The Empire of Conversation

Image Posted over at n+1, Dushko Petrovich's piece in the upcoming issue of the innovative contemporary arts journal Paper Monument:

The British Empire is now the Empire of Conversation. The distant lands are lost, but the language has increased, and its experts, still there on the island, are practicing nightly, drinking their way through the rain, refining their understatements somewhere inside the gray labyrinth of human feeling. No one suffers their expertise quite like the American, who will also be down at the pub, also losing an empire, often getting more loudly (but never more charmingly) drunk than his hosts. His empire consists of something else entirely. He tries to think what. Something gangly and violent, is all he can think.

This was some years ago. London kept attracting money and people, but New Labour’s magnet had worn off. Tony Blair’s dependable grin was now purely automatic. He ended up a warmonger, the little shit. Still, after just twenty seconds of Prime Minister’s Questions, our visitor was burning with envy. His own legislature couldn’t be called a parliament, he thought—its members don’t even know how to speak. Not to mention the president, who was so inarticulate he’d reduced himself to an initial and reduced several nations to war. Or that’s how it seemed to our visitor, staring at the TV, mesmerized by the overhead view of Westminster’s green leather.

But our visitor had come for culture. He had been invited, he reminded himself, for culture. That same evening, he had to attend a panel comparing the art worlds in America and Britain. He found a seat at the back, and settled in. From behind an intricate podium, in an accent that hovered somewhere over the Atlantic, the event’s organizer introduced a curator, an artist, and a journalist—all British. The tall man who had recently taken a job in Cincinnati expertly presented the American experience: everything was big and new and basically friendlier.

In the library, over a glass of claret, our visitor couldn’t but confirm this testimony for his inquiring friends. American art schools did tend to have newer facilities; people sometimes smiled at one another; and yes, the curricula often blurred into a kind of career development seminar. America was always entrepreneurial, and these were the boom years. At openings, yes, but also at drunken parties and staff meetings, or even at a hungover brunch, cheerful self-promotion spread like a vine in the protective shadow of the market. Everybody was shaking hands and kissing. Our visitor never thought he’d miss it.