At first, we assumed someone had slipped something into the water supply. Some type of hallucinogen, or mood destabilizer. It seemed the only thing that would explain the emotional changes, the hallucinations. We assumed they were hallucinations, at first: The borders of paintings blurring at their edges, seeping into the walls around them, overrunning their frames and rooting themselves into plaster and plywood and concrete. We thought we were seeing things. And when we started feeling emotionally overcome by the newest exhibits at our downtown museums, by the eight-by-ten etchings at our local café, by the spraypaint portraits on the wall of our neighborhood supermarkets, we thought they were drug-induced mood swings.
Psychologists blamed the effect on psychedelics, pumped into the atmosphere by gangs of radical environmentalists. That, they argued explained why men and women were weeping at the sight of a piece of art, or raging, or crying out confessions. Pundits and experts began urging people to drink only bottled water, to remain indoors, to breathe oxygen from canisters or, failing that, to hold their breath indefinitely.
You could be going to work. Or to the grocery store. Or to the bank. And the light would fall on a stenciled drawing hung in the window of your local school, a crude line drawing of a family and a house and a dog. And you would watch as the line-drawn mother or line-drawn father reached out to embrace their line-drawn daughter or line-drawn son. Any would remember your parents, and the house you grew up in, and the summer mornings that stretched on past the horizon of your childhood, and you would weep, overcome with gratitude and nostalgia and sadness for the impermanent nature of human happiness. Don’t risk it, the experts urged. Stay indoors.
Things grew stranger. Statutes began to move, public figures leaving their posts. Bronze-limbed icons would recite soliloquies, or would sit down on park benches, shade their sun-warmed bodies, and speak in soft interrogatives to the homeless. Granite-jawed presidents would descend the steps of their own memorials to repeat their campaign promises, or wander down the broad streets that they once knew, or visited, or saw in maps or spoke of in speeches. Abstract sculptures would rotate on their axes like globes depicting unfamiliar earths, would fling themselves into the sky to glint in the sun like second-hand constellations. The police commissioners urged citizens not to speak to memorials, indeed, not to speak to strangers.
Tourists would view a new collection of modern art and start speaking in tongues. Pedestrians would stare at underpass murals the way lost desert travellers had stared at mirages in the desert, the way men thirsty for water had stared into the thick air and seen their own imagined salvation.
Children would draw on their sidewalks with pink and purple chalk, monsters with horns and sharp teeth and tufts of long hair, and their chalk creations would come alive and roar out the joy of their suburban cul-de-sac births, and stretch out their chicken-leg feet, and chase their creators in mock-menace, pups discovering how to play. Middle-schoolers’ scribbles began marching from their notebooks, two-dimensional figures jousting against each other with purloined pencils. Superintendents cancelled class, cancelled courses, eventually cancelled school.
A Rothko escaped its museum, and the sky was orange for three weeks afterwards.
It took us a long while to figure it out. Art was always like magic. The magic of conveying concepts through brushstrokes on a wall or a piece of paper, the magic of changing a person’s beliefs through color and light. We figured out that, over time, the magic simply had gotten stronger.
The government, having finally identified the culprit, acted swiftly. Pencils, pens, paint, paper. It was all seized, all confiscated and strictly rationed. If art couldn’t be trusted to maintain its own boundaries, then the authorities would step in. Unrestrained art was bringing down the economy, they argued. It was wreaking havoc on the daily commute. Stock traders were being waylaid by watercolors on their way to Wall Street, bankers were waking up to find that their impressionist portraits had erased their balance sheets and changed their computer passwords. It was a matter of the country’s stability, they said. Of law and order. Of national security.
Artists who refused to submit became enemies of the state. Drawing was punishable by imprisonment, painting by firing squad. Sculptors had their hands removed. Portrait artists were lobotomized. Hard to draw portraits, the military doctors figured, if you can’t recognize faces.
The resistance was fierce. A swathe of paint was all it took to make a love bomb. A broken piece of lead could draw a hundred knights in black-and-white armor, their unfurled banners flapping in an imagined wind. Portrait makers became propaganda artists, their creations straining against two dimensions to shout messages of solidarity. Volunteers unraveled tapestries of peace down the sides of skyscrapers; whole regiments laid down their arms. Street artists waged urban warfare, launching nighttime raids to spray-paint images of defiance and resilience. Barrio muralists, graphic designers, sleep-deprived animators and part-time art students, disaffected graffitists and discontented scribblers. A rabble of pencils and paintbrushes and spray paint and clay and stone. Against guns and mechanization and commerce and centralized authority and chemical gas.
The Press Secretary called it a War Against Artists. The next day he apologized, said that he had misspoke, called it a War Against Artistic Contagion. Those who fought on the other side began calling it the Unshackled Art Insurgency. After it was over, they just called it the Shackles War.
It was a one-sided battle from the start. Not enough artists had rallied around the kaleidoscope flag that was the expressive urge. The museum curators had refused to give aid, to release their armories to the insurgency. Perhaps if they had, the war would have ended differently. Instead, the rebellion flickered brightly before guttering, a candle of creativity that burnt itself out even as it strived to illuminate the way forward.
Today, children no longer draw in class. Museums are prisons. Plays, photography, cinema and literature are strictly regulated, with appointed officials keeping a wary eye for warning signs that the artistic contagion may have spread to its sister disciplines. Libraries are under military guard, as books are seen as sympathizers. Today, each neighborhood has an Arts Watch Committee, tasked with reporting instances of unregulated expression to the police. Some call these committee members patriots. Others call them collaborators.
There are rumors, of course. Of underground art exhibits. Of miners pocketing nuggets of graphite or even lead to bring home to their families, of small groups using camping trips as an excuse to gather wood for charcoal, or berries for homemade ink. Of run-down tenements where radicals debate the merits of artistic movements, of abandoned basements where students gather to make glitter and glue, of paint-making assembly lines operating after-hours in high-priced bakeries. Of a candle that is not yet gutted. Of the embers of a second revolution.
And everywhere, in small towns and sprawling cities, a small illegal symbol appears. If you look, if you know where, you can find it. You can find it etched on a rock in the middle of a field miles from the nearest dirt road. You can find it hidden on the walls of the bathrooms of dive bars now scrubbed of scribbled punk graffiti, scrawled beneath the sink or drawn in a small cribbed hand behind the toilet. You can find it as a scar of a tattoo stitched into flesh, on the heel of the foot or low between the ribs and close to the heart, somewhere only a lover would know. You can find it written in stolen ink, in the dried residue of fruit juice or coffee, in cut-out strips of colored paper. You can find it written in blood.
It is the symbol of a key, the instrument that unlocks all shackles. It is the symbol of the secret fraternity of all those who have pledged themselves to the creative urge, to a discipline that has been declared an enemy of the state, to the challenge of depicting a world that we cannot yet see. And if you stare at this key long enough, you will see it begin to turn, slowly, as if it is pushing against something which resists it but which must yield. As if somewhere, a lock is opening.
James Tager is possibly the only person from San Diego who can’t surf. He currently lives in New York City. James drinks a lot of coffee (too much) and reads a lot of books (not enough).