This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Mark Gunderson

Sarah Beck: Excerpt from Currency
Illustration: Mark Gunderson


            When are the findings of a forensic scientist less dependable than those of art historians?
             When a truck driver from California purchased a very large painting for $5 at a thrift store.
             She brought it to a friend’s house as a joke. Her friend was depressed, and the truck driver figured her friend would derive pleasure from wrecking something. The truck driver’s plan was to have a few drinks and then use the painting for target practice. The ladies started drinking and forgot about the painting.
             The painting lingered in the back of her truck and traveled with various cargo until she decided to sell it at a garage sale. A friendly neighbour suggested that it might be a Jackson Pollock. Because of the size of the painting it was also suggested that it could be an expensive Jackson Pollock.
             The truck driver enlisted professional art dealers to sell the painting, but because it didn’t have provenance it could not fetch its value on the art market. No one was willing to pay full price for a Pollock that came from a thrift store.
             The truck driver hired a forensic scientist to determine conclusively whether or not the painting was a Pollock. The scientist quickly discovered multiple finger prints that matched Pollock’s on the back of the painting. As if that wasn’t enough, paint chips from the floor of Pollock’s studio were matched exactly with the paint on the canvas. In a court of law, if the painting was a murder weapon, it could be conclusively traced back to the hand of Pollock.
             This painting is still for sale. From what I understand it is in storage and not being enjoyed by anyone, not even for the pleasure of being destroyed.
             Are you wondering what provenance is? Provenance tracks a painting or other work of art through its various owners, appreciating in worth as it passes through the lives of the important and famous. A social guarantee of value, in the case of market artworks, cannot be ascribed by the hand of the maker, only by its association with its financial transactions.
             People have provenance too, whether it’s real or imaginary. I try hard not to make a face when people tell me their theory about their own reincarnation. Have you ever noticed that when people believe that they have been reincarnated they were never someone boring in a past life? You never hear “I was a farm wife with ten kids and died in childbirth.”
             Everyone was Cleopatra or some shit.
             Unlike art, ancestry can be validated through science. This science has given us daytime television shows like Maury. Maury is a ‘talk show’ featuring non-actors’ real life dramas. The plot of at least half of Maury’s episodes involves DNA testing over embattled paternity, the other half are about poorly behaved teenagers and their distressed single parents.
             In the 1990s when DNA testing was still new and exorbitantly pricey, a serious nighttime news show did a feature story on the wonders of DNA. The story began with the introduction of a tribe in Africa. This tribe honours many practices that are Semitic in their origins. They claim to be descendants of Aaron and call themselves Jews.
             In Judaism you are generally Jewish through your mother. However, there are Jews who are thought to be direct descendants of Aaron, related to one another through their male parents. This bloodline is special and held in high esteem.
             The Jewish descendants of Aaron in Israel donated DNA to the news program for testing. True to their claims, the African tribe shared direct ancestry with their Jewish brothers.
             It has seemed to me for most of my life that the ancestry of friends and acquaintances involved more impressive relatives. I didn’t know much about my bloodline, so I began to search for impressive figures to throw down. I ended up with a famous Irish sheep thief.
             I felt like an asshole. Kurt Vonnegut’s asshole looks like this:

             The asshole I am referring to however is a card game. Do you know it? The players take turns laying down high powered cards. The loser with the least powerful cards becomes the asshole of the following game. Being the asshole means you are disadvantaged further, having to hand over your two highest cards to other players before the game even begins. Yikes.
             The bloodline game would certainly have regional differences. In Saskatchewan many people claim to be related to Gabriel Dumont, whether Métis or not. A Métis is a person whose origins lie in the blending of Native people and voyageurs. Voyageurs, also known as coureurs des bois, were French fur traders working outside of the law.
             Gabriel Dumont is famous for his association with another Métis named Louis Riel.
             Louis Riel was in exile when Dumont went to fetch him from America. Before being exiled Riel had been an elected member of the Canadian House of Commons, notably negotiating the inclusion of the province of Manitoba, formerly part of Rupert’s Land, into Confederation. Riel was offered forgiveness by the Prime Minister in exchange for an exile of five years in America. The reason he was exiled was in hopes the territory he had represented might calm down. It didn’t.
             And he had also executed a man.
             Riel was deluded and while exiled, his megalomania intensified. He adopted a righteous belief in his own power and omnipotence. Riel came to believe he was the divinely chosen leader and prophet of the Métis. When Dumont showed up Riel was already unhinged.
             The unhinged Riel travelled with Dumont back to Manitoba. Once there, they established a provisional government and began the North West Rebellion.
             Divine power has a way of making you unreasonably confident in your own decisions. Riel’s increasingly impassioned speeches began to drive away support the Métis had with the French communities. Ultimately this did not end well for Riel who was tried and hung for treason, forever immortalized by his death.

             Perhaps it is Louis Riel’s delusion that created a preference for being a relation of Dumont. That said, old Gabriel lived a long life. For years Dumont had a rock star roll in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Who knows how many descendants he may actually have?
             Perhaps in our modern times Dumont would be on Maury denying baby mamas left and right.
             One of the reasons the Métis began the Northwest Rebellion was a matter of real estate. The major source of Métis livelihood had become farming. This was being complicated by the Canadian government. The government was increasingly appropriating Métis real estate to sell. This real estate was being sold to new, mostly eastern European settlers who were not wanted on the best real estate they had already claimed for themselves.
             Before farming, hunting bison had been the mainstay of the Métis way of life. The Métis were already suffering before losing their real estate because the bison were dwindling.
             Today we would say that the bison were endangered.


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