A Parable

The first item up for auction was a vase. The artist didn’t pay much attention to it. It was a nice piece, a colored glass art vase, but the artist had barely enough money to feed himself, and he had plenty of more important things to buy than objects d’art. He was also distracted by his own paintings, which were hung on a screen on stage left, lot number 7. He hoped that they would sell—he needed the money—but something about one of them was disturbing him.

The auctioneer cried sold and the word reverberated in the ensuing silence, as he scribbled down the buyer’s number in a little book on the podium. The next item up for bids, he said, was lot number 4.

The artist got up from his seat in the back row and approached the stage, where he could get a better view of the painting. A wake of discontentment trailed behind him: he was blocking the view. He tried to get off to one side, but there he couldn’t see the painting.

The auctioneer asked if the man in the front would please sit down. But the artist didn’t listen. He was staring at the painting, a simple still-life. Something was wrong with it, he wasn’t sure what.

The guard, a tall man in a severe black suit, lightly grabbed the artist’s hand and led him to the door. The guard let him go once they had reached the lobby, and walked back into the auditorium where the auction was being held.

The artist, defeated, left the building. People passed him by as he stood on the sidewalk, trying to decide what to do. He was worried that, since he had been ejected from the auction, he wouldn’t get paid for the sale. Then, as his thoughts returned to the present, he realized what he could do. He rushed back into the auction house, where the guard halted him.

The artist begged the guard, telling him who he was, and showing him identification. The auctioneer, who noticed the commotion at the door, told the guard to let him back in, since he did have a lot up for auction. The artist thanked him and said that he wanted to withdraw one of the pieces from the lot, because he had to change it. The auctioneer told him that the lot was up for bidding already, and that several bids had been made. He said that it was too late.

A man in the front row had the winning bid. The artist walked up to him and asked kindly if, after the auction ended, he could be allowed to finish the painting before the bidder took it. The bidder agreed.

But someone else was bidding on the painting, too. The other bidder did not agree to the artist’s request. He said that he liked the painting as it was, and that he could not permit the artist to destroy it.

The artist implored the bidder: he could not, he said, let that painting go out into the world, beyond his control, displaying his error forever, conveying something he did not want to convey. But the bidder did not listen.

The auctioneer restarted the bidding. The auction went back and forth between the two for a few minutes, as the artist sat in the front with the first bidder, urging him on. He bid eagerly at first, but then he grew more reluctant, and the artist had plea him to continue against the other bidder. Finally, the second bidder, tired of the bidding war and with no shortage of money, doubled the bid. The first bidder apologized to the artist and said that he could not match it. The artist exasperatedly raised his paddle. The auctioneer stopped in his tracks, not sure if the bid was sincere. He told the artist that he was not allowed to bid on his own items, and declared the second bidder the winner.

The artist said goodbye to the first bidder and walked to the back where the second bidder was sitting. The bidder, seeing the artist approaching, said that he was sorry, but he was transfixed by the painting, and he would not allow it to be changed. For a small peace offering, he said that he would buy the artist a new canvas and paint, so that the artist could make a new version of the painting that he was satisfied with. But the artist told him that he could not paint again what he had already painted.


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