It’s All Relative
The white canvas hung on the wall between the blue and black abstract labeled “Dog” and the Picasso-esque orange and green “Tree with Moose.”
Cathy stared at the white canvas for a long time. “What is this crap?”
Ted, standing next to her, pointed to the label. “ ‘What is Love?’. Says it right there.”
“It’s crap. Look at the price tag. Eight hundred dollars? Why isn’t the guy who made the canvas getting that money?”
Ted shrugged. “It’s art, Cath. Anything goes in art.”
“Uh-huh. And why don’t they just take a handful of crap and smear it on a wall?”
A small, flamboyant man in dark clothes had walked up behind them. “Zat is my next project. Eet will be called, ‘Zees is Love!’”
Cathy said, “Oh my god. You even have the little French accent. Tell me, where is your beret?” Ted elbowed her.
The little man replied stonily, “Eet ees at the cleaner’s.”
Ted, always the peacekeeper, said, “Your art is very...er...original. Where do you get your ideas?”
The man puffed up his skinny chest. “My work ees drawn from my real life experiences.” He pointed to the white canvas. “Zees ees symbolizing the emptiness of zat which is called love by some people and horrible stupid aloneness by others.”
“Wow,” Cathy muttered. “Someone’s bitter.”
The man glared. “I make zees emotions into art or else I would go eensane.”
“News flash. You’re already there.”
This time it was Ted who glared. “Jeez, Cath. Lighten up.”
Cathy said, “What I want to know is, what makes this art? What makes it worth eight hundred dollars? It’s a canvas and some white paint.”
“Eet ees not for the paint zat people pay the money. Eet ees for the idea, the feeling.”
“That’s stupid. Anyone can have an idea. What makes this one worth that much money? Seems to me that the least someone should get for that much is a little color, or a shape...something. Even writing that thing about the emptiness of love would be better than just a plain white canvas.”
“Zere are things not always visible to the eye. Zere are feelings zat cannot be described by words or images.”
“Right,” Ted piped up. “It’s called aporia—the blank space between words. We learned that in Literary Criticism in college, remember Cathy?”
“Well, I still think it’s crap.” Cathy walked out of the art gallery. After an apologetic glance at the artist, Ted followed her. At the door, another man stood handing out Xerox copies to people as they left. Ted looked at the paper in his hand. The top of the page said, “Ways of Seeing, by John Berger.”
Cathy slapped the article down on the table. “It’s crap.” It was the day after she and Ted had been to the gallery. Ted had already read the essay. Exasperated, he sighed.
“Why? Why is someone expressing his opinion about something like art crap?”
“It’s not that he’s expressing his opinion. It’s that he’s trying to tell me how I should think. This part here, he’s saying that authenticity and cost is what makes a work of art beautiful. Nothing about the actual content of a painting. Nothing about form. Those paintings at the gallery were “authentic,” but a kindergartener could do them, and they wouldn’t be worth eight hundred dollars.”
“It has to do with the name. The little dude at the gallery was an artist, his name is known in the social circles of people used to paying a bunch of money for art. It’s not the art they’re buying, it’s the name of the artist. It’s a status symbol.”
“Yeah, but who can tell? There isn’t even a signature! No words, images. That is the problem with art today. In the past, you could tell what art was supposed to be. Now, anyone can take any piece of garbage they find lying on the street, and be all ‘Oh, this symbolizes the loneliness of my childhood, and my father left my mother, and I was all pimply and didn’t have any friends in school...’. You can make up all sorts of stupid crap and people today are brainwashed. They think that they have to be sensitive to everyone and their feelings and they don’t stop to think that maybe people are just feeding them lines to get their sympathy and their money.”
Ted nodded reluctantly. “That’s true, Cath, but I think a lot of people know that. And they buy into it anyway. How weird is that? It makes people feel important and sensitive to support the arts. If they know nothing about art to begin with, they are content to let other people—that they think of as ‘artsy’—to tell them what is important and what isn’t. And, more often than not, what comes across as important is the stuff with the biggest price tag.”
“People just don’t think for themselves anymore.”
“Or,” Ted suggested with a rare smile, “they are thinking for themselves and that’s what is so strange to us. A hundred-fifty years ago, I doubt anyone would be able to turn a urinal upside down, name it “Fountain”, and pass it off as a masterpiece, like that guy...what was his name...Duchamp did in 1917. He was the first guy to do that, and now he’s in art history books all over. Maybe it’s time art’s horizons were broadened.”
“Right. Aside from the cliché, which I shall ignore, I think you’re wrong. It is wrong to buy a white canvas, paint it white, and call it art. That money should just go to the person who made the canvas in the first place.”
“I happen to agree. However, people have different tastes in everything, which is what makes the world so interesting. Just think of it as a personality identifier. If you ever run into the poor shmuck who actually buys ‘What is Love?’, you will know you won’t get along and should just stay away from him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Thanks.” Ted picked up the white canvas and carried it past the small man in the beret flipping through the eight-hundred dollars cash Ted had given him.
“Thanks, Dude!” cried the man happily, forgetting his French accent.
When Cathy opened her door, she was startled by the expanse of white canvas filling her doorway. She peered around it to see Ted’s grinning face.
“What the hell did you do?” she asked disbelievingly.
“I bought you a present.”
“You bought me the canvas? The art-that-is-not-art? The crap?” Cathy nearly shrieked.
“Well, you’ve been talking about it so much I thought maybe it had some sort of hold on you. So here it is. Burn it if you want.”
“You want me to burn something you paid eight hundred dollars for?”
“Well, if I might make a suggestion...” Ted pulled a set of oil paints out from one of his huge pockets and a collection of paintbrushes from another. “Maybe you’d like to make your own masterpiece.”
As Cathy stared at the canvas, she began to think about the colors she could use, the emotions she could express on that stark whiteness, and a smile spread across her face. “Yeah...maybe I’ll do that. I’ll call it ‘Ted is a moron’.”