Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Excerpt: Can Animals Be Artists?

Hello Everyone! I thought I would pop in here and post a quick excerpt from "Among the Humans." This clip is taken from the party scene, when Penelope takes Jerry the Bird to meet her artist friends. What happens next is exactly the same thing that happens every time you go to a party: drunken debate.

It's a short clip of a longer scene. If you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here on Smashwords, or here on Amazon.

Observe or perish!

* * *

We moved into a small living room. There were couches against every wall, and people rearranged themselves so Penelope and I could sit down. Gladys deposited Bryce on the floor in the corner and then moved on to mingle with her friends. I pulled out a bottle of wine and Penelope disappeared into the kitchen to find a corkscrew and some cups. I held our spots on the couch, surrounded by the kids.

It probably isn't fair to call them kids. I wasn't sure how old I was, and I didn't know how my age translated to human anyway, but they seemed like kids to me, and I felt like a beat-up old man. They were all talking fast, leaning in close so they could hear each other over the rock and roll music coming out of a record player somewhere. They all looked horny, the guys and girls both, like the whole party was a pretext to meet, pair off, and go hump at high speeds. Probably half of them would get laid tonight. The other half would stumble home wondering what went wrong, or maybe too drunk to care.

A pair of bright-eyed young men came and sat on the floor in front of me. Their beards were neat, and their hair came to their shoulders. One of them had a flower behind his ear. They were both drinking cans of beer.

"Hey, man," one of them said. "How's it going?"

"Fine, man," I said.

Their names were Mitch and Tony. They were art students at the city college.

"Penelope knows a lot of artists," I said.

"It's a small community in this town," Mitch said. "We stick together. We're the New Underground. Are you an artist too?"

"I don't think so," I said. "The New Underground will have to get along without me."

"Too bad," Tony said. "The New Underground could use some bird representation."

"I know a lizard who sings and tap-dances," I said. "Maybe he'd be interested."

"Cool, man," Mitch said. He turned to Tony. "You know, I'm not sure if there really are any animal artists."

"There are," said Tony. He was the one with the flower in his hair. "I read an article. There's an ape in a zoo in Brussels that makes paintings. I think it was Brussels. It might have been a gorilla. And there's an animal shelter somewhere in the States that has cats walk through vegetable paint and then walk across canvases. They sell the paintings to raise funds for the shelter. That's a pretty cool idea, don't you think?" He looked up at me with his bright little eyes.

"I guess so. It's kind of like making the prisoners work to pay for the prison. Hell, that's not a bad idea. You could teach painting classes in all the prisons, sell the paintings, and pay the bills."

Mitch laughed. "I like that! The clink would be like an artists retreat. If I needed to spend some time just working at my craft, I could knock off a liquor store and get a six month sentence."

"Terrific," I said. "And you wouldn't even have to walk through any vegetable paint."

Penelope got back with the corkscrew and a pair of cups. "What's this about vegetable paint?" She sat down next to me and got to work opening one of the bottles.

"Mitch and Tony were telling me about an artist prison camp for cats," I said. "They lock up the cats and make them walk through paint, then across canvasses. It's a racket. They sell the paintings to rich European collectors, and the guys running the camp live the good life. They have a second, smaller work camp for mice. The mice produce much smaller paintings for the postcard market. When the mice get too old and tired, they feed them to the cats. It's a whole animal art compound in Colorado. Or was it Wyoming?"

"Uh, Connecticut, I think," said Tony.

"He's kidding," Mitch said. "There's an animal shelter that uses cat-made paintings for fund-raisers."

Another dude wandered over. "Sounds cool," he said. "But is it art?"

This phrase was apparently some sort of hypnotic command to everyone there. Like in the movies when someone pulls the needle off the record player and everyone stops talking all at once, every conversation in the little room stopped and they all looked over and began to ask, "Is what art?"

Penelope filled up my cup, then her own. We took a good sip as the circle of kids on the floor in front of us expanded from Mitch and Tony to everyone who could jam themselves in. The floor got crowded.

"I think it's art," someone said, "because there is a piece of art being produced. But the cat isn't the artist. It's the person setting it all up and getting the cat to go through the motions."

"Yeah, exactly," said another. "The cat doesn't think, 'oh, I've got to make this a good painting. I really have to make this one special.' It's just walking around."

"But the painting doesn't get done without the cat," someone said.

"Sure, but it's any cat. The cat doesn't matter. It's like a brush."

"Yeah, but I bet some cats are better at it than others."

"A cat is not the same as a paintbrush. It's a living thing."

Like me, I thought. A thing.

"Nah, animals can't be artists," said a big bastard with a beard. "They just do stuff without caring what they're doing. They don't care if it's beautiful. They care about function. Like bees, right? They make a honeycomb and it's beautiful, but they don't care that it's beautiful. That's just the best way to store honey."

"Yes, but you can blend beauty and function!" someone else put in. "You can make something that works really well and add artistic qualities. Like a beautiful car. It's a car, and it drives, but the car designers can make it beautiful if they want to."

"Yeah, but an animal isn't thinking about that," said the big guy. "They only care about function. And just because a cat walks across a canvas with wet feet, doesn't make him cat Van Gogh."

"What about Jerry?" Penelope said. "He's an animal and he's an artist."

Everyone went silent and looked at me.

"What kind of artist are you, Jerry?" someone asked.

"He writes detective novels," Penelope said. "They're really good."

That made me pause. I couldn't remember her saying that she'd actually read my novel. I remember her saying she would read it, but she never mentioned it after that. If she read it and liked it, that would be fine, but I figured she would have mentioned it at some point.

"Detective novels aren't art," the big guy said. I'd met his kind before. A contrarian. Everybody else has to be wrong. "They're just entertainment."

"What do you think, Jerry?" asked Mitch. "Are your novels art?"

I gulped down my wine. "I'm not going to say I'm an artist, and I'm not going to say my books are art. But my first novel probably took five hundred hours of work to produce, including preparation time. I don't know what that means, but it seems like it should mean something."

"Yes!" Penelope said. "Exactly. He spent the time to deliberately create something. That's art. Anything done with an intention above pure function can be art."

"Right," said Tony. "Even broader, anything done really well can be art. That's why we call a good thief a con artist. Or why we call it the art of war."

"Ah, bullshit," said the big guy. "That means everything is art, and if everything is art, nothing is art. Like the conceptual artists who want us to think brushing our teeth is art. Or taking anything they can find, bringing it into a gallery, and saying it's art. It's all a bunch of bullshit and it cheapens the whole concept of art."

"The Art of Being an Asshole," I said, and refilled my glass.

Penelope patted me on the leg. "He's not being an asshole, Jerry," she said. "He's just arguing his point."

The big guy laughed, then he turned and walked out of the room. "Hey guys!" he shouted. "A fucking bird just called me an asshole!"

"He is an asshole," I said.

She shrugged. "Maybe you're right. Anyway, I'm going to see where Gladys got to. She'd be interested in this discussion."

The crowd dispersed, except for Tony and Mitch, who remained sitting at my feet like a couple of disciples. They continued talking about art, while I got drunk. Penelope didn't come back.

* * *

Remember, if you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here on Smashwords, or here on Amazon.

Another excerpt, featuring Jerry and Carter J. Lizardman going to their first (and last) hockey game has been posted on my hockey blog. Read it here:


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