“What a piece of junk. You call this art?”
“You obviously don’t know much about art.”
Grace’s slender fingers aimlessly caressed the can. It was merely a can, an old coffee can – the lettering along the can’s sides had long since faded – and someone had taken the trouble to wrap it hurriedly in tin foil, like a cheap Christmas gift. The can sat on a riser, unobtrusive. It said nothing. To the naked eye, it had no political agenda, no cause to champion. It meant nothing. Every few minutes, a security guard would stroll by the riser, making sure no one mistook this piece of art for an ashtray or a trash container. The security guard patted the invisible gun hung on his invisible holster slung over his hip every few minutes.
Ian, her non-art world dwelling fiancé counted the minutes before this gallery opening would come to an end. If he was lucky, he could rush home in time to catch the last minutes of the Lakers-Sonics game. He checked his cell phone; the Nikkei was already an hour open, and the yen was performing strongly. It would be another good morning for him. His managers would be pleased, as would his clients.
The artist, whoever he or she was, remained as mysterious as the coffee can. No name was listed on the display. This was the only piece the artist submitted to the exhibit. Quickly, the can became the main attraction. Grace circled the can on display, beaming proudly. This was her gallery, or rather the gallery of a wealthy, anonymous benefactor who deemed her his curator despite her limited art knowledge or training.
The can means nothing, Ian declared. Incredulous, that people would waste their time and gawk over an inanimate object made of aluminum. Ian never attempted to mask his contempt for what he couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, which infuriated Grace. She felt so ridiculously uncomfortable around him when she’d mistakenly invite him to exhibit openings.
“It’s just a coffee can, nothing else.”
“Ian!” she whispered harshly. She was abruptly taken aback by the stares her whisper elicited, even above the din and false laughter of artists and patrons floating nearby. “Someone sees value in this, it’s not all black and white. Art doesn’t mean brush strokes on canvas, or a nude sculpture. Art is the manifestation of the artists’ will and spirit.”
He easily saw through her bluster, through her insistent usage of buzzwords that could make patrons nod their heads in unison. Ian shook his head, and mockingly pretended to spit on the floor as a sign of disgust. He was disgusted that someone would happily pay thousands for this discarded coffee can. Many years later, it might sell for millions at a Sotheby’s auction. His was a creed that money talked, and money afforded you the pursuit of bullshit pleasures like art collecting. Having money dictates what you can have, what you can do. It was Ian’s lifeblood, his raison d’etre. The ever-increasing commissions and bonus checks were evidence of Ian’s strong belief of money as the god of all things great and small.
“Now there’s something I can enjoy,” he said pointing to a series of nude photographs.
Grace sighed. “Okay, what does it say to you?”
He studied the photographs, men and women, laying on sidewalk streets or posing expressionlessly in front of storefronts. The photographs aroused him, though not sexually; he was keenly aware the photos lacked any eroticism. “I don’t know. I just like them, that’s all.”
“But don’t they say something to you?”
“No. Well, maybe. They’re great photos. Is there a hidden meaning? You tell me.”
Grace shook her hands like a professor breaking down a theorem to his eager students. “It’s up to you to interpret it. Saying ‘they’re great photos’ does the artist a disservice. Everything in here has deep meaning. Struggle, maybe.” She teased the can, running her index finger along the aluminum foil. Its edges bleeding, jagging like rock wall. To the untrained eye, it might have looked like the work of a toddler in pre-school, or therapy for the mentally disturbed. She saw crisis. She saw the death howl of a desperate man, hurling with his last breath the anger and vitriol against a world that had wronged him.
That’s such a load of shit, Ian sighed. From his coat pocket he picked out a cigarette and lit it.
“No. It’s not bullshit. Now look. The can, it’s a perfect shape. It’s clean, whole. Untouched. This symbolizes the artist. The foil, look at it, it’s so ugly, unclean, demeaning. It stifles the beauty it is covering. This is the cry of the artist against a cruel world that is suffocating them and their creative will. The can is nothingness,” – she banged the can, emphasizing its emptiness, eliciting a quick look from a security guard – “His world is so empty, so full of distractions, so full of bullshit. His world is horrible. It’s so…”
“Want to know what I think?”
Grace closed her eyes; she could see he was about to react in a manner that would mortify her. He took a long drag from his smoke and flicked his ashes into the empty can.
“Now it’s got something. The can’s empty no more.” The security guard, reaching for his imaginary gun, whistled over quickly, asking Ian to leave immediately. Grace could only stand there frozen, staring at Ian’s contribution to the art world.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Ian called out to her as the guard escorted him out of the gallery.