Art is short, life long. Light, decade after decade, pierced the gloom of the dim great glass and fell upon the Artwork. The attendant sat at her desk, as she had from the beginning. She had been here on the very first day, when so many had poured in to admire the Artwork and to envy the artist who alone among the ambitious had been granted this: a permanent installation. This vast room, as tall as a bank lobby, even deeper in plan than it was tall, was to house nothing - no person, no thing, no concept - apart from the Artwork, which would remain here, sole occupant, on display, for eternity. And she would attend.
Every day the attendant opened the doors at ten o'clock, and took her place behind the desk. On the desk was the book in which visitors inscribed not simply their names, but their impressions of the Artwork: how it had moved them, what they imagined it might mean, their thoughts on this day. On that first day, whole pages had been filled with these excited observations, appended always to the most exquisite and incomprehensible signatures. Page upon page, as the visitors turned from viewing, and tried in this book to offer words commensurate with the experience. The signatures, proud and gestural, were miniature works of art themselves, competing with each other, competing with the Artwork, inscribed in full knowledge that these signs too reached towards eternity, that they would remain in this book for as long as the installation remained in this room. That was long ago.
It had been some years since anyone had written in the book. Some years, truth be told, since anyone had come to appreciate the Artwork. The attendant dressed in black, day after day, because that was how she had dressed on that first day, back when the entire community expected this: black suggested a seriousness of purpose, that the wearer was not frivolous and understood the importance of art.
Now, black had garnered other connotations, as the attendant found herself alone with her widowed installation.
The artist was still alive, many thought, but his reputation had withered. Long ago, when the installation was granted eternal occupancy, the artist had been thought immortal, such was his fame. Fame, however, thanks to a famous artist, was increasingly divorced from infinite temporal attributes: fame could be instantaneous, and could depart within the hour. It was no less desired, but it had become less desirable. And the artist had watched his fame retreat, diminish, shrivel in the shell of the vast media until it rattled about like a dry seed and then shivered to dust.
It was hard to say why the artist was no longer esteemed. What was now praised was no more serious than the Artwork. In some ways the newest work was less rigorous, less refined, less conceptually nuanced. His work had always been thought nuanced. Now, however, the word "nuanced" was itself polyvalent, and not entirely happy. An influential essay, "Against Nuance," had led many to suspect the subtlety of the Artwork, as if it were somehow crafty, as if the artist were perhaps too clever in his subtlety, as if he had somehow pulled one over on them.
The foundation could not close the installation, of course. The endowment was still very much a going concern, and would lose all credibility if it were to mothball a permanent display. The Artwork, though no longer esteemed, was nevertheless immortal. And the installation required an attendant.
She wore her black with pride. Once considered almost beautiful, intellect shining in her pale forehead, she could not be considered beautiful now. At one time that forehead suggested a curatorial future, but there was no such suggestion now. She would attend, she knew, until no longer required. No one could imagine the circumstance in which she would no longer be required. She would attend.
Above her, the corrugated ceiling was pierced by industrial windows, and these would occasionally permit shafts of light, trembling with dust. Such an instant, a cloudbreak in the loft, would cause the Artwork to shine. She still found herself thrilled at these moments, and she would grip the desk in front of her, briefly closing her eyes. What did she care for reputation? When she was young, and almost beautiful, and perhaps curatorial, such things had mattered deeply to her, but that was so long ago, and now she had only this: light, apprehension, the object of her gaze. Now, all she might do was appreciate.
News from beyond the installation would reach her, of course. She knew that the artist had attempted suicide, some twenty years before: this had been reported, briefly, in one of the minor papers. She knew that he had been found beside the river, unconscious, dangerously bled, and had been taken to a hospital. Presumably they had convinced him at that hospital that reputation was nothing, that life might continue into the long twilight that yawned from the close of fame. How they had done this she did not know; nothing had been heard from the artist since. If he had died, however, someone would have mentioned it.
Is there more to life? Sometimes she wondered. Would she have been happier as a curator? Would she have been happier if she had been the one, for instance, to make the grave decision: that this very piece, the Artwork, would occupy this space until the end of time?
Most were convinced that they knew the answer to these questions. She was widely pitied among those who knew her or remembered her from those early days. Not that anyone could be said to know her, now, beyond a passing acquaintance: the waiter at her local diner was aware of her, eating in the corner in black, but he could hardly be said to know her. Still, he pitied her.
How much more is there, she wondered, to life. Especially when the sun found its way through the crusted window and, as if aimed, fell upon the Artwork, she gripped the desk and wondered. These moments sustained her. Wonder gave way to wonder, and she knew bliss. Between the loneliness and the futility, a moment, and for this she would attend.
Also, the monotony was comforting. The empty pages had for a long time upset her; for years she had waited for someone to visit, to turn from the Artwork, moved, and set in that book a fabulous signature, a pithy thought; but now she knew that this was improbable, and calm had replaced expectation. Her heart beat at a steady rate, quickened only - and very rarely - by the intrusion of the sun.
Sometimes she thought about her place in all of this. Surely the artist had known, from the beginning, that his work would be attended. The room would have to be opened, every day at ten o'clock; he must have known this. The artist, whom she alone admired, was surely aware of every aspect of this piece: not simply the Artwork, but the room in which it would be displayed, the desk at which the attendant would sit, and - did this not follow? - the attendant herself. How she would figure in the experience. Her, as figure, as experience. All prefigured in the mind of the artist. You may know life, she said to no one (as no one was there), but I know fate. I know what it is to be determined. I have been foretold, and therefore my life is a story, and should light shine upon the Artwork - as it did at this very moment - this story would reach a crescendo, tremble, and then descrescend to stillness. What do you know, she said to no one (as that was her audience), that can compare to this?
She stood at her desk and gestured with her left hand. She smiled. "What have you experienced," she said aloud, "that could possibly matter more than what I experience here, on this day, in this shaft of light?"
For someone had come to admire the Artwork, and was now standing in the door.
Marjorie the Prophet examined a small boil that had emerged, inexplicably, on the underside of her left forearm. It chafed against the edge of her desk, especially when she reached for the spike, and this she did on a regular basis. So many proposals to consider, and almost all of them destined for the spike. Marjorie the Prophet had earned this epithet over the course of decades. Her ability to choose, almost without fail, the right artist for a permanent installation, was preternatural. The decision was of course made by the group, according to elaborate procedures which even the secretary who ran the meetings poorly understood, but Marjorie's voice was always given the greatest respect. Only once, in a long line of recommendations, had she proved utterly wrong. That failure took some years to announce itself, and by then Marjorie had become "the Prophet," and her future at the foundation was secure.
A disheveled woman, not overly tall but large in the manner of a wrestler, Marjorie was a formidable presence at meetings. She almost never raised her voice. It was a triumph of posture: she would simply lean forward, as if prepared to crush an opponent, and the meeting would fall silent.
Her hair was generally pulled back in a loose bun, but she had little talent for personal grooming, and stray pieces would fall into her eyes and irritate her neck. Her manner when dealing with these loose, innocent tresses contributed to her effect on the group: she would move her bear-like hand with murderous rage, pushing the errant hair away from her skin. Rarely would she cease to smile in the course of this action, but suppressed malevolence would flicker across that smile and then depart. In a corresponding manner, as if choreographed, an almost imperceptible shudder would ripple across her colleagues.
This boil on her arm upset her, but what could be done? Marjorie was devoted to her position at the foundation, for which she received a modest stipend, and it was unthinkable to interrupt work. She considered moving the spike to the other side of her glass desk. Yet she was unaccustomed to spiking proposals with her right hand.
The boil seemed unfair. Marjorie was busy, and she was lonely, and now this. She felt close to tears. Despite her demeanor - despite the flashes of loathing - Marjorie the Prophet was a woman quick to cry; she was tender at the core. Not many witnessed that core, but had they done so, they would have thought differently about her.
In truth, apart from her rare ability to choose artists and influence meetings, the Prophet was a desperately ordinary woman. She had average emotions. She had no taste, per se: simply the knack for choosing winners, and convincing others of that choice. Marjorie never much liked the artists she chose, but she understood, better than anyone else at the foundation, what was critically acceptable, and what was likely to remain that way. It conferred great authority upon her, and an awed (if not precisely warm) epithet, but gave her no cause for pride. Quietly, Marjorie the Prophet wished she had been granted something more: an ability to make or truly comprehend. Some sort of ability.
Once she had hoped to make a career in film. She had served as script girl to a woman of genius, and had gone on to direct short films herself, but these efforts had never quite emerged from beneath the influence of her great mentor (who now regarded her with contempt), and Marjorie began to wonder, at last, whether she had any ideas of her own. Even one. She could ape the style of her mentor; she could organize people of talent; she could evince the proper disdain for those things that her mentor disdained. But perhaps she had no ideas.
Fate decreed that she would find a place at the foundation. Her time in the theater had made her adept in the ways of grant application. She understood the difficult process of molding consensus from a group of eccentric individuals; her dictatorial blandness was a perfect foil to their collective ego. While members of the foundation would have found it intolerable to defer to a personality - they had all been artists of a sort in their prior lives, and still had much bound up in the primacy of their own remembered personas - it was easy to bow to Marjorie. She was not enviable.
Her desk was heavy glass, never truly clean. The floor beneath, always visible, was hardwood marked by the movement of chairs and the passing of years. Decisions required physical exertion, and especially when she was young, when those first crucial pieces were granted immortality, Marjorie found herself moving her chair, sometimes forcefully, while coming to judgment. A small change in perspective could change the world, and her view, ideally, would take this world in from every position simultaneously, from every moment in the past and future: this was prophesy. Even now, Marjorie moved her chair a great deal. In hope of greater perspicuity, she had her wooden desk replaced by a glass table, and that table moved close to a window. This, however, was later in her career, and came too late to save her from that first serious error.
Nobody begrudged the space accorded a masterpiece. Even here, in a city where space had become so expensive and rare that the living had moved into the houses of the dead - even here, serious art was not begrudged a home. The mistakes, however, were costly.
Should no one visit the Artwork, what then? It could not be moved. The attendant must be paid. However unpeopled, the space must remain open, and dedicated to the installation. The integrity of the foundation - its very reputation - depended upon this. And yet, there was no denying the expense.
Recently, age had rendered Marjorie more responsive to the calls of conscience. When she had first joined the foundation, from her cold theatrical practice, she had prided herself on her objectivity, her distance from the kinds of decisions made by ordinary citizens. Her eye was towards eternity, and specifically the immortality of space. Only now, her thick, ursine features softened by age, did Marjorie give thought to her own place in the great time line.
Here, her powers of prophesy failed her utterly.
Death was permanent, needless to say, and she need not think beyond it. Marjorie was a contemporary woman. The death of the body was the closing of the book, the end of the story, and she need not trouble herself with the space that yawned into the void. Of this she was certain. All of these years, however, concerned with the permanence of art and reputation, with immortality and its attendant machinery, had sown doubt. Increasingly, Marjorie the Prophet was concerned with what came next.
Hence the gradual intrusion of conscience. Marjorie stared at her fingers, resting on the glass. Her hands registered the years even more eloquently than the floor beneath her desk: much that was hidden in her youth - veins, thick bones, even fine hair on the knuckles - now stood out in terrible relief against her skin. These hands had signed important documents, had helped confer permanence on whole sections of the city, a permanence they were incapable of bestowing upon themselves.
How to correct that first error without compromising the integrity of the foundation? How, in particular, to effect this correction in a manner consonant with these new peripheral concerns: the nagging, almost subliminal voice of conscience?
She brought her hands together on the glass, taking special care not to aggravate her boil. The floor beneath came into focus, and the large hands softened to a blur, age falling from them. An idea took shape in Marjorie's ponderous mind, her blunt soul, by nature formless but shaped to a dull wedge by years of concentrated focus upon eternity. She leaned forward, her shoulders set in that manner that silenced meetings, and pointed a stubby finger at her secretary. "I would like a meeting. Now, please."
Stephen the ex-choreographer took his familiar position at the conference table, his back still straight from adolescent ballet classes. Lois, a promising action painter until her looks began to fail, assumed her usual stance in profile, partially turned towards the window to signal her refusal to regard herself as a bureaucrat. Christine, once a sculptor, now an amateur potter, hunched intently at the far end of the table, nodding seriously at sentences yet to be spoken.
In the corner sat Lars and Eva with the cats. Twins, although not Siamese twins, Lars and Eva eschewed chairs on political grounds, and had convinced the foundation years ago to take in stray Siamese cats, in a gesture that had once seemed pregnant with subversive political wit. The office was now lousy with inbred, cross-eyed felines.
Anya the minimalist despised these preening orphans, who would mew incessantly, mate without reason, and cough hairballs onto the floor of her Zen-like cubicle. Once devoted exclusively to the creation of monumental kitsch (back when that was considered an intelligent to do), Klaus liked to joke that these hairballs were expressive, no less eloquent than human artistic production.
Cornelius, who loathed mankind, loved these thin cats fiercely, and they despised him.
When Marjorie took her place at the head of the table, the quorum fell silent, and the cats waited. The secretary called the meeting to order, meekly, and the words began.
The cats, of course, were wise. With eyes mismatched and crossed, they nevertheless saw with far greater clarity than any of their officemates. Untainted by ambition, the cats were incapable of resentment, and the world was for them a place of harmony, balance and justice. Should mice die, then dinner would be warm. It was not a moral issue. Had the twins not taken them in, then they would have died by violence on the street, perhaps, like mice or pigeons; this had been drawn; it was the part of the eternal diagram. The cats did not hunt in anger. Their prey had no reason to hate them. It was a simple thing, neutral, unambiguous.
Cornelius was speaking, now, trying to be reasonable and communal, but his voice betrayed him.
If they despised Cornelius, it was merely condescension: his bitterness had deformed him, and the cats were partial to grace. Cornelius, alone in this room, had once evinced talent, and the market - blind to that quality - had not rewarded him. Cornelius should never have joined the foundation, and yet he did, one desperate hour when his debts seemed too great a burden to bear, and from that day on he never made another thing. From the feline perspective, the decision was neither right nor wrong, but having been made it ought to have been borne with dignity. Instead, Cornelius became a ferocious cat-lover, and the creatures were moved to contempt.
The cats stretched their perfect muscles and moved like whispers between lovers; the meeting above them, on the surface so painfully civilized, revealed itself in the neurotic twitching of ankles, the hands reaching without thought for the comfort of crotches; all of this was pellucid.
Words passed between the bureaucrats, interminable words, and the cats waited. At last, Marjorie leaned forward, in her ominous, hunched fashion, and a wave of palpable fear convulsed the room.
Among the cats, this was noted: a decision had been reached.
Soon the foundation itself was aware of the decision it had made. A vote was taken, and Marjorie's motion was adopted unanimously.
Thus it was decided. An installation that no longer intrigued the public would remain open, of course: installations were permanent. In the hours between display, however, they would become useful. They would fulfill a function, a charitable function, a cause that would aid the common good.
The fallen installation would serve as housing for indigent artists.
He stood in the door with his palms turned back towards the world, in an attitude the attendant remembered from her studies, back when she had hoped to curate: the Damned stood like this, in Renaissance paintings, precisely like this.
"You are right. What you experience, at this moment, is incomparable."
He too turned to regard the Artwork, which lay before them, fully illumined. His body shivered once, convulsed by memory, but he pressed his lips together and regained his composure. Together they appreciated the Artwork.
"It is quite something," she said. "Isn't it."
"I never cease to learn from it. Emotionally. I learn new emotions from it. If you know what I mean." She smiled sheepishly; it had been years since she had been required to engage in this sort of conversation. Even when she was young, it had been difficult to talk about what mattered. Speech always seemed to render experience banal.
He nodded. "I do. I know what you mean."
Filtered sunlight played across the Artwork, and they both fell silent. She took the liberty of emerging from behind her desk, to stand beside him as he stepped into the space. This she had never done; the desk was there specifically to establish professional distance, to delimit her role in the complex politic of public display. She had waited for so long, however. So long.
Immediately she was aware of herself. By abandoning the desk, she had joined the display, and was subject to judgment. How would she seem to him? Would he look at her with those wise, critical eyes, and see a failed curator, an aging, solitary woman, a friendless recluse with black clothes that no longer fit? Or would he see something else.
It had been years since she had even cared, what someone might see when they looked at her.
And when he did at last turn his eyes her way she opened her mouth, involuntarily, as if to cry. His gaze fixed her at the center of the cosmos, briefly; it made her the fulcrum; she had moved, in that glance, from the periphery to the very center, and even though she remained the focus of his eyes, she could no longer see for tears.
"So you have come here to look at the Artwork?"
He was smiling. "Among other things."
"Have you seen it before?"
They turned together to face into the gallery again, and without a thought regarding its propriety - without any thought at all, as if it were utterly natural - she slipped her hand into his.
He was older than she was, and time had been even less forgiving in its protracted war upon his appearance. His features had been ravaged by exposure and carved by worry, his clothing had bled all color in the relentless sun, and the hand that held hers was rough and layered with hard skin, as if accustomed to wielding a hammer.
"I have come here to live," he said.
This too should have seemed strange, but it was the most natural sentence in the world, pronounced as if expected, and received with corresponding grace. He pressed her hand, and the pressure was subtle, but it caused her to look down at his wrist, where the scars would never properly heal.
The attendant had spent most of her life here. It would be a small matter to extend that life into the dark hours, the mysterious night beyond closure. He had suffered and she had waited for so long; there could be no reason for hesitation, for drawing back from the plan that had always included her, even in the beginning when form was no more than a striving thought, an inkling bright in the young mind, the cracking seed of a work that would occupy space forever.
They stepped into the light of the Artwork.