Sometimes I wonder what will happen to the picture of the old man painted by my friend when he was seventeen, about a year before he died of cancer. It’s currently hanging in my mother’s house. Back in 1973, when my friend needed money to pay for his car insurance, he sold it to my parents for forty dollars. It’s quite large, and he framed it himself.
Assuming I outlive my mother — not a safe bet, by any means — the painting will then belong to me. But what will become of it after my wife and I are gone? The old man is already like a member of the family. As I’ve written elsewhere, my friend got the idea to paint him when he saw a picture of an old man in a magazine. The idea only — the sad Old World face was a product of the artist’s imagination.
For years now, the painting has reminded me of my father, although my father didn’t have a long white beard. Then again, I do, except that my beard is really more gray than white — and brown, and red, and — well, it depends on what kind of ice cream we have for dessert. But I don’t really look like the old man. Sometimes, though, I’m sure I feel like him — which, of course, is what great art is all about.
I don’t know what an art expert would say upon an examination of the painting. Even if he agreed with me and said my friend was brilliant, I would probably smile, because experts are used to making such declarations, and often derive more satisfaction from hearing their verdict than from the discovery itself. Not all experts are like that, of course. Some are genuine, and are works of art in their own right.
Meanwhile, how does one get to be an expert? At what point does his opinion become an expert’s opinion? Does he himself know? Does he bumble along for years simply guessing, and then one day wake up to find he knows? Or does it have more to do with other people agreeing with his opinions? If I were to guess myself, I would say an expert is an expert long before anyone else knows about it. Furthermore, an expert can be an expert without anyone ever knowing about it.
But what of the painting? Our kids are used to seeing it. They don’t talk about it, but I know they recognize its importance — they all know it was painted by my friend, and they know that my friend died when he was younger than they are now. I have no doubt, therefore, that they would want to keep it in the family.
Or, I could donate it to a museum. Ah, but what would the experts say? Now, let’s assume just for the moment that when I die, I am a famous person. Will my fame influence the experts? Will they be more interested in this unique original painting because they know it meant a great deal to me? What if the painting were by a well known artist?
“How in the world did he get his hands on a Van Gogh?”
“Good question. Wasn’t he penniless?”
“Yes. And Michaelian? Wasn’t he broke as well?”
“That’s who I meant. He was a great writer, but he died without a
And if I’m not famous when I die? Then it will be between you and the family. Because I’m not famous now, and yet you still know about the painting, just as you’re aware of my widespread anonymity. In fact, I won’t be surprised if someday I am famous for being unknown. Nor will I be surprised when an expert declares that I’m dead. But just watch him jump when I administer an invisible kick to his seat of higher learning.
Also by William Michaelian
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Another Song I Know
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