The painting in my office was of a bear devouring a car under a shades-wearing sun, though you kind of had to be told that to tell. I’d found it in my closet. I called my mom to ask if she wanted me to bring it to her when I came to dinner Friday, knowing already that of course she did. She had this guest room that doubled as a museum of my childhood.
In the meantime, I’d hung it up in my office. My roommate, Truman, was quick to cite it as evidence of my bad taste as a decorator.
“I painted that when I was six,” I said. “It’s sentimental.”
“You painted that?” he said. “Then what are you doing leaving it out? I’d be touched to be the sole viewer were I not positive that dozens if not hundreds of leers have already fouled it. And yet there it hangs! Well no longer.”
Where Truman comes from, you’re not supposed to let anyone see your art until after you’re dead. He’d already grabbed the painting off the wall and had begun to tear it out of its frame before I got to him. “You’re being intolerant,” I said, an expression that never guilted him the way it had me.
“And yet, it was not always so, ” Truman said, crouching into his storytelling stance. I knew to sit. “There was a time when a famous living artist would roam the countryside, bumming hams on the strength of his reputation, and those upon whom the artist happened would be honored to nourish him with a nosh or two in exchange for scraps of art natter.
“There were, however, problems. For illustration: A true cream-of-the-yield painter would generate a masterpiece, become celebrated, get paraded all over by enthusiasts, and be invited to more informal ham noshes than a person could imbibe in a lifespan. And when, finally, the artist was released by the mob—if he was, in fact, ever released—he would be brash, callous, moneyed, stout, a master not of bristle on board but instead of vague condescension and napping.
“Or another talented artist would paint a masterpiece and become celebrated, but, having witnessed what ruin fame has wreaked on his contemporaries, he would duck the limebulb in hopes of generating yet another masterpiece, but would then sit himself at his blankboard and generate a painting staggeringly similar to the genuine masterpiece, still fine and in fact improved in sundry minor technical ways, but mildly worse in sum, and by extents less thrilling for its likeness to the masterpiece. All the while, his gut would be aflame with the ghosts of the many meals and other base gratifications he has refused in order to produce this bland sandwich of work.
“Or still another talented artist would generate a skilled, admirable painting and suspect it was a masterpiece and present the painting to an expert, who would mouth hums of pleasure, and would delicately proclaim it enormously good but not a masterpiece, and the painter would gasp and slap and sulk and never again paint despite possessing the sort of talent that engenders a very sporting chance at the eventual generation of a masterpiece, were he to sniffle at a grindstone a few more decades.
“These artistic extinguishments occurred and occurred and occurred, and the public found itself ever-dissatisfied with—and ever self-forgiving in its own role in—the relative lack of masterpieces, considering the abundance of proficient artists at work.
“This,” Truman added, “was a pair of centuries before Truman.
“On a particular but unrecorded day, the husband of a legislator was meditating on the concerns I have outlined and on that day produced an idea he distilled into a proposal, which was snatched from him and sculpted into law: Henceforth, no person could display her art to another without immediately destroying the art, under penalty of fines and lashes. The artist would simply work in solitude until death, arranging beforehand for her work to be appraised by comrades, kin, experts, anyone she could make swear to take a look—an oath binding by law. Again fines, again lashes.
“There is an additional positive, which the legislator’s husband did not foresee. The artists often developed a nuanced and even comfortable relationship with death. ‘I cannot wait for my offspring to see this!’ a painter might utter, knowing well what it means. He might even add, to his spouse, ‘I hope you outlast me,’ who might then reply, ‘Myself as well,’ so that she might at last visit the hidden side of this male she has lived with for so long.”
“I can’t imagine living with someone for sixty years,” I interrupted, “and never getting to participate in one of the biggest parts of her life.”
“You are not hearing,” Truman snapped. “Your hypothetical wife-artist—which strikes me not at all as the category of female who would willingly pair with you—she can and should show you a painting. It is considered a great honor to you if she does so. She simply must destroy it after your viewing. Besides those rare gifts, would not the law mostly be a relief? Particularly if your beloved was not as talented as she believed herself to be, brash in the way all artists must be to even convince themselves to make such a lottery crapshoot of an attempt? You could encourage your partner without perjuring yourself to her. Or rather by perjuring yourself only in the rarest cases and while overcome with genuine sentiment for the doomed gift she has placed before you.”
“It sounds so lonely,” I said.
“I’ve found no evidence that anyone has found a way around that,” Truman said.
I noticed, then, the bubbling car, the blackened bear, the bright burning sun, all melting onto my comforter. He’d done it with his mind. Only weeks before, I’d been in awe each time Truman debuted one of his destructive talents at the expense of my possessions or person. And now? I called him a few things he dismissed as descriptively imprecise then phoned my mom to tell her that I couldn’t give her the painting I’d promised her.
She was devastated. She loved that painting. It could have been of anything.
I turned then to Truman—I had more glaring to do—but he was gone. I found him in the kitchen, hovered over a piece of paper, each of his arms scribbling independently of the other. “Don’t come in!” he said, and held his hands over the paper so I couldn’t see. I went back to my room, read a little, fell asleep.
It was dusk when I woke, and Truman was standing over my bed, waiting, his hands hidden behind his back. “You’re up,” he said, and presented his drawing to me. It was weird in some ways I don’t have words for, but that’s not why I won’t say what it was of. I studied the drawing awhile, then we burned it over the stove, together this time.