Hiro P. always said that a successful art-strike required speed, cunning, and above all else, style. In retrospect, he'd never said anything about things like "artistic vision" or "ability to fight off the Masters of Bougie". Hiding behind a steel shipping crate because people were shooting at you, while your art-splosion slowly unfolded itself like a bloom of paint and death not even fifteen feet away… Well, it was almost enough to make you wonder whether you could've done something better with your life, like sticking your dick in a mound of bullet ants.
Hiro was fucking around with the detonator, stupidly trying to make the art bomb stop or even reverse. Melanoma-on-the-arsehole-of-existence ("Arsehole" to her friends) had pulled a marker from somewhere and was scribbling some drawing on the side of the container. She was a little fucked in the head, even for your group, but she was an artist to the end. And you? You were thinking and noticing you were thinking and noticing that you were noticing and wow, who the fuck was that over there?
Some dude was just walking through the bullet fire, like he knew where they were going to be and just happened to be where they weren't. Looked like a parody of a banker, too, or maybe a private detective from those old movies your ma made you watch with her, all dapper and shit, a figure drawn in shades of slate and charcoal.
He walked around the corner of the container, out of the field of fire, and stood with his back to you, looking at the Paintball-o-Doom expanding slowly but surely towards you. After a minute or so, and another few inches closer to polychromatic glory, he turned to the three of you, shook his head, and said a single word: "Amateurish."
He turned to go and you quickly darted over and grabbed his shoulder. "Dude, what about us? We can't get away while those pricks over there are shooting at us!" He sighed and gave a little half-frown, then pulled a stub of chalk from his pocket and tossed it to Arsehole. "Make your own way out, if you can. Or sacrifice it all for Art, your choice." With that, he turned and walked back through the rain of gunfire. (Shit-fucking Christ, how many bullets did they HAVE?!)
Arsehole looked at the stub for a second, then drew a submarine hatch on the pavement in front of her. She barely had enough chalk, but got the finishing touches on it just as the first splat of viridian burned against your face. She gave the wheel on the hatch a twist and a circle of concrete popped open. The three of you scrambled down into the hole, and you pulled it closed just as the first sizzle of azure frostbite hit your hand.
And that was how you met The Critic for the first time.
Turned out a lot of people had encountered him in one way or another. He had a lot of names: The Critic, Mr. Gray, Fuckface, The Man, and a shit-ton more. You tried calling him "Your Private Dick", but nobody else thought it was funny, so you stopped after a while. Nobody knew where he came from, or who he was, but he would show up at particularly… exuberant pieces every now and then, give a fast-and-dirty review, then disappear again. Sometimes he'd help people out of a jam, like he did for you, sometimes he'd grab artists and toss them to the wolves of the Establishment. Sometimes literally wolves, too. You heard one particularly gruesome story involving a collective trying to do some kind of PETA-esque shit at a zoo (sooooo derivative), and they ended up kibble for about half the carnivores because of him.
You got a little obsessed with him for a few months, and got partway through half a dozen pieces about him before you blocked. Every time you tried, it was like there was a hole in the middle of it that refused to be filled. The closest you got was a neat little art contagion that would make infectees go gray and monochrome, like The Critic's color palette, but it seemed… blah. Lifeless. Childish and obvious and dull-witted, when you should be going for dynamic and mysterious. You ended up shelving it all, sticking it in a U-Stor-It out in South Fuckington, Middle of Nowhere, USA.
You decided to do a little traveling to get some perspective on the Man From Nowhere. You spent a couple of years doing a variety of middling-to-moderately successful shows and actions in Eastern Europe down into Spain. The latest was a direct-action performance piece in Nice, France, where a group spiked the water system with a custom fast-acting hallucinogen that ended up with half the tourist trade tripping and seeing the gaps between the strings of reality. The early reviews were that it was ambitious but poorly executed, but at least you got a few people to wake up. You had a few inklings about the nature of Humanity versus Mystery and were taking the train to London, to catch the scene bubbling under the surface there, when you noticed The Critic sitting next to you.
Startled, you replied, "Uh, hello. I, uh, didn't see you there."
"Very few people do. I'm here to discuss your little project about me."
You frowned. "Wha- Oh, I guess you've been watching me. Kinda creepy, man."
"Not really, but I did read a little something about you working on something of potential interest."
"Wait, I'm getting reviews on something that I haven't even finished yet? MotherFUCK. It was Kaneese, wasn't it? I'm going to wring that little poseur's neck," you grumbled darkly.
He seemed amused by your little outburst. "No, no, it was no one you would know or even be able to contact. Nevertheless, I want to warn you that you need to be more… original in your interpretation. In the waters you're splashing in, clichés will do nothing except get your work flamed and removed." He waved his hand vaguely towards the ceiling as he said, "Harsh criticism is the nature of the game, is it not?"
"Removed? No, nevermind." You shook your head. "Have you seen my, I guess, treatise on you? What do you think?"
"A little staid, as I'm sure you know, but some parts have potential. Pare it down to the core of your statement, your meaning, then elaborate from there. Don't feel that you have to add flash to make it acceptable; just work with what you have and make people like it."
"Uh, thanks for the advice." You paused for a moment. "Um, can I ask you a question?"
He made a small go-ahead gesture and said, "I don't guarantee that I'll answer, but ask away."
You steeled your nerves and asked, "Why do you act so… randomly? I mean, you'll help some people one time, then the next you hand the same people over to the U.N. or whatever, then the next you just stand on the sidelines and watch."
He smiled a Mona Lisa smile at you. "Your theme on me is 'Mystery', isn't it? Think of it as part of my charm. I know what needs to be done, or undone, and take care of things as I see fit." He paused, then continued, "I do have to say that I find you art monsters to be some of the more entertaining under my watch."
With that, he rose. "Well, I must be going. I look forward to seeing the finished work, little artist." He tipped his hat to you, walked away, and you sank into a contemplation on how to edit and redefine your current scraps back "home".
And that was how you met The Critic for the second time.
The rest of your trip back to your storage unit in BFE, West Who-Gives-A-Damn was uneventful. Just a few days blitzed out of your mind in Boston, an induced flash-mob recreation of Debbie Does Dallas on the 50-yard line of Cowboys Stadium, and a lovely evening over tea with The Possibly Reverend George St. George the George'th of the Church of Bob the Irredeemer. Delightful wo/man.
You were feeling energized yet serene when you finally unlocked the door on the unit and rolled it up. Looking at everything tossed into it, you realized that The Critic was right; most of what you'd done before was trash, derivative, or clichéd to hell and back again. You spent a few days untangling one piece from another, picking apart what worked and what didn't. The next month was spent in a haze as you invented and engineered, called in favors, salvaged and scrapped and scraped and stole and slept.
Eventually you ended up with something totally new; something you didn't even realize was in you, yet somehow tasted distinctly of your touch. You arranged for the first showing to take place on the grounds for Burning Man. Not while it was actually going on, that would've been a bit too… public for this particular piece's opening, but during the off-season. Besides, that gave it time to take root and mature for when the borderliners showed up.
You passed the word out and around forty people showed up in person, although you saw some phones out, presumably streaming video elsewhere. In the center of the space was a seventy-foot-tall saguaro cactus made out of sheet metal and strips of malachite. It glowed, even after the sun set, with a purple-gray-green shimmer that pulled at the mind, like light reflecting off a pigeon's wing. Set into the base of the ivory tower were two narrow archways, barely big enough to squeeze into, through which could be seen Nothing. People kept trying to look into them, but their eyes refused to register anything at all. There were a few appreciative murmurs as people noticed that, but you tuned out most of the comments as you geared yourself up for the Real Deal.
You let the audience circle the engraved spire until the new moon rose above the empty wooden scaffolding. In a spotlight of starlight and moondark, you walked up to the enormous sandstone anthill and stood, framed before the first archway.
"Here is the unknown and the unknowable, the place through which we cannot speak. I invite anyone to walk in this man's shoes and tell themselves they are unchanged."
You then took a step backwards, into and through the archway.
It's strange seeing everyone like this, you think. Scrambling and rambling and even the brightest stars are stuck in the void of reality. You wonder why people don't just tear the veil from their eyes and remake everything into something more interesting.
You see The Critic (oh, but now you know his name, don't you) walk out of the blind spot you didn't know you had, and stand, real and true amongst the flitterings around you both, a 4-D man in a 2-D world. He walks a slow circle around your edifice, and steps into the other archway.
A creditable effort, he thinks. I'm not sure that many people will understand what you've done here, but I do believe that this grand (a/e)ffect is worthwhile. Hmm. You should take a step forward, though. I believe that things are about to get slightly more interesting that you anticipate.
You think that he might be right. After all, you can smell that he's telling the truth as he knows it. You step out of the arch and found yourself surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers and sycophants, all clamoring to praise you.
You held up your hands and managed to stick a stiff smile on your face. "Ladies, gentlemen, teegs, nulls, please settle down. 'Nobody Knows Me, #6239' is an interactive piece, but I believe we're going to have some unwelcome company soon. Anyone who doesn't want to become a commercial sale or an exquisite corpse might want to leave now."
Most of the audience looked uncomfortable and started to drift off to their vehicles, but a handful stuck around, questioning you.
"How many-" "What inspir-" "Whenceforth came-" "Lovely materi-" "The luminos-"
You answered in generalities and layered meanings for about an hour. The helicopters were surprisingly quiet, but that wasn't too remarkable, given who flew them. You hugged yourself and awaited the coming cuffs and chains. You wondered if your new "patrons" would let you have access to some art supplies before they shot you in the head. Just a little chalk would do.
And that was how you met The Critic for the third time.