You’re on vacation, but it’s a downpour of rain outside.
Just your luck. What was supposed to be a relaxing morning enjoying the outdoors is now a…well, what now? Your fellow vacationers are content to stay in, but you didn’t spend the past year of financial discipline saving up your trip fund just to sit around.
Looking for something to do, you find an art museum downtown. Sure, why not? Not normally your thing, but traveling is about trying new things, right?
You warm up and dry off wandering through the wide halls of the pristine museum. There’s just…so much art here. Obviously, it’s an art museum. But still, the building is seven floors tall. Impressive.
You could spend the entire day here and still not see everything. Not that you would…some of it is pretty bland. You breeze through some rooms, giving the less interesting paintings a perfunctory glance and a thoughtful nod before moving on (it’s the least you can do to respect the artist’s hard work, even if it is just an abstract splatter of paint).
You enter a room plainly titled: American Painters: 1800-1900. Among the oil paintings of prairies and glowing parochial scenes, you catch sight of a small painting sitting by itself in the far corner away from everything else.
It isn’t very big, which is good because it isn’t very pretty either. In fact, it looks rather gloomy. You’ve never heard of the artist before. He has no other works in the room. Just this one painting.
It’s surreal in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. There are a handful of tiny children, all dressed in what you’d expect is what kids looked like in the 1800s. They look like they belong in school. But, instead, they’re standing on…what is that, a boulder? Some rocky outcropping in the middle of the wilderness, underneath an imposing looking cliff with even more imposing looking storm clouds above. All the kids are looking up into the sky at something.
The longer you stare at it, the stranger it looks. Without the kids there, it would be a moody landscape painting. Add the children to the mix and suddenly, you’re asking questions. What are they doing so far out in the wilderness? Where are their parents? How did they get there without dirtying up their clothes? Are they the artist’s kids?
Satisfied that you’ve paid enough respect to this weird painting, you’re about to continue on your way but find yourself paralyzed by a female shriek. Your thoughts sprint from violent attack to art heist to a statue falling on someone to…
…School children, as shriek devolves into laughter. You hear a teacher berating a boy, likely for pulling some surprise prank on the girl who elicited the scream.
You look past the entrance of the room and see the gaggle of kids shuffling through the exhibits. They’re past the age of being adorable, but not yet old enough to deal with rationally. They look to be right in that middle span—barbarians with bookbags.
The boys dart through hallways, racing each other around sculptures older than most countries. Girls gossip to each other, giggling at the “mature” paintings of past societies who objectified with elegance. “Put a sweater on, Venus. Gawd.” One says, the others laughing at her wit.
Their teacher shuffles the kids through the hall and into the room you’re in. They spread out and skip past the paintings with hardly a glance. One girl looks at the painting you’re standing in front of and frowns.
“These paintings are lame. I wanna go look at the real art again,” she says to her friend as they go looking for more Renaissance eye candy to giggle at. You recognize her voice as the same one who commented on Venus’ clothing choices (or lack thereof). They wander off without acknowledging you.
You look back at the artist’s name under the painting and shrug, The brutal honesty of kids, my friend. You nearly apologize to the nameplate on the girl’s behalf. All the work that this guy must have done to earn this little corner in the museum, just to be ridiculed by the same school children he tried to capture in his art.
The school group moves on to the next room, the Mongol horde looking for new territory to conquer. Hanging back to build some space (little desire to be within earshot of them the entire time), you pretend to examine the strange painting some more.
You’re no art curator, but it still bothers you that you’ve never heard of this painter before. Beneath his name is simply one line: born-Painesville, Ohio 1824; died-New York City 1900.
What kind of biography is that for who you assume is a renowned painter? At least, renowned enough to make it into a nice museum such as this. Is the one weird painting in front of you this man’s only legacy? What about everything else he did between Ohio, 1824 and New York, 1900? That’s 500 miles and 76 years of living, of doing. Can an entire man’s life be summed up by one painting and what hardly counts as one sentence to describe him?
That gets you thinking. What other famous figures in history have worked their entire lives to have their accomplishments condensed and distilled into a single fact? A single sentence. A lifetime’s worth of experiences, jobs, joys, and sorrows just to have one single achievement worth mentioning.
You start thinking of names.
Neil Armstrong: walked on the moon.
He did other stuff, right? Lived a whole life, decades worth of school and work and friends and hobbies and passions, but his whole life is defined by what? A handful of days? A few hours? A fraction of a fraction of his entire life? No room in the mass global consciousness for any other interesting details of his life.
Neil Armstrong: Moon (your mind doesn’t even register the other guy who stayed in the spacecraft…)
Who else? Who are the other Monoliths of history who get to be remembered for just one thing?
You still hear the faint war cries of the schoolchildren two rooms away…
Genghis Khan: Pillaging. Fairly general, but that was his one thing.
Jonas Salk: Polio
Charles De Gaulle: This is might be a tough one….French Democracy? (Oh, and an airport. Guess that’s two things. Good for him. You get two facts, Chuck. Wait…who else has airports named after them that you know nothing about…who the heck was LaGuardia?)
Julia Child: French Cooking
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Marie Curie: Science?
Elon Musk: Twitter comedian
But you realize that those are just the names that you can think of. How many more people influenced the world without ever warranting a place in your dusty mental library of high school facts? Who made a real impact on the world around them but never gained their own corner of a museum.
Thirteenth President of the United States.
What was his name?
What else did he do besides be a President?
You give a mental shrug.
C’mon, he was a US President! He had to have done something for the world worth mentioning beyond that. But, nothing comes to your mind.
Your feet start to hurt from standing and your stomach is reminding you that the morning has come and gone. When’s lunch.
Lunch? Who invented the microwave?
This is getting frustrating. The man (you assume it was a man) who developed something as life changing as the microwave remains faceless to history? (Looking it up on your phone didn’t help, seeing his name registered no response or recognition from your mind. You forgot his name again before your phone even made it back into your pocket).
Is that all that people are in the grand scheme of humanity? Just a one line fact about one thing they did while living? If they’re lucky enough to be remembered at all?
An inevitable question hits: If all these great men and women—the individuals who shaped the direction of the human race—if their life’s impact and achievements can be summarized in just one sentence…if the single painting on display in front of you is this artist’s biggest contribution to the world worth preserving…
Then, what about you? What have you done that’s worth remembering? The poor, unknown artist has a single painting in a corner of a museum, eternally relegated to ridicule from schoolchildren. But, at least his contribution made it into a museum. Yours…
You frown, what does your life’s work amount to? Could your impact on the world be summed up in fewer words than this artist’s one line placard?
You think about the life you’ve lived so far. You’ve done plenty of good, kind things in life. You’ve made an impact. You’ve helped people. You have talents, skills that you put to work in the service of others. Right? (right?)
Sure. Skills like…well, we can’t all cure Polio or liberate the French, now can we?
At least you’re nice to your neighbors (you are nice to your neighbors, right?) That’s something. That, and you don’t say angry or ignorant things online. That’s a worthy contribution to humanity. It won’t get you a place in a museum or an airport named after you, but you aren’t after fame.
Besides, F. Scott Fitzgerald was an egoist and a terrible alcoholic who was hospitalized nine times. (See? Maybe being remembered for more than one fact isn’t all that great.)
No, you don’t care about recognition or making it big, but at the same time, you want to do more than just…exist, right? You want to contribute to the betterment of mankind in some way. Any way.
You think back. You’ve done good things so far with the life you’ve lived. Left a positive impact, you think. Made your life worthwhile.
You’re still alive, though, right? So, what next? Statistically, you can count the number of decades you have left on one hand. Those school kids that ran past you earlier, sparing a fleeting glance at that painting? They might get three more decades than you. Just three. If they’re lucky. What will they do with it? Those children in the painting probably had even fewer. What did they do with their years?
That’s a human life, a handful of heartbeats. Do you spend them sleepily gliding past each day in a daze, maybe doing something impactful, maybe not? Or, could you focus your efforts and make it into one small corner of a museum with the time you have left? One footnote in one book in the library of the human experience? Be remembered by someone for something.
You wonder to yourself, in your lifetime of work, school, leisure, friends, family, hobbies…the experiences that make you you, what’s one thing you can point to at the end of your life where you can be proud to say, I made that? Will it be a single moment? A single event or action that you took part in? Has it already happened? Or will it be a lifetime, summarized and distilled into a few syllables.
You struggle to think of an answer, but you do know one thing: this is the last time you ever go to an art museum alone. It’s exhausting.
You’re at risk of losing your mind from all this self reflection when a young woman—the museum custodian—walks up to you, smiling. She mistakes your staring off into the middle distance as appreciation for the painting in front of you.
“Oh, William Holbrook Beard. I love his work,” she gestures at the painting. “You know, The Lost Balloon isn’t even the painting he’s most famous for, but it’s my favorite. He hadsuch an odd, silly style.”
You add another name to the list…
William Holbrook Beard: The Lost Balloon.
(Drink Pairing: The Painted Lady.. Gin + Simple Syrup + Lemon Juice + Grapefruit Juice + Grenadine Syrup)
This reminds me of “Leaf by Niggle,” another short story about a painter trying to make the world beautiful.
And the barbarians with bookbags…well, can’t say it better than that, can we? 🙂
Ah, I’ll have to look it up, thank you! Now I haves nice, quick read for this evening.
And yes, I struggled for quite a bit to find the right description and then this one just struck me like…well, like a child’s spitball.
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