(Something for Nothing)
Something for Nothing - a concept on which there is widespread disagreement. Those who believe the idea absurd or impossible include Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster (Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free)1, Milton Friedman and his retinue (“There’s no such thing as a free lunch...”) and King Lear (“Nothing comes of nothing...”). Ranged against these are the world’s countless beggars, gentlemen (and sometimes women) of leisure, Gershwin’s Porgy (“I got plenty of Nothin’, And nothin’s plenty for me..”), Diogenes, and Siddharta Gautama - the Buddha - who found nirvana in nothing, and so on. Capitalists and socialists both belong to the first group, mystics, spiritualists, poets, pantheists, believers in god’s gifts, thieves and con artists to the second.
The acronym S.O.N.G. first appeared in a New York Times article after the opening of artist Jasper Fuku’s memorable exhibition at the MOMA in ‘49. Fuku had achieved notoriety two years previously on winning the Turner Prize in the U.K. for his “roomsful of air” - a group of imaginary enclosures containing nothing. The award unleashed huge controversy. Several critics savaged the Tate for rewarding what one of them memorably described as effortless vacuity. Public protests took place outside the Tate Modern. Questions were asked in the House about the Gallery’s continuing value as a national institution. Initially, defenders were few, although The Guardian critic - perversely to some minds - reminded readers of Theseus’ words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“..as imagination bodies forthAnd he wondered if Fuku’s work offered a suggestion that rather than look at art we should find the artist in ourselves, and that by staring at nothing our own imagination might furnish what Fuku had omitted to supply.
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
Announcing the prize, newly-appointed Tate Director Budd Rademaker, felt no need for a poetic justification of the jury’s decision. At the award ceremony, he described Fuku’s work as “ a profoundly original commentary on the contemporary world,” adding that not since the superfluous men of nineteenth century Russian literature had anyone so fully demonstrated the general futility of life and the absurdity of doing anything. Interviewed after the ceremony, Fuku himself pointed out that, as a nihilist and admirer of Bazarov1, he considered the production of nothing as the modern artist’s primary responsibility.
Encouraged by this early success - he was still in his thirties - Fuku entered a period of intense creativity, producing a stream of new works - the famous “Nothing” series” - each element of which bore the title “Nothing” in a different language. According to the artist, even though the works themselves represented nothing and therefore couldn’t be seen, the fact that they had names offered evidence enough of their existence. Five were immediately snapped up by trillionnaire aficionado Sir Maurizio Batty for his gallery - an event that set the seal on Fuku’s reputation. New York’s invitation to exhibit came hard on the heels of the Batty acquisition.
Unlike novelty-seeking Londoners, the cognoscenti of New York responded less than enthusiastically to paying MOMA’s entrance fee to see - well - nothing. They wanted their money back, and the New York Times scathing dismissal of Fuku as a scavenger on the make, a “caseous carpetbagger who should be run out of town along with his works if anyone can find them”, supported their claim. After the Times article, New Yorkers stayed away, and Fuku’s show at the MOMA closed less than a week after its fanfare opening.
Fuku fared better on the Pacific coast where the Rockerfeller Museum, true to its enviable history of refusing to distinguish between art and kitsch, flew Fuku out to Los Angeles, and purchased his entire exhibition for their permanent collection, reportedly for a sum that, even today, would be considered not insignificant. The Rockerfeller knew its market. Sensation-seeking Californians - ever on the alert for novel ways to find relief from self-admiration - flocked to the museum, where Fuku waited to greet them as he was obliged to do under the terms of the sale contract. By the end of the year the museum had more than recouped its investment; and in the true American tradition, Fuku had made, as a New York Times editorial ruefully admitted, a fortune for rather less than a song.
1 From “Me and Bobby McGee, 1969.
2 Hero of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons