Whatever he does, I can do better!

Jun 2013
Narrator: An artist, who created conceptual art by altering readymade objects, painted a late 19th century toleware spittoon in a variety of bright colours. A few days after finishing his artwork, he dreamed of a stranger who claimed to be the original artist of the antique spittoon.

Stranger: By defacing my vintage spittoon, you reduce its anthropological importance. You should choose to work on an object that has no cultural value. Instead, you treat historical artifacts as valueless and deface them into what you consider as art.

Artist: I dipped the antique pots and spittoons into buckets of industrial paint. The bright colours of the outputs contrast sharply with the original dull tones of the antiques. It signifies the cultural immersion in which the dull past is obliterated in favour of a brighter future.

Stranger: Your argument does not support the act. It doesn’t make much sense. If you really have a point, you should choose another way, because this will bring you trouble to destroy property that does not belong to you. If you truly represent art, why would you destroy the work of another artist? Your misguided act of vandalism is disrespectful to another artist and his work.

Artist: As a world-class artist, I can enhance the value of your artwork.

Stranger: As a renowned artist in my time, I do not need anyone to meddle with my artwork. History had shown that national treasures and monuments were often vandalised or destroyed during times of unrest, riots, rebellions, revolutions, civil wars or all other types of war. Do you regard those rioters, rebels, looters, bandits and vandals as artists?

Artist: You are not taking into account the cultural factors that influence my works. When my government took over the country, it encouraged the mob destruction of all cultural artifacts. This kind of destruction continues unnoticed every day. My artworks highlight and expose my country discarding its own tradition in favour of foreign cultural values.

Stranger: "Indeed, you seem to be the last of the clan that once roamed your country in search of cultural artifacts for destruction. Despite living in a country which, as claimed by you, is lacking in freedom of expression, you seem to have the licence to do whatever you want with the national treasures under the guise of the so-called modern art. I don't buy your lame excuse in defacing the antiques. If you accuse a dictator of killing many people, must you use it as an excuse to kill as many people in your country? If you accuse a dictator of destroying your country, must you use it as an excuse to destroy your country too? If your government has committed an act of stupidity, isn't it stupid to repeat its stupidity for the sake of exposing its stupidity?

Artist: It is wrong to destroy history, but it is worthwhile if it could save people's lives in the future by bringing awareness of the government’s oppression against the people. You obviously do not understand the historical events of my country and how art has exposed corruption. Don't dismiss my idea out of hand.

Stranger: It is laughable for you to claim to be able to save lives by destroying history which is the collective memory of a people. Take this analogy, can you save your life in the future by losing your memory? Corruption and social injustice exist throughout the world. If your claim that art is a valid medium for protest and change and in a monitored society, and corruption and social injustice could be highlighted and exposed by the destruction of cultural artifacts, then your misguided acts of vandalism should be repeated by all other artists throughout the world in well-secured museums and galleries. Your acts are a bizarre publicity stunt and an insult to all the original artists. There is no high-minded art-babble that can disguise your contemptible acts of vandalism.

Artist: The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay. My sculptures and photographs are lasting memorials to my wit and courage.

Stranger: As stated in the Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Just think about it. How would you feel if your sculptures and photographs are defaced or destroyed in the same way by other so-called "artists" one day?

Narrator: As the artist was going to reply, he heard a loud bang that sounded like an ancient urn smashing on the ground. He woke up at once to discover that it was a thunderclap with heavy downpour.

While the repainted spittoon was exhibited at a famous foreign art museum, the artist flew to another city with the hope that he could escape from the nightmare. However, he was haunted by the same nightmare every night. Again he flew to another city to escape from the nightmare. His attempts proved futile because he still had the same nightmare every night. On the second last day of the month, the stranger appeared in his nightmare as usual. But this time, he said: "The spittoon actually belonged to a powerful man during my time. It was he who commissioned the making of the spittoon. He is coming here tomorrow. But I have to warn you in advance, he was notorious for his brutality during my time. Once he comes here, it will be hell for you."

When the artist woke up, he did not dare to close his eyes again. For the next few nights, he tried his best to keep himself awake, lest he fell asleep and met with the stranger and the "powerful man" in his nightmare. He managed to keep himself awake for the next two nights, but on the third night he was so sleepy that he found it hard to keep his eyes open. Several times he nearly fell asleep but he managed to keep his eyes open, literally with his fingers.

Like the first two nights, he did not dare even to sit on his bed in the hotel. He was sitting on a sofa trying to keep awake by reading a book. The next morning, he discovered he had fallen asleep in a lying position on the sofa. His book had dropped from his lap to the floor.

He was surprised that that for the first time in over a month, he did not dream of the stranger, not to mention the "powerful man". It was not long before he received a call from the police in the city where he exhibited his artwork, informing him that his repainted spittoon had been vandalised by a 15-year-old teenager in the previous evening.

Police investigation into the boy's background showed that the boy, being the only child in the family, was pampered and spoiled by his parents. Whenever he got into a bad mood or failed to get whatever he demanded from his parents, he would overturn all the tables and chairs in the house, sending all the crockery smashing onto the floor.

On that fateful day, the boy was having an argument with his mother. In a fit of anger, he overturned the tables and chairs, throwing all the crockery onto the floor. After that, he rushed out of the house and loitered for a while in the streets. Later in the evening, he visited the museum. Spotting the repainted spittoon on the floor, he shook his head and muttered something to himself. Looking at the wall, he saw a photograph of the artist smashing a vintage spittoon violently against the wall. He shouted to the other visitors around him, "Whatever he does, I can do better!" He picked up the spittoon and smashed it violently against the wall several times before he was stopped by a museum guard. By then, the spittoon was dented and cracked in several places.

What happened next was more shocking than the destruction of the spittoon. The boy suddenly stood frozen with his eyes and mouth wide open and saliva drooping down from his mouth, and his finger pointing mysteriously at the doorway of the museum. The boy could not utter a single word and avert his gaze. He was soon pronounced dead.

Autopsy on the body confirmed that the boy had died of heart attack. His medical record, however, showed that he was as fit as a fiddle without any chronic illness. Moreover, his parents and schoolmates said that he was active in sports and games at school.

Since then, the artist did not dream of the stranger anymore, not to mention of any so-called “powerful man”. He could sleep soundly ever after.
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