The Incident with the Artist

by Steven Berkowitz

A gleaming silver moon shone high up in the night sky as waves of anxious, curiosity-driven people flooded into and--when no more could fit inside--in front of the artist's loft. Those who had arrived earliest, the artist's close friends and chief appreciators, had found a spot for themselves in his small crowded studio; they watched him closely and were filled with joy and awe as he came nearer and nearer to finishing his masterpiece, a work of art that was rumored would be, upon its completion, peerless in beauty and absolute in its perfection. It was said that prior to starting the piece, the artist had been visited by an angel, and the angel did nothing but slowly move its hand to the artist's forehead, lightly pressing its center with two glowing, divine fingers.

With each stroke of the artist's brush, the anxiety and jubilation of the spectators multiplied; with each stroke the picture came closer and closer to completion.  As he stood there, as he stood before the picture that was becoming his magnum opus right before his eyes, he wore a silent, expressionless face.  The people who were able to see his face referred to it as serene, calm, stoic, or knowing.  With each stroke, with each new color or impression added to the piece, various and powerful reactions were drawn from the crowd.  People gasped at times.  People whispered unknown praises or compliments or questions.  People wore excited expressions on their faces, sometimes beaming with glee, sometimes downcast and sad, and at times, agitated by some inexplicable, overpowering feeling that seemed to emanate from the art.  Each movement of the artist's hand seemed to reveal some new profundity, some new wisdom that the people around him had been ignorant of, as if a simple, invisible truth had been in front of them their whole lives, only made visible by the artist's brush.  Each flick of his wrist, each new color or accentuation or flourish, brought the spectators closer and closer to understanding just what it was they were looking at, while at the same time, served to raise more questions in their minds, distancing them ever further from the miracle they were witnessing. 

Suddenly a woman, one of the artist's friends that was standing close to him (it could be said she was standing the closest to him out of everybody), let out a piercing, harrowing scream, collapsing to the floor; just a moment ago she was standing up resolutely, completely fixated on and entranced by the image on which her eyes had been feasting.  There she lay untouched; no member of the crowd even thought for a second to help her, and in turn, lose their spot.  As if savoring the phenomenon he appeared to be the master of, the artist began to slow his pace.  Each stroke of the brush rippled across the canvas in a luxurious, angelic display of human beauty and finesse at its apex, the apex which just faintly touched the realm and essence of the divine.  It was during this time, this mind-numbing climax of artistic expression, that the artist suddenly stopped painting and, brush in hand, walked over and out onto the balcony adjoined to and outside of his studio.  Those inside held their breath.  This was part of his plan, part of his genius; it must have been.  Those outside, finally granted their communal wish to see the artist, simply did not know how to react.  At first they were overjoyed; but soon they realized that this meant he had either finished the painting or, for reasons no one could even begin to understand, had stopped working on it, leaving it incomplete. 

The artist said nothing.  He gave no indication nor professed any reasoning for his abrupt course of action.  Instead, he gazed up longingly at a gleaming, silver moon that shone high in the night sky.  For the first time during his entire painting of the picture, he began to outwardly display some emotion.  As he looked toward the heavens, an intense longing showed on his face, a single glance that seemed to capture the plight of all humanity.  It was as if all the motives and desires, all the ambitions and ideals, and all the intentions and motivations that ever were over the course of history were all reflected at once, in his one, perfectly balanced, singular glance.  Having come to the limits of the human understanding of beauty and meaning, he had suddenly, in a moment known only to him, crossed over and understood it all, knew some great secret that everyone, all the people around him and all the people all over the world were consciously or unconsciously searching for.  This glance of his broke out into a small child-like smile.  Humbled by something larger than he, a slim stream of tears rolled out of his eyes and down his cheeks.  He had been touched.  In the darkness of the night, he began to radiant faintly.

The crowds however, both inside and outside his loft, couldn't make out what the artist was doing, and more importantly, couldn't feel what he was feeling. They began to talk amongst themselves a nervous sort of talk.  What if the artist has lost inspiration?  What if he has given up?  Could he have become frustrated with himself?  Perhaps he has grown tired; yes, that's it, he's just tired. No! No, he isn't tired at all, that sly artist.  He's thinks it's all a joke!  He's playing a trick on us!  He'll never finish the painting!  He never intended to in the first place!

The crowds grew louder and angrier, shouting at the artist, first with questions, then with declarative insults.  Frenzy soon enveloped them all; the collective anxiety of the mobs was too much and it was now boiling over.  There was no voice of reason.  There was nothing that could save them from themselves.  The mob outside the loft, which had for some time occupied the entirety of the town square, became madly violent.  Possessed with an inexplicable fury and sense of brutality, they all turned on one another and began to fight savagely.  Storefronts were broken into and several fires had started.  Wails of rage, of envy, and of sorrow came from the mob; these screams combined to form one chaotic bellow of truly demonic proportions.  Not one among them ran for shelter nor remained passive.  Everyone in the mob was destroying something; everyone was infected with a disease for which there was no cure, save death itself.

The people inside the loft formed a much smaller mob.  Their destruction was contained within the building, but they still ravaged and raged as best they could.  Many people were pushed down and subsequently stepped on.  A few very unfortunate souls fell down onto the steps in the artist's apartment; their bodies soon became indistinguishable as people flooded up and down the stairs, tearing them up like confetti. The items within the loft were all smashed up as well.  They too were rendered indistinguishable by the chaos of the mob.  It wasn't long before the painting that everybody in their rage had seemed to forget about, fell to floor.  Its meaning, its very presence had been lost among the pandemonium that surrounded it.  Torn to shreds by the stampede of uncaring feet, the painting was lost, gone as if it never was.

Through all of this the artist was still looking up at the sky; it was there that his attention had remained the entire time.  Suddenly he brought his head and his thoughts back down to Earth.  He wore the same small, humbled, and child-like smile as he turned around and walked calmly back into his studio.  Content with itself, the mob didn't notice his return.  The artist saw the devastation and ruin that was taking place in front of him, and at the same time, outside his loft, all around him.  He saw, or rather didn't see his painting that had been destroyed, and he began to laugh to himself.  His laugh grew louder and louder and by some way that no survivor of the incident can explain, eventually drowned out the roar of the crowd.  This caught the mob's attention and for a brief moment they were sobered by the artist's laugh, which now sounded more like some sort of inhuman cackle of a seraphim pitch.  This time it was the inside crowd's turn to not know how to react. 

Their stillness and sobriety did not last long however, as the mob outside began to push itself inside the apartment.  Jostled by the fresh waves of bodies squeezing to move, pushing each other inch by inch up the stairs, the temporarily quieted crowd mingled with the mob from outside.  They became one; two dangerous and until then separate hive-minds formed the inevitable, ultimate climax of the ongoing disaster.  Like a long, panicked hand reaching into a tight spot to retrieve something of the utmost importance, the mob surrounded the artist in a flash and picked him up, carrying him outside his loft and into the center of the village square, the heart of that dark, squirming mass of inhumanity.  Although his voice had been drowned out, those close enough could see his face convulsing, his mouth wide open with crazed, manic merriment.  As the crowd tore the artist limb from limb, they say he was still roaring with laughter.

BIO: Steven Berkowitz is currently studying Anthropology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His voracious appetite for literature keeps him reading, which in turn, inspires him to write. His favorite writers are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Herman Hesse. While he mostly writes short stories, he aspires to create longer and longer works of prose, eventually novels.