Bad Advice Wednesday: Art is the Solving of Problems

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


I had a friend so, so many years ago in NYC who was a kind of general artist, when that was newish.  She painted, she sculpted, she performed (when you least expected it), she was into concept, and conceptual art.  She’d say things like, “Imagine a column of air a mile in circumference and a twelve miles high.”  And we’d sit around and truly imagine it.  Then she’d report it stolen.  And the police would come.  And usually arrest her.  Stuff like that.  Anyway, she got the best job, probably the only job she could actually have held down, at one of the big department stores:

She staffed the complaint desk, basically a hole in the wall with a high counter between her and the customers.  On the wall above there was a sign that actually said COMPLAINTS.  Now, of course, it would say CUSTOMER SERVICE, but we hadn’t entirely crossed over into Orwell’s world at that point, and corporate euphemism wasn’t so thoroughly ensconced.  (The translation of CUSTOMER SERVICE into today’s modern English would be FUCK YOU, LOSER.)

Anyway, her job was to not take back faulty merchandise and clothes that didn’t fit and find what was right with register totals that seemed wrong and take care of lost and found (usually wearing it home) and doing just about anything else you can think of that wasn’t selling and wasn’t service, often encountering irate people, or making them irate.  She loved irate people.  They were part of her art.  If the irate person was a man, she’d unbutton her shirt.  Or his.  If that didn’t work, she’d cry.  If it were a woman, she’d lean close and say, “This fucking store is nothing but a confidence operation.  I’d quit in a second, if I could!”  Make friends through fellow feeling, in other words.  She found a steady flow of dates, as well, with an endless stream of irate men, knew how to make even the nastiest complaints go away.

She was bi-lingual and could do all the tasks under discussion in native South American Spanish, too.  She had a sign made that said, in both languages, “Let us solve this problem together.” She had stationery made that said, “Memo to the President of [store name].”  And she’d help people fill these things out by the dozens, bring them home to us, more art.

Her boss wanted her to take back as little merchandise as possible, preferably none.  Missing button?  Loose frill?  Botched hem?  She had a sewing kit and huge bucket of notions, and she’d seamstress the thing right there.  Wrong size?  Baby, tight looks good on you!  She’d put the broken TV back on the shelf and trade for a better one, what did she care?  She took on 100 personae a day, from bitch to victim to siren to schoolgirl, whatever it took to make the complaints go away.  Her job was one big installation, before that word had any currency down in SoHo, where I lived, or in Hoboken, where she lived.

“Art is the solving of problems,” she said.  She said this all the time.  Also, “Life is the solving of problems.”  And “You wake up, you solve your way through the day, every day.”

So that’s the bad advice for today: Don’t say “I have a problem,” say, “I am solving a problem.”  Works for everything.

Works best for art.


[Bill Roorbach mowed the lawn today.  He is going to Nashville tomorrow to see Taylor Swift with his daughter, who is a fan, and who has a birthday coming up.  Whoa! ]





  1. Richard Gilbert writes:

    I enjoyed this post, and thought I commented, but it isn’t here. Anyway, I have been listening to the Beatles as I grade student essays, and then chasing down Beatles tidbits on Wikipedia for breaks—I am always interested in how they worked. They epitomize this point, if you read about their sessions.

    I’ve written a new post on this topic, citing this one:

    • Dave writes:

      Sometimes Bill sleepwalks and erases comments down here at HQ.

      • Richard Gilbert writes:

        It’s funny: I actually started obsessing about this post, but couldn’t remember where I’d read it! Sorry, Bill. I had to type into my browser’s url “art is the solving of problems,” and it remembered and took me back here.

        So Bill gets the Landmine Post Award. Slow detonation, but deadly.

        • Bill writes:

          Well, Richard, I am happy to be there when you need me! Loving your Narrative posts… We’ll have to grab one soon for Bill and Dave’s!

  2. Sarah writes:

    I loved this, and your very vivid friend was right. Thanks for the enjoyable read.

  3. Kerry Headley writes:

    This is one of my favorite posts ever.