The paintings gave Noah stomach cramps. He stumbled from one to the next, holding his stomach tightly with one hand, spilling wine out of the glass in the other. All the paintings in the entire gallery were simply crap; one after the other, crap after shit after garbage after crap. He wanted to vomit and defecate at the same time but he was scared that the pretentious pricks surrounding him would applaud and call it performance art.
He found himself in front of a white canvas, the centre piece of the exhibition. It was a 6x5 feet white canvas. He couldn’t describe it any better than that. There was nothing on the canvas; no lines; not even a tiny dot. And he had really looked but couldn’t find anything. At least it wasn’t a stock blank canvas. Although, even a blank canvas would have some imperfections, some marks to interpret some sort of a meaning out of. But this was a masterpiece of meaninglessness.
In the auction that had just taken place, this masterpiece had sold for a hundred and fifty million dollars. That’s quite a return on a canvas and half a bucket of white paint. Don’t forget the half an hour of labor the artist put into it, he thought to himself and threw up a little in his mouth.
Noah took a swig of the cheap white wine that tasted like vinegar to cleanse his palette.
“It has a remarkable negative quality, don’t you think,” a pale girl with neon red hair on half of her head, the other half bald, said.
“Yeah!” the chubby blue haired girl standing next to her resonated with subdued excitement, pushing back the thick rimmed glasses on her nose. “It’s the epitome of minimalist art. By painting absolutely nothing, the artist has left a scathing commentary on the moral decay of our times.”
“He didn’t even sign it,” Noah said, smiling sarcastically, his hooked nose wrinkled.
“Yeah!” the chubby blue haired girl said, “It speaks to me, you know, on a personal level.”
“What does it say?” Noah asked.
“It talks about all the racism and fascism and misogyny that is rampant right now in our society.”
“And don’t forget the fucking Nazis,” Noah said, still sarcastic, “It’s a punch in the face of Nazism.”
“I’m sorry,” the red-haired half-bald girl chimed in, “I’m a pacifist and that language is offensive to me, so we aren’t going to continue this conversation anymore.”
“I’m sorry, I didn't mean...” Noah said but the girls were already pretending that he wasn’t there.
Bloody postmodernists, he thought, and stumbled away. Most of the paintings in the gallery were like scribbles of a five year old kid who had autism and cerebral palsy and schizophrenia and dementia and had recently suffered brain trauma. They annoyed the hell out of Noah. He had wasted three years in art school trying to master things like anatomy, value, color, perspective, while his professors found all of his work derivative and redundant, and here, probably mentally and physically challenged artists were earning millions by scribbling lines on a canvas.
At least the scribblers were still trying to say something. Maybe there truly was some emotion they were capturing by drawing haphazard lines and splashes of color that looked like bird droppings. If that emotion was any one of disgust, hate, frustration, confusion, suicidal thoughts and pure chaos, they had done a great job! He didn’t understand why people would pay millions of dollars for such art but he could still rationalize it in his mind to some degree.
What he didn’t understand at all were the minimalist artists; ‘paintings’ of pure white or pure black, ‘paintings’ of a single colored bar on a white canvas, ‘paintings’ of geometric patterns in black lines, with the square being the favored geometric shape. That was just laziness in his eyes. The artists were trying to do less and less in the name of minimalism, without stopping at the limit beyond which meaning was lost.
Stumbling out of the gallery, still holding his empty wine glass, like a heroin junkie who had just shot up, he had a brilliant idea for a superbly sarcastic joke that would get his disgust across under the guise of humor. His stomach ache was gone and his bile had settled down. His legs had rediscovered that they had muscles. His face was lit up. He turned around and went back into the gallery, looking for the owner, Sarah Glen. He found her in her office, finalizing the delivery of the paintings she had sold.
Sarah was a smart woman in the way she dressed and spoke. Her tight black dress hid just the right parts – parts that had been affected by the 59 years she had been on earth – and showcased the parts that hadn’t been touched by age, or had been retouched by a plastic surgeon.
“What did you think, Noah?” Sarah asked him after her staff left.
“It was very… interesting,” Noah lied, becoming aware of the empty wine glass in his hand. He looked for a place to land the delicate glassware but the minimalist office only had her small desk as a viable landing zone. He sauntered over to the table and placed the wine glass on it as discreetly as he could, while sitting down on the Z shaped backless “chair”.
“So when are we going to see a piece of yours in here? Still working on that crap? I told you, that crap doesn’t sell anymore.”
“No. I gave up on that… crap.” Noah said, adjusting his wrinkled, linen, white sport coat.
“So what are you working on now? Can I see it?” Sarah said, resting her elbows on the desk and planting her chin on the knuckles of her interlocked hands.
“Sure,” Noah said, “I brought it with me.”
“Really? Where is it?”
“Right here,” Noah said pointing behind him.
“Where?” Sarah said, cocking her head to the side and still not seeing anything.
“Right there!” Noah pointed and smiled.
Sarah stood up and still saw nothing. “Where?”
Noah got up and walked to the wall. He pretended to pick up an invisible canvas and turned around.
“Oh sorry,” he said, turning the invisible canvas around.
“What’s that?” Sarah said, sitting down.
“This is my minimalist art.”
“There’s nothing there,” Sarah pointed out.
“Exactly! What could be more minimalist than nothing!”
“You heard me. I was watching the minimalist white canvas painting and I absolutely loved its remarkable negative quality. It reminded me of racists. So I thought, what could be even more minimalist than a white canvas? A blank canvas? Just a frame without a canvas? And then I thought, why even have the frame?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sarah said, a little annoyed.
“Here’s my masterpiece. The most minimalist painting ever.” Noah beamed, hoping to get a laugh out of her.
“But you have nothing!”
Sarah sat back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. Noah pretended to put the invisible canvas down against the wall and sat back in the backless chair, barely able to control his laughter. He looked expectantly at Sarah but her face was serious and her eyes were looking through him. He started getting worried that she hadn’t got the joke.
“It’s just a joke...” Noah began, his amusement quickly turning to frustration.
“It’s brilliant,” Sarah said in a whisper, ignoring his words.
“It’s brilliant!” Sarah said much louder and then stood up, giving her self a rush. “It’s absolutely brilliant!”
“What’s brilliant?” Noah was confused.
“What painting?” Noah said.
“Don’t be silly. That painting right there!” Sarah pointed to the wall.
“There’s nothing there,” Noah pointed out.
“Exactly!” Sarah shouted and sprang to the painting. She pretended to pick up the invisible canvas and admired it with teary eyes. “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like it,” she whispered with an idolatry tone.
“You can’t see nothing!”
“I love it!”
“Have you gone crazy?” Noah said, standing up. “There’s nothing there!”
“Enough Noah. You don’t have to sell me anymore. We’ll showcase it next week.”
“I'm sorry, what?”
“Unless you want to work some more on it.”
“Work on it? Like what, get a canvas?”
“No no. That would ruin it! Just leave it as it is.”
Before Noah could understand what was going on, Sarah called one of her staff members, a tiny girl with a tight white shirt and horn rimmed glasses, and told her to put the invisible painting in the safe as it was extremely valuable. Noah couldn’t help but laugh when the poor girl was forced to pretend to pick up the invisible painting and carry it carefully to the safe.
The first few days, Noah decided that Sarah was just playing along with his joke and if he backed out of it, he would lose, but when the press release came out, he knew she was seriously going to showcase his painting of nothing. Reluctantly, he decided to go ahead with it, determined to make his point about the meaninglessness of minimalist art in front of the whole world, but as the opening day approached he got nervous and then terrified and then mortified.
On the day of the big reveal, he started drinking at dawn and decided to not be there when it was revealed.
“The painting isn’t there, so it makes sense that the artist also not be there,” he explained to Sarah over the phone.
“That’s exactly why you have to be there!” Sarah said and sent a limo with a burly chauffeur to get him.
The painting was revealed with a nail on the wall and white LED showcase lights pointing at the white wall. The audience was silent for what seemed like an hour to Noah but was really only a few minutes. He stood sheepishly beside his “painting”, facing the audience. None of them dared to look at him and just stared at the wall. Then someone in the back started a slow clap. Like a nuclear fission reaction, the clapping spread through the crowd and soon everybody was cheering and clapping.
Noah’s face flushed and he felt nauseated.
“Absolutely brilliant!” a tall guy in a fedora said.
“It’s perfection,” an old man said, his pinstriped suit as impeccably creased as his surgically lifted face.
“This is a masterclass in the use of negative space,” a short broad blond wearing sunglasses said.
Noah was ecstatic as the compliments came in. He had been trying to break into the art scene for so long and he had finally done it! By doing nothing! His exhilaration turned to anger and then transformed into rage.
The more people congratulated him, the more enraged he got.
“What the hell are you people talking about!” Noah suddenly shouted.
The audience was silent once again.
“ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE CRAZY?” He couldn’t speak unless he was shouting as loudly as he could. “THERE IS NO PAINTING! THERE’S NOTHING THERE! ARE YOU BLIND?”
The crowd once again avoided looking directly at him, as if he was an eclipse. Some of them turned around and moved to the farthest corners of the gallery to look at other, inferior minimalist paintings. Others looked at their feet and the glasses of champagne in their hands. Some pretended to not be aware of his outburst and tried to make small talk with others who were pretending the same thing. The rest stared at the painting again, trying to understand what he meant.
“Stop staring at the wall!” Noah burst out and began shoving people away. “There’s nothing there!”
“That’s the brilliance of it,” the old man in the pinstriped suit said.
“Did they remove your brains when they operated on your face?” Noah said bitterly.
“I’ll pay you a million dollars for it,” the old man said.
“What?” Noah said, his anger shocked right out of him by the amount of money that was offered.
“I’ll pay ten,” another man said, rushing forward, spilling his champagne.
A woman in a short red dress scrambled to call her employer and informed him that the greatest painting in recent history was up for sale and the bid was up to ten millions.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Sarah said stepping forward confidently, “And ladies,” she added when the women in the group glared at her, “There will be an official auction next week. And the starting bid will be a hundred million.”
“What!” Noah blurted out and began falling backwards out of dizziness.
“You come with me,” Sarah grabbed him by the arm to prevent the artist from falling on to his own painting. “Excuse us,” she said to the crowd and dragged him away.
“What are you trying to do?” She barked at him once in the privacy of her office.
“A hundred million!”
“Yes! And you are trying to sabotage it all. I’ve always told you, you have a self destructive streak in you.”
“A hundred million! For nothing!” Noah tried to explain to her.
“Yeah! It’s brilliant! And I don’t need the artist stating otherwise in front of prospective buyers.”
“So what are you going to do when someone buys it? Send them an empty box?”
“Of course not! You think I’m a crook? I’ll send them your painting.”
“But my painting is nothing! There’s not even a frame to send. It’s a non-painting! It's a non-anything. It's nothing!”
“Will you stop saying that? After all these years finally you’re about to make a lifetime’s worth of money and you want to throw it all away?”
“But it’s all for nothing!”
Noah was stumped. He didn’t know why it was wrong to sell nothing for millions of dollars when white canvases were being sold for the same amount. After all, it was the buyers who decided the value of the product. If it was worth millions of dollars to them, then who was he to say anything against it.
But it’s nothing, he thought, it’s nothing! It’s like selling air! It’s not even my air. It will be the owner’s air in the owner’s home!
“Promise me to stop saying that it’s nothing. No, scratch that. Keep saying it’s nothing. Actually that might help jack the price. You are an eccentric artist who doesn’t value his own work. I can sell that.”
Noah slumped in the chair and leaned back against the back that wasn’t there and fell to the ground. He hit his head and unsuccessfully tried to lose consciousness.
A week later he had a lump on his head, two hundred million dollars (minus the gallery’s commission) in his bank account, and an immense feeling of guilt and shame at becoming a part of the same community of pretentious, lazy, fake artists he so despised. Then he checked the balance in his account again and thought, ah fuck it!