Art for Art’s Sake
When the doctor told Jack he was going to lose his sight, his first thought was “I should have become a podiatrist. Even blind, it’s easy to find someone’s feet. They’re usually at the end that’s not talking. But, no, I just had to be an artist…” Jack was a painter. For a little while longer, at least. He would have six more weeks with good vision, possibly less. And then the world would slowly vanish, taking his art career with it. Without sight, it is very difficult to tell if the meadow you are painting is full of red flowers, blue flowers, or ferrets smoking cigars.
He paid his bill without bothering to look at the amount, and stepped out into the autumn air, walking slowly home. The sidewalk twisted languidly past a small park and over a river, but the scenery went unnoticed. He trudged up the dank stairwell to his eighth-floor apartment and collapsed on the bed. He wanted nothing more than to lose himself in sleep, but he was suddenly terrified that turning off his bedside lamp would banish the light forever.
With a sigh, he pushed himself out of bed and wandered into the kitchen. Standing on a chair, he pulled open the cabinet over the stove. A box of icing-covered cookies was hiding behind the flour. The label on the back showed they were only slightly less nutritious than eating spoonfuls of Crisco. He had been on a diet for the past few months, but what did it matter now? He could become a human walrus and he’d never have to look at himself in the mirror again.
Across town, Felix Porter stepped nervously into the dean’s office. Felix was entering his twentieth year of teaching art appreciation at Faber College, but he had yet to actually read one of his student’s papers. Usually, he would stuff each paper into his cat’s litter box and then give the highest grade to the one that stayed dry the longest. Someone must have finally complained about the smell.
“Ah, Professor Porter,” the dean smirked. “The board is demanding cutbacks and, alas, your name is at the top of my list.”
“Me?” Felix gasped, tugging nervously at his paisley necktie. “Why am I first? My students love me!”
“And why shouldn’t they?” the dean laughed. “Your class is only twenty minutes long and next door to the vending machines. But even considering your positive student evaluations, your class is simply worthless.”
“This school is famous for its art program,” Felix protested. “How can you cut art appreciation?”
The dean reached into a drawer in his desk and produced a large, leather-bound book. He flipped through the pages for a moment, finally stopping on a familiar-looking painting. “Look at this… Do you need a class to appreciate the Mona Lisa? Or what about Starry Night? Or Dogs Playing Poker? No, if it’s a brilliant work of art, it moves you immediately. You don’t need to learn art appreciation because it’s not a skill. Teaching art appreciation is like teaching a class in enjoying cheesecake.”
“You’re firing Ms. Tannenbaum, too?”
“No, she has tenure.”
And so, Felix packed up his office and drove home. “Well, what now? The only thing I know how to do is talk about art. Maybe I could turn my old lesson plans into a book? I could call it How to Experience Pleasure While Looking at Pretty Things.”
By that evening, Felix was thoroughly, utterly depressed. He wandered into a local coffee shop, a little place by the airport called “Our Coffee Has Booze In It.” It was very popular. He found a seat at the counter next to a portly fellow in paint-stained overalls. “Barista,” Felix called, “give me a caramel latte with bourbon. Hold the caramel. And the latte.”
“I sense a kindred spirit,” said the man in overalls, offering his hand. “I’m Jack, and I have also been much abused by life.”
The two men talked for hours, each relating their tale of despair and misfortune. Outside, the sun returned to the sky. Felix jumped up from the table, knocking their stack of coffee cups to the floor. “I’ve got it! I know how to get us both back to work!”
Two months later, Jack had a show at a local gallery. All of his latest works were on display. He sat in a folding chair at the back of the room, waiting for a sale. His vision had declined significantly, but he could use credit cards by feel. As long as no one paid in cash, he wouldn’t have to guess which green blur was a twenty and which was a five. A nearby clock ticked away. The clack of heels on tile echoed through the room.
“Are you the artist?” asked a woman’s voice.
“I have a question about one of your paintings, the one by the door entitled Enchanted Forrest.”
“What about it?” Jack asked.
“Well, I don’t know how to say this… It doesn’t actually look like a forest, does it? It looks like you just tossed some green paint in the general direction of the canvas. And mostly missed.”
“I guess you just don’t understand my work at all,” Jack snapped. “I have freed myself from the notion that paintings have to represent objects or ideas. The only reason I even give my paintings titles is so that you people have a starting point to begin analyzing my work.”
“But the titles have no connection to the paintings,” the woman protested. “I could switch the plaques and no one would notice.”
“Well, that’s not true at all.”
“I think all of this is just an excuse,” the woman said. “You’re just trying to hide the fact that you’re not a very good painter.”
“And I suppose you would demand that every violinist play a tune!” he laughed. “God forbid our musician feels like being a little creative! God forbid he performs a great work of art that just happens to sound like a cat being sawed in half. People might think he doesn’t know how to play!”
“Well,” the woman huffed, “I can see that you’ve chosen to mock your audience rather than explain yourself. I should be going.”
“Look, lady,” Jack said, “If you want to understand art, you have to study it. If you have the time, my friend is teaching a class at the community center…”