This work is an homage to one of my favorite short stories, “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. This and that are mostly about how loss paradoxically creeps up by leaving, but also about contingent loyalty and about art of loss v. loss of art.

“The Swimmer” is a confident bourgeoisie man of middle age who decides to “swim” home from a suburban pool party by walking across his affluent county, taking a dip in each of the ubiquitous back yard pools he encounters. As he does, he ages a quarter century, falls out of favor with neighbors, loses friends and in the end he discovers even his own family has deserted him.

But, in this post, the swimmer is not Cheerer’s 60s salary man with a wife behind him and a pension ahead, who loses it all. He’s his son—or grandson—who never really got that “Love [and work], American style” promised him by the institutions he, like his dad and granddad, served and paid for. It’s more “Bait and Switch American Style,” really.

Here, unlike the story, friends and neighbors aren’t who leave the suburbanite as he strolls—eventually stumbles—from yard to yard, but the parts of himself—shown symbolically, in a magical realist style—that connected him to those others; parts as much of others as of himself that he felt made him who he was.

Work and Love are the labels Freud gave those essential connections. Work, actually respect gained from it, is sought many places and is based on what an individual does, Respect from work is contingent; change doing what you do and the associated respect changes. Also what is respected can change. What you do can be valued one day and you can be unemployed—unemployable, even—the next.

Love seems different from respect. For one, it’s concentrated, involving but a few others. And it’s not about what you do, but who you are—whatever that means—and therefore, it seems you can’t do anything to be loved, it’s either there or not. But it can be faked, but when it is, its work-like undercarriage will eventually be exposed and while the deception can be pleasant the exposé never is.

The leavers symbolically shown here are the salary man, an undressed woman and a vivified easel. They could be work, love, and art, but as these symbols don’t match up with the stereotypes one on one, they really aren’t.

The salary man thinks he is loved for who is, but is, at best, respected—perhaps, “used” is a better word—for his work by his would-be soul-mate. The archetypal nude is usually meant to be the inspiring muse, but such a creation can also be signifying an all-too-human mate. Relationships with idealizingly nude muses are one-way fantasies and those with intimately naked mates are two-way realities. Confusing or conflating the two never works.

The easel is, of course, art, art pour l’art, but it is also an icon of a craft by which respect can be purchased and thereby, though second hand and insincerely, the illusion of love can be temporarily enjoyed. There is another cliché here, that of the artist. And does the picture take that one to task, too? Perhaps. The artist here has picked up his pen and paper to create a capriccio with postmodern mythical staffage: faux art chasing a false muse, chasing contingent respect, but he remains in his chaste longue, he has not joined the hunt.

“Why?” you might ask if you are the type who looks for the motives behind the art-like concretions you encounter. You might ask if whether the artist has lost his belief that art—in general or his efforts specifically—can replace Love and Work or if the artist has just become indifferent to their charms and has opted for a course of art pour l’artist.

The headline is a near quote from “The Swimmer”…

and here are two other great stories…