Wednesday, January 25, 2006

New Thing

i am now deciding to post stories here as well, because about once every six months i write a vaguelly satirical story about political stuff. I may as well put them here.

The Painting

Felendov was always going to be an artist, it didn’t matter when he was born, whatever era or place on the planet he could have entered onto he would have ended up being an artist. His talent was not immense, not something that would have had him hailed as a child prodigy, not that it ever would have mattered to him. Just to be allowed to create, that was all.
As it was he was born in a time of turmoil, at the end of long civil war finally won by a side whose rights and wrongs are immaterial, when the winner wins, they are always right. Felendov grew up in residential district of the capital, parents were factory workers, there were brothers and sisters. None of this was important, at best it was material to him, shifting planes and light, sources of ideas and compositions. He went to an art school, because the state though it was good that there was culture, and it liked to be in charge of it, because it liked to be in charge of things.
There he ignored high politics, the politics of revolt, the politics of anything except that of painting, of art and expression of what he saw around him. They liked him for that, because in highly charged political atmosphere, and when people were being exiled and shot for having differing views having none at all will always be popular. They asked him to paint great portraits of the leader, of peasants and workers and uplifting scenes. He did his best, but honesty always meant his paintings were hit and miss with party bigwigs. The ones they liked they lauded and displayed, the ones they didn’t he was told off for.
“Listen Felendov, you have to realise that art has a purpose, it’s to educate people. Its to make people learn things” the party official explained, he was broadly sympathetic as he was an art lover, but he knew which side his bread was buttered and had his career to think about “Sure, paint what you like but only expect to sell the kinds of works that artists like Palenki or Smutts do”
“They aren’t artists” said Felendov, dark hair above dark eyes “They are rose tinted cameras, varnishers of reality. They paint nothing new, nothing beautiful. Pretty at best, but not beautiful”
The official smiled, but shook his head “Whatever, just be careful, ok? Those boys are popular, not worth messing with. Just keep painting and we’ll see what we can do”
Felendov nodded, stumbled out slightly, the thoughts already on ideas of light and pose, compositions and expression.

He got into trouble agian, though, at an exhibition in the Dotsoy on Strimbolenna prospect. It was an exhibition of young painters, slightly avant garde but in a very safe way, it had been put on by a figure with a love of controversy but a very keen political senses, he wanted to make a stir but not a stink. The other artists there, though, tended to be more controversial, seeing themselves as the authentic voice of the people, or at least that of the true artist. One released from the formalism of the old order, ones who rejected the sterile landscapes and stirring battle scenes of the establishment artists. They were all there, ready to defend their painting against the obnoxious party apparatchiks who were bound to show up. Felendov had been coaxed into coming along, on the promise that the party officials had very expressive faces, definitely worth sketching. He would have preferred an evening in the studio, or in the cafes of the old quarter, where old soldiers and new students mixed in uneasy abandon, relaxed but careful not to relax too much, fear of secret police.
They had chosen one of his edgier paintings, an abstract he had painted from an image he had dreamed of while ill with fever. It was one the official had wanted him to hide away, knowing it would be seen as degenerate, and could cause trouble.
Felendov stood in a corner near his paining, a single drink in his hand as he watched the overstuffed bureaucrats and chubby press hacks turning up their noses at the paintings around him. One stopped at Felndov’s, with a pretty, thin wife in tow. The very existence of Felendov’s piece seemed to offend him, it was like a challenge, something he did not understand that he peopled with dark intent. He assumed the piece was meant to undermine people like him, the title a single number reference was to haunt him as he tried to figure it out.
Felendov heard him complaining loudly to another party official. They were both old fashioned, burly and no doubt once from the provinces. They were men clever enough to know culture when they saw it, so long as it was in plain language. They had wealth their parents hadn’t dreamed of, power they would not even have understood. They hated this art, the whole system of art schools and bourgeois edifices that had bred them. They had worked hard all their lives and saw no reason why these degenerates should be given public money to pursue their perversions and spring them on an unsuspecting populace
He started making a fuss, calling the art offensive dross, saying it was affront to the state, that it was counter revolutionary nonsense, copying bourgeois and foreign styles, aiming to subtly undermine the fine traditions of native art.
“This is all nonsense” he declared “none of this is real, none of this is beautiful or grand or inspiring. Its all portraits by people who cannot draw and shite dribbled from the arse of over privileged pederasts and mentally malformed miscreants” he waved his hand specifically at Felendov’s work. “It serves only to confuse, to degenerate the fine noble artistic principles of this state, where art is meant to serve the people not the narrow tastes of the intelligentsia. Who is the painter of this crap?”
Felndov stepped forward, intrigued by the debate. The crowd parted before him, allowing him to go forward.
“Where’s the fuss? He asked “I just paint things, I’m not exactly a threat to anyone”
“You’re undermining everything we stand for, if the common man cannot understand you, if you are not serving a purpose to the people. You emulate decadent western art, art that is politically without any meaning, that is meant to lull the working class into sleep, so as they do not wake up to the truth of their situation!”
He stared pop eyed into felendovs face, the hacks around scribbling down every word. Felendov shrugged
“If you don’t like it you don’t have to look at it. There’s many other artist more to your taste I’m sure. Smutts for instance”
There was a snigger from the avant garde artists behind Felendov, who shared his opinion on the grand battle scenes and muscular heroism of Smutt’s work. This was lost on the official, though, who merely narrowed his eyes and stalked off to persecute the other artist’ work.

The stir caused by the evening went through the art establishment like a shiver, the fact that Felendov was known as a pure artist only helped. If even he had earned the ire of the party officials then no one was safe. But Felendov had no wish to be the poster boy for the Samizdat movement, nor as a whipping boy in the popular party press. He withdrew to his studio, not answering clandestine calls and facing all official attempts to get him to recant his stance with shrugs and indifference.
The matter was thought forgotten, the press and officials had moved on to other anxieties of the regime, that of chasing writers who had been allegedly putting subversive ideas into their books. The art collective decided to put on another show, they were feeling bolder now, bolstered by international support for their work. They asked Felendov for the crowning piece of the show and he dully delivered it the very next day. It hung covered with a cloth in the gallery until the day of the opening, astutely guarded day and night by student volunteers and international observers. There was much speculation on its contents, though Felendov kept every detail secret including even the name of the piece. The brochure went to the presses and to the hands of eager culture vultures and bureaucrats alike with only a blank space next to his name. That blank space was to loom in the minds of agitated officials, what subversive work hung beneath that cloth? They did not fear out and out attacks on the regime, that would have been easy to quash, a simple accusation of subversion or of being un patriotic could have been levelled against Felendov and he would be bundled off to a far away jail.
But what if was something more subtle? The fear was that the whole regime was under attack, once one apparatchik started reading coded messages in popular fiction then you couldn’t help but see it too, the whole institution of culture could be riddled with subversion. The hysteria had now spread to popular music, with the discovery of song lyrics that could easily be interpreted as promoting ideas utterly contrary to the spirit of the party. But the fact that these messages were by their nature almost subliminal there was no way of either rooting them out or even proving to the public they existed, many party officials had been met with ridicule when trying to ban certain pop groups and the works of respected children’s authors. It was a sensitive time, the international attention on the art exhibition meant they had to tread softly lest the reputation of the regime be sulleyed.
The day of the exhibition was one of great expectation, the art students eager to bait the regime and make their own reputation internationally. If played correctly the agony of exile was easily offset by the money and publicity it generated abroad, that and the purer motive many ascribed to of truly representing the people, rather than the wishes of a single group at the top.
It was dark by the time the unveiling was to occur, crowds had gathered both inside and outside the exhibition. Many of them undercover policemen but many more of them genuinely curios to see what would happen. Member of the press were preparing to be outraged, ready to cite the decline in artistic standards. Half the articles to appear the next day had been written well in advance, minds on both sides had already been made up.
Felendov though was not at the exhibition, nor could he be found. He had simply taken himself off to safe distance ready to await the fallout from the exhibition. At the exhibition the moment had arrived, the leader of the students came forth and made a carefully non political speech, saying how glad he was that there was so much interest in the works they had created. He added they were just humble servants of the muse that moved them, and that was to whim they were accountable. With a theatrical gesture he twitched back the cover and let it fall to the flaw.
There was a predictable gasp from the audience, flash bulbs lit up its surface and necks craned from the back to get a decent view. The painting was of an average size, portrait shaped, though without a proper frame. It was simply a piece of canvas, completely black except for a ragged edge of white running the whole length of the border.
An official read the title ‘If you destroy this you destroy yourselves’ and leant back thoughtfully. The discussion raged through the crowd, the art students and their friends began to applaud loudly, several party apparatchiks tried to attack the painting, shouting loudly that it was trash, a waste of public money, a fraud. They pulled a shoes from their feet and waved it at the painting. In the ensuing riot the police had to evacuate the hall.
Soon it was only a few secret service men around the place, plainclothes and bored. The one in charge stood staring at the painting, a hand on his hip and one at his mouth. The threat loomed large from the painting, an explicit threat linking the painting’s fortunes with that of the regime. He was a man who though he understood these things, understood the subliminal, he was a man whose life was spent discerning symbols and many layers of meaning from the most innocuous things. But what could you get from just a field of black? What was there to be threatened by? Yet there it was, plainly stated in the title.
Felendov came into the gallery, he knew they would be looking for him by now, he was escorted by two security men to the man in charge.
“I’m Kalenin. Please, explain this”
Felendov simply stood there
“There’s nothing to explain, it doesn’t mean anything. It only takes on whatever meaning you ascribe to it. I would have put just a mirror there if I’d had more time, as it was black paint was the easiest way of doing it. Cheapest too”
Kalenin leaned close to the artist, coat creaking slightly and a waft of aftershave leaked out into Felendov’s face.
“Don’t fuck with me.” He said simply, the tone not threatening but menacing “and don’t think you can just do what you like. We’re on to you”
“I’m not trying anything, just that the painting is true. Truest thing I’ve ever painted. If you destroy it you destroy yourselves. Simple”
Kalenin growled and pushed past Felndov and walked up to one of his men, whispering in the man’s ear.
“Let him go. Keep him under surveillance, but don’t let anything happen to him. The whole bloody world is watching and if we touch him it could be all our arses. Play it cool for god’s sake”
So Felendov was allowed to go home, to go into his studio and lock the door, ready not to emerge unless absolutely necessary. He hoped Kalenin had understood, he seemed like a clever man. He doubted, though, that the man’s superiors would be smart though, and was prepared for whatever they might try. But he had warned them.
But the next days papers contained only denunciations of the show, condemning its lack of artistic merit, though none dared mention the painting of Felendov. The official line was to ignore it, though it was the talk of the town. Everyone knew it what been displayed, they knew the name and illicit photos of it spread around. It spread like a phantom around the country, internationally pictures of it were on every front page and every TV show talked about it. Critics raved about its brave statement, its revealing of deep truths, how the black symbolised the state and the white frayed border the artistic underground.
The gallery was open the next day as usual, though the paining had been removed to a safe place within the secret police headquarters, where it had a whole room to itself.
Time passed and the controversy grew, the regime’s silence was punctuated by random arrests, by attempts to eradicate all mention of the painting from public discourse. Any writer who dared to mention it, even obliquely in their works was arrested, the slightest inference to the painting, to black paint, to blank portraits was enough. Every pop song was carefully pored over and forcibly changed if it was considered to be championing or condoning the painting. Felendov was arrested several times, all his paintings were impounded, though he was kept in relative comfort. They claimed the arrest was for his own safety, that there were radical elements enraged by his attack on the nation that might want to do him harm.
But that could not stop the next exhibition, that although the students had not gained permission to hold one they decided to go ahead anyway. It was staged in an old market square near the Kalumshin park area, a haunt of old dissidents. The exhibition was considered suspicious as it was but when the paintings were unveiled the authorities went into overdrive. There, in the very centre of the exhibition, hung against the cheap plasterboard swaying slightly in the breeze was the painting. This caused a panic amongst the secret service men, though once they realized it was not the original but presumably a copy they calmed down a little. The idea that these scruffy dissidents could have broken into the Ministry of state security was unthinkable. The exhibition became notorious for the day it was allowed to be open, There was a tense standoff, but one where each side had to pretend that it wasn’t one, that they were cooperating. The authorities had to pretend not to be ruffled and the artists had to pretend it was not a direct challenge to the regime.
And through it all crowds thronged, drawn by the controversy, though many of them did not really feel they understood the painting, and none of them liked it for its artistic merit. Just the fact it wasn’t sanctioned by the regime, that was enough to make it worth seeing. By night fall though a decision had been reached, the exhibition was bulldozed by the security men, each work carefully destroyed. Paintings were broken in half and the protesting artists arrested. By the morning all trace of the exhibition was gone.
All this had gone against the express guidance of Kalenin, who had urged caution above all else. But he was ignored, and in the end resigned from his position, when the regime fell he reinvented himself as a poet and art critic, but that was many years later.
The sides now were drawn, the bulldozing of the exhibition had been caught on film and was played around the world, as well as in every potential dissidents flat. Copies of the paining began to surface everywhere, though it was impossible to verify any degree of authenticity. Felendov himself did not help when he said he had given the original to a friend and that the one in the gallery exhibition had been a copy.
As a mural it began to appear on concrete walls and motorway bridges, it was simple enough to do, a rectangle of black with a white border. The regime went into overdrive, arresting and charging anyone even wearing a combination of black and white in their clothing could face arrest or at least some degree of harassment if they were young or looked like an opponent of the regime.
Though with this increased paranoia it only served to make the regime look confused and garner opposition, people who would have previously written off the art movement as a bunch of pretentious and pampered students with nothing really to say suddenly felt that maybe the paining was representation of their lives. It became a symbol of the oppression they felt, a lightening rod for grievances. Though the regime was able to keep the lid on outright revolt and to the rest of the world looked as stern and monolithic as ever it was seriously damaged, it may have had an army to defeat any other in the world, and a system of spies and state security organs that could eavesdrop on every home but it had lost the confidence of its people. Even the officials who before had been happy to parrot even the bizarrest pronouncements from above if it looked like it might get them promoted lost heart. What point was there when the slightest wrong word or accidental combination might get you thrown in jail and a single paining could cause such chaos and uncertainty? It was a few years before the regime petered out and fell apart but it was a shell long before that, where everyone went hollowly through the motions.
Felendov was released into a changed world, one where nobody cared what he did. The other artists in the art school had expected that they would be the new painters of a people energised with artistic appreciation, instead they only met with apathy. This suited Felendov fine and he went back to his studio, painting constantly until the art school was shut down due to funding cuts and he had to go abroad, where copies of his one painting, dashed out in a single afternoon looked back at him. There nobody either seemed to understand what it meant and they would ascribe fantastical properties and thesis to it. He was ignored when he explained simply that it meant nothing, that only the title and the circumstances had meaning. But he had no control over it, it was part of the fabric of history and not his at all.


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