Lost in translation

I promised myself I wouldn’t buy a painting at Centerfest. I would just stroll through for a couple of hours, enjoy the art, maybe get a funnel cake. But I wasn’t going to spend any real money. Nope, no sir. Saving that money.

So, of course, I bought a painting. Watercolor and ink in a traditional Chinese style, two birds perched in a scarlet-blossoming tree while snow falls softly around them. Minimalist and very elegant, but there is something in the birds’ expressions that suggests that the one is enjoying the lovely snowfall while the other is pointedly irritated by the whole mess. I can ignore this and just enjoy the peaceful elegance of the piece, or I can wonder what the birds are thinking, and it’s a different story every time.

I tried to explain this to the artist — that the expressiveness of the painting made me think that there was something going on here I didn’t fully understand, some conversation to which I wasn’t privy, and that I enjoyed wondering about it. And, to my dismay, he immediately apologized, and started to explain the picture. Which was not at all what I wanted; I liked the ambiguity. Had I seen immediately everything there was to see in it, I’d have briefly admired it standing in his booth and then moved on. I wouldn’t have bought it, because it wouldn’t have earned further consideration. It would have served only as expensive wallpaper.

I could have tried to explain, but the artist spoke with a heavy Chinese accent, and I realized that what I was trying to say — even though it ought to make perfect sense to an artist, of all people — was so far outside the bounds of what he expected a customer to say that I wasn’t going to be able to explain it, not without a deeply shared language, not to someone who was so set on being polite. I was saying, in effect, thank you for confusing me, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with and makes even less in a world of bureaucracies and artists’ statements. He wasn’t going to believe that was what I meant.

So I didn’t try. I just said thank you, which I can say badly enough in Mandarin to make his English sound terrific, and went home with my painting. It’s a nice painting, and I like it much better than a funnel cake.