My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #11,
July 3, 2001


These days, as people reverently visit and touch the Vietnam Memorial, make rubbings from it, leave tributes beside it, they may not know or remember the outrage originally provoked by its design. Veterans' groups were howling with rage. Where were the statues of men in uniform? This didn't LOOK like a soldier's memorial. They demanded at the least a companion piece for it, a sculpture very much like every other sculpture at every other war memorial, that followed the conventions we understood. And allowed us to react in conventional ways, say, "oh, yes, there's the war memorial," and go on to the next exhibit on Washington's beautiful, history-filled mall.

But when we look at the Wall, we are hit in the face with the sheer size of it, its visual demand that we recognize the immensity of their sacrifice and our loss, all those names, all those bright, beautiful, brave young men. Most memorials inscribe these names in alphabetical order, a quick, efficient way for people to quickly find a special name and then walk away, go on about our business. But Maya Lin realized that brisk efficiency is not what we need from a memorial. By inscribing soldiers' names in the order that they died, she forced us to confront the war itself, feel its slow, inexorable progression from military assistance to full engagement to the Tet offensive to the fall of Saigon, death by death, day by bloody day.

Real art is not comfortable. It forces us to stop dead and SEE what we are looking at. It forces us to engage with it, think about it, react to it with our emotions. It catches us with our defenses down and punches us in the gut.

The thing is, most of us look without really seeing. We classify and dismiss and go on to the next order of business. Bruce Babbitt tells about the first time he took his future wife to visit his home state of Arizona. As the plane approached the airport, he asked her what she thought of the landscape they'd been flying over, hoping her heart, like his, was swelling with its grandeur. And she said, "Um, Bruce, it looks like ten million square miles of kitty litter."

And so it does, to a mind that doesn't know how to really LOOK at it, see beyond apparent sameness to the subtle variations of colors and textures. But once you've read Edward Abbey, it can't ever look like cat litter again; he has made the desert come alive, not just by showing you what's within it, but by showing you how passionately it can be loved. For him there is a purity in starkness, in places unwarped by human greed and carelessness, in spaces so vast they stretch beyond our imaginations. Who can read Abbey's work and NOT, in some corner of their souls, sympathize with the monkey wrench gang's illicit efforts to protect this fragile beauty from the ugly ravages of man?

Difficult as it is to believe, Americans once looked on Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon unmoved; you can tell it from the diaries and letters and news accounts they left behind. Awe was something we learned from the romantic painters and photographers (and from the promoters of early tourism). Now, of course, we are not only taught that awe is the appropriate response, we are directed to specific scenic points from which to experience it and take photographs.

Sometimes art helps us incorporate new knowledge of the world into our understanding, like the Nude Descending a Staircase, which took what we learned about movement from stop motion photography to tackle the problem of how to represent movement on a static canvas. It was startling at first, and people had no idea what to make of the painting, but its technique has now become so commonplace in our culture that it appears everyday in the comic strips.

Art challenges us to slip inside the lives and souls of people we don't know and will never know, people who are Not Like Us. Arthur Miller showed us there could be tragedy in the fall of an ordinary salesman, and On the Waterfront marked us forever with the sense that in some way, we too maybe "coulda been a contender," had we not somehow lost our way, got trapped in the ordinary. We are told that the kids coming up now, "Generation Y," are much more tolerant than we are of other races and ethnic groups, and I can't help wondering if this is in part because they grew up with the friendly neighbors on Sesame Street, black, white, blue and yellow, learning from Kermit that it's not at all easy being green.

Sound, too, is something we usually just slap a name on and file away, until something comes along that defies our recognition, forces us to pay attention, like the performance group Stomp, which uses found noises -- the banging of trash can lids, the swishing sounds of brooms, the taps of hammers -- turning them into a weird melange of percussion, mime, and dance. In one of the classic sketches on the Muppet Show, characters in a library are annoying each other with small, subtle noises, like sniffing, and rattling newspaper pages, and twitching a pencil, until the librarian takes a stick and begins to conduct the noises into a perfect little piece of found music. What these artists have allowed us to hear, maybe for the first time, is the underlying rhythms of the world around us.

Bruce Cockburn says, "Pay attention to the poet . . . you need him to show you new ways to see." That's what our artists do for us. They turn the ordinary upside down and inside out and show us a different truth, like the writer who has rewritten Gone with the Wind from the viewpoint of one of Scarlett's slaves. They enlarge it so we can see it, or shrink it so we can grasp it. They put it in unforgettable perfect words, like Emily Dicksinson seeing a snake and feeling "zero at the bone."

They make ideas personal by wrapping them in a life, like the photographer who shaped our view of Vietnam with his picture of the terrified, naked little girl running from a napalm attack. They make history a living, breathing reality, like Stephen Ambrose, who forced us to see the Missouri River not as something to be casually crossed by car, but as an awe-inspiring natural force, both threat and avenue into an unknown continent. They change not only what we see and think, but what we may then be ABLE to see and think.

Pay attention. Who knows? You may find that you too are an artist, that you too can make others see the world fresh and new.

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