When we left work that evening, they’d started blocking out the murals in the stairwell already, so we had to step carefully around the cans of paint piled on tarps and the walls still wet with fresh colors. They were going for a more abstract take on the Painting, actually a series of seasonal reinterpretations, one per floor from the 8th to the 11th. We’d come out on the winter floor, so all around us were fields of white and pale blue, brown slivers of slumbering trees and old trampled leaves. Someone had lettered in a list of inspirational words in a neat column by the corner: cold, pristine, silent, deer(?).
I thought it was a shame to lock these away in the company’s private stairwell rather than out in the open for people to enjoy, and said as much.
‘Well, it’s not as if there’s any shortage.’
I paused as we descended the next flight to gaze out the window. It was late, but the city never sleeps. Sure enough, in the glow of street lamps and windows, of headlights and the last of the orange sky, the Painting was everywhere. But mostly on advertisements. These days, you don’t pay good money to put a big picture up on the side of a building or a bus unless you’re sure it’s gonna make you more in return. Not every company uses it, of course. But as a symbol, as a medium of mass suggestion, it’s hard to beat. Everyone knows it, after all.
‘…do you think it’s real?’
They looked at me. ‘Of course it’s real.’
‘Oh, shut it.’ Something like that can hardly not be real. It’s part of the cultural substrate of our lives. In endless variations, in every conceivable medium, for every conceivable purpose. Sometimes you can hardly tell. ‘What I mean is, do you think we’ll ever find an original.’
To our right, geometric auburns and golds of autumn unscrolled along the wall. Honestly, I’d take something like this as my desktop background. Half the people on DeviantArt and Tumblr, and approximately everyone who goes through any worthwhile art school, have a Painting variation in their portfolio, anyway.
‘We’d never be able to tell.’ They sounded pretty sure, like they’d already been thinking about this. ‘Too many copies, too many counterfeiters. We don’t even know how old it’s supposed to be.’
We passed summer and spring in silence. Will we ever figure out what the Painting really is? Everyone on Earth remembers it, as intimately as if they’d spent hours in a museum studying it, can pick out each line and brushstroke if they have a decent memory. Yet it doesn’t exist. Maybe it never did. Maybe that’s why we have created it and recreated it endlessly.
We came out onto the sidewalk at last, headed for the subway, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted it to be real or not.