“What do you think he’ll do?” I asked.
“Shhhh,” Paul hushed me, and we sat back on the steps to watch and wait, trying not to look like we were watching.
The last time I’d gone out with Paul and his paints, it had been a time of good-natured hilarity. He had painted a 20-dollar bill on the ground, so life-like, that we watched person after person bend down and try to pick it up. Many even tried several times before believing it was just the cement of the sidewalk. Paul had the talent. I was just the idea man. It was a good thing we both shared the same sense of humor.
We had done similar things with pictures of dog poop, open man-hole covers, and even a monster’s hand reaching out from a sewer grate. But those were all directed at random passers-by. Today we were targeting Neil, a friend of ours from school, just as congratulations for getting his first job at a news stand in the neighborhood.
I had distracted him and blocked his view as Paul had painted one of the recent magazines Neil was selling. He placed the optical illusion so it looked like it was about to slip down a drain pipe. We were hoping it would make Neil sweat a bit, and now we were waiting for him to notice. But he wouldn’t look up from the car magazine he was reading whenever he didn’t have a customer. His focus always leaned toward motor vehicles.
“We should have done a car magazine. He would have noticed it by now,” Paul whispered.
“He would have caught me swiping it for you to copy,” I responded.
Then, as if something supernatural had pulled at our eyes, we both looked at two people approaching on the sidewalk. The woman, in a sleek green dress that matched her flowing red hair, led her companion with purposeful steps. He wore a classic business suit and had his face glued to his phone. The pair passed us, but as they reached Paul’s sidewalk painting, the woman stopped and looked down. She quickly bent down and picked it up. Not the paint that Paul had put there. Not even a sheet of paper that could have gotten stuck to the paint. She lifted a full, multi-page magazine off the cement and started to flip through it. Paul and I looked at the ground where his painting had been. Nothing but grey sidewalk remained.
“Pay the man, will you, Jeffery?” the woman asked as she continued down the sidewalk.
My eyes met Paul’s for a moment of silent conversation before we scrambled to our feet and chased after the woman.
“Hey!” I called to her. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
She turned around with a raised eyebrow. “Yes?”
I fumbled for words as we caught up to her and stopped. “I…um. Can I see that magazine?”
She looked back toward the stand. “My assistant was just paying for it. I didn’t steal it.”
“No,” I started, unsure of how to explain, “I just want to hold it for a second.”
With a slight hesitation, she handed it to me. As I examined the cover, I couldn’t notice any difference between it and the one Paul had painted. But again, that was the whole point.
“No, I’m sorry,” came the voice of the assistant as he caught up to us. “Please don’t bother Miss Valiere. She doesn’t have time for the likes of you.”
But neither myself, nor Paul were paying the least bit of attention to him. I was flipping through page after page of the magazine, gaping at the words and images printed on them.
“But I just painted that,” Paul marveled.
“I know,” I said.
“Would you please give back Miss Valiere’s magazine?” Jeffery said as he tried to snatch it out of my hand.
But the woman’s hand stopped him with her delicate but quite strong fingers. “What did you say, young man?” her voice was husky and coarse.
Paul looked at me, and I just shrugged.
“Madam, don’t let yourself be accosted by these hooligans.”
“I painted that,” Paul said, pointing to the magazine.
Both the woman and her assistant glanced at one another, then burst into laughter.
“You don’t even know who you are talking to, do you?” said Jeffery.
Then the name he had said, Valiere, clicked and I looked down at the cover of the magazine, which depicted an oil on canvas painting of an emerald-green island alone in the ocean. Below that, large letters read, “The New Masterpiece of Deborah Valiere.” And I understood their laughter at Paul’s statement.
“Not the painting,” I clarified. “The magazine. He painted this magazine on the concrete, then you picked it up as a whole magazine.”
Again, the older pair looked at one another and laughed.
“Come, Miss Valiere, we need to get to your next appointment.” Again, he tried to grab the magazine, but I pulled it away.
“It isn’t a joke,” I protested.
“We don’t have time for your tomfoolery,” Jeffery scowled and made another grab, which again was stopped by his boss.
“If they are so insistent, let them prove it,” she suggested with a smug grin.
Paul stared at her, wide-eyed. Perhaps he was a little start-struck still. I didn’t know who this woman was, but he might have heard of her. “What?”
“Do it again.” She nodded toward him. “Paint something so real that it becomes real.”
“I…I don’t know how I did it,” he stammered.
“Humor me,” she encouraged, not unkindly. “Just give it a try.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Um…okay.” And he turned around to go back to where we had been waiting to prank Neil. Paul picked up his paints and knelt on the ground next to the nearby building where I lived. We gathered around him, but he had frozen, unable to begin a single stroke.
“Just do whatever comes to mind,” I prodded. “If it doesn’t work, oh well, we hallucinated for some reason. No biggie.”
“Right,” he agreed, grabbing the blue paint.
And he was off. I’d seen him get into the zone before as he worked, and there was no stopping him. He would keep painting, drawing, or sculpting until he was satisfied. Soon enough it became apparent that the blue was the oceanic backdrop for an island that was taking shape.
Jeffery scoffed. “This is just an insult, Madam. Let’s just move alo– “
“Shush,” she cut him off, and we continued to watch Paul create.
Browns, greens, reds, and more gave shape and texture to the island, and bit by bit, I felt like I was looking down on it from a helicopter flying overhead.
Paul finished by topping the island in an active volcano, lava bubbling in the pit. He sighed and leaned back.
“You have talent, child, I’ll give you that much. You might even have a future in…” She trailed off as she peered at the painting closer.
Then we all noticed what she had. The lava was actually bubbling and beginning to run down the side of the island. Even a faint breeze could be detected rustling the leaves of the trees.
We all leaned a bit closer. “What in the world is that?” Jeffery gasped.
Miss Valiere knelt down next to Paul. “This is amazing.” She leaned over and reached out her hands to touch the painting that was no longer a painting. As her weight shifted further and further forward, something didn’t seem right to me. And then I saw it. She shouldn’t be leaning that far. Just as her weight began to tip, her arms deep into the ground that was now an open sky, I grabbed her belt and yanked her back. She fell into the arms of her assistant and me.
She looked at the rest of us with a look of unbelief that we all mirrored. “I could smell it. I smelled the ocean.”
All four of us looked between one another and the picture on the ground for a moment, unsure of what to do or say.
Eventually, I chimed in. “Can you paint over it?”
They all looked at me as if I was crazy. “Why would you–” Jeffery began.
“She almost died,” I interrupted. “I’d rather not have some random person walk by then fall hundreds of feet to their death in an unknown ocean.”
Paul nodded and got out a grey that matched the cement. Lucky for us, the paint didn’t fall through the painting like Miss Valiere had. He quickly had it looking like a normal sidewalk again.
“You must come to my studio,” the woman told us as Paul finished. “And bring your things. We must find out what the cause is of all this. Is it you? Is it some special paint? Or could it even be this sidewalk? Whatever you have discovered will change the world, and we need to understand it.” She held out her hand to Paul. “Will you come?”
He looked to me, utter confusion apparent in his eyes. “You too?”
“I got your back, buddy,” I assured him.
He turned back to the professional artist and her assistant. “Let’s do it.”
As we set off down the road, unsure of where it would lead, I heard Neil call out behind us. “I’ll catch you guys later.” But my mind couldn’t come up with any kind of response that seemed appropriate for the circumstances.
I waved goodbye.
There isn’t all that much to say about this dream in regard to social, economic, or political trends of today. But I do think there is a little to say about the concept of blurring the lines between art and reality. In my dream, it was a very literal thing where art was becoming reality. However, I think that there is a lot art that can have an equally impactful effect on reality as Paul’s paintings did.
There are a lot of people who might argue between the concepts of art imitating life or life imitating art. However, I think most people would agree that the truth is that it is a mix between the two. If that is true, that life imitates art and art imitates life, a cycle of imitation is created that seems to have no beginning or end. In conjunction with the events of my dream, I would like to focus on the half of the cycle where life imitates the art we see.
One of the largest and most impactful art forms of today, I would say, is film, whether it comes in movies, television, or even on the internet. While there is a lot of wonderful and uplifting content that people can enjoy, it seems like most of the world, and Hollywood, likes to focus on shows filled with various degrees of graphic violence, gratuitous sexual content, and foul language. And much of the time it glorifies this kind of behavior whether directly through the hero or indirectly by making it seem even normal.
Now, I’m not ignorant. I know that the world is truly filled with all of these things, and that sometimes they are even required. Violence might be needed for self-protection. Sex is needed for people to procreate and even express love. Personally, I don’t think foul language is ever needed because there are many more entertaining and intelligent ways to get one’s point across. But while these things happen in the world, they aren’t things that need to be blatantly paraded before the audiences. There is danger here. Seeing these kinds of things over and over in our entertainment breaks down a normal person’s sensibilities and can even normalize the graphic behaviors of the characters on the screen. What do we do when the world is full of people who think that violence is the solution to petty debates, young teenagers that haven’t developed a sense of responsibility that see no risk in having sex before they really know someone, and toddlers cursing up a storm at babysitters or teachers because they didn’t get the cookie they wanted? Wait, that seems like the world we live in already, doesn’t it? I feel like I remember when I was a teenager when this kind of behavior was generally accepted as bad and looked down upon, even by the majority of other teenagers. But now it seems like it is encouraged by peers of all ages.
I know that there are other factors that affect these kinds of behaviors in people, but the media and the art of film can’t hold itself blameless from contributing to this kind of society. They might claim that their art is just imitating life, and in some cases, that might be true. But it can always be done in a more tasteful manner, and even be more transparent in condemning destructive behavior.
It’s true that my opinion on this topic might not be the most popular view, but I think it at least deserves honest consideration. When art reaches a point of becoming reality in some form or another, it might be entertaining or amazing to see, like technologies from Star Trek becoming a part of our everyday life, or a picture of a magazine turning into an actual magazine. On the other hand, we need to be careful that it doesn’t end up endangering the lives or happiness of others, like shows about teenagers getting pregnant making real teenagers think that it is a perfectly normal thing to do, or a painting of an island becoming a portal to a deadly fall into the ocean.
For those that find merit in this argument, we can then ask about what to do about it. For my part, I am trying to become a novelist and screenwriter that will treat these topics with taste and class if they are included in my material at all. Hopefully that will show the world that you don’t need to normalize deviant behavior to make something entertaining. For others, people can choose not to support that kind of art by not viewing or listening to it. And as far as film goes, there are options for filtering content so that you can enjoy some quality storytelling without feeling like you need to scrub your brain out afterward.
No matter what you do, I wish for your reality to only imitate the kind of art full of obstacles overcome, happy endings, and character growth with the least personal loss.