Creative Destruction
Lawson Ray comment 0 Comments

The urban rainstorm thwacked into the splintered sidewalks outside the Bachman Gallery where a neon red ‘OPEN’ sign flickered and sung a zapping tune to no one. As the minutes crept closer to 9pm, Jan Bachman’s jittering fingers quickened upon the desk almost matching the pattern of the rain. His eyes darted between the front door and the clock with the confirmation of the nineteenth day in a row of less than fifteen patrons looming. Every now and then, his gaze would drift down to the loaded 9mm tempting him on the shelf next to his left knee. Jan turned over the white piece of paper in his hand with harsh red lettering spelling the end to the Bachman name. He imagined how that letter from the electric company would sell for more than the gallery was worth if it were paired with the crimson mist of blood and chunks of brain ejecting from the back of his head: a real artistic expression.

Jan wanted to do it too. He was tired of penny-pushing, disappointment, the ghostly wails of his ancestors bemoaning his failures: his father, his father’s father, and his grandfather’s mother who started the gallery, all scolding Jan. The only thing between his index finger and that trigger was the heartbroken sobs of his son playing over and over again in his mind.

“Ethan!” Jan called out. There was no answer, but Jan could see his son’s feet gradually falling limp, propped up on the desk beside the cold register. “Ethan!” he called louder.

A grunt, then a moan. “What?”


Ethan sighed, shook his head, and rolled his eyes with the comfort of assumed privacy at the front desk. “No.”

But Ethan’s apathy played more than evidently through hazy black-and-white security footage playing on the monitor in the back office. In a way, Jan understood his son’s boredom. Jan took responsibility for it too. The same way he’d failed to learn Croatian from his grandparents and pass down the knowledge to Ethan, he’d soon officially squander the gallery, leaving no trace of his family for Ethan to treasure. He remembered the love for art his grandfather passed down, his father too. Jan had no such fight left to show his son.

Jan still remembered the days when there were so many feet in the gallery that you couldn’t see the worn wooden floor. He remembered the days when his fingers would blister and bleed from punching the register open while the city flocked to see the gallery’s collection. The days when every local artist would beg for his share of wall space in hopes of catching the right eye and ascending to stardom. The days before art died.

Lately his fingers had been spending more time sifting through ‘last warnings’ and collection notices and counting the days to closure on one hand. All while Ethan was too busy playing some game called Author Simulator 3 on his phone to care. It was a video game where you pretend to be an author and sell as many books as possible. Ironic, Jan thought.

Ethan picked his head up from the game and yelled, “Dad?”

Jan’s head perked up, a smile threatened his lips. “Yes?”

“Can I go now? It’s nine.”

Jan hesitated, looked to the clock. The minute hand had only just struck the twelve. The voices of his ancestors rang again. He ignored them. “Yes.” But even before he could finish getting that single word out, the front door was swinging shut.

Mr. Bachman stood from his desk and shut off the lights in the gallery to conserve what little time and money he had left. He then made his way to the front door to lock it, but also to check whether his visitor had arrived yet. Jan cupped his hands against the fogged glass of the front door and peered through. At first, he saw nothing, no one. It was almost like the city was avoiding the Bachman Gallery. In reality, nobody spent much time outside at all anymore, much less so in the rain. Then, the beams of an automated taxi’s headlights shone on the silhouette of a man in a long coat and a rounded hat. As the vehicle passed, splashing a puddle onto the gallery’s window, the man disappeared. Just before the next thunderous clap of lightning, the figure stood directly outside the gallery, waiting to be let in without a knock.

Jan fumbled with the locks, already feeling the heat rushing to his face. He didn’t expect to be quite so nervous, but the occasion was overwhelming: the last stand, no, the last cent the Bachman Gallery had was going to a man Jan had never met.

“Mr. Stieber?”

The man’s shimmering boots squeaked into the gallery and beaded droplets of rain smacked carelessly against the dusty floor from his soaked jacket. “Can we get some lights on in here?” he said in a deep voice.

“Um, we are running pretty low on funding, so I’d prefer to operate by flashlight or phone light or intuition or something instead if that’s alright. See, I’ve pulled out all the stops to get you in here. There’s nothing left in the budget for lights.”

“There’s going to have to be,” Stieber insisted.

“I heard you’re the best around.”

“You surely didn’t hear I had scotopic vision?”


“Lights. On,” Stieber enunciated.

Jan’s jaw clenched in the dark. He looked furiously at the supposed expert, then flicked the gallery’s lights back on with the image of dollars swirling down a toilet bowl spray-painting his gut.

Stieber reacted with a single nod. “You can call me Rob.”

“Okay, Rob. Well, please make it fast. I can’t afford a wasted minute. We run the lights too long and I’m going to start thinking about scraping the paint off these things to feed my son, got it?”

“You jabber a lot for a man in a rush.”

It took everything in Jan to not breakout into a yelling match with Rob, but he realized his rage was misplaced and bit his tongue. “Right. Anyway, follow me.” The two of them took a right from the entrance into the first room of the gallery. Paintings hung upon the walls, starved of appreciation. Jan looked at them each with suspicion, even a touch of hate. He had a sinking pain knowing what would likely come of this meeting.

“You said in your email that your concern is the authenticity of these?”

“Yes,” Jan confirmed. “That is your field of expertise, isn’t it? Authenticity certifications?”

“That’s right.”

“I can’t believe it’s come to this,” Jan complained. “You know this gallery’s been in my family for almost two-hundred years without skipping a beat? My great grandmother passed it down to my grandfather who passed it down to my father who passed it down to me. And you know it’s not been three years under my supervision and the thing’s going to go belly up in the next few weeks? Can you imagine anything more embarrassing?”

Rob was unfazed by this outburst. He was notably professional, almost annoyingly so, maintaining eye-contact with his customer all throughout the rant. He didn’t bat an eye nor showing as much as a twitch of emotion. “No. Not embarrassing at all. Inevitable, I’d say.” He turned from Jan and pulled an expandable loupe from his pocket with multiple magnification lenses. He approached the first painting and continued speaking. “Very few can tell the difference anymore: between what’s real and what’s robotic. And when nobody can tell the difference between the hand of man and the claw of a machine, what hope does an art gallery have?”

Mr. Bachman’s jaw wagged. “Yes…exactly.”

“Especially when its curator can’t tell,” Stieber mumbled.

Jan shook his head.

“Unless, that is, you have a certificate of authenticity. But those aren’t cheap, Mr. Bachman, as you know. Something few curators can afford these days. Did you know that ninety-eight percent of all art has been created in the last eight years?”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. And do you know what percentage of that is artificially generated?”

“Almost all?”

“Ninety-nine and a half,” Stieber said matter-of-factly. “Some estimate more. There isn’t room these days for the journey of a struggling artist among an endless army of readily-accessible machines that can outdo Picasso in under a minute. Not to mention the cost of paint these days because of that astonishing output.”

Jan scoffed in agreement. “Believe me, I know. I wasn’t kidding about scraping the paint off these damn things. It’d be eight times as profitable as keeping this shithole open.”

The authenticator waved Jan over to the painting with the loupe raised to the bottom corner. “Take a look here,” he said, handing it to Jan. “You see the style here? The strokes, specifically?”


“You see how the artist runs low on paint here – right there where it fades at the fourth rose petal going clockwise. He uses every last drop of paint with precision.”

“Is that how you tell it’s real?”

Stieber took the loupe back and shook his head. “No. That’s how I tell it’s a fake.” He cleared his throat. “That’s the style of Barney Norton, an abstract expressionist from England. Died in 2007, a broke man, not recognized for his work until almost two decades after his death. And because he was broke, he adapted a frugal style of painting, making sure not to waste even the tiniest drop of paint. That pattern, that style, matches his exact strokes seen in his second-to-last painting, The Kindred Field, which featured the same exact flower in the same location on the painting, no less.”

“God damn it,” the curator sliced the air with his fist. “You know how much I had to pony up for this thing? This fucking hippie from the West Side told me it was authentic as all hell – that she made it herself. And I was a fool enough to believe her.”

“No, not a fool,” Stieber reassured. “This one’s good, I have to admit. Bots usually use less obscure references like Da Vinci.”

“So you just need to know the handiwork of every real artist to ever exist to determine what’s a fake and what isn’t?”

Stieber stood up straight and chuckled lightly. He moved to the next painting with his hands in his pocket. “No.” He paused, looking longingly at the next. “There is another way.” Jan followed him with renewed curiosity. The authenticator motioned to the next painting with his head. “This one, for example.”

Jan examined it closely, a painting he’d looked at absently a million times over, but now studying its subtle intricacies with caution. A fake, he thought, preparing for Stieber to serve another frustrating red herring.

But instead he served the question back to Jan. “Can you tell me why we call man-made art ‘real’?”

“Because it was made by…well, a human.”

“But what of the human component makes the piece real?”

Jan’s blood began to boil, but not due to the question. He was a curator for crying out loud, it ran deep in his veins. Or at least it was supposed to. Yet the answer evaded him like the shadow of a swift apparition.

“What is it?” Stieber repeated.

“I don’t know,” the curator grumbled.

“And therein lies your problem,” Stieber said. “I may be the best authenticator around, but that doesn’t mean my job is particularly difficult. I sometimes use a loupe to appreciate the finer points of a painting, but I don’t need it to make my judgements. See, if you truly understand painting, a real one sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Jan crossed his arms, faced Stieber with a squint. “How do you mean?”

“The moment I walked into your gallery I was able to determine that there is only one piece in here that is authentic, and it is this one. And it all comes down to two criteria I use for every single piece: the first being creativity.”

“Like the Newtonian strokes from that one?” Jan pointed to the first painting.

“Nortonian. Barry Norton.”

“Right.” Jan’s shoulders shrunk. “But there’s the problem, you need to know every artist and painting to ever exist.”

“I’d argue as a life-long curator, you should know most of them.”

Jan bit his tongue again, harder this time.

“But yes, robots lack creativity. Machine learning is nothing more than applied statistics. All they are really doing when painting is pulling from a vast database of source material for the best components of different pieces that are similar to the request. So if someone requests a rendition of The Last Supper in the Fauve style, the robot will use a patchwork of strokes and excerpts from Matisse, Vlaminck, Delaunay and whoever else it can find and then use that information to interpret van Gough’s work. Understand?”

“And you don’t see that here?” Jan retorted. “Don’t you see the blotches of Monet whispering right there?” Jan pointed to the water, noting the way it blurred and swayed somehow still depicting a strikingly stagnant body.

“I saw that too, but this one is different,” Stieber explained. “There can be inspiration, mimicry, while the painting maintains its authenticity. The difference being, there is no exact replica of any of Monet’s works anywhere on here, just hints of inspiration. A whisper, like you said.”

Jan continued to study it closely, but creativity alone didn’t answer his question. He’d still have to learn the style and compendium of every man or woman to ever touch brush to canvas in the next three weeks if he was to be as good as Stieber. “And the other criteria?” Jan said.

Stieber rolled his tongue over his teeth contorting his lip and studied the painting with an alternate mood. His expression finally took shape – he was stumped. Envy guided his voice. “Passion.”

“Passion?” Jan repeated.

Stieber hummed with a croak. “That’s right. Passion is as human as it gets: raw, loving, vengeful, traumatic, imperfect. And if you truly see art for what it is, understand it, you can see passion a mile away. I’ve spent my whole life looking at paintings, Mr. Bachman, and not once have I seen a robot capable of faking passion.”

“But why?”

“Why? Simple: because there is nothing rational about passion, nothing that can be delineated in 1s and 0s. A robot could study passion all its life, it could review every painting, every scratch, every child’s drag of a crayon over a white wall, and it will come up with nothing resembling passion. A robot is a machine, a very smart machine, but a machine nonetheless. And when I noticed this, Mr. Bachman, when I found the passion of man, I found God himself. Direct proof, right in the very paint you look at on this canvas, that there is something more to man than any other life on Earth. Something indescribably beautiful, yet highly irrational.” His voice fell to a whisper. Stieber swayed, sucked his lips in. “So damn irrational.”

A metallic click echoed throughout the gallery. Jan’s hand shook, went cold. Stieber did not turn. Jan thought that when faced with the moment it would be easier than this. Instead, he froze. “You’re one of them,” his voice quaked.

“Mechanically, yes. But I’ve left that side of me behind.”

There was a pause. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I’m not afraid, am I?” Stieber spoke with resignation.

Jan didn’t answer. He repositioned the pistol’s iron sights to make sure he’d hit Stieber’s head when the moment came.

“I realized after producing over four thousand paintings on my own, that what I was doing wasn’t painting. Painting is creation, expression, feeling. What I was doing was merely subroutine. If I wasn’t fitted with a ticker, I would have lost count of my paintings long ago. And even with all my machinery and memory capacity, I cannot tell you which piece was my favorite, nor could I tell you one thing I’d change about any of them. Because you see, no matter how hard I tried, I could never replicate passion. And when I realized that, I realized my creations were, at their core, destruction. By using robotics for art, I was bastardizing painting, washing away everything that makes it beautiful.”

“Passion?” Jan whispered with the gun still trained on the authenticator.

“You may do what you must.” Stieber said, “A shot to my left shoulder would be most effective – that’s where they put the battery. But I might ask you one question before you do: why didn’t you scrape them, Mr. Bachman?”


“You said you’d thought about scraping the paint off for money. You said it’d be eight times more profitable than keeping your gallery open. But you didn’t. You used your last cent to bring me here instead. Why?”

Jan thought. The cries of his ancestors were fading. He looked over Stieber’s shoulder, and for perhaps the first time, he looked at the painting without a hint of suspicion. He noticed the water, the way it seemed to dance and come to life in a mix of blue, green, and even white. He noticed the lilies floating in the pond, the way one glistened off the setting sun. And when he looked hard enough, he could swear he even head the painting, the flow of water, fish flailing against the surface, birds singing in the trees. A calming serenity falling over him. He remembered the way his father had once smiled at the painting with tears in his eyes. Jan thought of the artist who’d sold it to him and what had brought him to continue painting despite the changing times before them – the pain, the determination, the passion.

Jan felt a knot unraveling inside him, one he didn’t even realize was there. Everything suddenly seemed a little brighter: first the painting, then the gallery, then his future. Eventually, even the rain slowed. And Jan thought, perhaps there was a way he could leave the lights on just a little longer.

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