Rudolph smashed the bottle against the icy cold wall of his studio, showering cognac across the blank canvases propped nearby.
“Damn Santa!” he screamed at his guests. “Damn him and his stultifying, bourgeois ideas of art. He’s holding us back this Christmas!”
The reindeer picked up a hand mirror topped with lines of snow and snorted them up in one breath. His red nose glowed with new energy.
Yukon Hemingway, the grizzled prospector and author of the short story collection Snowmen Without Snowwomen, snatched up another cognac bottle to save it from Rudolph’s ravages—and then, to make doubly sure its contents were safe, deposited them in his belly.
“Your art will never win acceptance by Santa and his Académie Pôle Nord. Why keep trying?”
“Because those accepted by Santa get their artworks distributed across the world by Santa on Christmas Eve!” Rudolph ranted. “They are seen by millions! The very course of art itself feels the effect! I must have that power!”
In the corner Marcel Grinchamp, creator of the pioneering Cubist painting “Nude Descending a Chimney,” sat, his furry green fingers hovering over the pieces of a chess match in which he was playing both sides.
“Mon cher Rudolph, you take art too seriously. Why buy in to the bourgeois world of Santa? You should tweak his cherry-red nose, instead.”
All the North Pole knew that Grinchamp had once tied a sawed-off reindeer antler to his dog and insisted it be his entry for a major art prize exhibition.
“It’s not that I want it. It’s that I crave it. But Santa-Santa!” Rudolph’s nose glowed like fire. “Santa will never allow my genius into his sleigh!”
A knock came at the door. In rushed the famous surrealist photographer Elf Ray.
“Have you heard the news? Santa has declared this year he will choose the works of one representative of the avant-garde to include in his gifts!”
Rudolph shook his antlers in wrath. “It must be me. I, leader of the Misfitist school, am the proper and natural choice. There is only one who might be a threat…”
“Of whom are you thinking?” Grinchamp asked.
Rudolph snarled. “That bastard LeBrun.”
Charles LeBrun swept the opium off his worktable in fury. Linus Van Pelt, his dadaist poet friend, rescued the last bit of the precious drug from LeBrun’s ravages, and then, to make doubly sure it was safe, secured it inside his own rectum. Lucy Van Pelt, Linus’s raven-haired sister, dragged on her cigarette holder and chuckled softly.
“Listen, Charles, I have written a new Dada poem,” Linus said, inhaling deeply from the never-washed blanket he carried everwhere. “Da da da dadada dada dada. Dadadadda(da-dadadadada)–”
“Shut up, Linus! Curse that Rudolph and his Misfitists! May they all die of the pox and cirrhosis!”
A stink preceded a knock at the door. Another painter of the Peanutist school of art, the one known as Le Porcherie, or Pigpen, swept into the room, trailing as always the miasma of filth which was his trademark. The stench reminded LeBrun of the poison gas he had inhaled during the war.
“Listen, there’s news at the cafe! They say Santa will choose one avant-garde artist for his sleigh this year. Everyone is sure it will be either you or Rudolph.”
LeBurn lit a cigarette and began to pace the room. “This is my chance! I can finally destroy those Misfitists!”
“You won’t,” Lucy Van Pelt said, walking over to Charles and puffing smoke in his face.
“What? Why not?”
“Because you’re afraid. Your subconscious has you in chains. Freud would call you a classic example of hysterical repetitive displacement.”
“You and your damned Freud! You think you know my mind better than I do?”
“I always have. When we were children, I denied you the football. As adults, I deny you my bed. The result is the same. Control is mine.”
“I despise you!” Charles grabbed her and crushed her lips to his.
After a moment, Lucy broke the embrace. She spat out Charles’ still-lit cigarette, pivoted on a heel, and stalked from the room.
Charles fumed. “How did you get into her knickers?”
Linus gave a sinister grin. “Mama and Papa put us in the same bed when we were small. It followed naturally, n’est-pas?”
“Well, I’ll show her! I’ll show them all! I’m the one who’ll be chosen to have my work in Santa’s sleigh!”
He surveyed the studio.
“Now where did that opium go?”
Grinchamp met Lucy Van Pelt at The Clove-Studded Orange, a cafe in a middle-class quarter where no bohemians would be caught dead—a place safe from prying eyes. Lucy nursed a cognac-and-mescaline.
“My diagnosis of the situation is mass hysteria. Charles and Rudolph act as lenses for the collective neuroses of the art community. The sparks they throw threaten to ignite firestorms sweeping the studios and galleries, sensual explosions of repressed libidinal rage.”
Grinchamp elegantly dissected a triple-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce.
“Quite astute, chere docteur. We must settle this affair before it grows tiresome, as it is on the verge of becoming. I propose the following: a spectacle, to be held at the Théâtre des Muses. Penetrating through bourgeois propriety, their antagonistic movements will produce thrusts of creative friction, gasping in the dark theater. The spirit of the room will boil over, militant floods of passion and anger, a veritable garden of visceral delights. As in a chess match or a beer garden, the iron filings will gravitate toward a pole. The victorious artist will be presented to Santa as the choice of the avant-garde.”
“Excellent. I concur.”
“Very good. So—to bed?”
Afterwards, Lucy rolled over, retrieved her cigarette holder, and said “Now then, tell me about your mother.”
The Théâtre des Muses was a decaying pile, smack in the middle of the North Pole’s Latin Quarter. Before the war, the most elegant elf society filled its boxes, but now it was left to the bizarre and outcast: the artists and their demimonde. The seats leaked stuffing, the heating was shot, the lights guttered, but what mattered was the scene. Every seat was full. The entire avant-garde community came to witness the showdown.
A variety of opening acts inflamed the audience. Max, Grinchamps’s dog, unveiled a canvas of his own entitled “The North Pole After The Snow.” Elf Ray showed the surreal films he had created in collaboration with one of Marcel’s relatives, Who Ray, and their aquatic friend, Sting.
By the time the main event was due, the room was at a boil.
“Vive les Peanutists!” shouted the partisans of LeBrun.
“Vive les Misfitists!” bellowed the opposite faction.
A tiny insurgency cried out in favor of a little-known art commune called “The Riverbottom Nightmare Collective,” but they were hooted down and driven from the theater.
“Silence!” Grinchamp’s fierce visage stilled the room. “Mesdames et Messieurs, I give you: art. Choose your favorite as you would your own mode of damnation.”
Rudolph emerged from the proscenium, leading a series of carts towed by his cousins, Blitzen and Cupid. Mounted on each cart was a plaster monstrosity, eight feet tall, mixed white and ivory. A tooth—but not a healthy tooth. Rudolph had carved cavities out of the plaster, irregular, gaping wounds. Ingeniously, he had sown moss in the wounds to simulate decay.
“Behold: my teeth! In this way do I warn the children of the world of the evils of candy!”
A gasp shot through the hall. Candy was one of the axioms of the Misfitist school, a major theme in Rudolph’s own manifesto.
“Vive le candy!” a voice in the audience declared.
“Never! Candy is the past! Down with butterscotch and horehound! With my teeth, I bite into the future! Let all pick up their brushes and scrub with an up-and-down motion for a new world!”
The booing started—not from the Peanutists, but from Rudolph’s own erstwhile followers. In return he made obscene gestures with his antlers. Debris began to rain upon the stage.
“Curse all of you! I wouldn’t want to lead any art movement that contained such hidebound fools anyway!”
The carts were led away. Peanutist spirits were high as Charles LeBrun brought his works into view.
“My friends, I give you: Christmas trees. Not the old-fashioned kind, made of wood, lit with candles, suitable for some fat industrialist’s parlor. My trees are beacons of the future! Made of aluminum, shiny smooth and conical, fifteen feet tall! Cower before their glory! Azure, charturse and magenta! Only such trees can convey the bleak mindscape that is modern existence!”
The crowd went wild. It was obvious who would win. In the wings, Rudolph slugged brandy and gored the decaying plaster walls of the theater.
“Thank you, thank you,” LeBrun replied to the adulation of the mass. “and I have an announcement. I plan now my magnum opus.”
“What shall it be?” a voice called out.
“It shall be…a war memorial.”
A war memorial? That was a fitting subject for some Académie artist, some mainstream figure, but surely not for the avant-garde.
“A war memorial–for my dog! My poor, innocent dog, Snoopie! He was a flying ace! He died in the war!”
“Damnit, Charles!” Pigpen shouted. “For the last time, your dog was never a flying ace! That’s a false memory you developed to bury the horrible things you saw in the trenches!”
“Liar!” The crowd began to boo again. “He was a flying ace, I tell you!”
Grinchamp rolled his eyes and regarded Lucy, who nodded. This had gone far enough. He walked onto the stage.
“Put down your broken bottles, your sharpened paintbrushes! Now is the time, as those given custody of man’s imagination, that we should make our decision.”
He produced two lengths of white theatrical scrim.
“Our protagonists shall be draped with these, to hide their eyes, lest we could not gaze upon them—or them on us. Then, by acclaim, we shall decide who has the greater vision.”
Rudolph and Charles stood side-by-side on the stage. Ballerinas, en pointe, scurried out from the wings to wind the scrim about their heads and upper bodies.
“Now is the moment of my victory!” Rudolph muttered.
“Dream on!” LeBrun replied. And then, oddly enough, found himself drowsy.
“Rudolph, does this cloth smell strange to you?”
Charles’s knees buckled. He sank to the parquet.
Grinchamp and Lucy Van Pelt loomed over the prostrate forms of the two artists. Lucy dragged deeply on her cigarette holder.
“Upon careful Freudian analysis, we deem both of you to have become passé.”
“Traitors! Who do you intend to set up in our place?” Rudolph managed to say.
“I think perhaps those nice Riverbottom Nightmare painters,” said Grinchamp.
The last thing Charles knew before he succumbed was the crate they were building around his body. In his drugged sleep, Rudolph somehow yet heard himself being wrapped in shiny paper and topped with a large, metallic-green bow.
“Hô, Hô, Hô!” said Santa, preparing for takeoff. “I wonder who these two huge bibleots are for? They must be very tasteful children indeed!”
The sleigh lifted into the Christmas Eve sky, ready to fly through the skies of the world dispensing the beauty of art everywhere.
A mirror image: Two houses in identical small towns, one in Dead Bird, Iowa, the other in Level Heights, Nebraska. In the first house, Tommy & Tracy rip open their Christmas gift to find a drunken, round-headed man. In the second, Trixie & Tony open theirs to discover a drunken, unwashed reindeer.
“Looks like you got an avant-garde artist for Christmas!” their fathers said.
“Did you…did you ask for that in your letters to Santa?” said their mothers.
The children did not reply. They were thrilled. All morning, they hardly touched their other gifts, preferring to dance the hokey-pokey with Charles, or ring-toss onto Rudolph’s antlers.
At dinner, staring into the depths of the plum pudding, both artists, simultaneously, in a steely voice, said to the uncaring, godless universe–that universe their art, Prometheus-like, had attempted to wrest down from the heavens to their own purposes:
“I am happy.”