You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Working Capital

Hari Kunzru’s Escape From the Art Market

“Blue Ruin” is a sharp novel about art, authenticity, success, and disaster.

“Blue Ruin” author Hari Kunzru

In Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the young artist Nicolas Poussin presents himself at the studio of Porbus, a seventeenth-century court painter, hoping to inhale the fumes of creative genius. It is a stroke of luck that his visit coincides with that of the eminent Frenhofer, Porbus’s own mentor, who possesses “the secret of giving figures life.” When he reveals that he has been secretly laboring over a single portrait for a decade, Poussin is possessed by the desire to see it. As Frenhofer claims the delay is partly due to the lack of an ideal model, Poussin barters a sitting with his beautiful mistress, Gillette, in exchange for a look at the painting. When he and Porbus finally lay eyes on Frenhofer’s work, they are speechless. Not because, as the old master claims, he has achieved “the look and the actual solidity of nature,” but because they struggle to discern anything beyond “a chaos of colors, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist.” Upon hearing that his canvas contains “nothing,” Frenhofer is enraged, then bereft. He burns his paintings and dies in the night.

Jay Gates, the narrator of Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, Blue Ruin, borrows the title of Balzac’s story for his degree show at a London art school in the 1990s heyday of the infamous Young British Artists. Unknown Masterpiece is both Jay’s entrée into performance art and a retirement from the painting that he’d come to school to study. “It was a refusal,” he explains, “a way to separate myself from all the other artists who were jostling at the money trough for a chance to dip their snouts.” For the duration of the show, he lives in a secure cell in the gallery equipped with food, water, and “basic sanitary facilities.” With a camera watching him work from behind the easel, transmitting his movements to spectators, he produces a painting over the course of three days. When it is finished, he takes a Polaroid of the work, then passes it to a set of witnesses, who sign a document affirming that a painting has indeed been made. After, Jay cuts up both the photo and its original, submerging the scraps in a bucket of plaster. Unlike Frenhofer’s passionate act of despair, Jay’s destruction is a calculated provocation: The painting, he admits, was nothing but a “mediocre self-portrait.”

Blue Ruin: A Novel
by Hari Kunzru
Knopf, 272 pp., $28.00

Despite being intended as a gesture of art-world disavowal, Jay’s piece catches the eye of a young gallerist who invites him to restage Unknown Masterpiece at a newly opened space in East London. Meanwhile, his closest art school friend—a peacocking Mancunian named Rob, whose “garish lime green suit and matching sneakers” index his desire for attention—doesn’t manage to sell a single painting from the show, a failure that puts him off making any new work “for some time.” Jay’s rejection of his former medium creates a fissure between the two friends that is never really repaired: Though they fall in and out of each other’s lives, including during a shared stint at a warehouse squat-turned-artist’s collective, they cannot recover the manic intimacy that defined their relationship as students. The break becomes final when Rob absconds to New York with Jay’s girlfriend, Alice, a French Vietnamese art history student in flight from the expectations of her wealthy family.

When chance circumstances reunite this dysfunctional trio two decades later, in the spring of 2020, the fortunes portended by Jay and Rob’s degree show seem to have reversed. The former is delivering groceries through an app, living out of his car after being booted from a boardinghouselike rental in Jackson Heights for contracting Covid; the latter is ensconced with his pandemic pod at the upstate New York retreat of an art patron wealthy and paranoid enough to have both a private security team and a doomsday bunker in New Zealand. (If Rob was once nosing at the trough of capital, he’s now guzzling from its firehouse.) Jay collapses at their door with the groceries they ordered, and Alice secretly gives him a place to stay.

The reckoning that results from this unexpected meeting allows Kunzru to dramatize a series of questions about art-making in a capitalist society besieged by many different kinds of crisis. How far outside the market, institutions, and audiences can a work travel while retaining its essence as art? What is the political valence of refusal in a world deformed by individualism? And who pays the price for an artist’s unwavering principles?

Blue Ruin forms a kind of triptych with Kunzru’s two previous novels, Red Pill and White Tears—the colors a sly nod to the project’s engagement with contemporary American upheaval, from police shootings to Donald Trump to Covid-19. Where Red Pill followed a frustrated writer’s deranging odyssey from a genteel fellowship into the bowels of the alt right, White Tears employed the techniques of horror to expose the material thefts underlying a young white music producer’s appropriation of the blues. Like its predecessors, Blue Ruin is a story about creative labor’s inevitable crash into politics, as well as the allure—and danger—of artistic monomania.

In each of these novels, a first-person narrator’s monologue is eventually interrupted by the voice, or story, of another: a Berlin cleaning woman who confesses her entrapment by, and eventual cooperation with, the Stasi; an elderly record collector who recounts a nightmarish odyssey through the American South. In Blue Ruin, however, Kunzru’s signature nested narrative belongs to Jay himself, a move that underscores the extent of his transformation between turn-of-the-millennium London and pandemic-era New York. It isn’t just Alice and Rob who haven’t heard from Jay in all these years: He has essentially fallen off the face of the earth, to the extent that many in the art world presume him dead. In order to avoid being thrown out of the secluded upstate property, he must narrate where—and who—he has been.

After Alice and Rob’s betrayal, Jay explains, he returned to an old obsession with borders and boundaries, lines of demarcation that “came into being every time an identity was checked, then disappeared again.” Throughout Blue Ruin, his political views tend to be thinly and somewhat unconvincingly sketched: “I was becoming preoccupied by all the intersecting causes of the nineties left, the Zapatistas, corporate branding, globalization, the predatory behavior of the International Monetary Fund,” goes one representative line. But boundaries also have a more personal resonance for Jay, whose very existence represents the crossing of one. He is the product of a one-night stand between his mother, a white Englishwoman named Patricia, and a black photographer whom she met at a soul club; when Patricia later resolved to pursue a respectable middle-class existence with a strict, military-adjacent husband, he found himself stranded on the wrong side of an invisible fence. Years later, he would make a piece by crawling down a random street with a piece of chalk, arbitrarily dividing one half from the other.

The border-work he made in the wake of his breakup, Jay says, escalated in intensity and risk. From drawing “maps of disputed border areas in other parts of the world ... with dotted red line indicating routes where they could be crossed on foot,” he embarked on a three-part action called THE DRIFTWORK. It involved a credulity-straining caper that saw him travel undetected and without papers from Paris to London, and culminated in Fugue, a performance in which Jay burned his clothing and meager possessions before walking, naked, into the night. After a short interval, a gallerist informed the crowd that the artist was gone, but the piece continued. His goal, he says, was to create “a kind of artwork without form or function except to cross its own border, to cross out of itself and make a successful exit.” In the time since, he has traveled to Bangkok, Goa, southwestern France, Spain, and finally the United States, working odd and sometimes illegal jobs, producing—other than the continued fact of his survival—nothing at all.

Fugue is clearly inspired in part by the American artist Lee Lozano, who furnishes Blue Ruin with its epigraph (“Poverty Piece: Remain poor until the war ends”). According to the writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Lozano “conceived of what she was doing—her activities, actions, walks, language—as her work.” She called this practice “Life-Art,” and its most extreme example was Dropout Piece, a project of indeterminate length that began in the early 1970s and entailed Lozano’s total withdrawal from the institutional art world and from the creation of art objects, even in private. It was an act, Lehrer-Graiwer writes, of “willed marginality,” an anti-work protest intended “to neutralise or reverse the inexorable pull of capital on art.” At the same time, it imbued Lozano’s challenging personal circumstances, like exclusion or eviction, with a sense of meaning and agency. The same is true of Jay’s project: “When I was fixing a fence, or delivering takeout, or standing knee deep in gray water pumping out a flooded basement, it had given me an underlying purpose, a larger context for my actions.”

But that feeling evaporates with the telling of his story. After nearly 20 years, Fugue’s arc has led Jay back to the people who precipitated it, bringing the piece to an end. Has it succeeded?

Writing about “The Unknown Masterpiece” in 1995, the art historian Lynda Nead lingered over the figure of Gillette, Poussin’s mistress, who agrees to sit for Frenhofer even though she fears it will irrevocably stain her relationship with Poussin. Bal­­zac introduces her as “one of those noble, generous souls who endure their trials at a great man’s side,” a woman who is “steadfast in her passion, devoted to [Poussin’s] suffering as to his happiness.” As thanks for her selflessness, Gillette is reduced to a bargaining chip; when Poussin and Porbus are granted access to Frenhofer’s mysterious portrait, she is “forgotten in a corner” until the sound of her weeping reminds the men of her presence. In this way, Nead writes, “artistic creativity is shown to be a form of melodrama, played out between the older and the younger man, over the bodies of women: real and painted.”

Blue Ruin highlights and to some extent reenacts the plight of Gillette through the figure of Alice: not so much a person as the turning point in Jay’s relationship with Rob, the inciting event of his most substantial work. Alice, we learn, has been continuously cheated on by Rob throughout their marriage, and his financial and administrative fecklessness has curtailed her curatorial ambitions; managing his studio, and his personality, is a full-time job. Kunzru doesn’t suggest, though, that she would have been better off staying with Jay, despite a brief physical rekindling at the upstate compound. It’s clear that he was an insecure and possessive partner, once enlisting Alice in a monthslong drug binge that was ruinous to her physical and mental well-being. “You never seemed to see me,” she tells him at one point. “I’m not sure you even liked me.”

Ultimately, Jay’s conversations with Alice prompt a realization that undermines not just the apparent differences between him and Rob, but the ethics of his art practice:

An artist ought, I thought, to live like a spy, a spiritual fugitive. Art itself consisted of finding ways to say no, to become invisible to power.… When I wouldn’t speak to anyone and locked myself in my studio, I was holding a line, taking my vocation seriously. In practical terms, it amounted to the same thing. Rob and I both expected other people to pick up after us. Of the two of us, I was probably the more self-righteous about it.

The meaning of Jay’s work is further complicated by the presence of the novel’s only other major female character, Nicole, a young Black internet artist in a relationship of convenience with Rob’s gallerist, Marshal, the de facto leader of their pandemic pod. Nicole has clearly not relinquished her ambitions for artistic success, but, unlike Jay, she remains engaged with the world in ways both big and small. She frequently excuses herself to FaceTime with her elderly grandmother, who is struggling to stay afloat in a partially locked-down New York; and after the police murder of George Floyd, she orders a taxi back to the city to participate in the historic protests—an event that Jay, preoccupied by the drama he’s unleashed on the compound, almost fails to register. Nicole’s mix of professional pragmatism and political passion, though obviously imperfect, becomes a foil to Jay’s zero-sum approach to art. He has escaped the tyranny of the market and the hypocrisy of institutions, but at the cost of committing to anything besides his own freedom.

Occasionally, the achievement of Blue Ruin can feel as ambiguous as Fugue’s. Kunzru’s London, perhaps more a product of memory than research, lacks the sensory fullness of the rural Mississippi of White Tears or the Berlin suburb Wannsee at grim midwinter in Red Pill. The same could be said of Blue Ruin’s characters, who tend toward the broad: Marshal, the gallerist, is a confusing amalgam of political signifiers, the son of an Upper West Side art dealer who believes strenuously in masking but maintains a weapons cache worthy of a Three Percenter. Rob, despite an eleventh-hour revelation that complicates some of his resentment, feels like a caricature of the bad-boy artist past his prime. And the aura of dreamlike suspense that Kunzru is so adept at conjuring is almost entirely absent here, despite the appearance of multiple Chekhov’s guns.

What ultimately distinguishes the novel is its searching quality, a greater open-endedness than his two preceding works, whose moral universe was more clearly defined. It requires a reader to think rather than to offer a sage nod of agreement. Blue Ruin isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it’s clear that whether Kunzru is writing about the degradations of the art market, white profit from Black pain, or the conservative romanticism that runs through mass culture like sewage, he, like his protagonists, is aiming to create works of literature that do more than satisfy a contemporary publishing niche. In other words, there’s something distinctly meta about Jay’s resistance to the institutionalization of his art.

Kunzru’s investigations into the politics that scaffold contemporary cultural production are equally preoccupied with aesthetic integrity: Red Pill’s paranoiac writer is haunted by the fraudulence of his book project about “The Lyric I,” while the action of White Tears is set into motion by distorted notions of authenticity. If the binaries Blue Ruin wrestles with—money versus art, action versus refusal—feel familiar, it’s because we are still so far from resolving them.