Matt Daughenbaugh The Art Critic

My wife made me go down to the Art Institute last weekend. Her sister and my brother-in-law were in town for some fancy dinner for his work on Saturday night, so of course we had to entertain them all day long until it was time for them to get ready to go. He’s some big shot insurance guy from Des Moines and was getting an award at one of the swank hotels on Michigan Avenue. My wife’s sister is big into art and has to visit the museum every time she’s in town. Fortunately for me, they only come once every few years. I’d much rather spend my weekends at home doing just about anything else.

By the time we got down there on Saturday, the place was already packed which never puts me in a great mood to begin with. When I have to go to the museum, I usually hang around in galleries where they have the really old art with naked women laying around eating grapes. At least that’s something interesting to look at. This time we wandered through room after room for what seemed like hours, and then walked into this one gallery with all American art. There, in the middle of this room, with a couple people gawking at it, was a painting of four people sitting in an old restaurant on a street corner. This is one of the more famous paintings they have in the whole building. It’s that one with the three people sitting in the diner and there’s a soda jerk standing in a white uniform behind the counter. Sometimes you see it like with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Bogart. That’s the good version.

So, I stood in this gallery looking around and waiting for my brother-in-law to catch up, when this guy came out of nowhere, pranced into the gallery like he owned the place, and stood right in front of me with his friend. He was wearing a bright purple sweater with a big Polo logo on it and these tight gray pants. Swear to god they were so tight you could see this guy’s Jockey shorts right through them. Where do guys get off wearing pants like that is what I want to know.

Anyway, he read the little card next to the painting aloud to his friend. Basically it said that the picture is of a diner that used to be in Greenwich Village and that it is all about loneliness in a big city. And then, he put his hand on his chin, like he was thinking about something, and said, “Or, is it?” After a dramatic pause, he waved his hands around and said to his friend, “David, I have a theory that Nighthawks has nothing really to do with what this gallery label suggests: loneliness, despair, urban emptiness. No. This painting is one hundred percent religious allegory from beginning to end.”

And with that, he launched into this long speech about how this painting, of a restaurant, is all about religion. He started by talking about the four people in the painting. Here’s what you got, you got a man and woman sitting to the left, a waiter or busboy wearing white behind the counter and some guy who is sitting on a counter stool.

“See, David, the three men in the painting represent the Holy Trinity. God the father is standing behind the counter, dressed in all white, a color of purity, removed from the rest of the world by the counter, in the shape of a triangle mind you, which acts as a barrier between the realms of heaven and Earth. God the son is on the left. The red-haired woman wearing a red dress sitting next to him, on his left I might add, is Satan tempting Jesus, just like in the Bible when he was tempted in the desert. And the guy in front is the Holy Spirit. You know he’s the Holy Spirit because with his back to you, his face is a mystery, and you never see him.”

At one point, the guy got so close to the painting that the gallery attendant had to come over and tell him to step back like she was afraid he was going to knock it off the wall or something. And let me tell you, she was one gallery attendant you didn’t want to tangle with.

But he kept on talking. Other people close to him heard what he was saying to his friend, and they started gathering around this guy like he’s some kind of famous art critic. I thought to myself, this might get good, so I go over into the next room and get my wife, Rachel, because she would think this is hilarious. I made my way through all these people and finally found my wife and my sister-in-law, Anne, and told them, “You’ve gotta come listen to this guy. He thinks a painting in here is about Jesus getting tempted by some woman in a restaurant.” By the time we got back, there were ten people standing around this guy listening to him tell his friend his theory about this painting, and they were hanging on every word.

“Count the visible stools at the counter. There are seven. Seven is a highly symbolic religious number, David. It is used over seven hundred times in the Bible. You know, God made the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh, calling it holy. The number seven has long been the symbol of perfection. It is also prominent in the book of Revelation; the seven seals, seven angels and seven trumpets. You know, you’ve read all that, right? Catholics even believe that there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which I believe makes perfect sense since the man representing the Holy Spirit is sitting on one of the seven stools in the painting.”

Sure, perfect sense. Okay, so there are seven stools in the restaurant, but there’s no symbolism there. I mean, come on, gifts of the Holy Spirit? Then he goes on to say that the seven stools are not the only reference to the number seven in the painting. By now, he had over fifteen people standing around him. So they all crammed in to look for another reference to the number seven.

“Do you all see it? Oh my, I think it’s so obvious,” he said. Then after like a whole minute of looking and trying to figure out where the other seven is, he finally let us all in on the joke.

“Look in the third window of the building across the street. The shadow,” he said, “makes the outline of the number seven, right there.” As he pointed to it the gallery attendant gave him another sharp look. She was about to kick his ass, I swear. And she would have too. Everybody looked at the painting a little closer and about half of the people were like, “Oh yeah I see it,” and the others were like, “No, I don’t quite get it.” I sure as hell didn’t see it. It looked like just a regular window to me.

I looked over at Anne. She’s got a degree in art history from a tiny liberal arts college downstate. Now she works part time at the Hy-Vee flower counter making bouquets. Anyway, Anne was really paying attention to this guy and I couldn’t tell if the look on her face was genuine interest or outright skepticism.

“So, then if you look in the background, you see two tall shiny objects on the counter that you think at first must be a coffee machine or something because that’s what you would expect to see in a restaurant, right?” the guy said. “But what else do they look like in a religious context if you had to guess? Think of something in a church maybe.”

Then somebody from behind me – we were up to over twenty people standing around listening to this guy now - piped up and said, “A tabernacle?”

“Oh, you got it,” the guy said.

Anne looked over at me, then looked back at the guy and shook her head like she thought he had just gone way off the deep end. But he continued, “That’s right. One represents a tabernacle that you see in a Catholic church. The other represents a Torah case that holds the sacred scrolls in a synagogue. So what you have represented here then is the broader ideas signifying the common origins of Judaism and Christianity. And of course, the golden door in the back represents the portal into eternity.”

All the people around us were like, “Oh wow, this is really interesting.” Everyone thought he was on to something, except me and Anne that is. I was thinking to myself, it’s just a frigging picture of some people sitting in a diner in New York. But these people were lapping up this whole religion story like it was written in the Bible or something. The artist guy wasn’t thinking about any of that when he was painting this thing. He was probably just hoping this painting would sell so he could make a few bucks to cover rent for the month.

“It is all right here. I mean, I think it’s all so obvious I don’t know why someone hasn’t written a dissertation on this yet,” he said. “This painting, my friends, is a totally religious painting as much as any in the Vatican. It’s just in such a different and unfamiliar context that no one has ever recognized it before.”

When he finally shut up, the whole crowd around this guy started clapping like he was some kind of great art scholar or something, I swear. They stood there and clapped for this silly religious story he made up about this painting that is clearly nothing more than people hanging out in a restaurant smoking cigarettes.

So I looked over to Rachel, gave her a look and said, “Do you believe this crap?”

“I don’t know, maybe he has a point,” she said. “What do you know about art?”

“A point? Are you freaking kidding me?” I said. “This guy is so full of shit, his eyes are brown. And listen, just because I didn’t go to college doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about art.”

“I think maybe you’re both a little right,” Anne said. “Maybe he has a point, maybe he’s just high on something. It’s certainly a stretch, but it is an interesting story, which is what art is really about these days.”

Now that’s where I figured Anne was on to something. I’ll tell you what I know about art. It’s all bullshit. I was working a simple resurfacing job off I-90 a few months ago, listening to the radio on my headphones, like I usually do. They came on with this story about a statue that sold a few months ago in New York by this Jeff Koons guy. It was a stainless steel rabbit made to look like a fancy balloon animal that a circus clown tied together. It sold for ninety million dollars - the most money ever for a piece of art by a living artist. They said on the news that this guy never even touches his artwork. Like the guy doesn’t even make it himself, he has a whole studio of students - practically an art factory - who make the art for him. He comes up with the big ideas, then hands it off to his people to do the dirty work. I mean, how does someone call themself an artist if they don’t actually make their own art? That’s because art is not about talent or craftsmanship anymore, it’s about the people buying it. When you really get down to it, it’s nothing but a big dick contest between some guy in the room at the auction house against some guy on the phone. Art has become nothing more than another luxury brand for those who can afford it, and the people who buy it live in their own fantasy world.

By the time lecture was over, my brother-in-law, Miles, finally entered the gallery and sprinted over to us.

“Are we ready to go?” he asked. “I don’t want to be late for the award dinner tonight.”

“We just got done listening to the guy over there tell everyone what he thought this diner painting was about,” I said.

“Yeah, he just gave a speech on the symbolism he saw in this painting,” said Anne. “Pop quiz. What do you think it’s about?”

“What, this one over here? Isn’t that Nighthawks or something like that?” said Miles

“Yeah, that’s the one,” said Anne.

Miles looked at it for a few seconds and finally said, “Well, it’s about religion, right? Something about the woman in the red?”

“Wait, what did you just say?” Rachel asked.

“Religion. I think it’s about religion, right?” he said.

“Were you just in here when he was telling everyone about this painting?” asked Anne.

“No, I was in the next room looking at the Rothkos,” he said. “They’ve got some amazing pieces I’ve never seen here. Great color combinations. And can we get going? We really should go.”

“Because that is exactly what that smartass told everyone in here,” I said. “That this painting is all about the last temptation of Christ at Mel’s Diner.”

Rachel could barely wipe the surprised look off her face.

“You think this painting is about religion? If you didn’t hear this guy, how did you know that?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I had the poster in my room at college and I think one of my roommates wrote a paper on it for a class. He wasn’t very bright, so I thought everybody knew that. Anyway, Anne, it’s late. We should head out soon.”

“We will, I just want to see a couple other galleries then we can head out. It’s not that late. We’ll have plenty of time.”

It was another hour before Anne was ready to leave and by that time, Miles was getting really agitated because he thought there would never be enough time for them to get back to our place, change, and make it back downtown in time for the dinner. The guy was wound so tight I thought he was going to break out into hives.

We drove back to the house, traffic wasn’t too bad by Chicago standards. Miles sat next to me in the front seat, fidgeting on his phone.

“So, Miles, what’s this big award about?” I asked.

“Every year they recognize a top innovator from across the country. I’m one of five up for consideration tomorrow,” he said. “The client app I developed could save the company millions in administration costs every year. If they select my idea, this could mean really big things for us.”

“It’s like a promotion then?”

“No, not really. I mean, it could be. Earning this recognition could raise my profile in the company. Get me noticed by the guys at the top you know? The guy who won this award the year I started has his own office in Boca and makes over a mil per year.”

“Whoa, that much just selling insurance?”

“Insurance and financial products. I mean, personal finance is a complicated business. People need help with their money and we help regular folks figure it out so they have a nice nest egg to retire and make sure their family is protected.”

“Geez, what a racket.”

“Um, no not a racket,” he said. “When you really think about it, it’s a noble pursuit. We take care of people. Life insurance so your wife and family are taken care of if you die. Health insurance so you can get the care you need when you need it. Investments so you can live on easy street when you retire. We help people reach and live the American dream. That’s what I do. I help people achieve their dreams.”

I didn’t say much after that. I could tell he was stressed out about the night and I didn’t want to be the dick who made it worse. But the rest of the ride I thought to myself, what the hell does this guy know about the American dream? I’m the guy in the real world here who works hard for a living. There’s no cushy office with a latte machine in the break room for me. My break room is a Thermos on the tailgate of my truck. I have a real job. I build things. Perfect example, the highway we drove home on that night? Our crew took it all the way down to dirt two years ago and rebuilt more than twenty-five miles of it through one of the hottest summers on record. I’d like to see Miles spend one day out in that July heat. He’d be dead by lunch. I’m the guy he sees on the side of the road as he’s speeding from the burbs, checking his Instagram at the stoplight on his way to his air-conditioned office. I earn every cent I take home and feel my hard work in my bones every night when I go to bed. And what, so I can get some award from the home office? No, just so I can barely put a roof over our heads and maybe save for vacation every couple of years.

When we got back to the house, they headed down to the basement to get ready while Rachel and I pulled out a few things in the kitchen for a snack. The basement is fixed up real nice. Sal, my buddy from work and I finished it off a couple years ago while we were laid off for the winter. It’s a combination man cave and extra bedroom with a bathroom inside like at a hotel. I figured it would come in handy on occasions when friends come in to visit, plus it’s a great space to have a few beers and watch the game.

I stood at the kitchen counter drinking a stout beer from Half Acre Brewery on the north side and watched Rachel pull some Wisconsin cheddar and summer sausage out of the refrigerator. She’s really good at making a cheese and meat tray look like something you would see in a restaurant. Our living room and kitchen has that open concept thing going on, and from where I was standing, I could see the picture we picked up a couple years ago at a small art shop in Wisconsin. I walked over to the picture and looked at it really close, then stepped back from it, and framed the picture with my fingers like you sometimes see people do in movies.

“What the hell are you doing?” Rachel asked.

“Well, I’m just looking at this fabulous piece of art on our wall here and wondering what it really means,” I said.

“What are you talking about, that’s our lighthouse in Door County.”

“That’s what you think it is, but clearly there’s got to be something deeper going on here, right? I mean, did you happen to notice that tall erect thing in the background there? I wonder what that could possibly symbolize, huh?”

“Oh my god, stop,” she said. She laughed at me as she arranged some cheese on a plate.

“No, think about it. And the kayakers in the front along the shoreline, they’re being drawn by this beacon toward the light of salvation. Paddle toward the light children! Paddle toward the light.” I pretended to paddle a kayak as I walked toward Rachel. She laughed even harder. I reached my arms around her waist and gently kissed the back of her neck.

“Stop, I’m trying to get these crackers all lined up nice on the plate,” she said.

Every time I look at that picture, I think of that weekend. It was fall and we drove up there because Rachel wanted to look at all the leaves changing colors. We stayed at this great place called the Gordon Lodge on the edge of the North Bay. On our last morning there, we woke up early to take a walk along the shoreline and watch the sunrise. There was a path that led to a lighthouse that was on sort of an island jutting out into the bay. We found a large rock close to the water and snuggled up together on that crisp morning and watched the sky turn from a dull gray into brilliant red and orange as the sun peeked over the horizon. Never in my life had I seen such brilliant colors.

Later that day as we drove home, we stopped in one of those little tourist towns along the way. Rachel wanted to pick up a few knick-knacks to give to her friends at work. We walked into this one art gallery place and there on the back wall was a watercolor of the exact lighthouse where we sat and watched the sunrise earlier that morning. She fell in love with it on sight, but it was like two hundred and fifty bucks. I didn’t think we could afford it, but at the same time, I couldn’t tell her no either. I could see how much she really liked it and that it meant something to her because we were sitting right there in that spot. So I ended up putting it on the emergency credit card and figured I could pay it off with a little overtime. When we got home that afternoon, we hadn’t even unpacked yet and I already had it hung on the wall right where she wanted it.

After a while, we heard them talking downstairs through the vents, and things seemed to be getting a little heated. I guess I should have Sal over for a couple of beers so we can look at that. Maybe we forgot some insulation somewhere.

“Fuck, I should have just asked for the clip-on when I rented the tux. Why did I think I could tie a bow tie?”

“Come here, let me help you.”

“It has to be perfect. There’ll be pictures and they put it on the company intranet and it will be in the national newsletter.”

“It’ll be fine, you look great honey. You always do.”

“Did you order the Uber? We gotta go. Now.”

Rachel and I were in bed by the time they got back to our place, so we didn’t see them again until morning. We had planned to go to brunch at our favorite place down the street from our house before Anne and Miles got on the road back to Iowa. I was making coffee when they both came upstairs with all their luggage in hand and coats on.

“So, Miles, let’s see it. This big trophy, where is it?’ I asked.

Anne gave me a sharp look that screamed, shut up.

“I think we’re just going to head back early, if that’s ok, Anne said. “We’ve got a six hour ride and a long week ahead of us.”

“No, please stay,” Rachel pleaded. “This place we’re taking you has the most amazing avocado toast plus they were voted the best bloody Marys in the entire city. They skewer a whole cheeseburger on a straw and put it in the drink. It’s crazy.”

“It’s okay,” Anne said. “Besides, Miles isn’t feeling all that great this morning and he just wants to get home.”

Miles looked like hell. The dark circles under his eyes and his pale complexion hinted at the amount he must have had to drink last night. Outside, he jumped in the passenger seat and waved through the window. We hugged Anne and watched as they drove away.

We took our coffee out to the front porch and sat on the bench swing. It was a beautiful spring morning and the neighborhood was just waking up. We entertained ourselves by making up stories of what we thought could have happened at the banquet last night. My guess was that Miles was so nervous that he started drinking early to calm his nerves, but ended up making an ass of himself in front of all the important people from the home office. Rachel thought maybe he didn’t get the award he was so desperate for, and started drinking later in the evening to drown his misery.

“The guy was wound way too tight before he even walked out the door.” I said. “My bet is he went to the bar, had one too many bracers and couldn’t even spell his own name the rest of the night.”

“Anne told me about the award and how much it meant to Miles while we were at the museum,” she said. “I guess it was a small miracle that he was even nominated but somehow he had convinced himself that he would win and they’d be set for life.”

“Oh, Milsey will be fine. So what, they don’t get a mansion in Miami. It’s not like the place they have now is a dump. Five bedrooms and a pool, come on.”

“I don’t know. She said things haven’t been right with him for a while now, and he’s been acting all weird.”

“How can she be so sure? Miles is weird. I mean, how can someone get so worked up about some trophy.”

“Yeah, I feel bad for him though, and my sister. They had already made so many plans.”

“Well, that’s their own fault then. It’s just not good for people to believe too much of their own bullshit,” I said.

“Yeah, but people only believe the stories they tell themselves, no matter how ridiculous. And it’s a disaster when they find out there was never an ounce of truth in them.”

It would be much later in the evening when Anne called to tell us all that had happened. But, since it was still early and we were both hungry, Rachel and I walked down the street to our favorite cafe and ordered a couple bloody Marys.


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