The Critic sat silently at his desk at the front of Room 238, his long gray hair in a ponytail, his wrinkled, septuagenarian face frozen in an unreadable glare as he drummed his fingers on the tabletop in rhythm with his stopwatch. None of the half dozen who sat silently waiting were more than half the Critic's age, and some barely a third. The Painter, the Sculptor, the Clipper, the Builder, the Composer, and the Director all sat at their smaller desks in the almost-empty gallery. Those were not their real names, of course, but they all knew each other by code names in this meeting. Most of the time, Room 238 was an ordinary classroom, in an ordinary community college, in an ordinary American city. Tonight, however, it was the world headquarters of an international terrorist organization (or at least one chapter of it), and the Critic was its leader, to the extent that a group such as this could have one.
What a bunch of failures, he thought to himself.
"Can we get on with this?" the Painter asked. "We've been sitting here watching you twiddle your thumbs for half an hour, and…"
"Be quiet," the Critic interrupted. "We are appreciating the silence and the sensation of unease. You'll know when the piece is over."
The Painter was silent, and the Critic timed another seventeen minutes on his stopwatch while the six waited and watched. Having completed his "performance", he rose from the desk, dimmed the lights, and powered on a slide projector that must have been nearly as old as the man himself. A press of a button and a photograph was displayed on the classroom whiteboard - a photograph of a pudgy cat with grayish-blue fur, frozen in time with an unusually happy-looking grin on its face. The question "I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?" was superimposed over the photo.
"Who can tell me what this is?" asked the Critic.
"It's a lolcat," the Painter volunteered.
"That's right, Painter," he responded. "And how long have 'lolcats' been around?"
"Well," he replied with the knowing confidence of an art historian, "the style of that particular picture originated in early 2007, but it had its origins several years earlier on 4Chan, and examples of humorously-captioned cat photographs have been found dating to the late 19th century."
"Very good, Painter," said the Critic. "Director, tell me; is there anything about this piece that you find particularly compelling? Eye-opening? Mind-blowing?"
The Director stammered, seeming surprised and alarmed to have been called out. It was a moment before he could muster a response; "Not particularly, Critic. It's just a cute little joke."
"Then how would you justify this, Director?" The Critic pressed a button and a new slide popped up. It was a photograph of a parking lot, taken from a camera a few meters above the ground. Dozens of cats lay on the ground, bloodied and dead, their bodies arranged spelling out a message - "NO U CANT HAS CHEEZBURGER". The Critic brought up another slide - the same parking lot, more dead cats, spelling out "DED CATZ IS DED". Another click and a third slide came up - more dead cats, arranged spelling out the message "R WE KEWL YT? LULZ".
"It was quite a bit of work acquiring these photos from the Man's database," the Critic said sternly. "Their intelligence indicates that we're responsible for this, and at our last meeting, you mentioned that you were working on a project involving cats. Can I assume this is your handiwork?"
"Yes, Critic," the Director said.
"Explain what we're looking at," the Critic demanded as he brought up a slide with more dead cats spelling out the words "INVISIBLE MORGUE".
"It's produced by a memetic agent that specifically targets felis catus," the Director said. "They're compelled to come to this particular site and fight each other until they're fatally wounded, and to lie down before they die in patterns that spell out the messages."
"I'm not interested in the how," the Critic said. "Tell me why we're seeing this. How does this installation represent our objectives?"
"It's recontextualization," the Director nervously replied. "By taking something meant to be amusing and adding to it elements of tragedy and horror, it forces people to look at lolcats in a new way, especially if their own pet cat is one of the ones involved."
"If I wanted to see funny things recontextualized as tragedy and horror, I could log on to Youtube," the Critic said. "Killing someone's cat to open their mind is more likely to produce such a base emotional response that it's going to drown out whatever message you're trying to deliver. What I'm seeing here is a bunch of dead cats being used to parody internet memes in a way that makes us look like a bunch of sadistic Anonymous wannabes."
"But, Critic, the current zeitgeist of the-"
"That will be all, Director," the Critic interrupted. "I've been part of this organization for a long time, and I'm not going to say this is the worst thing I've ever seen. It's ill-conceived, it's poorly executed, and it's not going to achieve what you want it to. If recontextualization is the direction you want to go, talk to Clipper - that containment file he garbled all up with newspaper headlines and sent right back to the Man's front door was brilliant."
"Thank you, Critic," the Clipper said.
"You're welcome," the Critic said as he turned the lights back on and sat down. "The reason I bring this up is because the problems with this installation mirror the problems I've been seeing in a lot of pieces lately. To be frank, the work that this organization has done in the past month or so has been very unimpressive. Sculptor, you made a fire hydrant that emits gamma radiation when connected to a firehose, correct?"
"Yes, Critic," the Sculptor responded.
"And Painter, you made a sidewalk mural that people get absorbed into like quicksand, which then adds their likeness to a crowd scene."
"And Composer, you produced a recording of an electric guitar solo that causes the listener's face to liquefy."
"Yes, Critic. The idea of 'face-melting awesomeness' was first raised by Blue Öyster Cult in 1972, whose debut single "Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll" included the line 'Three thousand guitars, they seem to cry, my ears will melt, and then my eyes.' By the mid-1980s —"
"Later, Composer," the Critic said. "All three of these works are severely flawed, and all in the exact same way. Who can tell me what that flaw is?"
The room was silent. None of the six knew the answer - or if they did, they feared to share it.
"I see the cat has gotten our tongues," the Critic said, casting a knowing eye at the Director. "All three of these installations, ladies and gentlemen, are artworks that kill people."
"Critic?" asked the Painter. "Isn't that what we do?"
The Critic sighed. "Let me tell you a story. Back when I was your age, artists, real artists, were all about what we used to call 'freaking out the squares'. Ask your parents or your grandparents sometime about how closed-minded mainstream America was back then - blue-haired grannies listening to Lawrence Welk and Liberace, who thought people like the fucking Kingston Trio were dangerous subversives and Jackson Pollock was just an idiot with too much time on his hands — if they even knew who he was at all. We were all about pushing the envelope, blowing people out of their closed-off worldview, making them understand how big and crazy the world really was. And you know what? We were doing it. Our generation changed the way people think of art. We really thought we were cool.
"I was doing things back then that nobody had ever seen. And when Andy - I'm sorry, that was what the Critic's name was back then - when he asked me to join this organization, I leapt at the chance. I did things that really had the Man running scared, things that really forced people to change their minds about how the world around them works. To me, that's what this organization is all about."
The Composer interrupted. "But doesn't the manifesto say…"
"There is no manifesto," the Critic said. "Now answer me this, boys and girls - how can we open people's minds if all that our projects do is kill them?"
"It isn't really so much for the benefit of the victim, right?" asked the Director. "It's more for the people they leave behind - the family, and the friends, and the people who happen to be standing in the right place. Why, that invisible shark that you yourself made back when you were the Director was pretty much the same thing."
"You could say it was," the Critic answered, "and I'd say you were right, and I'd also tell you that the shark was a masterpiece in the way it exposed the bystander phenomenon and the apathy of men to the problems of others. But that was in 1975. Are you telling me that the best projects that this organization can come up with are recycled ideas from before you were even born?"
The Director was silent.
"Look, there's more to this than just making a piece of art that kills people and then slapping our slogan on the end of it like some kind of punchline. Some of our most interesting pieces have never claimed a single life. Composer, have you ever listened to the interpretation of Cage that your predecessor recorded?"
"I can't say I have," the Composer replied.
"Good answer. If you had, you wouldn't be the Composer." The Critic opened his briefcase and withdrew a cassette tape, placing it on the Composer's desk. "Don't listen to that yourself — give it to one of your friends and get them to listen while you're not there. Or one of your enemies, if it suits you. Just give 'em a few days and ask them how it's sitting with them, because this — this is something that grabs the listener by the balls and forces them to forget everything they ever knew about what music is, and so far it's never killed a single person.
"I'm not saying that death can never be a source for artistic expression. I'm sure you all know about that contraption up in Alaska? My predecessor was furious at the old Builder when he pulled that one off. Tore him a new one right in front of the rest of us - how could you be so irresponsible, you could have killed us all, the Man is going to come down on us like a ton of bricks, and so on. I thought he was going to kick him out for good, or worse. But I found out later on that the Critic pulled him aside after the meeting and told him it was the most thought-provoking piece he'd seen ever since Chazdwick's buddy made that talking atom bomb back in sixty-three.
"I know most of you only came on a few years ago after what went down at the Baltimore Expo. I don't know why the old Critic picked you out of the hundreds of people he looked at, but I know he would have expected better than this. We can't just keep putting out the same stuff over and over again and slapping a new coat of paint on it. At this rate we run the risk of becoming predictable, and worse yet, becoming boring.
"That'll be all for today. Next meeting won't be until four weeks from tonight - the spring semester starts tomorrow, and I'm going to be up to my ears teaching Intro to Art History to a bunch of kids who don't know Fountain from a urinal. I expect to see some much more thought-provoking projects in the meanwhile. See you then."
The Critic made his way back to his desk and sat down to read over his class syllabi as the six gathered their things and made their way to the door. An overlooked thought occurred to him as he noticed the Builder making his way out. "Oh, by the way, Builder?" he said.
"Those ancient statues you found and jazzed up? The ones with the rain and the starving children? Keep up the good work. That was pretty cool."