Short Fiction

The Secret Gallery
Matt Johnson
Monday, March 18, 2002

Ms. Robyn Steele smiled eagerly as the bus rumbled to a stop in front of the gigantic brick and mortar building in the center of the bustling metropolis. The high school art teacher stood and led her class in single file off the bus, and up the front steps of the towering edifice.

"Today, you are going to see true art in its purest form," she announced to her class at the top of the steps, and her eyes glistened with anticipation. "You will feel a passion for the freedom of expression unlike anything you have ever felt, and you will learn at last what it truly means to be an artist!"

She turned and threw open the front doors. The class was assaulted by the reek of rotting flesh and decay. The students slowly followed their teacher into the dimly lit museum and down the main corridor, shoes clapping on the tiled floor. The main gallery located in the center of the museum was packed with excited patrons eager to squeeze inside to see the latest exhibition: Silly-con-Carne.

Ms. Steele led her class into the main gallery. They had to squint in the darkness to see the exhibit. It consisted of a variety of butchered animal parts—brains, intestines, hearts, and lungs—severely decayed, covered with maggots, and sitting neatly on white cloths atop square black pedestals. The class made their way around to view each piece. While most of the other patrons murmured their appreciation of such divine examples of artistic expression, the students had to hold their noses as the smell of decay nearly overpowered them. One student bent over and vomited.

"Look at this! Isn't this exciting?" she crooned as she strode from pedestal to pedestal. "Look at the intricate textures here! Look at the shape and the form! See the beautiful color this pile of intestines is taking on!"

The class noticed, and another student had to throw up.

"Look at the patterns on these lungs over here! And look at this! See the amazing textures that the maggots create on this calf's head? Now that's kinetic art for you! Isn't it amazing?"

Many other patrons had stopped to listen, smile, and nod approvingly at Ms. Steele as she lectured to her class.

"The artwork around you is about breaking the bonds of oppressive conformity! This exhibit embodies the idea that is the core inspiration of any true artist: that there are many different truths, and none of them is wrong or bad!"

The patrons broke into applause, and Ms. Steele beamed with appreciation until one of her students spoke up.

"This exhibit stinks!"

The gallery froze, and everyone turned to stare at Phoebe Golightly.

Ms. Steele' left eye began to twitch.

"This isn't really art, is it?" Phoebe asked, her nose wrinkled in disgust. "This is just a bunch of rotting meat! Any butcher put this together, if the FDA didn't stop him first! There's no thought behind any of this! It's just a bunch of animal carcasses placed on pedestals!"

The gallery grew silent as pairs of enraged eyes bored into Phoebe's with a viscous hate unlike anything she had ever seen.

"How dare you say such a thing!" someone shrieked.

"Youth today," someone sneered. "Real culture is wasted on them!"

"Indeed," said a woman. "The curator shouldn't even give them admittance to this place!"

"They have some nerve," one man snarled, "throwing around their opinions without any regard for how others might feel!"

The gallery continued to fester and broil with similar comments as Ms. Steele, shaking with rage, grabbed Phoebe by the arm and dragged her out into the main lobby.

"If I had the power, I would expel you immediately!" she spat as she let Phoebe go. "Now go back to the bus, and I expect you to write a ten-page essay on why everything you've seen today is absolutely wonderful."

Ms. Steele turned sharply and marched back into the gallery. Phoebe sighed and walked down the long corridor, glancing from side to side at the other small galleries filled with works made of feces and medical waste. The pungent stench seemed to emanate from all sides, and Phoebe was eager to find the exit so she could get some fresh air outside.

As she passed a large wooden door marked "restricted area: authorized personnel only," she stopped. It's probably just a boiler room, Phoebe thought, but something about the door intrigued her. Then she noticed the bright, white light coming from under the crack at the bottom.

Phoebe stared for a moment, then gently turned the brass handle.

The door swung open. Phoebe was nearly knocked to the ground by what she saw inside. It was a huge, circular room with a glass dome at the top. Lining the walls were paintings of different people, all done in a classic style with an attention to light that suggested an impressionist influence. In the center of the room were a few large figures made of smooth, hand-chiseled marble that had the lifelike qualities of Hellenistic sculpture with a technique similar to Michelangelo.

Phoebe was so entranced by the work all around her that she hadn't noticed the man on one side of the room with a mop and bucket beside him. He had a gray crew cut, and wore glasses, overalls, and a pair of worn brown shoes.

"Hello," Phoebe said as she approached him. "What is this place?"

The old man smiled warmly, lines creasing in the corners of his eyes.

"This is the secret gallery," he chuckled, and pushed the glasses farther up on his nose. "I come here every now and then when I get tired of the stuff they have out there in the museum."

Phoebe laughed, "I know what you mean, but why aren't these things shared with everyone else?"

"Artists today are a funny lot," the man continued. "They constantly try to find new ways to shock and horrify people. At first it was just about using bizarre representations of people and objects. Then it degenerated to what we have today—a gallery of waste, literal waste.

"Why would anyone want to keep this gallery a secret?" Phoebe asked.

The old man shrugged. "Real art makes people think, and while rotting flesh shocks people at first, it eventually makes them numb. People stop reacting in horror when they see death and despair, and that makes them easier to control."

Phoebe felt her blood run cold at what the old man told her.

"The curator is going to have this exhibit dismantled and destroyed next week," the old man said with a sigh. "I only wish there were some way for this artwork to live on."

Phoebe bowed her head and thought for a moment. Then a smile slowly broke across her face and her eyes twinkled wickedly. She strode back to the open door and called over her shoulder.

"I'll be right back!"

Ms. Steele was busy admiring the "Fun with Feces" exhibit when she realized the gallery was deserted. Out in the main corridor one of her students ran by. She stopped him.

"Where is everyone?" she asked. "They're missing all the artwork!"

The boy pointed down the hall.

"They're all at the other end of the museum in the secret gallery!" he gushed, and continued on his way.

Robyn Steele frowned. The secret gallery, she thought. I've never heard of such a thing. She followed the boy down the corridor until she saw the crowd gathered outside the entrance of the brightly lit room. A few black-clad patrons marched out as Ms. Steele walked in.

"Disgusting filth!" one said.

"It's just awful," another gasped. "It makes me want to retch!"

"How can they allow such horrible stuff to exist?"

As Ms. Steele walked inside, she had to squint from the bright sunlight. When her eyes had adjusted, the blood drained from her face and she stared, frozen in horror, at what she saw.

All of her students were busy admiring the techniques used in the paintings and the sculpture, and they were discussing the potential meanings behind the subject matter.

Ms. Steele felt a lifetime of anxiety well up within her as she shrieked.

"Stop this at once! You're polluting your delicate little minds!"

It took the frantic teacher several minutes to drive her class out of the gallery and march them back to the bus. As the students filed into their seats, their eyes were shining with a new kind of light as they eagerly discussed what they had seen. Today, they saw true art in its purest form. They felt a passion for the freedom of expression unlike anything they had ever felt, and they knew at last what it truly meant to be an artist.

Robyn Steele had to use the wastebasket three times on the ride back.