Why can we walk past beautiful artwork without noticing it?

This entry is part 3 of 26 in the series Mythology of the Modern World

This was one of those nice, simple myths that would be fun to write that turned into seventy five hundred words. Still, I had fun doing it, and that’s a cool thing. If nothing else, it proves that yes, I am still a writer, and that’s always good.

Wednesday, when I described the premise to her, said this might be one of the most elaborate and apocalyptic solicitations to donate to public television she’d ever heard. “The world could end tomorrow if you don’t pledge now — and you get this beautiful tote bag….”

Please enjoy.

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On January the 12th, one of the greatest violinists of our age — possibly one of the greatest violinists ever — played as a street musician in one of the busiest Metro stations in Washington D.C. for almost a full hour and essentially no one noticed. He was playing one of the finest violins ever crafted, he was playing some of the most beautiful, energetic and emotional pieces ever composed, and he was playing with all the heart and soul he had, and he was just another nuisance in the train station during rush hour.

It sounds like a bad story setup. Something hackneyed and shopworn — the kind of thing a bad writer comes up with to describe the terrible state of culture and priorities in this, our oh so modern world. Admit it. You can think of a dozen ways for that story to proceed, and all of them seem trite.

The difference is, this really happened. Honest injun. The violinist was the internationally acclaimed Joshua Bell. And you can read about what happened in the April 4th Washington Post.

A glorious, inspired classical musician — one acclaimed by all who know his work, whose audiences are always packed and who gets tens of thousands of dollars or more to perform, and he took in less than sixty bucks sawing away at a Stradivarius — and twenty of those came from a fan of his work that happened to recognize him. In the end, he made just over thirty bucks in pocket change, from the few people who even bothered to notice that brilliance was in their midst.

It was not that Mister Bell’s performance was subpar. It wasn’t. There are videotapes, and if anything he put more into it than he put into the performances he makes obscene amounts of money from the cognoscenti who know about him. He wanted that audience, and he mentioned the weird sense of validation he got as someone just glanced his way for a moment, much less actually stopped and put money into his case. Pocket change. Pennies, sometimes.

It would be tempting to blame humanity. Blame the rush of life that we all feel. Blame the driving need to pass between to and fro that leaves no time to appreciate beauty for what it is. Bell, after all, was playing in a transitional place — a place meant in the end to facilitate one’s journey instead of being a destination. And these places are rare and special in their own right, but that’s the subject of another myth for another day. That’s not the reason why essentially no one noticed Joshua Bell at the L’Enfant Plaza Station.

Hrm. “Joshua Bell at the L’Enfant Plaza Station.” That’s a good title for a poem.

Which indirectly answers the question — the question of ‘why don’t we notice the staggering beauty and art in life all around us?’

It’s not just street music, mind. There are statues in many if not most of our cities, and monuments (whether representative or not) in most of our communities, but it’s the tourists who take the time to pay attention. The locals screen them out. You screen them out. You don’t notice the exquisite architecture of the local church or the homes built hundreds of years before. You don’t pay any attention to the heartwrenching beauty of the murals or the stunningly raw artistry of the graffiti done in the scant minutes between when the police officers pass by.

And neither do I. And neither, most of the time, does Joshua Bell.

It’s not our fault. It stems from a union dispute.

It is well known that the muses inspire artistic expression. Traditionally, there is one muse, or three, or nine, depending on who you speak to. However, in a practical sense there are way more than that. With the prolifieration of humanity there has also been a proliferation of metaphysical entities to inspire said humanity. Nine begat eighty one, and eighty one begat six thousand, five hundred and sixty one, and from there the numbers get truly ridiculous.

That’s a lot of muses. No wonder there are so many channels on satellite television these days. But that’s tangential to the point. Needless to say, the spirits of inspiration had proliferated to the point where they had to organize, ultimately into chapters and unions and guilds. It’s inevitable.

It is also inevitable, of course, that other metaphysical entities would take a notice.

You see, muses are, like most spirits, daemons. This is not to call them demons — that came later. No, among the ancients, the spirits and beings that were between humanity and the Gods were the daemons, and they divided into two camps. The Eudaemons were the helpful spirits — the spirits who did good deads, acted as guardians, inspired good works and the like — while the Kakodaemons were the malicious spirits. The beings of minor or major destruction, base intent, lust, greed and what have you. Later, the Abrahamic religions would come along and pick up the concepts of guardian angels and tempting demons, which naturally spawned entirely new beings, races and cosmologies, but that gets outside the realm of this treatise.

As the muses proliferated, most of them fell into the eudaemon camp. They were inspiring humanity to create, to build, to compose works that reached for ideals of beauty and aesthetics, elevating the thoughts and spirits of those who beheld them. It was only the occasional or rare muse who was enough of a kaodaemon to inspire people to, oh, I dunno, burn shit for art. This was centuries before Yoko Ono or performance art, to mention.

However, there was also a problem. You see, humanity was designed to appreciate art. When beautiful music was performed where human beings could hear, it would attract attention and draw eyes and thoughts to it, to indulge in that most visceral of sounds. When a dancer performed, the people around that dancer would stop and watch, smiling softly as they enjoyed what was beautiful in that art. And art would inevitably begat new art — derived works, or new paintings, or even the art of discussion and debate, as merits and aesthetics became fodder for intelligent discourse. This was called criticism, and it had its place in describing what artists were trying to achieve and how they were trying to achieve it.

Most of which, as stated, was positive. Oh, the occasional kakodaemon would inspire destructive art meant to be indulged in to the exclusion of any positive benefit — I think I mentioned burning things — or the occasional criticism meant to cut people down to size instead of discuss… well, much of anything, But those were rare. They added a certain amount of spice. For the most part, from the point of view of artists of all stripes, the world was a utopia. Poets and painters, dancers and dollmakers and everything in between were held in regard, because within them was the power to distract, to enlighten, and to enthrall.

Unfortunately, it was only the artists — and the muses — who found that world to be a paradise. For everyone else, there were problems.

You see, the muses were hardly the only daemons to inspire or tempt humanity. There were a whole host of other eudaemons and kakodaemons out there, inspiring good and bad behavior, doing good or bad deeds, and in general helping to keep the clockworks and symphony we call reality humming. Humanity was of course the central point of their work, since it was humanity who defined reality and humanity who actually did (or had things done for) all the things in the world. And at first, the daemons were content to have artistic expression as a part of that overall scheme. After all, humanity needed to be inspired to do their best, to believe, to have their spirits lifted, and sometimes to simply put their tools down, rest from their labors, and enjoy a good show. And, when there was one muse, or three muses, or nine… or even eighty-one… well, that worked out just fine. It was relatively rare that an artist would show up and enthrall the people with some creation. Indeed, the stories of those artists themselves could be rare art, passed from one mortal to the next, and the art would fit into place just as it was supposed to. And then could come discussion and criticism and all the rest, all the while the debators could get on with building aqueducts or paving roads or tilling fields or washing all the excrement off the streets. It worked. It fit.

But then the muses numbered in the thousands. And all of a sudden, shit wasn’t getting done any more.

Think about it. Every time someone had that spark of inspiration — that touch of the divine — to put hand to instrument, voice to song, pen to paper or brush to canvas, it would result in those beholding the results to pause, to consider, to appreciate and to be inspired by that work. This began to compound. Most art wasn’t ephemeral, after all. Paintings existed beyond the moment, and so did statues. Songs and music could be performed again and again, poems could be read and reread, stories told and retold… art compounded. And while humanity was becoming extraordinarily intellectual, with the meanest of peasants able to comment intelligently on topics like zeugma or irony, the world was grinding towards a halt. Things were being put off. Labors were ceasing without restarting.

And the daemons of industry, of production, of order, of means, of wealth, of activity, of exploration, of endeavor and of just about everything else you could think of were getting pissed off. They had unions of their own, you know, and without them mankind would fall into sloth and decay and ultimately into exinction, since they’d stop with the planting or hunting or gathering or the cleaning up of excrement entirely without them.

The muses, in the meantime, were outraged by snide references being made to them. They were fulfulling their function, God damn it, and it’s not their fault their function was more pleasant than spending nine hours a day hammering shit. So the idea that they should hold back just because humanity didn’t have a sense of perspective was downright offensive.

Strikes were threatened on both sides. Vitriol flew through the half-world and the spirit world and occasionally into debates in the real world, giving rise to a new class of human beings we today call “assholes.” But that’s another myth.

Finally, as with all such disputes, the only solution was arbitration. The muses sent one of their number, Clio Briggs, to meet with one of the eudaemons of good order — the spirits called the themisii — named Eunomia Jones. They met with the Thesmophoros, the Law Bringer, who was responsible for the arbitration of the divine and the profane, the spiritual and the banal.

There was, as should be expected, a lot of shouting.

“We’re not claiming that artistic expression isn’t important,” Eunomia said. “Far from it. We need artistic expression. We recognize this. But art can’t overwhelm all other aspects of the human condition! If it does, humanity will fall apart and take society with it.”

“So what,” Clio said. “You’d have us stop doing our jobs? You’d have me sideline a few thousand muses? We’re not meant to be silent. We’re meant to inspire, and we’re not going to suffer just because you people aren’t good enough at your jobs to keep humanity on track.”

“Good enough at our jobs?” Eunomia shouted. “We were doing fine at our jobs when there weren’t all you muses running around! You’re the ones who have procreated to the point that you’re threatening the good of the whole!”

“Are you calling my mother a slut?”

“If the name fits!”

“Bitch!”

“Whore!”

“Both of you shut up,” the Thesmophoros snapped. “Jesus Christ, it’s like negotiating with three year olds.”

In the sullen silence that followed, the Thesmophoros rubbed her eyes. “Morgana,” she called out into the hall, after a moment, “make up a pot of darjeeling, would you? It’s going to be a few cups of tea before we’re through with this.” She then turned to the muse and the themis. “Okay. Before we go any further, let me explain something very simple to both of you. That which is created cannot be uncreated. Even destruction doesn’t uncreate so much as it creates something new, even if that ‘something new’ is a pile of rubble. That’s true of matter, that’s true of energy, that’s true of art, and that’s true of the aspects of humanity.

“We can’t eliminate artistic appreciation from humanity, because it’s innate to humanity. Humanity is designed to be distracted from their labors. If they lack that capacity, then they would become sullen. Life would become a monotony, and mankind would just be cogs in a machine. Eventually, they would die out because they would lack any point in continuing.”

Clio smiled slightly, and Eunomia pursed her lips.

“But on the other side of the equation, there is indeed an imbalance forming,” the Thesmophoros said, turning to the muse. “Right now, your artists are becoming too much of a distraction. Humanity needs to learn to balance industry and art. If they can’t do that, eventually they will grow decadaent and die out, too fat and sybaritic to get anything done.”

Clio’s smile faded, even as Eunomia’s scowl softened.

“So. You two are going to need to work this out. The muses — and the art they inspire — is going to need to evolve. To become something that doesn’t just distract from labor and inspire higher thought, but that joins with labor, to give higher reasons to do the things that must be done. It will be hard, and this might fail and take humanity with it, but the alternative is to see the destruction of humanity by one of these two extremes, by the degradation of the body or the degradation of the soul.”

Clio and Eunomia looked at each other.

“Can we have a few minutes to discuss it,” Eunomia asked.

“Of course,” the Thesmophoros said.

The pair moved to the back of the room. “If we go to our guilds and tell them we need to come up with a compromise solution, we’re going to be lynched,” Eunomia said quietly.

Clio scowled. “Tell me about it,” she said. “We muses aren’t used to tempering our inspiration. Telling us we need to start pushing even small amounts of art into promoting industry’s going to go over like a lead balloon.”

“I know.” Eunomia shook her head. “And some of the other daemons can’t stand you muses any more. Telling them that art can inspire industry will be too much for them to bear. I had to stop some of them from going to war against your kind, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” Clio said. She looked to the other side of the room, where the Thesmophoros was sipping tea. “She’s supposed to come up with an answer we can live with.”

“Yeah, well — she put it on us.”

Clio frowned. “Hrm. She said that while aspects of humanity could be created, they couldn’t be destroyed, right?”

“Right. We can’t wipe out you muses and hope it’ll get rid of artistic expression. More muses would just… appear….” a light dawned in Eunomia’s eyes. “Waaaait a second….”

Clio slowly smiled. “That means other aspects of humanity can still be personified by new spirits, right?”

“It has to mean that.”

“In that case….”

“…we can find a new creation in between art and industry — one that could act as a buffer….”

“…keeping everyone employed without eliminating anything.

“That’s brilliant!” they shouted together.

On the other end of the table, the Thesmophoros looked up from her cup. And slowly, she felt the migraine begin to start.

After a few minutes, it had only gotten worse. “You want a new class of daemon,” she said.

“That’s right,” Clio said.

“Spirits of artistic appreciation,” Eunomia said.

“That way, artists can continue creating and muses can continue inspiring–”

“–but other daemons can have human beings build and work without being too distracted–”

“–and everyone is happy!” they both said, grinning.

“Yeah,” the Thesmophoros said. “Happy. Right.” She looked at the pair. “You understand that humanity isn’t a binary creature, right?”

“Huh?” Clio asked.

“Sure they are,” Eunomia said. “Men and women. That’s binary.”

“Well, no. Wait,” Clio said. “That ignores issues of gender disphoria.”

“Oooo — point. Not to mention the feminine and the masculine as they combine within–”

“Shut up,” the Thesmophoros said, softly.

They shut up.

“What I mean is, mankind is an ecosystem. A biome. Their spiritual and physical worlds aren’t simple things. We can’t add to it without having broad implications, no matter how small the add is. If we create a new class of daemon and tie them to some aspect of the human condition, this is going to lead to broader consequences than whether or not a guitarist can distract a construction crew before they finish putting up a building.”

Clio smiled. “Oh, we realize,” she said.

“Heck, we’re counting on it,” Eunomia said.

“After all, the new changes and shifts will require an evolution of society.”

“And that will lead to even better discussions on industry and art, and the roles between them.”

“We have it all worked out.”

“Trust us. So can we do it?”

The Thesmophoros looked at them both. “Yes,” she said quietly. “We can do it.”

And so they put their request up the line, and the gods and loci of the universe set the wheels of creation to spinning, and so was a new class of daemon born.

And these daemons were called the kharites — the graceful spirits of beauty, adornment, mirth, and appreciation, known for their dance, their songs and their festivities. And most of them were eudaemons who saw their role as bringing pleasure to humanity, and only a few were kakodaemons who pushed human beings to indulge in the arts to the exclusion of all their productive lives. And it seemed like everyone was happy.

Well, except the artists. See, before their creations were lauded in all the land, their beauty enough to receive comment from cobbler or king. Now, of course, without a kharite’s intercession or some other means of forcing acknowledgment of their works, people walked past them without noticing. So they kept trying to better themselves, thinking that all they had to do was do it all right and the universal acclaim that had once been theirs would be theirs again.

But everyone else was happy!

Well, except the critics. Because without the universal acceptance and appreciation of art, suddenly the people who devoted their time and energy to discussing the hows and whys of that art found themselves without an audience. What is more — and potentially worse — critics had once been intimately tied to art through the appreciation that was the common state of humanity. As a result, their own criticisms were themselves artistic expression. Now, they were still written, of course, and still a form of art, but now critics did not interact directly with muses but instead were among the strongest disciples of the kharites — drinking deep of appreciation and using and refining it into its own place in the world.

However, there were far fewer kharites in the world than there were muses, which meant that the more the critics monopolized their time, the fewer kharites there were to inspire appreciation among the rest of humanity.

So. Okay. The artists weren’t happy and the critics weren’t happy. Fine. But everyone else was happy, right? So it’s all good, baby!

Well, not so much.

You see, humanity did need to have distraction from their daily labors. Without it, they were just serfs. Slaves to their positions and their productivity. They worked, they came home, they argued with the spouse and kids, they worked around the house, they went to bed, and the next day they did it again. Without down time, without a driving need to do something that wasn’t just dealing with the rest of society’s wants, needs or drivers, they became sullen and unhappy, just as it was warned they would.

Which in a way was ironic, since they were surrounded by art, with more appearing all the time, and they were surrounded by criticism appreciating and analyzing that art, but they were increasingly disconnected from it. It was like dying of thirst while floating on a raft in the ocean.

It couldn’t last, of course. And naturally it didn’t last. You’ll notice we still exist today, so clearly our forefathers didn’t say a collective “fuck it” and die out as a species. Because there was a group that was indeed very happy at the turn of events this little tale tells.

That group… was the kakodaemons.

The kakodaemons — the spirits of malevolence and maliciousness, baseness and selfishness, had been waiting for a chance to gain a sense of ascendency among the spirits and the world. It was hard, because almost everything in the world was a good thing. Seriously. There’s very little in the world that is unreservedly bad. It takes indulgence, excess and meanness to take that which is good and make it evil, and evil itself creates almost nothing new.

However, the kakodaemons recognized the desperate hunger humanity had for distraction away from the soul crushing banality of their lives. And they knew that it would be a long time before there were enough kharites to really give humanity enough of an outlet of appreciation to fill the gap. In fact, it was a specific kakodaemon — a kitsune called Rupert — who discovered the truth that would change everything.

The kitsune are shapeshifters and tricksters. Not all are kakodaemons, of course, but all are wily and clever, and Rupert was mean and shallow — a five-tail, for those who know what that means, so he was also strong and experienced. And one day he managed to engineer the collision of twelve separate carriages in a badly marked intersection between roads, causing great pain and pathos.

And as he hid in the grasses, disguised as a grey fox, and watched the carnage, he noticed something remarkable. He noticed that as other humans passed by — humans unconnected to the tragedy and unable or not in a position to help — they slowed down.

They slowed down to watch.

Just like they once would have slowed down to listen to beautiful music, or look at a beautiful statue.

And Rupert smiled, and crawled away. He crawled into the deep caverns and dark places, the warrens of the Earth, until he found his Master, and he whispered what he had learned to that Master.

And the Master smiled on Rupert, and awarded him a sixth tail, and the Master called any number of the kakodaemons to him — even those kakodaemons who were muses or kharites themselves. And he confirmed what Rupert had found, and together they began to plan, and plot, their ways to subvert all of humanity.

Time passed, as time always does. And if there had been any concern about how humanity was reacting as a whole, it subsided as mankind slowly seemed to adapt. Men and women seemed to find diversions sufficient to their need, which meant that there weren’t mass suicides or too much emo clothes choices.

The artists and the critics were still dissatisfied, of course. It wasn’t that there weren’t truly great works of art — there were, and they were universally approved of by those who noticed. There were shows and concerts and performances and readings, often sold out, and the people at them adored those producing their work, but people who encountered the artwork unexpectedly generally didn’t care about it unless it was specifically called to their attention, and perhaps not even then.

And as for the critics? Well, honestly, was it that big a loss? Yes, the discourse grew insular and the critics began to debate one another more than analyzing the work, all too often, but they still seemed to be having fun. Though it did occur to a group of those critics — critics with kakodaemon kharites whispering in their ears, much of the time — that while they couldn’t necessarily draw the great heaping mass of humanity into the artistic discourse, they could have influence on them by reviewing works of art, barely touching on analysis, but giving people pointers and channel markers on what art was worth their time and what should be avoided. Soon enough, analysis became a very small component of what a “critic” did, and even the word “criticize” stopped meaning “analyzing what and how an artist did” and started meaning “explaining exactly what the artist did wrong and why they should be ashamed of it.”

The muses were, if anything, too busy. It seemed that absent truly unifying artwork, a good percentage of the populace decided to turn their hands to their own artistic pursuits. Now, the thing to remember about muses are they don’t provide talent, or skill. They provide inspiration. They give the budding artist something to try — be it folding paper, sewing, playing the spoons or, of course, composing a ninth symphony that would be eternally remembered and played down through the ages. The execution of that inspiration might be flawed and insipid, but that isn’t really the muse’s department. They just get the ball rolling.

And it seemed that more and more people wanted to roll that ball. So many that the muses found themselves overworked. And one or two were concerned — there was tremendous artistic endeavor, but the schools of art, of thought and of criticism were dividing. Audiences were growing smaller. Interests were growing more specialized.

The eudaemons of industry were happy. Mankind, freed from the all consuming distraction of beauty and the aesthetic, seemed far more easy to keep on task. Things were built. Fields were tilled. Wealth was earned. Marks were made. Though one or two began to be concerned as well. The overall spiritual development of the human race — the time that men and women spent on higher pursuits, on philosophy, on theology, on spirituality, on science — was declining. Oh, professionals would pursue these pursuits. Folks would go to school for science and become scientists, folks would go to school for theology and become priests, folks would go to school for philosophy and become fry cooks and the like. But in the olden days, it looked like all of mankind was slowly ascending — learning about themselves and the world, questioning what they saw, and growing individually and collectively. And now, while they were happy enough to work, to go home, and to blow off steam, the pursuit of the invisible and the ineffable was falling by the wayside.

Chief among those who were concerned, as it turned out, were Clio Briggs and Eunomia Jones.

Oh, the pair had been thrilled to begin with. It all had fallen into place exactly as they had hoped. What had been an automatic had become something to be cultivated. Where humanity had innate artistic appreciation before, now they needed to develop a relationship with an unseen kharite to have it be a distraction now. And all seemed just fine, as a result. When men and women went out to a show — where it was expected there would be appreciation going on — a single kharite could usually take care of most of the audience.

But after a few years, they had realized that more and more people were falling into a funk born of their lack of escape, they began to worry. The warnings of the Thesmophoros were still fresh in their ears.

And then, mankind seemed to pull out of it. They had found their outlets, and the pair relaxed.

It was some decades later that they realized their outlets weren’t quite what they had hoped.

First, it was the gladiator matches, followed quickly by public executions and the epic struggle of Man V. Lions. That went hand in hand with cock fights and bullfighting. Ritualized competition took root too — chariot racing, foot racing, all the olympic sports. And sporting teams and team rivalries began to form a kind of nationalism or tribalism that frankly took the muse and the themisa by surprise. In Constantinople, different groups of racing fans at the Hippodrome — like the Venetii and the Prasinoi, or the Blues and the Greens — became political and religious rivals, often leading to riots and violence throughout the city. In one riot, thirty thousand people died. In Rome, on the other hand, the often gory spectaculars were used to distract the populace from corruption and civic need, and often the crowd got to vote on who lived or died for their amusement.

This was not what Clio and Eunomia had had in mind.

So too were the ‘alternatives’ to the theater, or concert, or reading. Burlesque shows, more regarded for their frank sexuality and display of the ‘breast’ than for any artistic merit began to spread. It seemed that there was as much or more of an audience for the lowest common denominator — those things that required the least rarified thought and good amounts of base thinking.

Then, all seemed to resolve. With the advent of the printing press and distribution of materials, all seemed like it would work out. Now, great works of literature, of thought, of understanding and of beauty could be disseminated throughout the land. Literacy soared. The pair breathed easier….

…until the rise of yellow journalism, sensationalist headlines, and the penny dreadful. What looked like a boon, briefly, threatened to make matters worse.

Then came radio, and with it tremendous hope. Now, music, art, and radio drama were in every home. On Saturdays the Opera could be heard in many if not most kitchens. The great music was played. The great performances were brought forth. It was a glorious time.

And then, more stations began to appear on the radio dial. Audiences were broken up by their interests. What did they want to listen to on the radio. Some of it became shocking and sensual, though often with the same driving creativity that had fueled Beethoven in an earlier era. Then it became crappy. And once again, the lowest common denominator became king.

So too it was with television, and for a while Clio and Eunomia were excited. Now, people were gathering in their living rooms to devour art and culture as a culture. Comedy, drama, music, excitement… it was all there. Why, some estimates put a hundred and twenty five million viewers of the final episode of M*A*S*H.

And then two television networks became three, and then four. Cable channels arose. Superstations. Reruns proliferated. Sports. Violence. Titillation. Dozens and then hundreds of channels, each dividing the audience up more and more and more, with more and more tuning into the least challenging of all fare….

Finally, Eunomia had had enough. She sought out the Thesmophoros in her office.

It was a nice office.

The Thesmophoros glanced up at her desk. “Come in, won’t you?”

“We need to do something,” Eunomia said, stomping in.

“You know,” the Thesmophoros said mildly, as if Eunomia hadn’t spoken at all, “I honestly figured you would come here with your muse cohort when you finally got around to it. I’m surprised it’s just you,”

“What? Oh. Cleo couldn’t get away. She’s staggeringly overworked these days.”

The Thesmophoros snorted. “I’m hardly surprised. Six hundred channels on Satellite television. Netflix. Tivo. The internet, with all those blogs and forums — it’s a banner time for a muse, isn’t it?”

“Not that it does any good, but yes.”

The Thesmophoros arched her eyebrows. “Any good? Why, what do you mean? Are the humans not working? Are they not building houses and profits?”

“Of course they are, in record numbers, but–”

“Then I don’t see why you’re so concerned. That’s what you two were worried about, right? Your constituencies couldn’t see any way to do their jobs with each other, and now everyone has plenty of work. Too much work even. So why complain?”

“There’s more to life than work!” Eunomia shouted. “And there’s more to art than just making it!”

The Thesmophoros smiled, slightly. “Go on?”

She hardly needed to say it. Eunomia was on a tear. “Humanity isn’t growing,” she said. “They’re breeding but it’s like they get stupider all the time! The most incredible art is created and only a few dozen people see it! And way more of them spend their off hours watching the worst crap you can imagine! They watch ‘news’ about Paris Hilton or other celebrity scandals! They listen to outrageous slander on the radio that they accept without question! They’re not learning, they’re not expanding themselves or bettering themselves or considering the great questions of art or the world — they’re wallowing!

The Thesmophoros nodded. “That’s right.”

Why? Why is this happening? When the kharites were created, we were just putting a buffer in between art and humanity — we weren’t trying to push them into this… this….”

“Indulgence?”

Yes!

The Thesmophoros shook her head. “I tried to warn you,” she said. “Humanity, in the material or metaphysical sense, is an ecosystem. You can’t introduce a change in that ecosystem without causing myriad ripples in all directions. You put in a ‘buffer,’ as you called it, between human beings and their appreciation of the artistic, yes?”

“Yes? That was–”

“But you knew that humanity needed diversions from the mundanity of their everyday existence. Absent that escape, they would fall into despair and then destruction. Yes?”

Eunomia looked down. “Yes,” she said, quietly.

“You thought that because of that need, they would seek out the kharites. They would continue to get their needs fulfilled by artistic appreciation, only now it would be measured. Regulated. Controlled. Yes?”

“Yes.” Eunomia was barely whispering, now.

The Thesmophoros snorted. “The arrogance of perspective. Cut off from the affirming and uplifting escape they had been made to enjoy, humanity turned to new escapes. Escapes that the kakodaemons were more than happy to exploit. Because the kakodaemons realized there was something that could fill the void left by the absence of artistic appreciation in their lives, and it was something they could provide in spades.

“…what?”

“Spectacle.” The Thesmophoros leaned forward, elbows on her desk. “Humanity can be distracted by spectacle. The spectacle of violence, of war, of lust. Show them breasts shaking or swords plunging into bodies or animals attacking and they’ll devour it. This doesn’t make them bad people — far from it. This gives them a visceral release of all the pain and stress of the modern world. They can escape from their fears and their drudgery by diving into the banal and the titillating.”

Eunomia shook her head. “That can’t be right,” she said. “They’re not… they’re not as distracted. They still go to work, they still produce–”

“Of course they do,” the Thesmophoros snapped. “It doesn’t take any energy to consume a reality show or a football match. It’s a spectacle. One they can engage in and believe in and experience, but then they leave it behind. When humanity as a whole was geared up for artistic discourse, they didn’t just consume art, they lived it. A truly moving piece turned into hours of discussion, of debate, of sideline efforts. And all the while humanity edged closer to epiphany — to reaching beyond their mortal shells and becoming something grander than they, you or I could imagine!” The Thesmophoros looked away. “But it was easier to put a governor on those activities than it was for you and your muse friend to reconcile the practical and the aesthetic. And now it’s far easier for humanity to get the release it needs from sports, tits and reality television. Don’t come in here and tell me we need to do something. This is the world you made. A world where only the very lucky will happen upon beauty or glory and be moved — most will pass by without noticing or with annoyance at the intrusion.” She shook her head. “And it’s going to get worse.”

“Worse?” Eunomia looked up. “How could it possibly get worse?”

“You mentioned that the muses were overworked? That’s because just like mankind was wired to appreciate art and to be diverted away from the banality of everyday life? They were also wired to reach for something higher, something beautiful in themselves. When artistic appreciation was innate, this came as naturally as breathing — one muse could inspire one talented artist who could then lift up hundreds or thousands of appreciative humans into a collective epiphany. Now, with more and more human beings having less and less connection to their fellows, they have to seek those epiphanies on their own. So they write. They write stories or journal entries or log posts or songs. They learn instruments or try out for plays or design web sites. They search within themselves that which they no longer feel as connected to others in finding.”

“That’s… that’s good, right?”

“It’s good. Except of course that there are only so many muses. Millions of them, but they’re serving billions of humans, and that means their caseloads are getting harder and harder, even as the audiences for that created art get smaller and smaller and more idiosyncratic.” The Thesmophoros leaned back in her chair. “Now, how have the muses dealt with this kind of overwork in the past?”

Eunomia frowned. “They divide. They begat a new generation, exponentially growing their numbers.”

“That’s right. They started with one who became three, and then nine, and then eighty one, and so on. Yes?”

“Yes. So… this time….”

“Right now there are millions of muses. When they divide next, each muse will begat millions of new muses. Millions, Eunomia. Despite the billions of human beings on the planet, there will suddenly be thousands of muses for every. Single. Human.”

Eunomia’s eyes grew wide. “But….”

“But nothing. Suddenly, each and every human being on the planet will be subject to thousands of conflicting inspirations. He will be overwhelmed with a passionate need to create these images that overwhelms him. He will stop planting fields or harvesting food. He will stop building buildings or maintaining power grids. Industry will stop. Agriculture will stop. Education will stop. Research will stop. All human endeavor will stop. All except art.”

The Thesmophoros shrugged. “And within a few weeks, or months, or a year at the most, humanity will be gone. They will starve to death, or develop disease from lack of exercise or hygiene, or their hearts will explode from lack of sleep, or any number of other causes that boil down to ‘they will stop trying to survive.’ All that will be left is a decaying infrastructure… and an incredible body of artistic work that no one would ever look at. In fact, each work in that final orgy of creation will be composed for an audience of one — the artist himself. No one else will have time to see anyone else’s work. They’ll have work of their own to do. And someday, some alien species will come upon our world, and see what was left behind, and they will say ‘this was the greatest of all races in the universe, for they became so consumed with the quest for the aesthetic and the beautiful and the affirming that they gave up all other endeavor, content to die as a race for their art.’”

Eunomia shivered. “How… how do we stop it? Do we… I know! We create some other spirit to moderate humanity’s need for spectacle–”

The Thesmophoros gave Eunomia a look.

“…no. No, that would end up making things worse, wouldn’t it. All right. We need to get rid of the kharites. Give them back direct artistic appreciation.”

The Thesmophoros snorted. “You can’t. I can’t. No one can. I told you. You cannot uncreate what is created. This is a part of the human condition now. If you killed all the kharites tomorrow, they would reemerge soon enough, and in the meantime humanity would lose all capacity to appreciate art, triggering the death of all things all the faster. Maybe that’s what the kakodaemons have in mind.”

Eunomia frowned. “Then… then we need more kharites. How do they procreate? Is it like muses? Do they grow exponentially?”

“No.” And the Thesmophoros smiled. “No, the kharites are spawned by need. The more that humanity seeks out art of its own accord, is educated in the ways of art, learns to appreciate it, and is drawn to it, the more kharites will be born.”

“Then if we can get humanity to seek out art in high enough numbers… we can stave off disaster. We can get them once again appreciating art as a race, and therefore reduce the strain on the existing muses before they have to divide again!”

“Of course. If it’s possible. But the kakodaemons have done a damnably good job of giving them the kinds of diversion they like. How do you compete with that.”

Eunomia frowned. “Funding. Getting the word out. Advertising. Using the same infrastructure that provides bread and circuses to provide both art and the tools to enjoy it. You can’t tell me it can’t be done. We could reach a point where every human being on the planet had their own dedicated kharite.”

The Thesmophoros nodded. “It would work. Do you think you can convince the other eudaemons? Obviously the kakodaemons will have no reason to go along with this plan.”

“I… don’t know.” Eunomia looked away. “Some of them remember the bad times all too well. Some still don’t like the muses and think what art there is now is just a waste of time. But we don’t have a choice. If we’re going to save the world….”

“We have to enlighten it. I know.”

And they set to work. And as we have not yet hit the artistic armageddon, one can only imagine they’ve done some good. But in the end, it is not the eudaemons or any daemons who will cultivate relationships between humans and kharites. It is humanity itself.

It is you. And it is me. And it is those we speak to.

It’s not hard to develop a relationship with a kharite. There is ample art all around us to enjoy, to explore, and to grow with. The internet is full of it, most of it free for the appreciating. The television is full of it, though you have to turn away from the sheerly escapist and seek out denser fare.

Which doesn’t mean you need to watch nothing but Shakespeare and listen to nothing but Opera. There is plenty of rock out there that will challenge and enlighten. Plenty of jazz that will awaken and inspire. Plenty of rap that will excite and outrage. There is Art to be found in creation, if you step away from the prepackaged, the familiar and the distilled and find it.

Naturally, the more you support art, in your own way and in your own community, the more attention is drawn to it. This can be through lobbying or fundraising or just in helping advertise the local high school’s christmas concert. Art is where we find it, and beauty can be found just about anywhere.

And, through it all, there is one shining beacon of hope. All the way back at the beginning of what has turned out to be a long tale, there was that story of Joshua Bell, sawing away at one of the finest fiddles ever made, drawing little attention.

But the children who heard him play all turned to look, eyes wide, and pulled to stay, even as their parents shepharded them along.

Children hear the words of the kharites more clearly than adults do. It’s a simple relationship. And if you catch them early — teaching them both art and art appreciation then — you can develop a cadre of artists and critics and most of all aficionados of art for life. And as they develop their own artistic style, they drag their parents, and grandparents, extended families and friends of their extended families out. They go to be supportive of Bob’s kids, but when they’re all there in the auditorium, the kharites have a crack at them. They don’t get everyone, but they get some.

And in that, there is hope. For at least another year or two.

Assuming , of course, they’re actually taught art and art appreciation. After all, these things cost money, and there’s lots of other things to spend it on. Right? Both in the schools and out of the schools. You need to tighten your belt these days. A lot of this stuff’s luxuries, not necessities.

I mean, Hell. It’s not the end of the world.

Right?

Series Navigation<< Why does Starbucks Coffee… um… maybe you should just read it.Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp >>
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  • http://moeticae.typepad.com/weblog_licentiae_moeticae/ Moe Lane

    Huh. And here I was figuring that the whole purpose of having Joshua Bell play at L’Enfant Plaza was to give Stacy Furukawa a good day that she almost certainly rather badly needed. :)

  • http://moeticae.typepad.com/weblog_licentiae_moeticae/ Moe Lane

    And, oh yeah: good story. As usual.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    You’re thinking in terms of Destiny again. ;)

  • http://moeticae.typepad.com/weblog_licentiae_moeticae/ Moe Lane

    Snort! Got it in one*. :)

    OTOH, I liked the idea that it was Ms. Furukawa’s world, and I was just living in it: she seemed nice.

    Moe

    *Along those lines, some of your readers may find this video of interest.

  • MasonK

    I don’t know art, but I know what I like.

    I like this!

  • http://www.starharbornights.com Alexandra Erin

    I don’t know. I like the ideas behind these mythological ramblings, but I think they’d be better served by being a bit… I don’t want to say shorter. Punchier? No, shorter.

    Brevity [being] wit, and all that.

    I mean, I know there’s a certain amount of pretentitiousness inherent in the very idea… and that people who appreciate a certain amount of pretentitiousness generally aren’t averse to buying words by the pound when spending the coin of their attention… but both this and the tale of Starbuck seemed a bit long to me, and I’m somebody who generally favors a seven course meal over a snack. There was just so much more power in your Franklin vignette than in these, IMALTHO.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    A vignette will be shorter than a short story, pretty much every time, but your point is made. ;)

    One thing that’s happening, of course, is the development of a cosmology and framework. We’ve introduced the concept of the myth creation and its justification, we’ve introduced the use of the “why is” format as the basic hook for the stories, and in this one we’ve introduced the concepts of the kakodaemons and the eudaemons as the malevolent and benevolent spirits, for example. (As well as alluded to the Loci, being something rather different and related, as it will be shown later on, to just what Fiona the Queen of the Baristas was.)

    The more framework that’s established, the shorter the stories can be.

    Except, of course, that these are also somewhat in the style of some of my old Superguy writing, and therefore are apt to be chock full of digressions too. Hrm. It’s worth some thought, regardless.

    *pause*

    Man, a lot of us are up late.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    Hrm. I’m also now really curious what you think of this week’s storytelling story. It’s… er… long. But it’s very much not digressive.

  • http://moeticae.typepad.com/weblog_licentiae_moeticae/ Moe Lane

    I have a baby. I don’t know what everybody else’s excuse is. :)

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    That’s our excuse too. “Why are we up so late?” “Moe had a baby.”

  • http://moeticae.typepad.com/weblog_licentiae_moeticae/ Moe Lane

    Well, it’s a very good excuse. Works on everything, everywhere, everywhen.

  • Cypriss

    One of very few writers who can move me with such simple stories. Thanks for another inspiring piece Eric.

  • http://www.starharbornights.com Alexandra Erin

    Well, I know that a vignette will, of a necessity, be shorter than a… uh… vign. :P I’m just saying, it wasn’t just shorter, but more effective… and I couldn’t say that the length is the reason for certain, but I can say that it would have lost some of its effectiveness if weighed down by a lot of side points. Of course, you can (or should be able to) expect the audience to have a certain familiarity with Benjamin Franklin, the war for independence, etc., which makes that kind of thing easier. In all fairness, maybe somebody less steeped in the world of muses and daemons wouldn’t have felt as much like they were wading through this story as I did.

    I don’t want to sound like I don’t enjoy these stories… I did, but I know you’ll get plenty of other people telling you that they did, so I might as well talk about what the sticking point for me is.

    I also certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that a short story can’t be as rambly as this was and still be effective. Considering that this is supposed to be mythology, and is written in a fairly informal style, I’d say a certain amount of ramblosity (I didn’t want to say “rambliness”, because of course, that’s not even a word) could actually add to its charm, if it’s made a part of its charm.

    So, rather than trying to trim the branches off the tree, I’d say just make sure the branches are green and leafy… one reason I think the tale of Starbuck worked a little more for me than this one was that the writing seemed steeped a bit more in the style of the folk tale, the methods of the oral tradition. The more of a folksy, Alan-a-Dale-the-Rooster-type bent you can give to a myth-making story… the more the audience will not just forgive multiple digressions, but actually expect them. I know you’re a literary type, but the oral tradition is the native home of the myth, and where it’s most comfortable.

    And, I’ve got quite a bit rambly here myself… but it’s 7:30 in the morning on a Monday and Monday’s the one day where I don’t normally have to get up before… Tuesday. So, I’ll try to sum everything up concisely:

    Give us really good oral, and you can go as long as you want. :P

  • Michael Weaver

    I liked this little myth (though “little” might be the wrong word). It’s definitely set up a cosmology for itself, and one with classical inspiration. I especially liked the Law Bringer character and the office scenes.

    I have to admit, though, this was a bit long. I can’t pinpoint the places it seemed to drag, but it just felt too slow in spots. I still got through it in good time.

    I also have a problem with the fox daemon, but it’s tiny. The five/six tails thing; I know where it came from, and it makes sense, but it just doesn’t feel right. For the same reason that people in feudal Japan shouldn’t have red hair. I liked the role Rupert played in the drama, what with the discovery of spectacle (with a literal train wreck!) so this is probably just a nitpick anyway.

    I’ll be back; I still want to see where this thread goes.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    I’ll confess, I just wanted the Spectacle secret to be discovered by a fox named Rupert. ;)

  • Michael Weaver

    … It should not have taken me that long to catch that. :P

  • hirkeukvic

    I must say, I like the idea of expressing opinion in the form of short story, but I have to agree that this one was too long. I hate to criticize other writers–I don’t want to be pretentious–but the interconversational regions do drag a bit. I can understand rambly dialog, as conversation does tend to take time, and I can understand that you want to develop your eudaemon/kakodaemon character sets, but … hmm … nope, I’d sound stupid if I suggested solutions, so I’ll shut up.

    On the other hand, I like the way you played out the dialog, especially in the way that you follow the problem-solving process the characters work through. Keep writing, sir. I’ll be listening.

  • http://websnark.com Eric A. Burns

    Needless to say, I’ll try to be more conscious of length and digression on the next one. Though some of the asides and digressions are part of the point, the question is deciding between necessity and indulgence in them. ;)

    (Insert family guy/manatee reference here.)

  • Thomas Blight

    A scaly, green figure sits comfortably in the armchair across the table. He sips espresso out of a mug, savouring the taste and aroma, cradling the mug gently, lightly caressing the china with his claws. It is the Snarkasaurus, and he smiles at you innocently, but with a look in his eyes that betrays wisdom and knowledge beyond his years. He begins to speak.

    “Have you ever wondered why things are this way?” he asks, calmly and with an intimate tone. He knows your response already, and before you speak, he continues.

    “Well, let me tell you…” he says, and his tale begins.

  • http://forsythferret.livejournal.com Nate

    If the ethereal world is such a bureaucracy, the obvious answer is to reclassify spectacle as art. :)

  • Centurion13

    I sometimes shake my head when I read things like this. C.S. Lewis addressed these matters a long time ago, and he was right, on that as on many other subjects. I simply sit back, slack-jawed with amazement as I watch yet another good man reach for….

    ….for…

    ….For *something*. He knows not what, but he definitely know it is there and no one, NO ONE, is going to deny him.

    No one.

    The Need is there, and it is not a quirk. If hunger for a thing exists, than the thing hungered for must exists.

    The best of them, such as Mr. Burns, recognize this need, know it is *not* just a matter of ‘personal taste’ and have the words to describe it without actually putting the Name to it. I find this story refreshing. It inspires me to continue my own writing, though Mr. Burns might not understand why.

    Your ‘mythology’ may be closer to reality than you think, Eric. History has too many who agree with what you have written here for it to be otherwise.

    Regards,

    Cent13

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