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Tyler Miller

Peggy Attends An Art Show--A Philosophical Short Story

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I wrote this a few years ago for fun, in light of Wyndham's thread, I thought it was worth sharing.  The ideas expressed are those of real people, however not necessarily my own.


“Excuse me,†said Peggy as she tapped the shawled shoulder of a woman with long, dangling, folk art earrings ahead of her. “Were you the girl who gave that lovely speech about the importance of art in a person’s life?â€

The woman turned around to see a petite lady of at least eighty wearing thick bifocals, an overcoat, and scarf smiling back at her. “Yes, that was me who gave the speech,†she answered. “You liked it?â€

“I liked it quite a bit, actually. You were very articulate and had such remarkable passion for your craft. Besides, it’s rare to see someone as young as yourself with such broad experience and learning. You certainly know more about art than I did at your age and more than I know now, even.â€

“Aw, well thank you.†She was surprised and flattered at the old lady’s praise, but still it was hollow. She would have preferred it come from a fellow artist or at least someone who could know about art. “What brought you to the show?â€

“My granddaughter Mackenna,†Peggy replied. “She’s an art teacher at one of the high schools benefited by tonight’s show. If you’ve had a chance to look at any of the kids’ exhibits, her class made the mind maps.â€

“I haven’t had a chance to look at the students’ exhibits, yet,†she lied. The truth was that she didn’t care to see them. “What was the idea behind the mind maps?â€

“I didn’t catch all of what Mackenna told me about them, but from what I can remember it was a sort of structured collage. She had them collect images and small objects representing objects of thought in their everyday lives. When they had those together, she got them to arrange what they had collected into either a picture or sculpture depicting how they thought.â€

“Oh,†the woman said with some disappointment. “So most of the thinking was done for them.â€

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,†Peggy conceded. “All the same, each one was very original and there were very few images or things in duplicate among their work. I have to confess, though, that I was a little concerned by how many mind maps were mostly empty space.â€

The woman smiled at Peggy’s comment; she liked the old lady’s wit. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I caught your name.â€

“It’s Peggy,†she replied and offered her hand to shake. After a long, awkward pause the woman finally took Peggy’s hand. “And if my program here is right, your name’s Jenna. It’s nice to meet you and I feel rather fortunate to have found you.â€

“Oh, why is that?â€

“I had a question for you about your speech. It might be nothing—I’m getting old and my hearing is certainly not what it used to be but I couldn’t help but wonder about something. Would you forgive me if I ask you something silly?â€

“Certainly,†Jenna said. She thought it was sweet that Peggy wanted to know more. Maybe she could improve her life a bit by helping her understand art. “There’s no shame in wanting to know.â€

“What a nice thought,†Peggy said and smiled. “My question,†she continued, “is how do you know when you’ve created art?â€

“How do I know when I’ve created art?†Jenna repeated in bafflement. “What do you mean?â€

“In your speech, you drew a great deal from your own experience talking about the rewards art has given you as an artist throughout your life, specifically by creating art, did I hear that correctly?â€

“Yes, you did.†Jenna answered.

“I assumed you kept this fairly general, not mentioning your own preferred media because you didn’t want to make them seem more legitimate than others, is that right?â€

“That’s exactly it,†Jenna said, impressed with Peggy’s perception. “Tonight’s supposed to benefit all the arts programs at the schools; music, visual art, and drama.â€

“This is where I became confused,†Peggy began. “When I thought of all the different creative media together as simply art, I could follow your sentiment that creating art helped to expand and improve someone’s mind, but when I took any individual medium and thought about it, I could think of instances when that medium wasn’t artistic.â€

“How’s that?†Jenna asked. She thought Peggy sounded more than a little confused.

“Hm, well, take the art that’s on the wall, here.†Peggy gestured towards the walls of the room while speaking. “If these were technical illustrations on how to repair a car or a telephone, no one would come and see them.â€

“Well, not usually,†Jenna corrected. “Technical drawings are quite often very well composed and so it’s not unheard of for the best technical artists to gain gallery recognition for their work.â€

“My goodness! The things you learn.†Peggy exclaimed. “Let me see if I can make my point another way, including your example too. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve got the firmest grasp on this, so let me try and explain.â€

“Okay, do your best.†Jenna condescended. Really, she was curious to see what mixed up idea the old lady was getting at.

“ WelI what I think I’m trying to say is that there is a difference between art and a simple drawing. I was trying to make the distinction based on the content, thinking that because one drawing showed, say, an exploded view of a car engine and the other more moving stuff than that.

“But you seem to be saying that I should base my distinction on something else, hinting at how we treat the works themselves and value them, right?â€

“That’s it exactly,†Jenna agreed.

“Presumably you’d say that this is because both drawings have content to them and valuing that content and the particular way its expressed is subjective. Anything could be art but it’s how we treat it that makes it so?â€

“Precisely,†Jenna assented. “I believe it was Valéry who said that ordinary language is like a coin we pass around among ourselves in place of something else, whereas poetic language is like gold itself. Or was it Gadamer who said that?â€

“Well, whoever it was, it’s certainly fitting,†Peggy said warmly and patted Jenna on the forearm. “I suppose I should change my question to something more like ‘when you set out to create art how do you know when you’ve made gold or just paper money?â€

Jenna’s eyes darted back and forth rapidly betraying her deep contemplation as she stared off to digest Peggy’s question. After a few thoughtful moments, she began, “now, I’m not going to speak in generalities anymore. To answer your question I’m going to have to speak about my own artistic medium of drama.â€

“Oh, you’re an actress!†Peggy blurted out. “Here I was thinking you had something in the show. You must think me a complete and utter dunce for asking you about drawings and assuming you had one in the show.â€

“No, it’s okay,†assured Jenna forgiving even Peggy’s dated language. “You were right to believe I have something in the show, but it’s not a drawing but an abstract performance art piece. I’m the director, though, not an actor and as a director I get a unique take on the artistic process. To me, the act of taking words off a page and turning them into a play must be artistic, through the interpretation process itself. So that’s how I know when I create art.â€

“So it is the act of interpretation that makes a work art?â€

“Yes, I believe so. The actors interpret their parts from the script, as do all the rest of the cast and stage crew and I try to take all of that and harmonize it with my own.â€

“So in a way, your interpretation is more important than theirs.â€

“Well, of course, since my interpretation is the one that makes it to stage.â€

“That’s a very good answer, Jenna and also very humble.â€

“What do you mean?†Jenna asked.

“Well, you’ve made the audience the most important and their interpretation the most artistic—they’re the artists according to what you said.â€

“What? That can’t be right.â€

“You said that interpretation is what makes art, right?â€

“Yes, I did say that.â€

“You also said that your interpretation is the most important of the creative side because it’s what makes it to the stage, right?â€

“I said that too.â€

“So if you were directing a film about how to repair an engine, your interpretation and your cast’s interpretation would be artistic but because the film is treated as plain film rather than an art by the audience when they interpret it, the film would not be art?â€

“No, I guess not.â€

“So you really don’t know when you make art, do you?†Peggy asked. Jenna’s jaw dropped at the observation.

“Well, what we’ve talked about doesn’t show the whole picture,†Jenna said trying to regain her appearance of authority.

“Then I suggest you reconsider your account. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s late and I’m sure my friend Dorothy is waiting to drive me home.†With that Peggy scuttled off into the crowd.

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