Three men stood statue-like in an isolated corner of the otherwise bustling loft, gazing in mock adoration and secret scorn at the outlandish clay sculpture blocking their view of the rooftops, church steeples and crumbling smokestacks of Ohio City. The sculpture, by far the largest exhibit in the newly restored warehouse, seemed to wobble back and forth as if pushed by invisible fingers of heat. It leaned against the windowpane like some self-important plus-sized model posing for the paparazzi, its impressive girth preventing the pungent air of evening, both sulfurous and sweet, from sweeping into the cavernous space and filtering out the smoke of cigars and cigarettes and the poorly disguised scent of hashish.
As they dabbed their foreheads with cocktail napkins and adjusted their silk ties, the men made guesses at what the thing might be. Superhuman in its enormity, a misshapen mound of mud baked hard as rock and cracked from limb to limb, the thing proved difficult to pin down. Its feet were long protrusions of petrified earth, its toes curled and all askew like concrete cucumbers scattered on the floor, its torso purple as an eggplant, its muscular limbs sturdy as the pillars holding up the walls, its primitive ape-like knuckles raw as those of a pugilist, its gut as slovenly as a beer-guzzling boilermaker, pipefitter, laborer, any working class stiff from Cleveland who might feel at ease in a bar, strip club, brothel. Its slouch suggested boredom and disdain and its prominent brow ridge hinted at a simple masculine philosophy of pillage and plunder. But the sagging breasts, the dimpled backside, and the air of inaccessibility made the thing seem somehow feminine, an overbearing mother ready to reprimand its naughty progeny. In some strange way the sculpture nagged the men, begged them to lavish an attention upon it that they did not wish to bestow.
The mind, being a rather limited organ, has an annoying habit of transforming unusual shapes into recognizable forms, and for this reason each of the three men wanted to be the first to declare that the sculpture was indeed a person, a hermaphrodite, a drag queen, or perhaps, because we do live in a topsy-turvy world of infinite possibilities, a genetic experiment gone horribly awry. They were prevented from saying so, however, because such an interpretation would be too obvious, simple, dim-witted, a declaration of ignorance about a creation so carefully wrought and so visually arresting.
Said the first man: "I say it's a representation of our sad society. Liberty corrupted. A confused Colossus of Rhodes."
Said the second man: "I say it's a depiction of how time has ravaged our grand metropolis, Cleveland, once a strong and robust city, now a defeated ogre."
Said the third man: "I say it's time for another drink. Shall we?"
As they made their way to the bar in the main gallery, they tried to suppress their laughter, but this proved to be impossible, and the sharply dressed men and women gathered there tonight, feigning interest by pinching their chins, turned to glare at them, murmuring their disapproval as they would at a group of hoodlums desecrating the holy water inside a cathedral. The three men didn't care. According to them there were only two rather contradictory rules of art criticism. The first was to be as perceptive and sensitive as possible. Failing that, the rule was to be humorous, even to the point of vulgarity. After all, when confronted by a perplexing work of modern art the best way to disguise one's lack of erudition and outright terror was to fall back on scathing quips and puns.
But nervous laughter is an easy thing to detect, and the artist, a brazen young woman who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes near the entrance, grew agitated. She tilted her head back and watched the long jets of smoke stream from her nostrils and become coiling twin serpents like a caduceus in the green goblin glow of the neon sign above the bar. People were always quick to point out how similar she was to one of her own creations--enigmatic, spectral, strange. Her eyes, ringed by dark circles, made her appear both weary and excited, clever and naïve, intelligent and dull, creative and destructive, reasonable and deranged. Her hair was a tangled nest of black curls, and the lines on her face, deep fissures of failure and remorse, hinted at self-loathing. It was rumored that she did not smile in public.
Now she approached the three men and in a raspy voice said, "Opinions?"
The men nodded.
"We were just discussing the sculpture in the other room. The big piece."
"Made of clay is it?"
"It seems to be…wobbling…back and forth."
She took a long drag on her cigarette, exhaled, inhaled again. "Maybe it's been drinking," she said. "Drinking excessively." There was a cool edge to her words.
"How did you fire something so large?"
"Yes, it's quite enormous."
"Your most ambitious work thus far."
The artist pointed to the back of the loft where a giant kiln still glowed red with heat.
"What is that thing?"
The artist blew more jets of smoke from her nostrils. "That is a kiln, not a hearth."
"Ah, yes, of course."
"How silly of us."
"What do you call that piece?"
"I don't call my sculptures anything. They call me. They create themselves, they name themselves."
The men considered this.
"You are only a medium as it were."
"The work…speaks to you. Is that right?"
"Like the muses."
The artist shook her head. "That thing--whatever it is--forces me to do its bidding. This isn't a hobby. It's strenuous, demanding, awful. And it never ends. I am something more than a simple medium as you propose, a two-bit charlatan whoring her gifts at a séance."
"We weren't suggesting…"
"You mustn't think…"
"Don't misconstrue our words…"
"I'm a slave," she said flatly. "A slave to art. Creating art is not an enjoyable experience. Nor is this opening. I do not enjoy being scrutinized, criticized, judged, mocked, humiliated, abandoned."
As always, her words were slightly cryptic, a secret message, an obscene overture, an expression of her splendid and sickening desires, but then without warning she stormed away and stood in silence by the door, ignoring the new guests as they arrived and tried to say hello or introduce themselves.
The first man said, "These artists are like modern day witches, concocting gobbledygook all night long from the fiery cauldrons of their minds."
The second man, who was only a little less contemptuous of artists and their craft, said, "They are like the gods of old, fashioning primordial beings from clay and water."
The third man spoke up. "They are, in all likelihood, alcoholics and drug addicts. At least judging from the aroma of that 'cigarette' smoke."
They laughed and held their glasses out to the bartender who filled them with vodka and vermouth. There was plenty to laugh about. They had money, lots of it, all three being heirs to mind-boggling fortunes, their great grandfathers profiting from the good old days when Nelson J. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company set up shop in Cleveland. Each had inherited a splendid collection of art, and though they knew nothing of contemporary trends they'd acquired a keen eye for old masterworks and knew the value of a Matisse and a de Kooning.
While contemplating the paintings and sculptures scattered throughout the gallery, they determined that the artist, while admired locally, was not a player on the larger stage of the world and thus was unworthy of their long-term patronage. Rather, they sought short-term pleasures from her. Even now they daydreamed of another long amorous evening fondling her slightly grungy body on an old mattress in the back of the stifling warehouse, at the very spot where the sculpture now stood watch like some idiotic sentry, and each man felt something stir in the dark pit of his trousers--slithering infatuation, venomous lust, something libidinous, crude, essential. Great sex, like great art, was a rare and valuable commodity, and with this woman they'd discovered a true master.
But what they could hardly have guessed and what they had failed to perceive during the course of their long conversation was that the artist was carrying on an affair with each one of them and that each in turn was unaware of the other's involvement.
Late in the evening a boisterous mob of young men and women burst through the door.
"My darlings!" the artist cried, lavishing kisses on her colleagues from the Art Institute, men and women both, all of them permeating the low, earthy odors of sweat-stained T-shirts, stale cigarettes, kitty litter. Their horn-rimmed glasses and tattoos and piercings, their blue and yellow and green hair made them seem like walking billboards that proclaimed "Counterculture!" Without compunction they descended on the hors d'oeuvres, nearly knocking over the trays and platters and tables draped in pretty white linen. Never once pausing to look at the artwork and with their mouths crammed full of brie and crackers, they scuttled into a dark corner where they smoked and drank and made occasional forays to the bathroom only to return smiling and bouncing on the balls of their feet and grinding their teeth.
The artist was among them, and this infuriated the three men who realized that she was far too apathetic about life's cruel realities and far too bewitched by the voices in her head to care much about the money they gave her to support her lifestyle. It was inevitable that she would leave them for good one day and that they would return to their boring lives once more, to their prudent and utterly respectable wives and insipid dinner parties and three martini lunches.
Soon the loft was evenly divided between potential patrons and struggling artists, voyeurs and exhibitionists, fifty men and women inebriated with drugs and drink and gossip, and they found themselves at that particular stage of a cosmopolitan party when one believes it is socially acceptable to hurl whatever insults cross one's mind. The artists and patrons, formerly isolated like enemy camps, merged and began to wage a war of words. The small dark eyes of the impoverished artists glared like tiny percolating kettles of contempt for the bourgeois guests whose appreciation for art, they felt, rarely extended beyond pop culture. The patrons, for their part, accused the artists of incompetence, incoherence, sloth, solipsism, silliness, self-delusion. Each slur was often prefaced by profanity. Had a stranger walked into the warehouse at that moment he would have had great difficulty discerning who was shouting at whom or why.
"You have no vision, no sense of what is true and beautiful."
"You have no real concept of human nature, the fuel that drives art."
"You insist on the same old things, the safety of the familiar."
"You believe tradition is somehow sacrosanct."
The three men, trying to control their rage and regain their composure, shambled off to the next room where things seemed relatively peaceful even though the high-pitched squawks of indignation and sweltering heat were still enough to make the giant clay sculpture in the far corner shimmy and vibrate.
Said the first man, "There's a line that goes something like this: 'I can be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.'"
Said the second man, "Yes, who wrote that? Oscar Wilde maybe?"
Said the third man, "I do believe the sculpture whispered those very words into my ear late last night."
"Last night?" said the first man, a bit puzzled.
"The gallery was closed, wasn't it?" asked the second.
The third man smiled. "Indeed it was. But here's a little secret you gents are sure to appreciate." He twittered and leaned forward. "I'm currently nailing the artist. Yes. Giving her a little inspiration every Thursday night. Been fucking her once a week for, oh, the last six months now. And my wife is none the wiser. It's a splendid arrangement. Most amazing lay I ever had."
The other two turned red, shook, spat, sputtered with fury, then in a fit of animal rage they suddenly rushed their dear friend, swinging their arms like teenaged boys in a parking lot brawl. During this embarrassing melee one of them must have accidentally knocked into the sculpture because the thing started to wobble back and forth, creaking like an old ship in high seas, and when they saw that it might topple over and crush them, the men--bloody, bruised, panting--pressed up against the far wall and cringed.
In an attempt to balance itself, the sculpture raised its massive arms and clung to one of the hot water pipes hanging from the ceiling. From two perfectly symmetrical holes in its head, it emitted a low hiss like a mighty beast awakened from a short and restless slumber.
The men felt their minds struggling to escape the tar pits of drunkenness, and even though they tried very hard somehow they were unable to muster up enough sobriety to scream. Could it be that one of those degenerate artists tossed a pill into the punch bowl, a tab of acid, a drop of mescaline? So! this was why those artists were so peculiar, why they wasted their days conjuring up frivolous phantasms--they were never fully in control of their own minds, their frontal lobes forever saturated in hallucinogenic substances.
The sculpture regarded the men with what seemed like amusement. "You!" it shouted. "Stand here. No! Here beside me. Accompany me into the next room."
Utterly stupefied by this horrific and ridiculous vision, the men could only nod and do as they were told, hoping the other guests might be able to talk them down, assure them that they were the victims of a sick practical joke, an ambulance was on the way, stomachs would be pumped, blood transfusions performed, arrests made, lawsuits filed, criminals brought to justice. But if drugs were indeed to blame for this surreal spectacle--and of course they were--why did the room shake and thunder, why did the other guests scream and scatter in every direction?
The sculpture stomped into the main gallery and barred the door. One bohemian, whimpering in terror, tried to fight his way past the clay monstrosity but the thing lashed out and swatted him away like a fly. In a spectacular basso profundo the sculpture put its clumsy hands on its hips and announced, "No one is permitted to leave." Then it lifted a finger and jabbed it at the cowering artists. "You!"
They gasped, sniveled. One boy vomited.
"After you clean up that mess," said the thing, "you will do the hard work of mixing clay and water. You will infuse it with imagination and form new sculptures and then fire them in the kiln." Pleased with this declaration, the thing chuckled through an asymmetrical crack and then pointed to the weeping and howling patrons. "And you! You will pay homage these new creations, regard them as gods. Henceforth this place will serve as your sacred temple and the kiln your altar of worship."
Thus a new order was established.
Each day the artists shaped mountains of clay into vaguely human forms. They toiled near the intense heat of the great kiln where they fired these new sculptures. Once completed, the sculptures emerged from the kiln of their own accord and teetered awkwardly through the gallery like children. Selfish, short-tempered, spoiled, the sculptures demanded constant attention and flew into horrific tantrums if they felt deprived of affection. They competed for complements, insisting that they be stared at and fawned over. Never for a moment could they be ignored, and soon the loft echoed with the restless racket of stomping sculptures and the incessant moans of miserable men and women.
Weeks went by. Trapped inside the oppressive warehouse with no chance of escape, the people survived on moldy cheese, stale crackers, and rancid wine left over from the party. They defecated into ceramic bowls, their feces used to fuel the monstrous kiln. Their clothes disintegrated on their backs, their hair grew long and matted. Late one night as the clay creations closed the narrow cracks of their eyes and snored (what they dreamed of no one could fathom and dared not guess), the three men crouched behind the kiln and conspired against their lover.
"How long should we suffer?"
"And for what? A no-talent slut like that."
"Look what she's done to us."
They convinced the others to hold a lottery. In the darkness everyone huddled together and drew welding rods to see who would attempt to escape from the loft and seek help. The rods had been fixed ahead of time of course, and the three men watched with an insolent twinkle in their eyes as the artist drew the shortest one.
The artist did not balk, she was a courageous woman and knew that she was obligated to save these people, and the next afternoon she very calmly set aside her tools and made a break for it. Though she fumbled with the lock for a moment she managed to get the door open quickly and raced down the hallway toward the narrow staircase.
The original sculpture, the undisputed master, diabolical in its demands, sadistic in its severity, watched in silence and made no attempt to stop her. Instead, it chuckled and pointed to the window. The other captives, cowering in fear and drained of energy, looked down to the street below and saw the artist burst from the warehouse where she waved her arms, tore at her long strands of greasy hair with frantic fingers, screamed nonsensical things at passersby.
At first, people simply regarded her as just another lunatic, a homeless person, a crack addict, one of thousands, and continued to go about their business, but when they saw her laughing and screeching and flailing her arms they quickly dashed across the street and looked back at her in alarm. She begged for help but everywhere she turned people either created their own visions of the world or stared in awe at the visions of others. They worshipped images on billboards and gazed in adoration at bright logos stamped on crumpled cans of beer and broken bottles of booze; they studied the vibrant colors splashed on the sides of vans and tractor trailers and imitated the alluring poses of mannequins in shop windows; they grinned at the decorative strings on red balloons and studied the Victorian mansions and old gas lamps and trolley cars in this historic neighborhood. On the sidewalks clumsy drawings done by children mocked her--pink and purple clowns spouting obscenities. Colorful murals painted on brick walls converged to crush her. She wailed at the sight of decorative coffee cups and culinary creations inside trendy bistros, racks of brilliant billiard balls in a pool hall.
Haggard and stooped from weeks of ceaseless toil, the artist rushed toward an elderly priest in black robes and rasped, "It's art! It's all art! There's no escaping it. We are purveyors and slaves to art. Bow down with me, brother, and give praise."
The priest tore himself free from her grasp and hurried away without even bestowing upon her a simple prayer of forgiveness.
Back inside the loft, huddled against the windows, the three men shrugged their shoulders in resignation and, sensing the impatience of their master, resumed their insipid duties. They pretended to be mesmerized by the emaciated artists who still scooped up heavy handfuls of clay and turned them into fanciful figures, but the men secretly knew this would all come to an end one day. After all, there was only so much clay, and besides, art was a foolish enterprise, a thing destined for oblivion like all else in the universe. But until their misery came to its inevitable and cataclysmic finish--whether through annihilation, rescue or magic--the artists continued to populate the world with the dumb lumbering beasts of the human imagination.