Tippy and Pirate took three steps back from the painting and Pirate squared his good eye to the canvas.
“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Pirate said, unconsciously in the rhythm of a college professor who lectured him and others long ago from the front of a dark auditorium, and who once projected this very work, in slide form, on the wall above and behind him. “George Seurat. 1880 or thereabouts. Painted entirely with dots.”
“It’s marvelous,” said Tippy, retreating humbly into his shell up to the bill of his cap, then reappearing, his eyes curious and black and round. “But it looks familiar. Didn’t they make this painting into a movie?”
“A play,” Pirate corrected. “It’s called Sunday in the Park with George and, in it, Mandy Patinkin’s mistress is named Dot. I prefer the original here; I’d rather see the actual dots on the canvas then have them played by Bernadette Peters.”
Pirate shrugged but didn’t look at his friend; with the slightest shift of his feet, the painting could change radically and even a five-degree turn of his head would obscure the French masterpiece behind his black patch. “It’s pointillism,” he said. “The point, I think, if you’ll pardon the pun, is to demonstrate that many things — most things, all things — look different from there,” he pointed to where they had been standing, " as opposed to here," meaning where they were standing now.
“Did they hate him?” Tippy asked. He hadn’t mated in almost a year, which was normal for turtles, but left him feeling inadequate, especially around Pirate, who liked to tell bawdy tales of his conquests of maidens and princesses and, one time, an Associate Director of Human Resources at 3Com.
“Did who hate him?”
“The other painters,” Tippy said. “The ones who still painted with strokes. The old way. Did they hate Seurat?”
“Don’t know,” said Pirate, thinking again about that professor and how, three weeks after the semester ended, Pirate ran him through with a thin saber over a saucy, scarlet-haired co-ed and a barrel of Indian spice. “But let’s say they did hate him. Isn’t it possible that the reaction to his work, the good and the bad, is the very thing that completed it? If Seurat painted his dots and never showed anyone the result, it would merely be something he did. An activity, like a refinished chiffarobe, or a waterproofed patio. It wouldn’t be a work of art.”
“So an artist is defined by his critics, then?” asked Tippy, setting a trap, or so he thought.
“Not defined. No. Completed.” Pirate picked something out of his wooly hair. He bit it. A gold doubloon! No, wait. Chocolate.
“What is art, then?” asked Tippy. “According to you.”
“I believe art is defined by the ability of the artist to transcend the limitations of his medium,” Pirate said, discarding the shiny candy wrapper on the tile floor. “A musician has the notes on the scale and the fickleness of his instrument. For any writer, language is finite. A painter is walled-in by the colors of the spectrum, the textures of his brush, the physical properties of watercolors and oils. When there are no limitations, can art even exist? A crucifix in a pickle jar of urine, to take an old example, is an idea, a statement — a juxtaposition — but it’s not art.”
“What if that artist’s medium happened to be urine and pickle jars?” Tippy asked.
“Arrr,” said Pirate. Tippy laughed.
“Here’s the problem,” Pirate said. “Every time some lad or lass puts a crucifix in a pickle jar of urine, people get angry.”
“Are they upset because it’s not really art?” asked Tippy, who was suddenly startled by something he saw on the fringes of the Seurat and tumbled back, helplessly, onto his shell, his legs making little circles in the air.
“Their outrage has nothing to do with art,” said Pirate. He helped Tippy up to his miniature, but still elephantine, hind legs. “They don’t like crucifixes in pickle jars of urine because their faith is weak, and they’re afraid of being tricked into losing it. Or maybe they’re convinced God is thin-skinned. And ill-tempered. And wrathful. They’re frightened because they think the artist has made God angry. Some people know better. They know that God — by definition omniscient, and omnipotent — must be generally nonplussed by what people do with their pee, but they also understand that they themselves can become more powerful by calling this pickle jar, or that one, offensive.”
Tippy wanted a cigarette, but the museum did not permit smoking. Also, he lacked the physical dexterity to hold a cigarette, to bring it to his mouth or to light it, and his beak-like lips were incapable of closing completely around the filter, a necessary qualification for inhaling smoke. It’s why turtles live so long, his doctor told him. “I’m tired,” Tippy said.
“Let’s go downstairs,” Pirate suggested. “I have a promotional coupon for a free ‘Sunday Afternoon With a Grande Skim Latte’.”
In the museum café, Tippy, lacking a complete hard palate, burned the roof of his mouth on the coffee. As Tippy yelped, Pirate imagined a line-drawing of himself on the inside of a matchbook. He was naked except for his bandana and patch and tri-corner hat, and posed as if he were turning water to wine at the Wedding at Cana. Tippy, with a blue and white cloak across his shell, looked like a tiny, reptilian Blessed Mother.
“Can you draw this?” Pirate said aloud, like a television announcer. He laughed his scary pirate laugh. Tippy looked around for some ice.