Jim walked through the gallery, observing how the others reacted to the paintings. He had scored a free ticket by charming a docent, and he wasn’t about to waste an opportunity to observe the ruling class - his true people – in their habitat.
They all lingered in front of the ones they recognized from some book or some movie, and the pictures of children or boats seemed to get longer looks than the others. So did the portraits of powerful rulers, but that at least made sense.
Each painting was worth millions, but Jim noticed that they were all pretending that this had nothing to do with why they appreciated them.
Jim did a good imitation, wandering around, looking intrigued for some reason by one painting more than the one next to it, making small talk about the use of color or the dynamic lines – feigning interest was often a matter of looking up some basic terms beforehand, Jim knew. Art had never really done much for him. He hoped to own masterpieces someday – to have a mansion full of them – but he wanted the names, the intoxicating aura of greatness that they would convey. He didn’t care how pretty the paintings were. Even as a child, when the school would try to make him draw, he never saw the point. He would sit there and break crayons and ignore the scowls of the teacher.
Jim kept walking around, pausing finally at a purple and blue painting. It was modern, but among the scribbles there was something that was probably meant to be a person. It looked like a man.
He was too big for the painting, it seemed; his body was hunched, curled up, pressing against the outside of the frame, which appeared to be trapping him, holding him in. Where the man’s heart should have been was a dark wavy line, impenetrable.
There was a pain then in Jim’s stomach, something tense. He thought back to what he ate for dinner, but he couldn’t remember eating anything spicy enough to give him trouble.
He looked for a moment longer, then continued his stroll around the gallery, observing and being observed, learning all the tricks, the little social cues, that would one day give him the power to conquer all these simple-minded sheep. He accepted a wine glass from a passing tray and drank it down in one gulp.
Later that night, as he was trying to sleep, he kept thinking of the blue painting. He didn’t know why it was so puzzling. It was almost an hour before he realized, with a start, that the pain in his stomach must have been because of the artwork. He had reacted to the painting.
He had no idea he was capable of that.
It made him uneasy.
It should have been a relief. He had always assumed that only good people, whole people, silly people, could see why things are beautiful. Beauty was frivolous, and so only someone half stuck in childhood should be able to see it.
But here he was. Feeling something. For colors smeared on a cloth, of all things.
He should have felt like it made him less of a monster. But somehow, he didn’t.
He understood now, why there was art. It was a shock to discover this about himself. But he could tell, this new knowledge didn’t change him.
Nothing could change him.
He closed his eyes and curled up against the side of the cardboard box and imagined the painting, tried to remember its details, its whorls and lines.
Sleep came slow but heavy.