Monday, February 10, 2014

More on the question of art

I love this poster that hangs in Eloise's classroom:

If you can't quite make out the words, it says, "Art has the role in education of helping children become more like themselves instead of more like everyone else."

I feel lucky to pass by this message daily.  Figuring out how to become more like ourselves seems a decent reason for anyone at any age to practice making art.  It may also be one of the reasons that prospect of making art, at least as an adult, can feel like running naked through the streets.    

Sometime between second grade and college graduation I digested a set of messages about how to inhabit my own uniqueness that led to an organizing theory about as nuanced as a sledge hammer.  Instead of learning to be more myself, I figured out how to be a lot like everyone else, just a smidge better.  I learned to establish my individuality by excelling in areas that came easily to me.

The main problem with this strategy was how successful it turned out to be.  And along some tree-lined path in Harvard yard I started to feel the pinch of having backed myself into a corner.  I had channeled most of my effort in school around a few academic strengths leaving entire regions of my being untapped by my education.  At times I dipped into small projects that felt silly, like staying up late at night to make anonymous cards with upbeat quotes for schoolmates, or mailing long group letters to my summer camp cabin mates (that I would copy by hand, in sets of 8).  But they felt about as relevant or useful as a pot of daisies at a highway construction site.  The best idea I could come up with to bring together the power tools with the flower pot was to prepare to apply to medical school (you can see how well that worked out).

At the end of four years of college, I had become such a lopsided version of myself, that sometimes I think it has taken the years between then and now to even myself out.  A career as a writer would have been unthinkable to me then.  And I promise you, if one of my friends had told me they wanted to pursue acting, I would have had to wrestle desperately to hide the visible pity and terror I would have felt for them.  

It makes me sad to think how many years passed before I started to find my way out of the corner.  I forgive myself, at least a little, knowing that a similar kind of logic drove Ann Patchett (one of my favorite authors) into writing.   In her most recent collection of essays she explains that she was not a good student at elementary school, and that she knew she wanted to be a writer, at least in part, because she struggled with pretty much everything else.  She went with an effective strategy, but it makes me wonder, is this the best way for a culture to select for its artists?

Years ago, before a trip to New York City, my mom asked me if I would be interested in seeing the revival production of Eugene O'Neil's play, A Long Day's Journey into Night with her.  Having been away from New York and out of the theatre scene for sometime, the first thing that registered was that this downer of a production was a full four hours long.  I could already imagine my head bobbing in the darkened theatre.  But out of filial obligation I agreed to join her (note to self:  may I be as kind as my own mother when the day my adult daughters show up this clueless).

The night of the performance we made our way to our seats, which were in about the fifth row, at center stage.  The theatre glowed with an amber light, and the air hummed with anticipation as throngs of fellow audience members took their place for the evening.  By that time I had learned that the production included Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.   Nevertheless I still feared that I'd fall asleep.  And then, something surprising happened. Claire Danes and Meryl Streep sat down next to each other in the row in front of us.

The next four hours were a hypnotic journey, so intimate I felt I had become part of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.  The world fell away, and the only thing left was their dark panged living room  brought to life by four plainly dressed actors on a set so minimal I hardly remember it.  The acting was so compelling, especially the performance from Hoffman, that when the performance ended all my mother and I could do was sit there in stunned silence.  Claire Danes and Meryl Streep did the same.  

Forever after that, I felt a certain closeness with Hoffman.  Not that we were friends, but that I knew he had shared generously with me.  I walked away from the theatre carrying a gossamer swath of him.   His burly voice, his blue eyes, and a certain intensity of presence not too unlike thunder as it rolls in during a summer storm, were all woven into a sheer veil that I was allowed to keep.  The feeling was strange, but unmistakable.  I absorbed something from him that night that is still with me today.  So when the actors returned to the stage for the curtain call, I joined the whole theatre in a riot of tears and applause, a roar of live gratitude the likes of which I have never experienced since.

Carrying this sheer cloak of him within me, I lament his death like the death of someone I actually knew.  The loss feels shockingly personal.  And yet it still does not quite account for how I find myself pulled over to the side of the road, crumpled over the steering wheel weeping.  It feels a little crazy, to be cracked this way by a Hollywood story.  

And then I think of Eloise and Ruby, and the poster that watches over them like an angel, telling them every day to become more like themselves.  I think of how they pass their days cocooned, protected by kind women and unlimited supplies of paper, paint, glue and markers. All day long they work their little hands as a trail of art streams behind them. I realize that I am weeping for them, weeping for all the art they will not make, for the way the art supplies will dwindle from the classroom year after year, how the prevailing culture will corner them, and how without knowing it I will participate in the process.  As I sit in my minivan on the side of the road, I realize that I can do better. I promise the gods or my ancestors or whoever is kind enough to be watching over me that I will be brave, I will even run naked through the streets if I have to, to prove that we can make art that reflects who we are and live to tell the tale.

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