By R. B. Miner -
One of my favorite pastimes was going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, only I didn’t go inside. Instead, I walked the sidewalk at the bottom of the great stone steps and took in the paintings displayed by the amateurs and counterfeiters, leaned against the risers or arranged on folding tables. Everything about the experience was better. It was deeper and more vibrant.
And shouldn’t art be about the experience? A novelty of feeling? I’ve stood countless times, still and silent, in front of the work of the great impressionists and Renaissance artists. That’s the way to appreciate the art, they say. But I’ve never laughed inside the museum. Never felt guilt at not buying a piece. Never felt the sun on my face and smelled the odor of dirty water hot dogs from the cart down the block while I haggled with the man who had painted the thing.
Picture this: you drink coffee spiked with Bailey’s and stroll. There are people everywhere. They are not tiptoeing carefully past priceless works or tapping their chins, a brochure tucked under one arm—they are eating, marching, yelling, living urgently all around you. A hustler sees you and calls out: “Say, man, come take a look at these. Bet you’ve never seen anything like them.” Then you both laugh, because he’s pointing to a knock-off of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
But in another way he’s right; this picture is unique. Done in canned spray paint, you can see desperation in the lines, the velocity of the aerosolized paint. This man, too, with his wide, jaundiced eyes, with his need, is possessed by his own sort of mania. You ask him how much, and he says, “Twenty dollars, big man.” Twenty dollars to own this, to hang it on your wall, to have a story to tell.
But you know the game. “Ten,” you say, and the man sucks his teeth. That’s when you notice how much it hurts him to give it up. You see his need again, only this time you understand it more fully. It is about hunger, by every definition of the word. He says, “Alright, man.” He lifts the painting off the stone steps and hands it to you, defeated by his need. But you give him a twenty and say, “Keep the change.” He grins and says, “My brother.”
My closets used to overflow with small works of art. John the Baptist in watercolors on an eighteen inch by twenty-four-inch bit of rough cloth, stretched over a balsa wood frame. Persephone in colored crayons on a laminated sheet of printer paper. Yellow Red Blue in plain old number 2 pencil, torn right out of a spiral-bound sketch pad. Can you imagine?
I hung them on a wall in my apartment until I ran out of room. Then I began switching out the pieces, taking down ones that had been hanging for a while, replacing them with ones I’d just acquired. The wall was an ever-changing mosaic, arranged entirely by feeling. I made no considerations for what might look nice next to what, only how the arrangement tugged at my gut. A friend once suggested I arrange the pieces by color. I told her she didn’t get what I was doing.
Picture this: you buy an original piece, not a copy, from an art student selling her stuff outside the subway at Union Square. It’s a tiny canvas, maybe five inches by seven inches, and it only costs you five dollars, but you recognize something in it. Not a place or a thing, but something more ineffable. Something like talent, or a message that you can’t quite translate. When you get home, you hang it on your wall.
Later, your friend comes by to have a drink. After you pour the wine, the two of you sit on the couch in your living room to talk, but your friend is distracted. She keeps looking at your wall, at your new painting. “Do you like it?” you ask. “I picked it up today.” Your friend just nods. She goes to the wall and takes the canvas off its nail to look closer at it. She still hasn’t said anything. You know right then that you’re going to send her home with it.
If you asked what was in the painting, I’d say it doesn’t matter. If you asked the artist’s name, whether she became famous, I’d say it doesn’t matter. The same thing could have happened on a different day with a different painting and a different friend. That’s the whole point.
For that reason, I never knew how long I'd keep a painting. Some got donated or resold or given to friends. Someone spilled a drink, or the cat got bored with his scratching post. I never felt guilty about the transience of most pieces. Not every experience will be resonant forever. Most won’t, in fact. And you can’t just imbue a painting with meaning. That has to happen naturally.
Picture this: You grow up, get married, have a kid. You buy a house in the suburbs. One night, shortly after you’ve moved, you’re unpacking boxes, and you pull out the first piece of art you ever bought. It’s a picture of a rowboat on a river. You bought it in Paris, on a bridge over the Seine. At the time you thought it would be a great gift for your father. He loved France and boats and he taught you to love art. It was cheap, but you were poor, and it’s the thought that counts.
The next day, you got a call from your mother. She asked you to come home early. Your dad died, you see. You packed the painting in your luggage and headed to the airport.
But the painting makes you feel warm now, in this unfamiliar place, so you smile as you set it on the windowsill in the spare bedroom of your new house. You like it there, because you know your dad would have appreciated the gesture. This is the room he would have stayed in, had he been around to visit.
Your wife clears her throat. “It doesn’t go there,” she says. You don’t know what she means. “The colors,” she clarifies. “They clash with the rest of the room.”
So you fight—a real knock-down, drag-out brawl—because she doesn’t get it. Very quickly, the fight becomes about things other than the location of a tiny painting. Maybe it was about other things to begin with. Maybe it’s about the tightness of your family budget. Maybe it’s about the fact that you have to take the train anytime you want to peruse the steps of the Met. Maybe it’s about your life in boxes.
When you tell her why the painting is important to you, she cries and accuses you of withholding the information to make her seem like a villain. She’s not a monster, she just doesn’t want the painting right there. But you don’t want to budge. That’s where the painting is supposed to go, you’re sure of it, so you start tearing open boxes, gathering up the other pieces she let you bring from your apartment. “I just want the one damn painting,” you say. “Take the rest, for all I care.” You go down the stairs, arms overflowing with canvases. In the living room, you throw the paintings, one at a time, into the fireplace of your new house. When the fireplace is full of art, you turn around, ready to ask your wife if she’s happy now.
But she hasn’t followed you, and you hear her sobbing faintly in the spare bedroom where you left her with the painting you bought for your dead father.
R. B. Miner is a New York City native, West Point graduate, and occupational dilettante. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in, among others, The Saturday Evening Post, Identity Theory, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, Literally Stories, and Soliloquies Anthology. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, daughter, and dog. You can find him on Twitter @rbminerauthor and Instagram @rbminer.