“Great art, like great love, should hurt. It should burn like liniment, hot and cold at the same time, not because it is terrible, but because it is terribly beautiful. It should sting because it is inside you and still unattainable “
He sat in the auditorium, dumb and alert, eyes fixed on the thin figure on the platform. He fidgeted with his copy of Das Boot, bending back the cover, glancing at the title page, closing it. He couldn’t stop.
“Approach art as you would approach a flame: with caution and ecstasy. Art builds and then burns, creates and disintegrates. This is life.” He paused, spread his arms wide.
”This is life.”
Truman felt himself rising, heard his hands slapping together. Das Boot slid to the floor, its muffled thump inaudible in the crackle of applause. He stood on his tiptoes, trying to see Dr. Freeman above the wild hair in front of him. He thought he could make out the top of his head, his hand waving above his head: “Thank you, thank you!” The crowd didn’t want thanks; it wanted catharsis—Truman wanted catharsis. He wanted one more song, one more sentence. The lights began to come up, and he picked up Das Boot and started pressing his way through the crowd.
“Truman! Hold up!”
Truman heard, but couldn’t stop—the crowd was pushing him along. Once he passed through the door, he managed to slip from the boiling mass into a little alcove where a guest register sat on a small stand. He had never seen anyone sign it. He stood and waited, watching the crowd as it passed in hundred-file. Just as he began to wonder if he’d missed him, James seemed to materialize before his eyes.
“Truman, buddy, what’s the news? I saved you a seat.”
Truman had seen the seat but decided not to sit there. It wasn’t that James wasn’t a friend—he was—but James lacked a certain something. He was not serious, and Truman would rather have skipped the session altogether than to split his attention, one ear for Dr. Freeman and one for his stage-whispering “buddy”.
“I didn’t see you. Besides, you know how it is. I prefer…”
“You prefer to sit alone. This isn’t news, Truman. This is… this is hearing that Bush stole the election, right? That cats are better than dogs, that not even my graphing calculator hiccupped on y2k. Or…”
“I understand. I do. No more examples, please.”
“Whatever. So, what did you think?”
Truman wanted to share his thoughts on Dr. Freeman’s presentation only slightly more than he’s wanted to hear James’s thoughts during it. He pretended the question had been lost in the bustle of the crowd, now pressing in quite tightly against the nook in which they stood. He pushed his way forward, rudely jostling a young lady in cat-eye glasses, and James followed, asking further questions that were legitimately inaudible.
James persisted until they exited the building, at which point he grabbed Truman’s arm.
“Can you hear me now?” he said, his voice pitched oddly, intentionally, as if to provoke laughter; the humor, whatever it was, was lost on Truman.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now. How can I process it so quickly?”
“How long does it take? I already know exactly what I think about it, and I heard it the same time as you.”
He stood, staring expectantly at something just over Truman’s left shoulder; Truman resisted the urge to look himself. After a few seconds of this, it became obvious that James was waiting on Truman to ask about his thoughts on the session. Truman immediately resolved that this was something he would never do, and so, pretending not to have noticed James’s strange behavior at all, he simply grunted and walked toward the brightly lit snack bar.
He purchased some boiled peanuts and tried to lose himself in the crowd, but James was like a plaid-clad leech, stuck to him like a tongue to an icy flagpole, except this tongue would not stop talking.
“So, all that stuff about art? Kind of shallow, I think. I mean, I can’t really explain it. It’s not like I’m an art major, like some people I know,” —and here, he looked at Truman, who was, strictly speaking, an architecture major, and winked—“but I know something. I know that art isn’t a fire or anything like that. It’s more like…” At this, he fell silent, as if he had been reading from an unfinished paper.
Truman enjoyed the silence. It was true—art was not a fire, not literally, but there was something true in what Dr. Freeman had been saying. Or, not something, exactly; he felt that everything had been true in fact, if not in reality, but he couldn’t quite reconcile the two. He thought back to his own artwork, a painting he’d been working on for nearly two months, and imagined that it too was like a burning thing, destructive, purifying, but it didn’t quite fit. It was an idyllic farmhouse surrounded by glass-and-steel skyscrapers. He knew the statement it made was cliché, and to him, that was the best part—with cliché, he would do what others could barely do with creation… maybe. In truth, he’d been feeling some doubt, not just about his painting but about his skill in general.
“Maybe I should stick to houses.” he said, unintentionally speaking aloud then sending up a quick prayer: please, God, let James be deaf.
“What was that?” James asked. Truman ignored him.
“It’s like painting.” said James. He was satisfied. “It’s just like painting. It’s not like fire. It doesn’t destroy things. That’s a load of romantic crap. Art augments, it makes hyperreal, it expands horizons.”
“Maybe I’m full of it too.” Truman agreed but didn’t say so.
Later that evening, having finally shaken James, Truman stood in his room, staring at his painting. It sat on the easel, looking back at him with its unfinished face. Light came only from a tiny desk lamp, and in the dim, he hardly recognized his own shapes. They had become foreign to him, splotches of color and texture, strangers to their creator. One moment, he was staring at the farmhouse; the next, he saw something he had never seen before.
It was awful.
It suddenly clicked in his mind, and he could no longer deny it. The problem wasn’t that his painting wasn’t finished—it was that it wasn’t good. He pulled a stool over and collapsed on it, not even blinking as he stared at his mess. What had he seen it to begin with? There was no fire here, no passion. No eyes would water, no chests would constrict, no brains would rev when they saw it. It was what it was, a silly amateurish cliché. He was an architect painting about art.
Finally, when he tired of flailing himself, he picked up the phone and called the only person he knew was awake.
“Hey, buddy. A little late, right? What’s up?”
“Are you busy, James?”
James hung up the phone and seemingly moments later, knocked on Truman’s door.
“Thanks for coming.”
James looked as though he’d just finished a workout. He was drenched in sweat and smelled badly. Truman didn’t ask what had been going on.
“I guess you’re wondering about this.” James waved his arms over his body. “Just working out. Doing some push-ups.”
Truman went into the living room and sat down. James got a beer from the refrigerator and crashed onto the couch. He looked at Truman expectantly, like a dog begging for a treat.
“Do you still want to know what I think of the speech tonight?”
“Oh, of course, man. I was thinking about it. Halfway through my fifth rep, I could hardly do another pushup, I was wondering so hard. Seriously.”
Truman motioned toward to canvas in the middle of the room, now covered with a sheet. James almost jumped, as if the canvas had leapt from a dark closet.
“All this time, man, and I never knew you painted.”
“That’s probably for the best.” said Truman. He stood, walked over to the sheet, and pulled it off.
James looked at the painting, back at Truman, and back at the painting again. Truman could see thoughts running behind his eyeballs like a ticker tape, but he couldn’t read them.
“What is it?”
“It’s a farmhouse. It’s surrounded by skyscrapers because… well, you know. Why would it be surrounded by skyscrapers?”
“Metaphor.” James infused the word with a gravity usually reserved for something like Eucharist. “Can I be honest?”
“No, it’s ok. It’s not really my thing.”
They looked at it for a few more minutes, and Truman replaced the sheet.
“I thought the speech was great. Kind of beautiful. It makes me think art is… well, that art makes more sense than anything. That it all means something, anything. We only get so much time and all we can do is try to leave behind something meaningful. And then we try, I try, and it turns out like this.” He motioned toward the sheet.
“It’s a nice sheet.” said James.