The greatest art installation in America currently resides on a telephone pole a couple of blocks from my house. I discovered it on one of those long, aimless walks we all take now. Dogs have learned that what they believed was an insatiable desire for walkies can indeed be satiated. Dogs have no goals but to love and adore you. But now, as you binge-watch Netflix and drink bourbon in the afternoon, they aren’t so sure; they might like to see other people. Less ambulatory people.
I had made the turn for home when I noticed the pole. A Ziploc baggie contained a piece a paper and next to it a pen, the cap carefully threaded through a staple. The sort of staple that holds fliers advertising lost pets and garage sales. Back when we left our animals alone long enough to make a break for it, and people could gather in the driveway to look at your junk and haggle over the piece of Fiestaware both of you knew wasn’t really Fiestaware. The Golden Age.
The artist had no interest in just giving away the experience; the viewer had to earn it, first by being observant, and then by being curious. Is the pandemic making us more observant and curious? Are we walking toward something new or just wandering in circles until we can return to our rigid little worlds where we curate every last bit of information to endorse our opinion and destroy any alternative position? Are you willing to die rather than admit your view of the world was flawed? The question has taken on an urgency few people ever have the opportunity to explore with such actual consequences. Although so far the answer seems to be a great number of people are willing for others to die to maintain their tidy little existence. All those supposed grand principles have turned out be garden-variety selfishness, proclaimed nightly by the narcissist-in-chief.
The paper turned out to be a simple card folded from a piece of typing paper. The artist, Annie, invited you to write a message in the card to encourage others and then take a stone she had painted to remind you better days would arrive. Most people had taken the invitation to tell Annie how marvelous she was. A piece of art that generates its own creation and validation in the same moment. All of us participated in making Annie’s gesture of hope larger and larger.
The pen turned out to be a yellow glitter affair which made anything written appear spectacular no matter how mundane the thought. I wrote my message (Don’t ask; Annie’s art must be experienced in person, not through a cheap reproduction). The stone I wanted beckoned to me the instant I figured out how everything worked. Like everything beautiful right now, it made me weepy and joyful. Should I be embarrassed or proud of this new hypersensitivity?
I have a simple theory of what makes art transcendent: the artist either finds the perfect expression to define our present moment, or the artist offers us a glimpse of a future we have not yet imagined. Annie had done both. Taking what was at hand, she marched out to that pole and stapled her manifesto of creativity. Write a message to the now then take a stone to imagine a tomorrow where we all embrace again.