoover Deluxe or sweeping cracker crumbs beneath a painting of asparagus? I don't know where that Manet is now, but I would love it hanging next to my fridge. Ironing boards and art conspire and collide in domestic incident. If bottles and cans are precious, even worshiped, what more or less, then, a child in the house?

I have learned this dusting art. It is my creed, my manifesto.

Thomas Phan