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Art for thinking, thinking through art

May 12, 2009

After a day at the National Vietnam Veteran’s Art Museum with my students, I’m left thinking about the power of art as a way of helping a person to process their thoughts, as a way of communicating ideas beyonds words, as a way of participating in a broader cultural dialogue, and even as a way of earning a living.  Certain art seems to not fit into all of these categories, and for me it raises the question of intent.  How much information beyond the piece of art itself is necessary to understand it?  Just today we were looking at a bizarre series of paintings, and we were discussing the context of seeing them in this museum.  If we would have seen them elsewhere, the vibrantly-colored images of circus figures with shocking mask-like faces wouldn’t necessarily lead to a reflection on the horrors of war.  But here, even without a plaque specifically making that link, we couldn’t avoid it.  To what extent to we need art explained to us?  Again I recall Wittgenstein’s notion of the “dawning of an aspect,” wherein he distinguishes between continuous seeing and seeing something new.  Once shown this new detail, and given an explanation of its importance, can it ever be forgotten?  The Arch of Titus in Rome titus was meant to be the gravestone of the Jews, and was viewed as such for many centuries.  Back when I lead teen trips to Israel in the mid-90’s, we started one year in Rome, and marched through the arch, recalling the day in 1948 when Roman Jews scrawled “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel live) on the marble as the State of Israel became a reality.  At the end of the trip when we saw a reproduction of it displayed in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, we suddenly had a new sense of what the Arch meant, what it now means, and what it meant for us to travel from one to the other.  The meaning of the art now is perhaps the exact opposite of the original intention, and that’s the beauty of it – as the audience, across time and space, we re-make artistic expressions anew with each viewing or listening.  Maybe that’s why I suddenly find myself re-addicted to and re-discovering the Grateful Dead all over again, especially when they played at Duke:

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