Our first date obviated all of the values and familial histories that are typically expostulated when two people are getting to know each other. Instead, we spent an awkward amount of time looking into each other’s eyes, or at least I did, which when she noticed, she tried to ignore and averted hers usually behind me, as if there were someone entering the coffee shop whom was worth paying attention to, rather than the cabal of bored young hip people entering in corduroys and designer jeans. This was enough to unsettle me into asking her stupid questions about school and her future; I tried to sideline any possibility of talking about Aron, her ex-boyfriend.
Oh! The light bounces off the floor onto the brown wall and looks like the light in movie theatre aisles! How quaint! It is actually, if you could see it, you’d think it were. And it plays down the wall as the sun moves incrementally west so that the shadows shrink and shift and the box of light on the table crosses over the back of my head and torso and I feel like a cat. I want her to stroke my collar, and pet the sides of my face, and I want to circle eight through her legs, and meow at her, with a glance pleading and questioning.
During moments like these, I forget about any possible meaning that our being together in a coffee shop might resonate and we actually have fun, just being in each other’s company, buzzing from the organic free trade coffee we’re drinking.
She was reticent, but personable, and I tried to make her laugh as often as I could, in between those bouts of staring over which I had no control. These sometimes pitiful attempts faltered, and soon enough we fell into an interesting conversation.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I just feel like modern art can be hung in a museum for no particular reason, that it’s mostly a matter of chance and of how you know the curator.”
“Mmm, I disagree,” politely. “I think that extempore composition sometimes justifies certain museum worthy pieces. Pollock, for example. Why was he so popular? Well, granted he happened to come at the right time, like all the great ones, but he also did it the best. His form of abstract expressionism was the purest, it conveyed the rawest emotion, and I think that’s easy to see. The reason he’s museum worthy is because other people see it too.”
“You may be right,” said Dela, “but that movement in its entirety spawned the kind of art that I’m talking about. I mean what about Jasper Johns. Like why is he so great. I could have painted an all white dartboard.”
“But you didn’t. Can’t the man just follow his natural desire? I mean white dartboards hadn’t been painted before. And that’s why he’s so esteemed.”
“Natural desire? What do you mean? Don’t you see that the true artist in the end will be esteemed naturally? I mean that’s why so much modern art is silly; all these modern artists achieved fame while they were living.”
“All I mean is that Johns’ early method – for example the American flag painting – which you can’t tell if you aren’t looking at it up close, was dripped in encaustic over scrapped collages, like newspaper. So the technique, the painstaking process that this called for, was where the emotion was channelled.”
“I don’t know, I think we’ll really know which of these modern painters are great in the future. I think that a lot can happen to an artist before he dies. That’s why the best only become really famous after they’re dead. Like Van Gogh.”
“Van Gogh was great while he was living, but he was loco. No one paid attention. He ran with Toulouse-Latrec and Emile Bernard. I think the great ones are destined from the beginning, and sometimes they know it.”
“Life is so uncertain. There’s no way to tell what is going to happen by the end.” At this, she looked to the ground and began to furrow her delicate brow in the same way a child does, just so that there is hardly any crease. “It’s all about what happens between birth and death that determines genius. Van Gogh was just that much more liable to go crazy, because he was so great.”
“So you think that you can be great while alive, but that greatness can only be realized by the masses after death.”
“So in Van Gogh’s case, his genius corrupted him, it ruined his life, only to preserve his future deification?”
“No, I think that his later life corrupted him. I think that he was born with a certain amount of genius and that from early childhood on, it grew and changed and eventually he couldn’t relate to anyone, barely even his artistic friends, because it was so deformed and no one understood it. But those first impressions of his youth, coupled with his natural ability, those are what solidified his character. I mean let’s say little Vincent grew up in an environment that was cold and sterile. Clearly, it would have influenced him later in life to be an anxious, overwhelmed man. It couldn’t overshadow his genius entirely, but it caused him to be the kind of genius he was.”
“He did grow up that way, meanwhile, he was rigorously trained as an artist during his adolesence.”
“Right, because it was apparent even from an early age. But let’s say that he had never had the opportunuity to practice his passion; his whole life could have turned out differently. He could have become an artist later in life, and never killed himself, he could have maybe never become a painter at all. Who knows, he could have been a writer!”
“Hahaha. Yea, God bless his parents for sending him to The Hague.”
“But it was more than that. He probably was astounded with color, saw the glow around the animals and the fields as a boy and it left its mark on him. The difficult parts of his childhood probably stuck with him more than anything else. That was probably what he had to wrestle with daily as an adult, because he would try to separate it from his character, when deep down he knew he couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to, because that would only harm his art. Even though keeping it inside, and the struggle to hide it, hurt his social life and eventually his entire life. Because you can’t be really great and be alone. No one can. You wind up growing crazy, or growing bad.”
It’s not difficult to imagine how stimulating I found this girl, both intellectually and physically. We had finished our coffee and were rotating the base of the empty coffee cups in fidgets around the table. Hunched with our elbows on our thighs, we looked directly into each other’s eyes. She glanced at her watch and said it was time to go; we both have early class in the morning. Rising slowly and stretching slightly, we walked out, into the warm May night time.