Thursday Next and the Highest Form of Art
It was a spacious museum. All bare white walls, with a few canvases of various colors scattered around the room. There was a large crowd of Neanderthals at one end, laughing and arguing and milling around. Thursday Next was there with her escort, the Neanderthal, whose woebegone life she had inadvertently saved one day on a train in the middle of a civil rights protest. She still wasn't sure if he had a name. Thursday was probably the only human there.
"Thank you for inviting me here," said Thursday. "Do you remember the last Neanderthal art gallery we went to, so many years ago? I, uh, I always wondered what my grandmother did that put all of you in such a thrall."
"Oh, it was really quite simple," said the Neanderthal placidly, wading into the crowd and making a path for Thursday to step into.
"Well, it didn't look like art to me," said Thursday. She felt extra perky because the Neanderthal was about two feet taller than her. Thursday was a tall woman. She was not used to being overshadowed, except by Spike and a couple of other rare literary characters, and the harsh crisscrossing gallery lights did not help the creepy-crawly feeling.
"Ah, well, humans are different," said the Neanderthal, nodding his head wisely. "Too literal."
"Too literal?" Thursday replied in bafflement. "But you can hardly use figures of speech!"
He had to pause a moment to comprehend that one. Too late, Thursday realized that, unfortunately for Neanderthals, the phrase "figure of speech" was itself a figure of speech. This presented a conundrum of communication, but after a minute or two of reflection, at least he seemed to understand her. "That is our way of speaking. Our art is different." He steepled his fingers, and for a brief moment he looked intellectual and cunning. Then he reverted to typical neanderthalian vagueness and wouldn't move even when Thursday waved a hand in front of his face.
"Hello?" She progressed to snapping her fingers.
Finally, he started, less because of the noise than because he had finally reached the end of his thought. "Oh, yes. Ahhh, what was I talking about?"
Thursday tactfully refrained from snorting through her nose. And people said that Neanderthals were more suited to life in the old days, when survival of the fittest was supposed to be paramount! She knew they could be right philosophical when they wanted to be, in their own way. "Neanderthalian art," she reminded him.
"Ah, yes. I suppose the best classic material humans have made that come close to its ideals are Mondrian or Pollack. Mondrian uses squares and lines and various colors, and Pollack uses splatter. I suppose Sol Le Witt counts as well, although his methods are rather too methodical for our tastes: he presents variations on a theme, which could be said to be a variant of the representational art..."
"It's non-representational," Thursday inserted eagerly. "Abstract."
The Neanderthal paused to take that in. "Yes... It neither resembles anything in nature nor suggests any sort of symbol."
"I...suppose," said Thursday hesitantly. "But aren't abstract works named after something...? A feeling, for example?"
"That is not pure art," said the Neanderthal. "Because it has been named. But oftentimes the art would stand on its own if humans were not so insistent on naming things. You say that art can be anything but don't really believe it. Mondrian," he said admiringly, "was most innovative in using numbers to name his works. I think there are only five instances where the number on his painting corresponded to the number of lines, corners, squares, colors, or negative spaces within his paintings. A double work of art."
Thursday said, "Oh," and felt her brain twist in such a way that it made her feel queasy. Neanderthals must have a different method of telling the paintings apart, then...
"Vantongerloo had a couple of works that were like Mondrians in sculpture format," the Neanderthal said, not really minding that it was a nonsequitur. "With cinderblocks. And he named them after mathematical equations. Most clever, deeper thinking than Mondrian by your standards, I would assume, but the equation was really just another attempt at naming things. He's not as appreciated as he should be because sculpture has always been on the edge of Neanderthalian acceptance. I'm a little surprised that he's not more appreciated by your people. For us, the controversy comes about because objects are things, not pictures, so they are representational in themselves as well as being representations of other things at times."
Thursday knit her brows together. "I've never heard of him," she said. "Hmm-mm. I guess I can see what you mean, but a painting is a painting so it represents itself, isn't it?"
The Neanderthal shrugged. "The purpose of a painting is to imitate something else; painting as we know it strives to imitate a pure geometric plane without mass. The true artistic purpose of a sculpture is to pleasingly bend and take up space. It has mass. It is an object."
Thursday folded her arms. "You dare to combine philosophies of art and physics?" She raised her eyebrows.
Thursday's nostrils flared, and a smile crept onto her lips, tugging at the corners. "Well, I approve."
The Neanderthal laughed, a real, hearty laugh. Thursday almost jumped out of her skin in shock and stared at him suspiciously. This seemed to amuse him. "Ay, you seem to be the type," he agreed, and chuckled.
Thursday's smile relaxed with satisfaction. "Well, what else would I be?"
He shrugged, his stance shy. "But you still prefer representational art."
"Of course. Abstract is something of a learned and acquired taste. It does not come naturally to us. It takes effort to comprehend and understand—or even just let oneself feel." Thursday looked at him sharply. "We like context. We need a story."
"Ah! You see? That is the difference between us," the Neanderthal murmured. "A story."
Thursday cocked her head.
The Neanderthal had been thinking again. At length he spoke again. "I hear that humans have difficulty assigning prices to abstract paintings. There is nothing to judge them by, most of the population thinks, because there is nothing to judge them in comparison with. You must always compare art of a tree with a real tree." The Neanderthal shook his head. "However, our brethren believe that art should be judged on its originality. A true work of art should look like nothing that exists in the world."
"Squares exist," Thursday objected, thinking of Mondrian. "And geometric figures, and lines." She nervously sketched a couple of simple shapes in the air with her fingers.
"Yes, exactly, so perhaps Mondrian is an imperfect example. However, art critics have long argued that we are talking about naturally occurring things. As a result, we have two categories: art without natural world imagery, and art without either natural or invented imagery. Perfect squares and circles do not occur in nature, thus they are invented."
"How in the world is that possible . . . ?" asked Thursday in horror.
"Perhaps it must be seen to believe. We shall point out some examples to you later." The Neanderthal paused, and finally shrugged. "We believe there are only seven hundred works that have qualified to date for the latter category. At any rate, some of us insist that even these do not qualify and that the purist genre is entirely theoretical..." he trailed off.
"Wait, I have another question," said Thursday. "Granny Next, she um, she altered another artist's painting. I expected that you all would be upset, but instead you all just burst into applause."
"Oh, that's an old tradition. Art is never finished, and the more distinguished people add to the artwork, the more revered the picture. No matter where it is. I believe there is a painting in existence with more than 10,000 separately painted brushstrokes," said the Neanderthal, in raptures. "The accrued acrylic layer is an inch thick. And Mrs. Next was an honorary distinguished member of Neanderthal society. I am very sorry for her death. In any case, although we are sure you may not agree, an artist who cannot inspire anyone else to add to their work is a very poor artist indeed. We make an exception for human artists of course," he said hurriedly, judiciously adding, "Like Mondrian and Pollack. We make sure not to write on those."
"I'm sure there must be more pure abstract than just that," said Thursday, bemused. To distract him, she asked, "Wouldn't these symbol-less works start getting...somewhat similar?" said Thursday.
"Ah, yes. Often, but the possibilities are wider than one thinks. A true genius will strike out for the unknown without ever looking at another painting for comparison. However...you may well believe that there are imitation Pollocks. In fact, we believe Neanderthals employ half of Jurisauction to investigate those..."
Thursday's eyes slid to the sides. "Oh, yes, I've heard about that." Jurisauction, which investigated counterfeit arts and crafts, was always complaining that they were paid by barter. It was almost true. This was because their office was even poorer unit than the LiteraTecs', with a leaner budget, and they were paid by commission. The Neanderthals still hadn't really gotten the idea of money yet. Fortunately or not, Neanderthals were demanding 90% of their time lately with the rise of their homegrown civil rights movement.
There were definitely a few advantages to this barter situation: for one, Jurisauction agents tended to eat well and rarely needed to buy groceries, and because of the hectic confusion, management decided everything was easier if they paid for the Jurisauction single agents' housing. Meanwhile, LiteraTecs complained loudly and often that their paychecks came too infrequently and at the (absentminded?) courtesy of their boss, and thus young singletons sometimes spent a couple of weeks in the summer chilling for lack of money to pay bills. (Here the absentminded boss would throw away comments about how suffering is good for character, or some such.) There were, of course, intense jealousy issues. For most of the year, LiteraTecs could afford the latest technologies and luxuries, but the Juriauction agents were just barely not broke and their currency just wasn't, well, current.
"We ourselves would give three months' worth of labor for a real Pollock," said the Neanderthal. "We do not understand why humans have such trouble pricing abstract pieces. Some prices so low, some so absurdly high! Good art is not about quality."
"You really like Pollock, huh. And here I thought Neanderthals were artless."
The Neanderthal blinked. "Honest?"
"Uh..." Thursday thought. It was unlike her to mix up her words. "That too. I meant to say, without appreciation for art."
"Oh, we see. No, not at all," said the Neanderthal thoughtfully. "Although our youth are also somewhat irritating and rebellious. They keep adopting human ways, you see," he said. "They say we are too traditional. So, they hold 'parody parties' where they steal good, solid blameless abstract works and make them mean something! It is quite terribly subversive."
"How creative," said Thursday admiringly. "I simply must send Friday to one of those. He would get along splendidly. It'd make a nice break from his continually swearing backyard boy band."
"Please understand, the youngsters don't learn how to speak until they are almost fifteen years old," the Neanderthal warned. "We are slow developers."
"That's okay, he mostly grunts at us anyway," said Thursday happily. "He'll be ecstatic not to be required to communicate."
They had almost reached the end of the line. The Neanderthal handed Thursday a pen. "If you would do us the honor?" he murmured.
"Of course," Thursday murmured. She approached the canvas, and contemplated. The crowd grew silent, breathlessly waiting for Thursday to make her mark.
Finally she drew big breath, and decided. She chose an unremarkable corner, and with steady and sure hands, drew a short line, leading to a strangely jagged semicircle with a little squiggly curlicue at one end.
The crowd erupted into applause. The Neanderthal said, "A bit profuse, not simple. But not badly done, Ms. Next, not badly done at all."
Disclaimer: I do not profit from this work of fan fiction. I do not own the characters who I am borrowing from the Thursday Next series, which belong to Jasper Fforde and his publisher. I do not write canon, I derive my work from canon. Questions?
*All art statistics were entirely made up. So sorry. I wish they were true.
**If you could mention other purely abstract artists to me, I shall incorporate them into this work. That would be nice, wouldn't it? — A present for you?
***If something here contradicts the series, remember I haven't read the books recently; I did this from memory for a school assignment. Nitpick if you must. I am going to check details later, when I have the compulsion to reread *sigh*.