PRINT December 1986


Rex puts an end to art. A Christmas carol.

IT WAS DECEMBER AND New York was ablaze with complaints about the shabby commercialism of the season. Rex had not yet learned that it was traditional for New Yorkers to make such complaints, and he blended these humbuggings with his own misery of not having painted in over a month. (Also, his finances howled at him like creatures in an Ensor crowd.) “I curse the day I ever came to this rotten city,“ Rex mumbled. He started to work himself up to even greater bitterness until there was nowhere to go but annihilating rage: “I wish I had never been an artist. I wish there was no art!”

A silence more still than a tundra of lost hopes emptied the room. It jarred Rex. An aroma of a thousand burning pine trees took up the vacuum the silence had left. Was Rico Radziwell mopping down the hallways with pine-scented Lysol on Christmas Eve? Rex wondered. Then there was a noise. Then there was a spirit, a whirling spiral of stars capped by a face like a Ferris wheel without lights. It spoke: “I’ll grant your two wishes, Rex, but first you must see their consequences. I am the spirit of art that never was, come to show you a world where art never lived.”

The form horizontalized itself, drawing Rex into its zeppelin of stars. In a flash they were in a warehouse of miles and miles of blank stretched canvases, an aisle of unborn paintings leading toward a point of darkness in the distance. “These are the paintings that never were,” the spirit said. Stunned, but not enough to give up his despair, Rex replied, “But what of it? The world would never feel the difference.” Immediately they were aloft again, and from a high point in the sky the spirit slowly rotated its Ferris wheel head, which projected framed blank rectangles onto the clouds, as if from a slide carousel. Although there were no images, the slides had titles: No Cinema. No Theater. No Opera. No Music. No Dance. No Giotto Frescoes in Padua. No Puvis de Chavannes in the Boston Public Library. No Black Goyas in the Prado. No Tintin in Tibet. No Van Goghs in Amsterdam. No Monets in Paris. No Whistlers in the Frick. No Children Looking at Paintings in the Metropolitan.

Rex, who had been growing steadily emptier at the projection of each loss, perked up at the last blank. “Wonderful, who wants crowds of kids blocking my view of the paintings?” “What paintings?” the spirit asked. Its little stars glowed mischievously. It spoke again: “So you still care a little. But it was you who wanted no paintings, who wished art never to be. And, apropos of you, let me show you something.”

Now the spirit spun its Ferris wheel head 24 times a second, like a reel in a movie projector, and cast a story. A half-dozing man sat in a chair in front of a blank TV screen. Slowly the man rose and stared at the bare, newly painted walls. Then he disappeared into another room.

"He’s familiar,” Rex said.

"Of course—who would know him better than you? He is the you who is not an artist in a world with no art.”

The man reappeared carrying a bucket of paint, a paint tray, and a roller. Slowly, as if relishing each stroke, he painted the walls.

A voice offscreen: “Rex, it’s three in the morning, are you painting the walls again? Please, at least pull down the shades so the neighbors won’t see!”

At this scene, Rex cracked. “No, no, spirit, let me take back those dreadful wishes.”

The pine scent vanished. Rex looked about the room, his cave, relieved to find it empty, but his head was still spinning. Image after image of paintings he had revered popped themselves up like slides before his eyes. Finally, one he had never seen stopped the show. Joyfully, Rex realized it was the painting he yet meant to paint.

Frederic Tuten is o writer of fiction. He is a professor and the director of the graduate program in English and creative writing at the City College of New York. This serial appears regularly in Artforum.