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A life of idleness was never enough for me. While my cousins and brothers, all princes, were still playing and lounging, I had already engaged my mind and body in different crafts. Out of all of these, only three interested me, and I excelled in those: sportsmanship, artistry, and sailing. These I excelled in so much that no-one in the kingdom could rival me.
Then it happened that I had to reconcile my life of adventure with the duties of ruling the kingdom and so, I had only the time in my life for one of these crafts. If I were to give up my art, the critics would wail, if I were to give up sports, not one of the Pythian Games would run with such energy as it did when I was young, and if I were to give up my helmsmanship, the revenue from the trading would dwindle to a low. I could not make the horrible decision myself.
Now the Queen-Mother, the great monarch of my kingdom, knew of a wise man who could advise me on what profession would be best for both me and the state. So I left the kingdom that day to meet him in the mountains surrounding the palace. When I came there, his villa was quite humble. It was surrounded by a chicken-wire fence, and inside, it was little more than a hut. The man was already there awaiting me on the ground, and as he gestured for me to sit on the stool, he began to speak.
“Son, I have heard of you from afar, and from the kingdom, and mostly from your glorious Queen-Mother. You have three professions now: an artist, an sportsmans, and a sailor. And you are prolific in each: but you want to know which one is greatest.”
“Now tell me, son, the answer to this question: what do you do as a sailor? And as a sportsman? And as an artist?”
“As a sailor, I bring goods to foreign kingdoms. As a sportsman I throw the discus, and I wrestle, and I run footraces, and I hunt the beasts. And as an artist, I work in the workshop of Mr. Exes, who helps me find clients to sell my paintings too.”
“Son, tell me, why would one be a sailor? Or a sportsman? Or an artist?”
“Being a sailor brings a great deal of gold from the kings–and as the goods are cheap, I get most of the profit. As a sportsman, I get great glory–I have recognition from the lords of the provinces and from my peers, and already I have a great many admirers. As for the artist, there is little benefit, except that I love that craft greatly.”
“Son, let me tell you this: a king gives a sailor the money so long as there are goods. If there are no goods, the king will hate you and cast you out.”
“I will still have the money.”
“And what good will it be? You will use your own money to buy goods, but now the grocer will hate you too. You may give it to your family: but a father dies, your children leave you, finally, you are alone in the darkness, the gold gives off no light.”
“Too true: then what about a sportsman?”
“Your friends will only love you so long as you are young and your discus still light enough for your arm. Once you grow old, one by one they will leave and attach themselves to the next young man. And what trace will remain of you? Your trophies will be melted down to make ones for whoever can win the games you once won.”
“But still: I will still remember those trophies.”
“After no-one else shares your glory, it will be in your mind alone–if you talk to another man of it, he will think you are crazy! It just as well will not be real!”
“Now I am left with the artist–but you have said nothing to justify that profession.”
“My son, we still see the cave paintings of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc, don’t we? And many millennia have passed since them. Do we admire the tallies of Roman gladiators? My son, your art will live on forever and forever, and your name will stay with it. No era of history has managed without artists, even the earliest, yet every one has been short of them—in a thousand years, if you do not choose the profession of an artist, history will be crying out for another artist to emerge from the times we live in now!”
“But sir, won’t they too admire me only for my talent, just like they would in sportsmanship or sailing?”
“No, son… I am not talking about beauty in art, nor of talent in art. You need neither. If you could make art with your bare hands, instead of with your imperfect brush strokes, it would indeed be great! But alas, we are forced to fall back on technique. However, discus-throwing and all that…that is like taking the art out of art, and leaving only the technique. Do we admire an artist for his skill more, or for his ability to affect and change us? If a painter can paint a thousand strokes in a second, he is no greater than the artist who can change the mind of a leader with a single glance. Remember this, my son: beauty is your worst enemy, it always is a reflection of our barbaric wants, and the artist wishes to surpass that. Do not make that art that is beautiful, but rather, art that is great!”
I was by now very convinced by his words, and went back to my own kingdom to inform the Queen-Mother. I began my work at once, surrounded by the finests of painters and artists that had been put at my disposal. I dipped my brush in the quality paint and scratched it along the canvas. What a fine shade it was… it gleamed in the light like gold! Suddenly I remember the words the wise man had said about beauty, and I felt almost repulsed by the gleam. I hastily blended it with another, duller, more ugly color, but Why? Why did the canvas become an even more splendid shade that impulsed the eye towards it! No-one could be haunted by this, or even think about it, they would merely admire it. I tore the canvas into shards and told my artists to start over. After that, my work went downhill, nothing came out right, sometimes I had done a mere spot and it disgusted me so much to the point of vomiting.
Finally I told them that I wanted to leave. Disguised as a vagabond, I went to the liquor store and bought the cheapest, coarsest type of spray-paint imaginable, without a person inside suspecting my true identity. I spent all day with the working class. I painted on walls, and ruined many of them. In all of them, I saw the same face looming out. After three tries, I realized this face was the face of the Queen-Mother–why could I just not find anything original! Had the wise man purged me of my creativity? I went back home, and taking leave of my fellow artists, I rushed into the hands of the Queen-Mother, tears streaming out of my eyes.
“Mother!” I sobbed out. “He said art cannot have beauty, but I all have seen is beauty all my life! What can I do? Is it true? Can I never make art?”
She consoled me most ardently, but only I could change my art…no-one could aid me in that! Not even the wise man now was of any help. I was alone in my studio…slowly I ousted each of my advisors until I was in solitude. Would it come? Would the flash of genius come? I preferred to just sit and await it. The next day, the Queen-Mother came in, and told me a very moving story. A man is forced to marry by his father, only to find that his lover is actually his sister. They still marry, but the inbred child dies and kills the mother in labor. I wonder: How is she able to make a passionate tale, just at her fingertips? That must be true art.
I spent all the next day thinking over this tale. Why was it so great? Why did it affect me so? Suddenly, death seemed like the foundation of art. I could not think of a great piece of art without thinking about death. I tried to paint a man dying. I began to wonder–what must death feel like? What do you see as you’re dying? I tried to imagine, I tried to reason what you must see and feel, but I couldn’t do it, not without experiencing it myself.
That night I stayed up until midnight. When the entire palace was sleeping, I bribed the guards two gold coins not to tell anyone where I was. I went into the weapons-locker. There was a guard there too, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I wasn’t going to kill myself, because I knew the Queen-Mother would resurrect me. He let me in. There, I took the Queen-Mother’s golden blade, and with barely a thought, I stabbed through my chest, in a great show of living art.
The next day, the Queen-Mother went into the weapons locker, and saw the great work I had made. The blood formed a halo about my head. My hair lay disheveled over my forehead, and much of it was stained. The golden blade still stood upright in my chest, and my eyes were wide-open, confronting the viewer. My mother, weeping, pulled the blade out of my chest, blew into my mouth, felt my heartbeat, and seeing me dead, tenderly kissed the blade.
“I read your note,” she murmured. “I know. I know it is necessary. You had to suffer… but not like this…”
Then kneeling, she covered my robes and my forehead with her kisses. After that, pale, she stood, and asked for all to leave. Once all had left, though her face and clothes were bloodstained, she suddenly smiled, her grey lips pressed together tightly.
“My son… you can still live… believe me… you can still live… an artist is always alive in the soul… but only true artists are.”
She took the sword in both hands, tightly gripped.
“If you fail this, then I will die, beside my son.”
Then she put the sword to her own forehead, and drew it in so blood ran down her face into her eyes. As it ran over her cheeks, it fell, in a widening spot onto the blade of her sword.
“My son… may you live… live as an artist, my son!”
After standing there, shock-still, for a moment, she plunged the blade into the wall, so the weapons clashed together horribly, and the entire palace shook. Exhausted by the effort, the sword fell, but she caught it in midair, and collapsed to the ground, pointing the sharp end to herself.
The wait was long and painful. Would it work? Would it fail? Her breathing became heavy, and she suddenly had a wish to scream.
After a long painful, suddenly, a white, translucent ghost appeared out of the wall, dressed in the prince’s robes, and with his long wild hair, and his same face. The Queen-Mother, relieved, put down the weapon, and stood, the blood rushing back to her face. The ghost hovered, its lips upturned, above the figure of his mother. She had to stop herself from rushing into its arms.
“Son,” she whispered, falling to her knees. “Your artwork was great—because it changed me.”