In contemplating the abstract paintings of John Donne Highwater, Jeremy Bobthwait, graduate student studying late contemporary American art at Bathsheba University in the lovely Catskill Mountains, nestled in the Appalachian flyover country of New York State, found little emotional or physical enjoyment. Mr. Highwater was a respected artist, one might say a seminal icon in the late contemporary period. He had even agreed to a short interview with Jeremy, one that Jeremy had to rely on strongly while putting his thesis together, until the interview became the focus of the piece, encrusted with feeble facts of the artist’s hometown and its influence on his work; the act of spinning the thesis became akin to gobbing on a geoduck until its gritty center horked up a pearl. Except this abstract metaphor became incompatible when Jeremy realized it was oysters that made pearls, not just any bivalve mollusk.
It was not that John Donne Highwater was uninteresting, which he was; he was a relatively well-adjusted artist; it was that his work was extraordinarily boring. At first Jeremy pursued his thesis with gusto, choosing to focus on Highwater because at the time his plain canvasses with titles cribbed from Walt Whitman’s dreary diaries seemed absolute in their message. It was a meaner sort of truth, beyond irony, and there was something to say for it.
But as Jeremy compiled the abstract of Highwater’s catalogue, the pieces began to bleed together. Aghast, he found himself secretly pining for the straightforward craftsmanship of Rembrandt or the rich personal psychosis of van Gogh. No, what he had instead was Highwater, a dry bed in an ocean of wacky predecessors. There was nothing to say for it that could not be said better by a plain napkin in need of use.
Jeremy, alone in Bathsheba’s elegant dorms, contemplated the limits of his thesis’ sources, and decided it would be much more interesting to write about the theft of Highwater’s exorbitantly priced piffle. So, near the end of his second year, he abstracted the abstracts from their places of prominence on the exhibit walls, and replaced them with paltry imitations. He wrote his thesis on how no one noticed, and two well-to-do patrons even bought the fakes at auction, for higher than their original estimates.
He was imprisoned of course. His thesis was a dead giveaway. Guilt certain, however, did not impede his professor from giving him an A. When asked by the authorities why he’d reward such outright criminality, the professor responded that the student did the best with the material that was available. The professor had never been a fan of Mr. Highwater, but that fact, as they say, is academic.