Art is delusion, which is why Neal loves it. (Peter thinks differently about art, but he knows why Neal loves it, which is why he wishes Neal loved art a little bit less).
But Neal knows that art is the victory of fantasy over reality. Case in point: good art is always new. Seeing a Giotto or an El Greco or a deKooning or a Cindy Sherman is like a discovery every time.
Another delusion that would be impossible to sustain without art, another delusion that makes life worth living: the uniqueness of the individual. Hearing the right aria at the right time of one's life makes one feel utterly an individual, as if no one has ever experienced this exact combination of emotions and experience, that no one has ever felt exactly this way. Of course, someone has. Statistically, speaking. It's the same with painting something, forging something, pulling a great heist, running your hands along along the cool marble of a Claudel, tasting a lover for the first time, reading Stendhal, hearing Dante read aloud in the original, dancing the perfect dance... It makes one feel that the moment is precious, that it is amazing and wondrous and entirely unprecedented.
Sometimes, it doesn't even have to be good art.
Neal remembers the evening when Peter, a few beers in but hardly drunk enough to be an excuse, started dancing with Neal on his back porch, singing "Easy like Sunday morning" in his ear.
He didn't particularly like the song. But it was Peter and it was pretty clearly a serenade, a damn serenade from Peter Burke, and he let Peter's body frame his own, following his lead in the late summer air, until they were just two men standing in the dark getting bitten up by mosquitoes. Their breath smelled like cheap beer and Peter had made fun when Neal almost tripped but somehow it seemed perfect. A moment, unprecedented, impossible to recreate.
Neal chalked it up to the power of art.
There was a time when Neal had trouble. He could think of nothing but the past, all the losses and almost-losts, and he was supposed to be over it. At Bureau insistence, Neal saw a therapist, who suggested that he finally felt safe enough to actually process everything. He found it a dissatisfying answer.
He took to waking in the middle of the night and avoiding the dreams he would certainly go back to if he went to bed again. He took to painting, canvas after canvas, and the Burkes got used the smell of paints and the sight of creative aftermath in their first floor rooms. One night, when he was out of canvas, when there was no more printer paper in the machine, when he considered but declined to paint over Peter's files from work, Neal painted a wall in the Burke's living room. In the style of Mondrian, controlled lines, but with a far more organic sense of color, a wilder understanding of tone. He knew that he was going well past "incorrigible" and right into "no boundaries whatsoever" but it was helping. It was the only thing that helped.
In the morning, Peter and El came down and stared at it quietly. Neal wiped the paint of his face (how did it even get there?) and stood next to them, watching their faces closely. He thought he might actually be able to sleep, finally, after covering the whole wall in a frenzy. But it was Peter and El's wall, after all.
"I'll paint over it tonight. It'll be good as new, I promise," Neal said. He barely realized that he was still panting from the exertion.
Peter looked over at him. "Don't you dare," he said, genuinely disturbed by the thought.
"Promise, Neal," El insisted, and Neal nodded his vow to leave the wall as is.
Peter pulled him in for a kiss on the cheek and ran a quick hand over his mussed hair before pulling him up to bed and asking him to try and get some sleep. As he drifted off, Neal thought about art, about its lies and how much he needed them. Form and line and color, making it seem like the thing clawing to get out of Neal was something beautiful, making it seem like a gift.
Two decades later, Peter is losing his hearing. He knows it,so every night he asks Neal to read to him.
El doesn't want to read to him, or maybe Peter can't handle hearing his wife's voice knowing that he won't for much longer. Before Neal joined their relationship, when he was just a friend, he was privy to nearly all their marital secrets, but for many years now there were some questions he wasn't allowed to ask.
Peter wants poetry every night. Language, simple and clear, in Neal's voice while he can still hear it. Neal is impressed, though not surprised, by Peter's tastes. He likes contemporary North American, but also modernists from many countries. He lets Neal throw in a few Beats, just for fun. And the Romans ... Peter loves the Romans, and so Neal brushes up what little Latin he has. It's no surprise that Peter leans in to hear the poets whose voices are known for their honesty, their simple depths. They are unsentimental to a fault, almost rejecting beauty for the sake of sparseness, directness. Intimacy. They are less lush and ornamented than Neal would have chosen, but it is Peter's choice after all. He doesn't want music. He wants Neal reading poetry, harsh poetry that speaks of the hardness of life and the lonely difficulty of goodness, and he knows Peter well enough to know that this is not a lesson for Neal, it's just that Peter can't stand the idea that the last poem he hears is a lie, and so he only wants poets who speak the truth.
Neal reads to him every night. Even when Peter can no longer hear him, Neal keeps reading. He sits closer so Peter can read the text with him, leaning on Peter's bare chest so he can hear the shape of Neal's words on his skin. Eventually Neal figures out that it's not about the beauty of the sounds at all, it's not about Neal's voice even. Peter wanted something for them, only them. A new poem every night, a new thing they never had before. Neal laughed as he realized that after all this time, Peter as still finding ways to keep him busy, to keep his creativity aimed at the right direction. He signed his mocking disapproval to Peter, who answered, simply, "What you have a problem with poetry? You philistine."