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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Contest Entry · #1604787
An artist explains his work, and his philosophy.
“Sanity is a madness put to good use.” - George Santayana

Through the window above the red-checked cafe curtains, I can see that the Trattoria Italiana is bustling. Stepping into the recessed doorway, I thumb the tab and pull the old-fashioned brass handle. The door, with its opaque, befogged glass pane, opens with a creak, and I step through the portal and freeze in my tracks. The restaurant I saw through the window is gone. In its place is a tiny art gallery. The space is long, but exceedingly narrow, almost claustrophobic. The pervasive gloom serves to emphasize the spotlit paintings hanging upon the walls. The images are executed with various styles; some are almost photographically realistic. Others are stylized, the figures distorted: some are demonic, some wraith-like, some heart-wrenchingly pathetic. The scenes in which they are placed are as widely varied. They all share one aspect, though. They are universally unsettling.

Even so, I am drawn forward.

Nearly obscured by the shadows in the far reaches of the gallery is a small, thin man, watching me with almost luminous pale blue eyes. Those eyes seem to look right into my most private thoughts. I shiver. Lighten up, I admonish myself. You’re letting yourself get spooked by nothing. I don’t know how I managed to stumble in here, but I need to get going. My time is the boss’s money, after all. If I miss my appointment with the client who was supposed to meet me in the restaurant, the boss will definitely not be pleased.

The scary little guy crosses the dusty floor of the tiny gallery. He wears a spattered artist’s smock over a well-worn, rumpled dress shirt and a pair of threadbare brown trousers. His dirty feet are clad in leather sandals. He’s the type of guy that I would step over in the subway stairwell, and probably not even notice. But here, in this place, there’s something compelling about him, something that keeps my eyes locked upon his.

“Think me mad, do you? Don’t bother denying it, my friend. I can see it in your eyes.

“Perhaps you are correct. Perhaps. But, consider these works all around me, here in my humble gallery, these paintings you find so disturbing. True, they do not coddle the tender sensibilities drilled into the human race by the bureaucracies put in place by its cabal of super-rich puppeteers. If these images disturb the average person, then they are doing the job for which they were created.

“What job, you ask? - heh, heh, heh, heh - Why, to hold up a mirror to ‘civilization’; to display the madness all around, to which most of us would otherwise be blind.

“Take, for example, this one, here.” He points with paint-stained fingers to a dark-hued painting of a woman sitting on a couch, with a man leaning over her from behind. “That well-dressed vampire represents our mega-corporate ‘benefactors’. The emaciated person sitting upon the sofa, to whose jugular his fangs are clamped is that average person I mentioned a moment ago. See the bright blue specular highlights glinting in her eyes? Look closely; can you guess what they are?”

I babble something.

“Very good. They are the pretty baubles that keep her and you and nearly everyone else in our society of ruminants pacified, while the vampire feasts upon our blood. If you are disturbed by this, perhaps it is effective. Perhaps it will cause you to think.”

He indicates a big, incredibly complex landscape. The composition draws my eye across the field of tangled limbs and tortured faces to a glowing tableau arranged within a proscenium arch.

“And this one over here is perhaps a bit more obvious in its message. Here, though, subtlety is not required. Here, only stark reality will do. Only absolute clarity can possibly portray the true horror of the battlefields to which our young people are sent to die, in order that the puppeteers lay claim to some asset which they have as yet not absorbed, in their quest to control all of the wealth of the world.

“See the shadow, cast across the mangled remains, while the focus rests upon the bright-lit stage above the carnage? The puppeteers do not show us their faces, my friend. They merely parade a cast of clowns and charlatans across the boards, a focus for the anger they are unable to suppress with hypnotism. Another disturbing image? Good... good.”

“Lastly, for I know your time is limited - there are, after all, so many obligations to be met, so many tasks to be performed for the masters - look here. See the ravers haranguing one another? See the angry maniacs strapped to their beds, and the self-mutilators, scratching at their own eyes, plunging pencils into their ears? See the catatonics, sitting about, staring at things only they can see, and the mournful stares of the others, as they look out upon the polluted, dying world beyond the steel-mesh-covered windows of the madhouse? Are they, as one might assume, the unfortunate insane, the baffled, benighted, mental defectives, unable to perceive reality?

“Or are they the few among the cattle who truly see? The few perceptive minds, the rare and precious aberrants among the mass of lunatics we refer to as civilization?

“It was fated that you should come here. You have the vision required to see the truth, and your mind is disquieted. The message is here before you, on the walls all around. Now that you have seen it, you will never again be a simple bovine. All you need do now is choose: to act, or to remain idle.

“You see, my friend, my madness has been put to good use. As someone wiser than I has said: ‘Sanity is madness put to good use.’ Madness, then, by inversion, is sanity put to evil use.”

“Tell me, please. To which philosophy do you subscribe?”

His question stabs at me, and I begin to consider my own life; to look at the way I have spent my time, and think about what I have always assumed to be important. Questions occur, and an unfamiliar feeling steals over me. I am disquieted, suddenly unsure about the nature of my life, and that of my entire culture. I look around at the other paintings that cover the walls, images horrific, obscene, offensive in every way. Yet, they demand attention. They shout warnings in an obscure language, a language that I feel I can decipher, if I will only listen hard enough.

But, no. No.

I begin to back toward the door, toward the familiar life from which I seem to have slipped. I grope behind me, find the handle, and press down the brass tongue with my palm. The door creaks open. As I back out into the street, the sunlit cityscape seems garish, the air itself tainted with the subtle odor of corruption. The door swings slowly shut, and the little, wild-eyed artist is removed from my sight.

Turning away, I stumble out into the street, and collide with a well-dressed woman, causing her to drop her packages. I bend to help her retrieve them, but she fends me off with a curse. Other people hurry past in both directions, never glancing our way. Their faces seem mesmerized, their eyes blank, unseeing.

I turn back toward the door, to find the Trattoria Italiana back in its rightful place. Nervously, I approach the entrance. The window is clear; the restaurant bustles beyond the glass. Thus reassured, I place my hand on the brass plate and push open the door. Immediately, I spy my client. He raises an arm in greeting. I smile in return, and begin to make my way through the crowd toward him.

The thousand details of the ad campaign rise to the surface of my consciousness, serving to force me back to reality. I have to get away from the uncomfortable notions the little artist has placed in my mind. I can’t think about these things. How can they be true? They contradict everything I know about the world. Therefore, they’re insane.

Aren’t they?

1354 words.
© Copyright 2009 CeruleanSon (gnarled1 at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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