The power of art
On the University of Chicago campus, the block that once held Stagg Field is now mostly filled with the magnificent Regenstein Library. The library was one of my favorite places when we lived in Chicago. It is probably one of the top five libraries in the world. The rare books collection alone encompasses 265,000 volumes. As a graduate student, having access to that library was an incredible experience.
On the northwest corner of the lot on which the library is located is a large bronze sculpture by Henry Moore. It was installed in 1967, so when we arrived in Chicago in 1974 it was relatively new. The sculpture invites viewers to walk around it and look at it from all angles, and I spent some time contemplating it during the years we lived there. The installation took place on the 25th anniversary of an event that took place in an underground laboratory on that site. On December 2, 1942, a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi set the world’s first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in motion. That event was a significant step toward the creation of the age of atomic energy. It also was key to the production of the atomic bomb, which was used twice at the end of World War II. The sculpture, which is titled Nuclear Energy, was unveiled as a memorial to the accomplishments of Fermi and his fellow physicists.
It is big - 12 feet tall. One is struck by the mass of the bronze creation. Moore wanted to create a monument that was both a celebration of the power of human achievement and also a warning against the dangers of such incredible physical power. The artists’s statement says, in part, “Like anything that is powerful, it has a power for good and evil . . . the lower part [of the sculpture] is more architectural and in my mind has the kind of interior of a cathedral with sort of a hopefulness for mankind.”
Moore also spoke of his attempt to create a visual object that always brought two images to mind. The term that has been associated with this style of sculpture is “double vision.” From any angle the sculpture appears to be both a mushroom cloud and also a human scull. The photograph doesn’t do justice to the power of the three dimensional work, but when you are standing next to it, you are drawn to circling the piece and looking and looking at it over and over agin. The two images constantly come to mind.
It is not like a “hidden image” picture in which you have to look at it in a particular way to see the second image. It is not like the internet memes in which some people see one color and others see another. It is bold and obvious and impossible to ignore and impossible to forget.
The image of that sculpture came to my mind yesterday as I listened to snippets of the impeachment debate in the US House of Representatives. It was impossible to think of that display as a debate. The speakers made almost no reference to or response to what had been previously been said. Instead they read carefully prepared scripts with a nearly constant repetition of the talking points that had been hammered out in committees and behind the scenes. Two points of view were in the room, and the alternating of those points of view made even the most casual listener (and I was one of those, listening only when driving my car) constantly aware of division. There was no suspense in the room. The conclusion had been reached before the debate started. No one made up her or his mind as a result of what was said.No one even entertained the thought of changing his or her mind. They all came into the chamber of deliberation, not to deliberate, but with their minds made up. Were I judging the performances as a high-school debate, the scores would have been very low. There were no persuasive arguments. The speeches were full of violations of the basic rules of logic. The appeal to emotions consistently fell short.
In a culture of division, it seems that we have decided that you cannot simultaneously see two truths. In an either/or argument, you are supposed to take up one side or the other. From a philosophical ethical point of view the definitions of good and evil spoken in the room were inadequate. Good and evil are not well defined when the definition of “good” is “agrees with me,” and the definition of evil is “disagrees with me.”
Henry Moore’s powerful sculpture stands in stark contrast to that kind of over simplification of human endeavors. He has struck an amazing balance of good and evil in the same object. Both are powerful, permanent, and infused with humanity. I am struck at how he could take bronze, with no capacity for biological life and turn it into a symbol that evokes life and death so boldly.
It seems that the future of our culture and our nation depends on developing our capacity to engage in double vision - our ability to see more than one truth at the same time. To have two truths equally present in our minds as we engage in conversation with one another. If we have given up on persuasion, if we hold no hope of changing the minds of others or having our minds changed, there is no real debate.
In policy debate, high school students go into the debate room not knowing which side of the argument they will draw. They know the resolution, but they do not know if they will be arguing “for” or “against” until the debate is ready to start. They must demonstrate a complete understanding of both sides of the argument. it is a valuable life skill and one not often witnessed in arenas beyond high school. University level debates have evolved into fast talk and shouting.
Maybe we all need to spend more time with powerful works of art. Perhaps the poets are the ones who will teach us what we need to know. I may have become a cynic, but I don’t expect to be enlightened by legislative debate. It seems more valuable to spend my time contemplating a piece of sculpture that is truly unforgettable.