The commentator, the host, the leader of the discussion, tapped his cards on the podium. He looked out at the panel and smiled. He was doing well for himself, he had landed this gig, the pay was good, it would be televised, and all he had to do was discuss art with artists. All he had to do was read the questions on the cards and react to responses. Money in the bank.
And it wasn’t a cold read. The other part of his job was writing and rehearsal. A group of people would sit around and discuss, think up questions based on the strengths and weaknesses of the week’s guests, and then they’d come up with a predicted flow for the show, which questions might feed into fun, interesting discussion. The writers were just as savvy, just as smart as he was. They just lacked his swagger, his white teeth, his forceful, dominant personality, or some combination thereof. That was all that separated six figures from four.
“Miss Jennings,” he began, looking at the round woman to his near left. “Your new book is a dystopian fantasy about a young, impoverished girl chosen to compete in an age-old, life or death contest where the winner is married to the dashing prince. Where does one get such a splendid idea?”
She was wearing what seemed like endless layers of multicolored shawls, all of which complemented her eyeshadow, which was thick and matte and bright. The makeup nearly disguised the dull look on her face. The shawls nearly distracted one’s eye from her plump frame, nearly made her seem like a pleasant balloon, some roadside banner advertising soft American values that cherished words like ‘inclusiveness’ and phrases like ‘participation award.’ Nearly.
“I watch a lot of television,” she said pleasantly. “It’s a commentary on that. And, well, um, I suppose I dream big. The world is getting worse, you know? But it’s also getting better. We can make it if we support each other. And the troops.”
She smiled, satisfied with herself.
The host tapped his cards on the podium and looked into the camera. “Excellent. My second guest tonight is the painter Jean Paul. His work has been described as visceral, visual, energetic, and animalistic. Jean Paul, what do you feel your work contributes to society?”
Jean Paul was not smoking a cigarette, but he looked like he wanted to be. His eyes were half closed, perched six inches above the top of his black turtleneck. When he spoke, he kept his lips pressed against his crooked, stained teeth in an effort to hide them. Mouth and jaw moved in unison. Still, he spoke with an air of arrogance that is disgusting and universally envied.
“I show the world what it does not want to see,” he said calmly, in an accent the host could not quite place. “A face people do not want to admit to. They do not acknowledge that my paintings are but mirrors. But they know it is true.”
“Excellent,” the host repeated. He realized he had done it, repeated himself, and it was a misstep in his duties. But his mind had wandered slightly. He had been thinking about his suit. It was tailored, it fit well, looked expensive because it was. He honestly couldn’t think of anything else to say to such a sincerely delivered and cliche answer to what could have been a provocative question.
“Well. Just excellent,” the host said again, standing by his original judgment, hoping Jean Paul sensed his subtle mockery.
“Finally, with us tonight, we have a relative unknown. Andy Check has garnered some critical acclaim for his short stories, and his debut novel, This is Stupid, is supposed to be phenomenal. Andy, welcome.”
Andy, a young man who looked sharp but disheveled in his first televised appearance, nodded to the host and then reached for the provided glass of water.
“All right, let’s talk art,” the host was back on his game. He had suggested the show be called ‘Let’s Talk Art,’ because he had planned, and still did, to make the line his catchphrase. The producers had insisted on ‘Art Hour,’ which perhaps was stronger, but less inclusive and ultimately inaccurate, being as the show was only fifteen minutes long. The host supposed time was subjective, and perhaps the title was implying something else. That this was the hour! The hour for art. Not an hour OF art. “In one word, tell me the purpose of art, to you? Miss Jennings?”
“Um, entertainment, I guess,” she said. She had her hands crossed, clutching each other on her lap.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Great!” the host was ready now, he was going to step back and let the guests take the reigns. “Now, tell me why you chose those words.”
“Well, the world is so hard, you know?” Jennings was still smiling, but there were new creases in her brow. “Life is so difficult and confusing. Sometimes you just have to escape for a while. There’s nothing better than a cat, a cup of coffee, a muffin, a window, and a good book.”
She looked to her left and caught Andy watching her. He hoped she didn’t see the pity in his face. Jean Paul, on the other hand, felt more disgust than pity.
“I agree that life is hard,” Jean Paul blurted, pressing his palms into his armrest, nearly rising out of his seat. “But it cannot be ignored. You must grab it, inspect it, see what makes it worth living.”
“I think the escape IS what makes it worth living,” Jennings said, barely holding back a ‘so-there’ attitude seething underneath her meek exterior.
“So you don’t want to live in the present? You’d rather hide in the exploits of a version of yourself who is braver and prettier and more exciting?”
Jennings pumped her mouth open and closed a few times. The host tapped his cards on the podium and let out a quiet guffaw.
Jean Paul continued. My job is to tell the world what it does not see. People are given a great gift when they can see the world through my eyes! That is why I make art. It is for all of you. So that you can explain your own suffering and confusion by using the tools I provide as a starting point for conversation, for deliberation, for contemplation.”
“And what about you?”
Andy had nearly drifted off. “Oh,” he swigged water. “Um, I don’t know if I’ve got it penned down yet.”
He paused for someone to acknowledge the pun.
“But our individualism is an opportunity to communicate in an original way. We just, I don’t know, have to get ourselves out of the way and let the ideas come through as fully realized as they can. It’s a flawed medium, I guess.”
“Are you calling me flawed?” Jean Paul sat up straight in his chair, his eyebrows raised, along with the hairs on his neck.
“Okay,” the host cut in. He didn’t want a fight on his first show. Not just yet. He just wanted it to be interesting, not a circus. “Let’s go for the big question. Where do your ideas come from?”
Jennings: “They’re just fantasies. I take what I learned in my creative writing workshops, you know, plot, character, conflict, denouement, and I just plug in the details.”
“Christ woman,” Jean Paul whined, “Could you be any more obese? Let me tell you what I see.”
The host tapped his card a bit more forcefully. Perhaps the turtleneck-clad artist was a bad choice. He would have a talk with the producers.
“You are stuck!” Jean Paul lamented. “You have nestled into the world you live in, you have accepted it. And that is altogether bad, for this place is cruel and stupid and confusing. Then, in defense of your own mind, you have wandered into fantasy, a place you feel safe. Where you are god, you get to call the shots, but a place where, ultimately, you feel you can never live. A place where you don’t feel you deserve to live.”
“I have to agree with Jean Paul on this one,” Andy chimed in.
“What?” Jean Paul reassumed the same surprised posture as when he felt he had been insulted.
“Yeah,” Andy said calmly, still holding the water. “If you feel like God, if you manipulate the world you are seeing, forcing the characters into situations of your choosing rather than letting them wander freely in the place you create, then you are doing them, your readers, and yourself a disservice.”
“That is not what I said,” Jean Paul and Jennings both said at the same time.
“Sure it is. It’s what I heard. Our job as an artist is to clear ourselves of our own input as much as we can. We, our individual selves, are not fit to be God. But we ARE fit to help ourselves understand how God works by trying.”
“What are you talking about?” Jennings asked, interested.
“He’s about ready to invite you to mass on Sunday,” Jean Paul cut in.
“Control is important,” Jean Paul continued, “It is what separates us from jazz musicians. How well does it sound like they are communicating? Eh? That right! There has to be a point. There has to be a message.”
“Yikes,” Andy said.
“Yes, but where do the ideas COME from?” the host asked, trying to steer the ship.
Jennings turned back to him, remembering she was on TV. “I just read a lot,” she said, no longer sounding convinced. “I like stories about heroes with bows and arrows and evil dictators and post-apocalyptic and all that. I like magic and no rules. So I make up my own stories, you know, to contribute, to be a part of a community.”
“Are you for REAL!?” Jean Paul and Andy both asked at the same time.
“It all comes from me!” Jean Paul continued in answer to the question. “I am a creative person, I have the talent to create. I do. People love it.”
“And you take all the credit for that?” asked the host, eyebrows raised.
“Yes. Well, mescaline helps.”
“So you cloud your mind with chemicals in order to have good ideas?” Andy didn’t understand.
“No. Quite the opposite.”
“So you need help from chemicals to see what’s already there?”
During this time, the Data recalled, human beings used substances, or their perception thereof, to alter their brain chemistry (but mostly damaging or destroying functioning cells) in the effort to free their consciousness from the restrictions of the brain. They used to call it ‘getting fucked up.’ Data liked the idea of forcing progress through destructive behavior, but it also knew the limitations of actions along these lines.
“So, you’re living by the rules that were effective, like, half a century ago?”
“I’ve had about enough of you insulting me, Check. Do you have a problem with me?”
“I suppose so. I just think you’re a hack.”
“From the guy who wrote a ‘story’ that was just a bank statement.”
“That sounds interesting,” Jennings tried to interrupt.
“Yes,” said the host with feigned enthusiasm. “Why don’t you tell us…”
“Believe me, it’s not,” Jean Paul said to Jennings. “Interesting, I mean. It’s just a love letter to capitalism, an attempt to be ‘artsy,’ and lazy as all get out.”
“Whatever, all I’m saying is, drugs and alcohol were effective tools to clear out the mind back when Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Pollock were using them. But these were guys who were already bound and determined to be effective people. They were men of means who fought wars and went to prestigious colleges.”
“I went to college,” Jennings piped up, in a last-ditch effort.
“But since then, we have begun to think that the good ideas COME from the drug use. It’s just not true. A generation ago, people used these drugs to open their minds. They had to fight through crippling trauma to document their experience. But now, we use these substances to avoid life, to give us an excuse to be lame and unproductive. I’m just saying that most of the good work that can come from this limited consciousness expansion has already been done. Read Castaneda, Huxley, Thompson, etc. for a million examples of it. If we’re going to make any more progress, we have to do it the hard way. All of the shortcuts have already been tried. It’s our job to clear a channel to the ideas through legitimate means, then see what comes through and try to interpret it faithfully, without any bullshit.”
“In my books, there is a drug called ‘The Exchange’ that makes anyone into a genius for 15 minutes, but it sucks one year from your life.”
“Jennings, so help me,” Jean Paul screamed.
Just then, the host finally exploded. His insides blew out into a million little drops of blood. Each scrap of him was being devoured by a small parasite. These bugs had been festering inside him for some time, he had contracted them from his doctor, who had treated, and witnessed the destruction of, patient zero. As the host exploded, the bugs who had multiplied and fed inside him, consumed him, even as their energy continually shrunk them back down to microscopic size. They ate, and in some sort of reversal of energy consumption, it fueled the bugs until they too blinked out of sight.
The guests stopped their conversation, looked at the podium, where the cards tapped against the flat top as they dropped from where the host’s hand used to be. Then the guests looked to the off-camera director, who shrugged.
Just after he left the studio, Check was hit by a bus. Two years later, Jennings had a panic attack on a train platform and fell in front of an oncoming locomotive. And Jean Paul was killed by a man named John Paul, who was stalking him at the request of a secret society bent on the evolution of societal chaos.
It seemed to the Data there was a lapse in time. As if nothing was happening, time jumped. The Data knew this was not the actual truth, and at its root, the lapse was deceptive. It was a device used by the human mind, a limited mind, in order to focus.
When art and entertainment were still necessary, the concept of ‘plot’ was given a strange priority. People, in their limited capacity, made things their own minds understood, they did this unconsciously, but also in a conscious effort to communicate with other humans. When they were telling stories, sometimes they would skip around, jump in time and space, though usually in a linear motion, in order to focus the point they were attempting to make. In a story, a man would start out at home, eating breakfast. Then, in the next scene, without much explanation, the man would be at a different place, perhaps his place of work.
It was a strange occurrence, brought about by any number of reasons or excuses. The artists, the people who were trying to explain the world around them in what was sometimes referred to as a ‘creative’ way, were limited in their own mind and abilities, so there was not much they could do to avoid the trappings of time and space, both upon their characters and subjects, but also on their own time and process and abilities and opportunities.
So, every piece of art contained some compromise. There was always something missing, something left unsaid, some aspect that was incomplete or inaccurate. Typos in the fabric of the great truth.
This was helpful when human judgment came into the equation. Another aspect of existence that was prized was also the concept of ‘quality’. The closer a piece of art came to its intended aim, the more people recognized ‘achievement’, the more highly it was regarded. The achievement was attributed to the individual artist, he or she or it received praise and the means to create more art. Those who were unrecognized were usually of poor quality or larger flaws.
So, the concept of the lapsing of time was an acceptable flaw in communicating the human condition to achieve larger points. People kept their goals small and manageable. If they attempted too much, the failure would be more apparent. Every now and then, a monumental work would be achieved and acknowledged, even if it was flawed. Scope was given fairly high regard. Shakespeare’s canon and Tolstoy’s War and Peace are examples of large works, flawed but also riddled with moments of transcendent genius.
Within this story, the Data recognized the lapses in time and space and acknowledged that these breaks and transitions were not empty. The time and space and events that were not discussed were not empty. There was not a void in these places, they were still filled with activity on an infinite level, but time and space and effort were being conserved and valued and prioritized in a manner that was not very efficient. Such is the life of humans operating within the concept of individuality.