And I made an invisible duplicate on my Formica tabletop of a painting by Rabo Karabekian, entitled The Temptation of St. Anthony. My duplicate was a miniature of the real thing, and mine was not in color, but I had captured the picture’s form and the spirit, too. This is what I drew.
The original was twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high. The field was Hawaiian Avocado, a green wall paint manufactured by the O’Hare Paint and Varnish Company in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. The vertical stripe was day-glo orange reflecting tape. This was the most expensive piece of art, not counting buildings and tombstones, and not counting the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the old Nigger high school.
It was a scandal what the painting cost. It was the first purchase for the memorial collection of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts. Fred T. Barry, the Chairman of the Board of Barrytron, Ltd., had coughed up fifty thousand dollars of his own for the picture.
Midland city was outraged. So was I.
“You don’t think much of Mary Alice Miller?” she said. “Well we don’t think much of your painting. I’ve seen better pictures done by a five year-old.”
Karabekian slid off his bar stool so he could face all those enemies standing up. He certainly surprised me. I expected him to retreat in a hail of olives, maraschino cherries and lemon rinds. But he was majestic up there. “Listen—” he said so calmly, “I have read the editorials against my painting in your wonderful newspaper. I have read every word of the hate mail you have been thoughtful enough to send to New York.”
“The painting did not exist until I made it.” Karabekian went on. “Now that it does exist, nothing would make me happier than to have it reproduced again and again, and vastly improved upon, by all the five-year-olds in town. I would love for your children to find pleasantly and playfully what it took me many angry years to find.
“I now give you my work of honor,” he went on, “that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal–the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us–in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
“I have just heard from this cocktail waitress here, this vertical band of light, a story about her husband and an idiot who was about to be executed at Shepherdstown. Very well—let a five-year-old paint a sacred interpretation of that encounter. Let that five-year-old strip away the idiocy, the bars, the waiting electric chair, the uniform of the guard, the gun of the guard, the bones and meat of the guard. What is that perfect picture which any five-year-old can paint? Two unwavering bands of light.”
Ecstasy bloomed on the barbaric face of Rabo Karabekian. “Citizens of Midland City, I salute you,” he said. “ You have given a home to a masterpiece!”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr, 1922-2007 Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye, Blue Monday, 1973. Chapter 19
Image: Rabo Karabekian: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1950. Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint, and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. $50,000
Plot: Kurt Vonnegut introduces the character Rabo Karabekian, whose painting has been purchased for the Midland City Art Gallery for $50,000. “ I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.” Accused of making a painting that a five year-old could have created Karabekian has to defend the position of the artist. The character of Rabo Karabekian was developed in Vonnegut’s novel, Bluebeard published in 1988. The painting relates visually to the abstract field paintings of Barnett Newman.