Art

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Thirteen

 

First I want to say, art is done in a small room to make it big. Then I want to say, you’re going to die, you’ll need a distraction. Then I want to also say, art eats a gigantic thing with its many rows of teeny tiny teeth.

 

I was at an open mic, there because a friend had asked Rae and I to watch him sing two songs, accompanying himself with banjo. The venue was a bar set up like a narrow train car with a stage at one end. It’d be a while before his turn. A person got up with an acoustic guitar, sang a love song, and then another. Someone else told five minutes worth of jokes. Then a puffy person stood up and yelled, “I’m living in a world of shit!” He marched up and down the aisle, ripping his clothes off. Beneath his clothes was another layer of clothes. He screamed, “I’m living in a world of shit!” again, and marched some more, pulling off a new layer of clothes—shrinking. “I’m living in a world of shit!” Soon, he was in a slim cow costume. Pink udders. Many layers to go. But he was still living in that world of shit.

 

Walking the High Line, 23rd and 10th Ave, I get a message from my friend, Tom, asking if I want to get drinks later. I text back I’ve got to stay sober, I’ve got writing to do, and I’ll be back in Jersey City by the time he’s off work anyway. On an off-chance, I mention I’m heading to the museum, and he should come with. Then I’m standing there,  looking east across the city, straight down 20th street, thinking, “There has never been any great art made about 20th street.” I’m just thinking it as a joke. A new message comes back, Tom works close by, which is surprising. Who knows where anybody works? He’s leaving now. He’s on 18th and 9th Ave. I take the stairs down to the street. When I get to the corner, he’s just walking up in his dress clothes. Shiny watch. Nice coat. We stand on the corner for a minute, and he tells me he’s busy trying to think up the name of a hotel in White Plains. That’s his job. He names hotels, among other things. Buildings, mostly.

We walk down 10th. He asks why I’m in the city instead of at work at the oil refinery. I say I’m off because it’s slow, they told me to stay home, so I came here to buy a typewriter. The typewriter store was coincidentally next door to the junk shop where, years before, I’d bought Rae her engagement ring. Tom nods, puffs on his vape.

It’s February, but it feels like spring. We stop and look back at Hudson Yards, the new skyscrapers going up back behind our shoulder, steel and glass touching the clouds. He says it really doesn’t matter what somebody names a hotel, because no matter the name, people are still going to stay there if it’s nice enough, and if they are tired enough.

Across the street, vendors sell Banksy-inspired screen prints. It doesn’t look good to me, any of it. But it makes me think maybe some of it might actually be Banksy art, or whatever. Like those videos on social media, where a world famous violinist sits on the subway platform, and the crowd just drifts by, putting nothing in the cup, meanwhile there are people who pay thousands to attend their recitals, or something, or something, or something, or something.

Tom and I eat hot dogs from a silver cart, and then we stand there drinking hot coffee, just feet away from the entrance to the Whitney Museum. I’m going to go see the Andy Warhol exhibit.

“Do you like Andy Warhol?” he asks.

“I don’t know if I do or not. It’s hard at this point. It’s like asking if I like the Beatles. I can’t tell anymore. Too many things are tied up in it.”

“Too ubiquitous. Did you see the commercial with him during the Super Bowl?”

“I didn’t, no.”

“Burger King commercial. Warhol slowly eating a Whopper and drinking a Coca-Cola.”

“I didn’t, no.”

We are in the shade and it’s cold. I put my hood up. He asks me, “What’s your mother’s name?”

“Robin,” I say.

“What’s it mean?”

“I’m not sure. You know, besides a bird.”

“Maybe I’ll name the hotel after your mom. You know, that whole thing of rebirth. Spring.”

He has to name the hotel after something. Rebirth seems like as good an idea as any. The conversation shifts around. I mention I went to the opera the other night and I liked the way the orchestra sounded. And I tell him the story of Bluebeard, which he doesn’t know. He says his wife plays these Italian opera records she’s been bringing home. He hears her playing them while she takes showers, and it sounds so profound. The most profound showers anybody ever had.

“You ever listen to Lizst?”

“No, who’s that?” I say.

“Great music to write to. Franz Lizst. Try it.”

I find out later that Liszt is credited with the creation of the symphonic poem. I never even knew there was a symphonic poem. There’s so much to know, and hardly any of it really matters, but it helps, all of it. Its little tiny teeth eat the big thing so it doesn’t kill you so fast.

We drink our coffee. Then we shake hands and say it was good that synchronicity brought us together for a hot dog. He walks back toward 9th Avenue, and I go inside the Whitney. The first thing I see when I get out of the elevators on the third floor is a video of Andy Warhol, sitting at a table, his hair wild. He is slowly eating a Whopper. He is slowly drinking a Coca-Cola. Synchronicity in his ketchup.

As I stand there looking at it, a man and a woman walk up. They wear surgical masks. The man explains to the woman, his voice muffled, “What he was trying to say was that rich people and poor people all eat the same food, that is what makes America special.”

That’s a lucky human. He thinks he has the answers, and so he does. When I look closer in their direction, they are already gone. And I am still there looking at the dead man with his hamburger, and his ketchup, and his soda, and I don’t know what it means. So I look again.

 

I’m not in a world of shit, but I, too, am a performance artist.

 

Here, listen, I’ll tell you about it: The other night Rae asks me to take the trash out. It’s heavy. She’d cleaned out the fridge of all the rotten vegetables. The stairwell in the building is being painted. I see yellow caution tape in a big X telling me to go no further. I turn the corner and push open the door to the other stairwell with my socked foot. I’ve never had a reason to use this stairwell before. But surprise, this stairwell only leads up. Except, there is a door, which says, To Parking Area. As long as I have lived in the building, the parking area has been closed because of some extensive construction project that hasn’t begun. However, the trash pile is by the Parking Area. So I push open that door. And an alarm sounds.

The alarm sounds like the one they use in movies when the nuclear launch codes have been entered and there is a countdown before the missiles are launched.

I let the door close. And then I stand there in the stairwell, holding my bag of wet garbage, and the nuclear alarm keeps sounding. And sounding. And sounding. I push open the door and walk back into the main hallway. The door directly across from the stairwell opens and a man I don’t know gives me a worried look.

“Don’t worry, I’m not a burglar.”

He blinks. I just stand there. Another door opens all the way at the end of the hallway, another head sticks out. I tell them too, “I’m not a burglar.”

I walk away from all of them. I carry the wet bag of trash across the white marble lobby and up the little set of stairs that lead to my door. Of course the door has shut all the way (something I was trying to avoid) and it has locked. I pound on it and Rae answers, and she says, “What is that alarm?”

“Eh, don’t worry about it, it was me.”

“It was you?”

“Yeah.” I lean the trash against the wall and slip my sneakers on, and I go out the front door of the building. I walk down the sidewalk, around the corner, I heave the wet trash onto the trash heap, and then I walk in the back door of the building and I hear the alarm again. The nighttime super is in the mailroom listening to his headphones, so he doesn’t notice the alarm. He reaches to hand me my mail, a pile of used paperback books, and I motion for him to take his headphones off. “Oh,” he says, noticing the alarm. “Oh.” He moves out of the mailroom and I tell him, “I set that off, it wasn’t a burglar.”

“You set it off?”

I explain the situation.

“Why’d you set it off?”

He doesn’t get it. And it doesn’t matter. We walk out of the mailroom, me balancing all those books in my arms, him jangling some keys. We walk down the hallway, he pushes open the stairwell that was supposedly being painted, ripping down other caution tape, and then we are in it. There’s no wet paint at all. Nothing has been painted. And this makes me mad. He huffs up the stairs. I say, “Is this being painted, or what?”

“It is, yeah.”

“When?”

He doesn’t answer. We come out on my floor. There’re a lot of people lingering now. He says, “It’s all cool, it’s all cool. Don’t worry.” He opens the problem stairwell, puts his key in the slot, turns it, stops the nuclear launch code noise.

Now, I’m stuck there with all my neighbors, none of whom I know, even after being their neighbor for all this time. And I say again, “No burglar. Just me. Just me.”

“It says Emergency Exit Only,” the nighttime super says.

“It also says To Parking Area.

“That’s an old sign,” he jangles the keys, laughing now. He says loud, “Nobody called the cops, right?”

Nobody says anything. But the cops don’t come.

I go back in my apartment. I tell Rae everything that just happened, and I say, the kicker is, it was all performance art. She likes that. She says every time she ever fucks up from here on out, she’ll just call it performance art, too.

 

When I got my yearly pass to the museum, I told that to the deskman, too. Artist memberships are $50, but my friend Nick who works there told me that they don’t consider writers artists. When they say ‘artists,’ they mean visual artists. So I could still tell them I was an artist, but I’d be best saying I was a performance artist. Which, like I said, is true. Most everyone I know is a performance artist. And it saves you $40 a year on membership fees.

 

I am at work now. I am looking at a blueprint. It has been drawn up on a computer by an engineer in Texas. The engineer figured out what grade of steel was needed for structural integrity. The engineer figured out the exact length, and orientation of each of these I-Beams. They drew these blueprints so I’d know exactly where to drill the holes for bolt up. They say what kinds of bolts to use too, just to keep me honest. And they have drawn up how the other connections will have to be welded together. It’s all hyper-critical. This steel can only be put together one way, says this engineer in Texas. And I hate this person. The blueprint they have given me is artless. The person in Texas with the engineering degree is artless. They have to be. And I hate them for it. I want to use my creativity. But if I get creative, and something collapses and causes an explosion, or a series of explosions, and someone dies, or multiple people die, the person who gets in trouble is me. And I guess trouble isn’t the word, really. I should say, I’ll be the person who will be dragged straight to Hell, where the devil will be there waiting with a smile.

So it goes like that, society says, follow this blueprint. You can’t deviate. It’s why they teach you to color within the lines with your crayons when you’re a kid. Adhere to the rules. You’re supposed to love the engineers, and want to hug and kiss ‘em, and praise ‘em over all. But really, in the back of your mind while you are measuring things out and following along, one can’t help but wonder what it’s all worth to have given up magic and replaced it with codes and programs and formulas. Maybe magic and miracles were better, I think, following the blueprint to avoid explosions and fatalities, trying to stay out of Hell.

 

Got filthy at work. Covered in grime. Welding all day. Following the blueprints. Came home and waited til the last minute to get ready and leave.

But turning the knob for the shower, I found out the water in the building was off.

Plot twist, I had an opera to attend.

I scurried out of the apartment. There was a notice by the P.O. box that the daytime super had left, saying the water would be back on by the following day at 3pm. They were repairing some burst line. Someone had most likely gotten creative when they were running the line, chose to ignore the engineered guidelines.

I walked to the coffeeshop down the street, bought an Americano, set it down on a table, borrowed the key for the bathroom from the clerk, went down the hallway, washed my hair and face and hands in their bathroom. When I was through, the water in the sink was black. I’d brought with me Rae’s lemon and basil shampoo, rather than using whatever the coffee shop kept there. I  dried off under the hand dryer. Drank the Americano. Walked to the PATH train, threw the shampoo in the trash (there wasn’t much left, a tablespoon or so), checked my phone. A writer in San Francisco who’d sent me their book in the mail, had replied to my note of thanks by saying, “No worries at all. I like writers who look like they can take a punch to the face. There aren’t that many of us.”

Well fuck, that was something to think about. I looked like someone who you could punch in the face and I’d probably barely notice.

But here I was, on my way to the opera. I took the escalator down to the tracks and thought about my supposedly tough guy gargoyle face. Everyone else, all around me looked so sweet, looked so gentle, looked absolutely beautiful in the light.

 

I came out of the subway, directly into Lincoln Center. The maze of it. It was early and I didn’t have tickets to get in, though I would have liked to have been inside. It was eighteen degrees out. I passed a door that said, “Performer’s Entrance.” A girl, about twenty, took photos of the sign and smiled as she looked at her phone to see the pictures she’d taken. She was wearing normal clothes. I imagined someone she knew was in the opera tonight. Or maybe she just wasn’t in her costume yet. She looked at me. I waved. At the end of the sidewalk was 65th Street. I stood on the corner and tried to figure out if there were any bodegas around where I could get some food. I didn’t see any. A halal cart was over by the corner. I walked to it. I asked the man inside, “How much for lamb kabob? How much for a Coca-Cola?” He told me. I took out my wallet and had no money in it. The halal cart didn’t take a debit card. “Hey buddy, XYZ,” he said. I checked my zipper. It was down. I had on green corduroy pants, way too big for me, but I wasn’t going to wear jeans to the opera. I zipped up my zipper. Thanked him. I left the halal cart. Over at the movie theatre, I saw a sign advertising Velvet Buzzsaw. I went inside the TD Bank, stood by the ATM. But I wasn’t taking money out. Just getting out of the wind. I looked up Velvet Buzzsaw on my phone. The synopsis said: “After a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art.”

So, a critique on the art world, and greed being bad for the soul. I saw it was coming to Netflix in a couple days. I left the ATM vestibule and walked over to Tully Hall to get some food, just to say I’d done it. For ten years I’d walked past that place and had never gone down there, though always admired it, a three story glass-enclosed bar and restaurant, sunken below the sidewalk, so you could gaze in when you walked by. It looked like someplace I wanted to be, just to have been there once. It didn’t matter that I was broke. I could find something cheap on the menu. I was never somebody who stayed away from somewhere. And if I looked like a clown, so be it, it was most likely warranted anyway. I checked my zipper again, opened the door, walked down and down and down.

 

I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of soup when Mungiello found me. He sat down across from me.

“Would you like half a sandwich?”

“I’d love that.”

“You want half my soup?”

He shook his head.

But I said, “I can get you a spoon from the guy. But I guess that’s weird. You don’t want to share my soup.”

I gave him half the sandwich. He looked so calm and rested and happy. He was in his mid-twenties, and another one of my friends who dressed like they had an adult job. We were two bespectacled men from the Garden State, sitting there sharing a cheese sandwich, and everything was right in the universe as far as I could tell, except I was itchy because I hadn’t been able to shower properly.

He said he was reading Harold Bloom, and I was reminded again why I like Mungiello so much. He is one of the smartest guys I know, and he seeks out and devours art with a sense of wonder and joy that is often missing from the intellectual set.

When he recommends a book, or a movie, or a piece of music, I make sure I make time to check it out.

He told me he thought I’d like Harold Bloom, who was dying. His new book had 80 brief essays on books that were important to Harold Bloom during his life, which was just about to end, and he knew it. I said that was great, I would have liked to find a book like that when I was much younger, I hadn’t been able to start reading “great literature” until I was almost 30. I’d had no literary friends till about that time.

When I was an adolescent, in that small town, I was raised by working class people who had been raised by working class people, who’d felt intimidated by art, just like their ancestors before them had been all the way back to the Dark Ages. My people couldn’t make heads or tails of non-narrative poetry, opera, some forms of abstract painting, dance, so on, so on…I’d broken the chain, by dating a string of girls who were from richer, more cultured families. Getting laid led to a kind of osmosis of culture.

Turns out there was nothing to be afraid of. I’d discovered this by the time I could drive a car. Miles Davis was making a bunch of noise on the Bitches Brew CD I’d gotten for my birthday, and the noise may have worried me because it took a genius to make it, and how was I supposed to be able to understand the work of a genius? But then I read him say, “There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others,” and that made me relax because if there were no wrong notes, then there could be no right or wrong answers.

 

Now, Friday night at the opera house, everyone up here, a pervert. That’s what Mungiello said anyway. Pointed them out. Those creeps you see shuffling around the Upper West Side, newspapers under their arm. Cryptkeeper looking people. Bug eyes, they all had. Mungiello was an honest to god opera critic now. We took our seats again. Watched Bluebeard’s Castle from the nosebleeds. The cheap seats. $30. The rich people were down there, way down there. Up here here were the perverts. A blonde woman on stage belted out in Hungarian, “Give me the keys!” Bluebeard responded, “Linda, kiss me, do not ask questions!”

 

Mungiello scribbled notes on the program playbill. We watched a one act opera about a blind girl who just so happens to be the king’s daughter. A knight falls in love with the blind daughter, but the daughter doesn’t know what light is, doesn’t know she’s actually blind. I fell asleep during some of that one. And then there was a second opera. It was a vast improvement. I looked over at him scribbling and couldn’t see anything he wrote. I kept my thoughts upstairs. He’d critique the orchestra, the way the conductor waved his magic wand, the way the set was lit, how the actors did, how they sang, the symbolism of this that and the other thing. Everyone in the opera house should be so lucky as to have an experience here, good or bad, and to have someone to tell it to, to talk it out with. I’m not sure very many of them have had the opportunity to truly tell anyone anything. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how much money you have, no one is listening. They just smile and nod while you talk, as if you’re speaking a different language.

 

I’m surprised how much mileage the place got out of projectors. Out of screens you can’t tell are there. Out of LED lights, and computerized fog.

 

During the first opera, I found it difficult to understand what was happening down on the stage. It was all in Italian. I didn’t know the girl was blind. She was surrounded by nuns. I assumed she was in an asylum. I had no idea she was the king’s daughter. So on.

But then I felt fine about it, believing for a while that it didn’t matter what they were saying, what the story was. I could make up my own story. My story might be better than the one being told on the stage. This went on for ten, fifteen minutes.

Finally someone said, “There’re subtitles?” I realized too, ah. I clicked a button on the chair in front of me. Little orange letters appeared in the blackness. The singing translated in real time, from Italian to English, an LED ticker tape saying, “Lolanta must never know she’s blind! I do not want her to suffer! You have to listen to me! I am the king!”

 

It’s really incredible seeing an orchestra like that, just tight, and everybody in a tuxedo or a fancy dress, and making it look lazy, yawning at their obo, turning the page, waiting for the magic wand to swing around, plunking at the harp, honking on a flute, and the person up on stage in the computerized fog just wandering around looking so little, and then opening her mouth and singing like God’s little sister not knowing what light is.

 

ACT II: Bluebeard is a bad dude. Some people mistake him for a pirate. But he wasn’t a pirate. Just a bad dude. Killed all his wives. The curtain rises. The curtain falls. Bluebeard is such a bad dude.

 

The new conductor looks like a good person. The old conductor, James Levine, was just fired for sexual misconduct. James Levine is not allowed near the story of Bluebeard, which is also about sexual misconduct, among other gruesome implied deeds, some of which involve meathooks.

 

The story of Bluebeard is a French folktale, I’ve known it for a long time. Italo Calvino has a version. The Brothers Grimm have a version. Everybody has a version. The opera is based on some version of the folktale of Bluebeard, but since it’s called Bluebeard’s Castle, we are supposed to realize it’s its own thing too.

Bluebeard’s Castle goes like this: A rich man goes to town and chooses a beautiful bride named Linda from among the peasants, persuading her father, to let him marry her. He takes Linda back up to his castle, which is shrouded in darkness. She notices seven locked doors in the castle and begs for them to be opened, but it is forbidden. She presses on, hoping if she opens them there will be light and air filling her new home. Bluebeard hands over a few keys, she begins opening doors. First she finds a torture chamber. Then she finds an armory, the weapons soaked in blood. Then she finds a treasury full of jewels and gold, also soaked in blood. Anyway, light is filling the castle. So she presses on. Bluebeard tells her just to love him and ask no questions, but he hands over more keys. Now Linda finds a secret garden full of bloody flowers; then a room that overlooks Bluebeard’s dominion, including her own family’s modest home, but the clouds hanging over the domain are blood red, casting it all in crimson; she opens another door and finds a silver lake of tears. Bluebeard stops her there and says she can never see what is behind the seventh and final door. She pleads. The door is opened and inside are Bluebeard’s wives, still alive, and they’re dancing around. Linda goes to them, slowly she joins them. And Bluebeard is a bachelor of sorts again.

 

That ending surprised me.

 

I knew the story a different way. The folktale of Bluebeard begins the same way the opera does, and vice versa. A nobleman comes down from his castle with intentions of marrying a beautiful girl from the village. He approaches a farmhouse where a farmer lives with his three daughters. Even though there are suspicions that the nobleman has been married before, and his previous wives have all vanished mysteriously, the farmer gives away one of his daughters, named Anne (she has different names depending on the version). She is taken to a dark and dreary castle. He gives her a set of keys that will open any door in the castle, each door holding some of his riches. He forbids her from opening a specific door down in the depths of the castle, then he goes away on business, la-de-da, la-de-da. Anne decides to throw a party while Bluebeard is away. She invites her sisters and some friends from town. During the party she gets increasingly curious about what’s behind the forbidden door. She unlocks it, finds all Bluebeard’s previous wives dead, hanging off meathooks. Everyone at the party is on the same page though, they leave the party, track down Bluebeard, and murder him. Anne lives happily ever after, keeping the castle and Bluebeard’s wealth. Her sisters all live happily ever after too. Everyone lives happily ever after. Everyone. I mean everyone. It’s just the way it should be. La-de-da, la-de-da.

 

The man who wrote the opera based on the folktale changed the ending to make it about himself. About his own experience. He didn’t want his private life open to anyone. The folktale is about Anne. The opera is about Bluebeard. The folktale is called Bluebeard. The opera about Bluebeard is called Bluebeard’s Castle. La-de-da, la-de-da.

 

And then there’s Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut. A ‘hoax autobiography’ from the abstract minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian. One-eyed Rabo first taught me the nature of art when I was in sixth grade, when he showed up in a cocktail lounge in the novel Breakfast of Champions.

 

Rabo Karabekian, found himself in trouble. He was at a bar in Midland City, in town for an art festival, the centerpiece of it being his painting, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” a 16’ x 20’ canvas painted electric green, with a single slim band of orange running vertically on the left hand side of the canvas, about two and a half feet from the edge. Some of the locals were angry with him. He’d just said something disparaging about a fifteen-year-old Olympic swimming champion from town, and this was when the trouble started. “Oh yeah? Well we don’t think much of your painting. A five-year-old could have done better.”

 

This is what happens with art. People, trying and failing to have an experience with the art, lash out, feeling ignorant. Feeling made fun of by the art and the artist. There’s usually no one to explain it to them the way Albert Einstein says, “If you can’t explain something (your theories)(your art)(your God)(your blueprints)(your whatever) you probably don’t understand it well enough yourself.” They become personally affronted by it. Of course, the nature of art, is ethereal, its truth not self-evident, even to the creator of the art. Someone might ask what a short story I’ve written is about, and fairly often, I’ll have no idea whatsoever what it is really about. I consider its definitive meaning none of my business. Besides, the reader will often come up with a much better ‘meaning’ for a story I have written than I could ever have dreamt up. It would be a disservice if I said, “It’s about nothing,” or, “It’s about how much I love my wife.” And the artist may very well be a conman, or a snake oil salesman, but the truth is boring and we are all going to die any second now anyway. No one is duped. It just turns out that there really is no way to understand it. The “it” being Art. The “it” being Life. The “it” being consciousness and our reaction to it. Misunderstanding “it” is the only way to begin approaching an understanding of “it.”

 

But Rabo is like that Einstein quote. He understands. So when Rabo slides off his barstool and stands up and delivers his big cocktail lounge speech, even the piano player stops his tinkling of the ivories to listen. He explains to them what his giant electric green painting is, and what the single vertical band of orange represents. “That picture [of mine] your city owns, shows everything about life which truly matters…It is a picture of the awareness of every animal…the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventures befall us…” And here is the humdinger, Rabo continues, “A sacred picture of St. Anthony alone in a vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light.”

 

Saint Anthony. The canonized saint of lost things. If meaning is lost on you, ask St. Anthony for help. Maybe he can bring it to you. If you are not sure who Saint Anthony is, or what he looks like, just look for a vertical band of orange light, that’s him. You can’t miss him. Saint Anthony is not the man stalking up and down the aisles, removing his cow costume to reveal another set of clothes beneath it. Saint Anthony would never yell out, “I am living in a world of shit!”

 

Up on stage, Linda tried to open doors. “Give me the keys!” she begged. Bluebeard responded, “Linda, kiss me, do not ask questions!”

 

The curtain fell.

 

During the intermission, I got into talking to Mungiello  about a rich guy he knows who wants to be a writer. The problem is, the rich guy can’t buy being a writer. He has to put in the work. And that is the hardest work I know of. Years of sitting down again and again and squeezing the lemon juice out of one’s own skull. A million words to begin to get good. I said, “You can’t buy this. You can only work for this. And that’s a shame. You can buy most anything else. Maybe art is the one thing where money won’t help you. And that is only because art is generally worthless. But because it’s worthless it’s also sacred.”

 

I’m thinking of Robert Johnson going down to the crossroads and selling his soul to the Devil to get good at, of all things, the guitar.

 

After the show ended, we crossed the street and sat down at a table with a red and white checkered tablecloth. A New York with a vengeance kind of place. Mungiello ordered fish and chips and I got to have some of them, since I gave him some of my cheese sandwich earlier.

 

Between Bluebeard and Bluebeard’s Castle, I like the story of Bluebeard better. I like that his wife wins.

But there’s an even better version of the story. A variation on a variation, called How the Devil Married Three Sisters. The hero of this one is Margarita.

What happens is the devil decides he wants to get married, so he fixes up his castle, disguises himself as a nobleman and walks down into the village. He approaches a farmer and the farmer agrees that he can marry his oldest daughter. The devil takes her home, and shows her that old familiar thing, a door that she can never open. He’s busy and has to leave on business, la-de-da, so he pins a flower to her dress and says see you later. While he’s gone, the girl opens the door and the fires of Hell are behind it, which singe the flower. The devil comes home, sees the singed flower, knows she’s opened the door, throws her down into Hell. So, down to the village the devil goes again, knocking on the farmer’s door, who marries off his middle daughter. The same test is given to the middle daughter, and while the devil is away on business, her flower is singed and she is then thrown down into Hell too. The devil goes back to the farmer, marries the farmer’s youngest daughter, who is named Margarita. The same test is given to Margarita, the devil shows her the door, leaves on business, la-de-da, etc. But Margarita accidentally spills a glass of water on herself, so when she opens the door, the fires don’t singe her flower. In the fires, she sees her sisters and she reaches down and pulls them up from Hell. Margarita then hatches a plan so they can all escape the devil’s castle. She finds three large trunks. When he comes home from business, he sees her flower is still how it was when he left, so he trusts her completely, and falls in love. Margarita takes advantage of this, now putting the devil to her own test, to make him show his allegiance to her. He must carry each of the three trunks down to the village and present them as gifts to her mother and father, but the catch is, he cannot look inside. She puts her sister in the first trunk, he lugs it down there, huffing and puffing during the hard journey. She does it again for her middle sister. The devil carries it down, wanting to gain her love, not looking inside. For her own trunk, she builds a dummy of her own likeness that she puts up on a balcony, so the devil thinks she is watching. He carries the final trunk to Margarita’s family, and then returns to his castle to be with his beloved wife. He discovers she is gone. Sees the dummy up close, knows he’s been tricked, destroys it in anger. When he returns to the village, he finds all three sisters standing at their front door, laughing hard at him, humiliating him, driving him away for good and he never tries to marry anyone else ever again.

 

That seems to better fit our times. The way you stop a monster these days is to publicly embarrass them. Laugh loud. No one is ever killed in such a way to lead to a happy ending. We drive the devil all the way back to Hell. That’s all.

 

Tonight, my phone rang. My mom wanted to see what was going on. I was on the couch.

“Not too much is happening,” I said.

“Did you really go to the opera?”

“Yeah, I really did. We should go sometime, I’ll take you.”

“Oh I don’t know about that.”

“Ah come on, it’s fun. It’s dumb, too.”

“What did you see?”

“There were two of them. Each was one act, an hour or so. I’m not sure how to pronounce the first one…Iolanta. It was about a blind girl who doesn’t know she’s blind. Basically it’s Tommy without the Who and the pinball, and a bunch of God stuff. The second one was Bluebeard’s Castle.”

“Bluebeard, the pirate?”

“He wasn’t a pirate, he was just a bad dude. A rich bad dude.”

“How was he rich?”

“They didn’t say.”

“So maybe he was rich from being a pirate.”

“Maybe he was rich from being a pirate. Yeah. By the way, I ran into my friend Tom the other day. He might name a hotel or a skyscraper or something after you.”

“Okay, Bud.”

From the shower, I heard Rae yell, “Where is the shampoo?”

 

On the sixth floor of the museum, the lights pulsed and it sounded like an arcade. There were no Campbell Soup cans or screen printed Elvis Presleys with pistols drawn, no cow wallpaper, or mention of fame or how they shoot you in the chest when you get it. The art up there on the sixth floor was computer based: “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 establishes connections between works of art based on instructions, spanning over fifty years of conceptual video, and computational art. The pieces in the exhibition are all ‘programmed’ using instructions, sets of rules, and code, but they also address the use of programming in their creation.”

I stood for a while, looking at a piece by Lynn Hershman Leeson, a living room set up in the middle of it all, with leopard skin furniture, a remote control on a chair, a TV set with a menu on it. You are supposed to sit in the chair and interact with the art, playing on a laserdisc, navigating the prompts, living a digital life. I stood there for a long time, just looking at the furniture and the TV, but not interacting with it. It looked so cool. I wanted to save it for later. I wanted to come to this sixth floor with Rae and experience this with her. I was happy to be alone at the museum now, on some random day, but I was looking forward to coming back with her and seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit again, even more excited about showing her this piece by Lynn Hershman Leeson. An end table with a green telephone. Magazines on the table. A leopard skin shirt thrown over there on another chairback. Together, we could misunderstand what it meant

I left the exhibit, took the stairs to the eighth floor, where the cafeteria was. They’d given me a coupon for a free drink when I’d gotten my yearly pass. I walked up to the register and asked for a cup of coffee, but I had to buy something else, that was part of the deal. I looked around for the cheapest thing I could find, and I saw a bin of apples. I handed an apple to the clerk. He handed it right back to me, said, “Four dollars.”

The exhibition on the first five floors was called Andy Warhol, From A to B and Back Again. The exhibition on the sixth floor, was called, Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018. I hadn’t seen the Whitney’s private collection on the seventh floor this time. The eighth floor, I hadn’t seen either, I’d see that with Rae, too. It was called, Kevin Beasley: A view of a landscape. But inside the eighth floor cafeteria, at that very moment,I was doing my own exhibition, it was called, Free Cup of Coffee with $4 Apple. I sat there crunching it at the table. And slurping the coffee. And crunching some more. And spilling some of the coffee on me. The skin of the apple was red. I pierced it with my crooked fangs. The people turned to look. The coffee was so hot. I blew on it to cool it. Free Cup of Coffee with $4 Apple. A one time performance. Be sure to catch it, or you’ll regret it forever.

 

Later that night, I came home. I walked up John F. Kennedy Boulevard through the golden hour, wishing I was a cinematographer and not a writer. Inside the building, I saw the caution tape was gone from my trusted stairwell. I spied it down the long marble hall. I walked straight to the door. Past the closed doors of all my neighbors. I nudged the stairwell door open with my foot and, inside, it was white and clean and bright. Painted the way heaven is supposed to look. Or the way a blank word document looks when nothing has been said yet. I let the door close. I went back into my apartment, opened the pharmacy bag, slipped a full bottle of shampoo onto the soap dish in the shower. Lemon and basil. Then I sat down and I thought about what I was going to say about art. I sat and thought for a long time about it. And then I said it here.

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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