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One Painter’s Trash is an Electrician’s Treasure: Bringing Home the Bacon

I used to live in Irvine, California, which is a relatively nice place that is also one of the cleanest and safest cities in the US. But I had a bizarre experience one day. I walked out to the dumpster in my complex … Read More

By / April 25, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

I used to live in Irvine, California, which is a relatively nice place that is also one of the cleanest and safest cities in the US. But I had a bizarre experience one day. I walked out to the dumpster in my complex to throw my garbage away, and saw a very small Asian man hanging out inside the dumpster — there he was, just lounging on top of the garbage that nearly overflowed from the giant container.

At first I thought he was homeless, and that he had taken up residency inside the dumpster, and it felt very awkward to be throwing my trash out in someone's home. But then I noticed that he seemed to be well-dressed. He even greeted me, not in English, but in a way that made me feel as if he knew me, and so I threw my trash in (as far from where he was sitting as I could), smiled, and said, "Hey, nice to see you!" as if it were completely normal to find someone sitting inside my dumpster.

Later that week, the same thing happened, except this time it was a very small Asian woman sitting inside the dumpster, going through garbage. I tossed in my trash, which consisted, on this occasion, of some discarded notebooks and lots of papers and old bills.

Before I walked away, she crawled over to my rubbish and began going through my papers. She was excited to find the old notebooks, and I saw her put them into her canvas collection bag.

I was mad. It felt creepy to have someone going through my papers even if I considered them trash. It was my trash. The next day, I happened to look out my window and notice the same man and woman coming out of the apartment across from me.

They were my neighbors. They weren't homeless or "needy" — not if they were living in a fairly nice complex. My neighbors were dumpster divers. To make matters worse, the woman was wearing a hat that I had thrown out.

Okay, fine, what's the big deal? It just feels weird! My neighbors shouldn't be going through my trash, carrying my discarded notebooks, and wearing my old trashy hats.

But perhaps they were on to something.

An article in the Guardian today talks about an electrician who was working at Francis Bacon's studio in west London 30 years ago and noticed the artist dumping rubbish. This guy persuaded Bacon to let him keep these few discarded paintings, diaries, photos, and other odds and ends. He kept it all, and last night, it was auctioned off as the "Robertson collection" (named after the electrician) for insane amounts of money.

According to Mr Ewbank [of Ewbank Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers]: "This stuff is a little bit of history. If it weren't here, it would be gone for ever. We have a little bit of extra insight into him." Does he have qualms about selling paintings that were rejected, indeed deliberately mutilated, by the artist? "The best judges of art are not the artists themselves," he said. "The fact that these paintings were discarded does not mean that they are not of value. And he did say he regretted destroying so much of his work."

Does this feel wrong to anyone but me? I guess it's true that Bacon essentially gave Robertson his trash, but does the wiley electrician really have a right to capitalize off of a dead-artist's trash? Then again, there's the Kafka dilemma — Kafka asked Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts after his death. Brod, of course, did not honor his wishes, and for that we are grateful. But is this appreciation merely an indication of our own greedy and narcissistic impulses?

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