We move on to the next painting, scribble a giant cock across an immaculately-rendered, classically-proportioned, four-hundred-year-old face—as always, you with the broad strokes, me with the line work—and you tell me there’s a class war coming.
I sit down on one of the little viewing benches and idly rattle a can of spray paint. I say something vague and suggestive like, “Everybody is someone else’s pawn.”
The next room over, on The Death of Socrates I produce another of my gallery-label factoids, this time about stoicism: “The Athenian government accused Socrates of denying the gods and ordered him to either renounce his teachings or die. He chose death.”
You tell me that he, like the subjects of most of these paintings, probably never even existed, and before I can tell you how wrong I think you are he vanishes before my eyes in a thickening haze of black so dense that it drips off the canvas.
I read an interview once with an art restorer in Miami who had a drug lord client whose enraged wife had yanked his eight-foot Botero off the wall and stamped across the canvas in her four-inch heels. “You have to reconstruct in layers,” she said; in three months her team had the painting completely un-gouged, as pristine as before. Ten months later the mansion burned to the ground, and her client collected nearly $8 million of insurance. In dark moments, I worry that we’re doing someone else a powerful favor.
Earlier tonight, on a whim, you marched from room to room spray painting a crude X over “every exposed nipple and twat” in all of the European nudes, and you’d already circumcised and de-titted about six Venuses before I caught up to tell you that it came off maybe a bit fascist to do that, maybe a little like censorship.
“If it’s indiscriminate, it can’t be fascist,” you said, castrating a cherub with a spurt from your spray can, and I had no idea where you found that particular aphorism.
The first time I did this, I’d meticulously blacked out the eyes on a pair of Cot springtimes when you came up behind me and said, “No, no, no.” You took my hand and sprayed a wide, sloppy arc across the two lovers, then a vertical line, then a swirl. “There shouldn’t be any patterns—see? It’s supposed to look random.”
Currently, you spray a capital letter A on the flag in a Revolutionary War painting.
“You know, that could be misinterpreted,” I say, watching it bleed over the faces of the figures like it’s no texture at all.
“A for America.”
I say it as a joke, but by the time you turn away the painting resembles nothing so much as a black scour on the gallery wall. Compared to the others, it positively bursts with intention.
You throw the spray cans into your bag. “Just meet me by the Egyptian thing when you’re done,” you say, and disappear—the temple to Osiris, relocated from other shores via freighter to the museum’s western wing in the 1960s, has always been a place of solace for you.
Walking away in just the emergency lights, I pass inverted crosses, genitalia, scrawled slogans and outbursts of black overlaying the blasted-out faces of noblemen, Christ-figures, madonnas, gods, soldiers, priests and apostles—some of them mine, some yours, but most an inscrutable pattern of their own.
Simon Jacobs is the author of SATURN, a collection of David Bowie stories out now from . He may be found at .