About a year ago I was asked the question, “What is the problem in America?”
Many issues came to mind…healthcare, taxes, crime, racism, sexism, classism, the military industrial complex, the agricultural industrial complex, the healthcare industrial complex…but these are all issues for which the inquirer was looking for the root cause.
To answer this question, I’ve started to curate a series of shows called the “Exquisite Corpse”.
Exquisite Corpse by Mick Stern, Ken Krimstein, and Monte Wolverton
The Exquisite Corpse is a collaborative game where three artists work together on a single drawing. The catch is that they don’t work “together”. A paper is folded into thirds in such a way that at any given time a viewer can only see the top, middle, or bottom. The first artist starts in any section that they want. In the example above Ken Krimstein started in the middle, drawing the torso. He extended the neck and the legs just past the fold, so that when the paper was folded again the next artist would know how to connect to his drawing but not be able to see it.
The “enforced ignorance” is so that no artist influences the other in terms of content or style. Whatever Ken was going through in his life, he wanted to draw a man just having learned how to fly. Mick Stern drew the top part, seeing only the neck (if you look close, you can see where Ken’s lines extend past the fold) and nothing else. Mick is different than Ken and therefore wouldn’t want to draw the same picture except through the artificiality of agreement. Where Ken wanted to draw a man surrounded by clouds, Mick wanted to draw a tribal figure alone on the emptiness of the blank page. Mick’s ideas are clearly different than Ken’s. The drawing finally ended with Monte Wolverton who didn’t want to draw flight or tribal figures, he wanted to draw a figure submerged into the depth of the ocean rather than raised to the heights of the sky. How different can you get?
If they were able to see each others’ sections, they would have to deal with the difference between them…what makes them different and what drives them apart from each other.
This is where I think that the “problem of America” lies. We know that there are differences between us and we assume that our differences drive us apart from each other.
At one point early on in the Surrealist movement when they were developing the exquisite corpse game, one artist wanted to move from drawing to painting. Breton didn’t believe that the exquisite corpse should be done without folds, and since the painting variation involved covering parts of the canvas rather than folding them, all those that participated in the painted exquisite corpse were excommunicated.
Breton didn’t say much about the fold, but I find it to be the most exciting parts of the drawings. Because Ken’s drawing “reaches” out over the fold, the corpse has two necks rather than just one. The legs, likewise, have a “double exposure” where the marks of two different ideas over lap.
This is the solution of the problem of America.
Our differences don’t need to separate us and cause divides, they can be the thing that join us. The way to do this is to reach out to people that disagree with you.
If I purposely sought out three artists that habitually drew men in tweed suits flying through the air, it would make for a very uninteresting corpse. If everyone had the same passions, we would predictably have a picture of a ma with a tweed suit flying through the air.
Likewise if I sought out people that weren’t passionate about ideas, it would make for an uninteresting corpse. If everyone played it safe we might have the head of an average-looking man, wearing a blank tee-shirt, and jeans…or worse yet a stick figure!
Instead because passionate people reached out across boundaries (see where the metaphor is going?) we have the drawing of a tribal chieftain flying through the air while is barnacle-encrusted legs are firmly standing on the bottom of the ocean.
I learned this lesson from a friend of mine that is very active in the Second Amendment Society of New Jersey. My personal belief is that less guns in a society makes citizens safer; his belief is that more guns in a society makes citizens safer. As expected, putting the two of us in a room set us both off. We argued for as long as the first meeting, the rift between us growing wider and deeper, and we both assumed that that meeting would be our last…neither of us having anything to learn from each other. Then that fateful question that changed the game.
“Don’t you want New Jersey to be a safer place?”
“Well, how are you going to make that happen?”
The answer was insightful and intelligent. I of course didn’t agree with it, but instead of focusing on the things that separate us we suddenly shifted focus to the thing that joined us…the thing that made us the most passionate…the thing that brought us “on the same page”.
…and there’s that metaphor again.
We can either accept the fact that people are brought together by their arguments because they are passionately interested in the same issues (No one ever counters an argument against universal healthcare with a pro-union argument.) or we can ignore the fact that we are “on the same page” and draw lines
in the sand. across the fold.
That metaphor almost got me all the way through.