Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Art History

Nicole thought she knew security systems, but the Louvre had nothing on this twentieth level sub-basement. The six men around the conference table looked as serious and deadly as the unnamed agent who had whisked her from her office at the Smithsonian this morning. (Was it only this morning?) Now they leaned forward, as if the fate of the world hung on what she had to say. She wondered if she looked as nervous as she felt.

"The fine arts--particularly painting--have had a tremendous impact on human culture over the centuries--" She didn't even make it to the end of the first sentence of her scribbled script.

"Skip the intro, Dr. Maven." The man she only knew as "The Colonel" cut her short. "You may not recognize the men around this table--I certainly hope you don't--but the CIA has made sure that each one knows more about human culture than the average university faculty. We've invited you here to talk about the impact of just one artist--the one you've built your career around."

"Invited?" Nicole didn't respond well to rudeness, arrogance, or pressure, and this secret room was overflowing with all three. "I don't remember being asked to come here. In fact, I was supposed to give a lecture this afternoon and I have no idea if anyone filled in for me."

"Your talk on 'The Sound and Fury of Canvas" was replaced by Dr. Ian Berkeley's more general "Mid-Twentieth Century Volk Art." 

"Well, that's a relief."

"You may not trust us in any ultimate sense, but I think you can rely on our staff here at Langley to pull off a simple reprioritization of personnel resources. We need you here--and so, although they don't know it, do the tourists at the Smithsonian who missed your lecture this afternoon.

"I'm flattered, of course, but I can't imagine the government's sudden interest in art. Has somebody stolen a famous painting or something? Don't tell me they've done something to "Struggle for the Soul of the Nation!"

"No, it's on display in Munich--twenty-four hours a day. The viewing line stretches for blocks away from the Alte Pinakothek. We need you to tell us why ordinary Germans who work all day are willing to stay awake all night to view one picture."

A heavyset man leaned forward. His dark glasses seemed silly in the darkened room, but he seemed anything but. "Is it something special about Germans? Is that why they keep coming back?"

Nicole drew up short. The question was outrageously incorrect! "Oh, I doubt that..." Her sentence trailed off weakly. "I've honestly never considered the possibility."

"Really? You've studied this man's art and never explored it's relation to his culture?"

"He's actually Austrian, you know."

The heavy man waved her technicality away with the contempt it deserved. "His art is German, and his audience is German--and those who want to be."

"Those who want to be?"

The man in charge frowned. "Dr. Maven, you're the first female expert we've had to invite before the panel. The men we've had down here seemed to instantly understand why the CIA is interested in art. Are you really this naive, or are you just being coy?"

Nicole Maven pulled herself up to her full height of five feet, two inches, and tried to look intimidating. "I don't have to put up with this sexism!"

"Doctor, that door is locked. There are four armed guards outside it. You're twenty floors below the most secure building in America, and we're here to defuse a cultural crisis that threatens civilization as we know it. So, at the risk of being blunt, you do have to put up with this sexism or anything else we may need to save this planet."

"That's absurd!"

"No, it isn't. I'll tell you what's absurd. There's a man with a brush whose pictures have inflamed Europe, South America, and the Pacific Rim. There are riots when his paintings are put up, and more riots when they are taken down. It's unprecedented, uncontrolled, and it's growing every day. We're here to stop it."

Dr. Maven bent her head. "I don't disagree with your description, but you can't be serious."

"I assure you, we're completely in earnest."

She laughed. "But how? You can't stop art! Censor it--especially his art--and it will only grow faster. It's not like he's painting the Mona Lisa, you know--his work is all about symbols. The cheap copies you see on T-shirts are more effective than his originals!"

"This is the CIA, Doctor. We aren't limited to burning paintings."

"Oh!" She paled. "But that wouldn't work! Assassination won't stop his work. Art feeds on martyrdom--you'd only make him ten times more popular!"

"Perfectly correct, Dr. Maven. We have no interest in hurting anybody--or any no need to."

"But how can you stop the man, or his art, without hurting him?"

The man in charge looked around the room. "I'll answer that question, and anything else you want to know if you can tell me that, in your expert opinion, this man is a genuine threat to western civilization."

The heavy-set man banged his fist on the table. "Tell her?" He looked at the others in disbelief. "You can't do that!"

The Colonel stared him down. "Yes, I can--for reasons that you should be able to figure out for yourself with a minimum of effort." He turned back to Nicole. "Is he a threat?"

"Not so fast!" she gasped. "Are you going to kill me after you tell me everything?"

"No." It was the heavy-set man who answered, with a look of grudging admiration for the Colonel. "No, he's telling the truth. We won't do anything to you. You'll be perfectly free to go and nobody will interfere with you once you leave."

She looked around the room. The others mostly wore puzzled looks, but one by one they figured out the mystery and nodded. "You'll be perfectly safe," they agreed.

"But if he's not a threat--"

"Then say so, and nothing happens. You leave and we go on to other matters."

She hesitated. The room was silent, all eyes on her. It seemed she had felt this way before--oh, yes, at the top of ski jump at Kitzbuhl. She hoped this went better than that had! 

"In my opinion," she began, "this painter's popularity is unprecedented, and therefore his impact is unpredictable. We know how writers change the world--The Sorrows of Young Werther  produced a rash of teenaged suicides, and the Communist Manifesto sparked the Russian Revolution. But a picture is worth a thousand words--in theory, this man could have a thousand times the impact of Karl Marx."

"He is a threat, then?"

She trembled a little. "Undoubtedly."

The room was silent again. She waited, unwilling to demand her "pay" for her opinion. The Colonel finally began to speak. "Dr. Maven, the CIA has acquired a cutting-edge technology that enables us to fix this problem." He ground to a stop, clearly uncomfortable with what came next. She nodded, urging him on. "To use an extremely oversimplified but not completely inaccurate term, we've got time travel."

She stared, stared more, and then laughed. "Time travel!"

"Our technical team refuses to call it that, but it's close enough for government work." 

The first shock had passed and she was ready to argue. "Time travel? But isn't that impossible? What about all those paradoxes where you marry your grandmother or kill off the first human ancestor?"

"Did I mention that the term is extremely oversimplified? No, it's not impossible, just extremely difficult. And, yes, the paradoxes are a problem, which is why we don't just zip back in time to warn Archduke Ferdinand that he's going to be assassinated in Serbia. Basically, any change we make in time will eliminate this timeline and replace it with another--so once we make the change, this conversation will have never happened."

"It won't?"

"It won't--which is why we can tell you everything now. You see, Dr. Maven, in a few minutes, your life is going to be different. I assume you'll still have a doctorate in art history--maybe on Pablo Picasso, or Jackson Pollack, or Normal Rockwell--but you won't be the world's top expert on Adolf Hitler anymore. Nobody will!