Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Art, Belief and Chewing Gum

"Doesn't it just...speak to you?" Eric said, his eyes filled with emotion and his mouth filled with Juicy Fruit.

"No," replied Melody.

Eric turned from the painting to face her. He looked her square in the eyeball and tried to fathom her.

"You're doing it again, aren't you?"

He moved his gum from one cheek to the other and went back to the painting. "What? Heavens no."

"You were fathoming me again. I can tell when you're doing it. You stop breathing and you look at me like I'm from another planet." Melody swung a hand in a dismissive arc. "I just don't like it."

Eric plunged into deep thought while the ambient noise dimmed and rolled off, becoming a phone conversation between strangers heard through a bucket of ping-pong balls. He wondered that two brains, ostensibly the same machinery in each, could react differently to the same stimuli. Was it, at its most fundamental, a simple chemical equation with different variables?

"Could you, darling, explain why you don't like it?" he said, his pondering on hold for the nonce.

She hated it when he asked questions like this. She was of the opinion that if something worked, you didn't go poking around in it. The painting was just ugly, is all. Nobody in their right mind would want to cover their walls with a wallpaper print made from it, so why should it look any better just sitting in this building's window?

Besides. Nobody ever has to explain why they like or dislike something unless it's to a person who disagrees. It was a pointless endeavor.

"I don't know. I just don't think it looks good. He painted a bunch of horses, which is totally fine, but he didn't even give them the right number of legs. It's creepy. And the sky looks like a bunch of melted purple crayons." Melody squinted through the window, cupping her hands around her eyes. "I think I can even see bits of Crayola paper in there."

The city was unusually loud for this time of night. It was holding an art competition, the winner receiving some hundreds of thousands of dollars. A publicity stunt for a city whose economy had been beaten with the knobbly end of the fiscal club. Paintings and sculptures dotted the grid of streets all over downtown, like little bits of soul confetti sprinkled on graph paper.

Eric took in Melody's words and mulled them over like a moose eying a branch laden with pine cones. He was one of those saps who believed that disagreements taught the disagree-ers something about each other. He could be forgiven for this, as it is a common misconception. What actually happens is each person simply adds to their list of things not to bring up in conversation with the other.

Everybody has a list like this. The people who are termed "annoying," are the ones who don't keep theirs up to date, or have lost it in the laundry entirely.

"The misshapen horses and the transparent washing machines they carry on their backs symbolize the artist's pain and his desire to see what his socks look like when they're spinning around in soapy water," Eric said. "It's sad and triumphant at the same time."

This, of course, was bullshit.

Melody jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "I liked the stuff back on 43rd a lot better. Those paintings actually looked like things in real life. More believable."

"How would you define a belief?" Eric prodded.

Melody sucked in a lungful of the clammy September night air. She held it there for a few seconds, eyes to the stars. She let it out in a whoosh. "Well, I guess you could say that a belief is something someone holds to be true. It's like a personal fact. I know that's not quite right. It does disservice to the rigid definition of fact, I guess, since different people have different beliefs, you know?"

He craned his head back and spit his Juicy Fruit into the air. As it fell, he swatted it into the street with his hand. This is a trick he was immensely proud of, and he grinned at Melody. She favored him with an obligatory smile, even though she was a little jealous that she hadn't been able to do it yet. Of course, she didn't want to waste the gum practicing.

"That's pretty close, I think, especially the 'personal fact' part. But aren't all facts personal, at least to start with? Take something like the mass of the Earth. The first person to come up with the question in the first place was probably the first person to seek an answer. If he got one, he was the only one who had it. If he believed he was right, that his answer was true, it
was his own personal fact."

"He was probably wrong, though," said Melody. She looked back down at the painting in the window. "My personal fact is telling me that this painting is shitty. If I could do something myself, it doesn't merit my being all impressed when someone else does it."

"Right! Just like you're not impressed with my ability to use oxygen as an electron receptor in fueling the Kreb's Cycle to produce ATP, because you can do it too." He took several exaggerated breaths in quick succession to illustrate.

"When you put it that way, it actually does sound impressive."

"Doesn't it?" Eric often had free time at work, and spent more time on Wikipedia than was likely healthy. This led to the creation of a special little brain vault he could poke around in whenever he wanted to sprinkle his conversation with the spoken equivalent of a smirk. Just a little ground-up affected smug to add ironic punch. Some tongue-in-cheek spice. Expostulation seasoning.

Now he was a little hungry.

A Cadillac Escalade growled past, its windows festooned with sozzled hussies. Mingling with the aural medley of traffic, wind and distant speech, their drunken squeals pranced down the street and up the faces of the skyscrapers like retarded otters.

Melody and Eric both ran the previous scene through their brains, different coprocessors coming into play and different neural firing patterns returned the same result: no public event would be complete without at least one person incapable of having fun without getting dizzy.

"I stopped thinking being dizzy was fun when I was three," Melody said, watching the Escalade's taillights disappear around a corner.

"That's a fact. It's a personal fact, but it's also provable," said Eric.

Preferences themselves are sort of nebulous, their roots disappearing entirely into a tangle of chemical reactions if you trace them to their genesis...

"But a belief doesn't have to be a fact. It doesn't even have to be a personal fact!" he continued. "For example, what if I said 'wait here baby, I'll be right back' and then ran off down the sidewalk?"

"I would wonder about you. But I would probably do it. Why? Is that something you're likely to do?"

"Probably not," he said. "Unless you keep sassing me. Then I might just."

"Ha. You like my sass and you know it." She stuck her tongue out at him.

"But you'd wait. You would wait because you believed that I would come back, even though there's no proof that I would."

"You said you would."

"I say a lot of things."

"So, okay, I consider my belief well-founded because you have shown yourself to be reliable in the past. Except when it comes to navigation. Oh!" She favored him with a "yeah, I went there!" expression. Eyes and mouth wide in a parody of surprise.


"Tee hee!"

In turn, Eric put on his serious face with the half-smile and the one slightly-raised eyebrow. The one he used when a making point he was proud of.

"So a belief is merely a species of opinion you attach deep meaning to. An opinion can be readily changed if contrary facts are presented, but a belief is a little more stubborn. A lot of people believe some pretty crazy things despite overwhelming evidence, right?"

He put the expression away carefully. He liked that one.

"Like that the Apollo moon landing was faked? Even though you can see the rovers and landers and stuff with a powerful telescope?"


She moved over and draped an arm over his shoulder. She kissed him on the temple. "Honey?"


"That still doesn't change the fact that I think this painting is shitty."

"You wanna go look at the sculptures, then?"

"I believe I do."


  1. Ah Foodaddy. You scrawl some fascinating conversation there. Belief and personal facts; certainly speaks to me.

  2. Thanks, Sheila! This was an attempt to take a quick snatch of conversation (critique of a painting) and drag it out waaaaay longer than I was comfortable with. Just to see if I could do it without making it interminably dull.

  3. foodaddy's foodaddyOctober 3, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    New writing wilderness staked out and claimed using the small red plastic flaglets of trademark humor. Well done!


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