A Story About Fear

A young woman who had moved to the city and learned the art of sculpting from the last legendary survivors of a once boisterous scene now shivered in her garret each night in fear.

For upon the death of the High King a great wave of iconoclasm had swept the kingdom, and young men with hammers crashed through the doors of museums, destroying any art that looked human. They tossed acid on painted portraits, and threw busts out windows. For it was a sin, they said, and a presumption, for art to imitate men.

They did not all agree on the reasons. Some said it was because only God should have the power to present the human form, and so artists were lacking in awe; some said it was because to paint or sculpt the faces of men is to laugh at mankind, and so artists were cruel; some said it was simply bad art, and so artists wasted their materials; and some simply liked to smash the images of people with sledges and crowbars, and said that destroying art was not enough.

She had sculpted tableaus with the High King, and images of poor women she had seen standing in bread lines; she had sculpted the face of her father, and the back of the man who had broken her heart.

Because she was the last in the line of the famous sculptors, the late apprentice who had carried on their work, the young woman knew the angry iconoclasts were coming for her. And she stared at the night shadows from her window, wondering who they were, and flinched at the approach of strangers each winter day. For anyone could be carrying a hammer within his coat, or a bottle of acid in his pocket, and declare that her art did not deserve to exist.

And worse, for she knew that skin is far more fragile than stone.

And so, one day, troubled by a lack of sleep and haunted by the sound of footsteps in a hallway, she gathered up her friends and her admirers and her supporters, who were likewise afraid, and took them to the public square, and placed make-up and paint upon them so that their skin looked like stone, and posed them as she would have her work — for if statues could not look like men, she would make men look like statues.

People gathered, and watched, and stared, and laughed as her volunteers made faces and played games, until at last a great assembly was present to watch the living tableau.

Then they came, these young men, with their hammers and their acid, and denounced her, and her work, and threatened to take their crowbars to the bodies of any men who imitated art — for surely that is just as great a sin

But though they were angry, and armed, and shouting, yet the line to be put in stone make-up was larger then their mob, and the line to enter the park and see her work was larger still. For the joy of her task had made people of good conscience come, and its beauty had made them brave.

And though she was still afraid in that moment, as the future of her art was confronted, she was not alone. And this was the struggle she preferred.

Top image: Rembrandt, “The Night Watch“, 1642

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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