By Matt Powers
“Declan, please pick up the meeples all over the floor.”
“Declan, please pick up the meeples.”
“Declan, I’m pretty sure you threw them. Please pick them up and put them back in the box.”
He wanders over to Logan to play, and ignores me.
“Declan, you have until the count of five. One. Two,” my irritation level increasing, “Three.”
“That’s it! Time out!”
So I plunk him in the chill out chair, and ask him to apologize for being rude. He does not comply.
“I’m going to tell Mommy that you are not being nice.”
“No!” There are tears.
I go upstairs and tell my wife what has transpired. We come back down together to resolve the issue. She kneels in front of Declan, and, in her softest voice, asks, “Were you rude to Daddy?”
“Is it fun to be rude?”
She pauses, looks over at the meeples, then back to Declan.
“Declan, did you throw the meeples?”
“No, Logan did.”
We share a look.
“Logan, did you throw the meeples?”
And just like that I’m apologizing to Declan for not getting the whole story, for over reacting, and he apologized to me too for being rude. We hugged, and departed. I can’t speak for Declan, but I felt a distinct sense of connection and closeness after that debacle. It was nice.
When we talked about the incident later, I confessed I should’ve handled it differently, gotten the whole story first. Then my wife said, “Well, he has to learn that when he behaves a certain way long enough he creates an expectation, and when he breaks pattern, sometimes people aren’t going to believe him when he’s telling the truth.”
Besides being right, combined with the events described, my wife unknowingly made a profound connection about art. Let me explain: Great art should break with held patterns, unsettle us (even confuse and anger us), should provoke dialogue, and, once explained, should offer new perspective, and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relationships. I was fortunate to experience it in daily life, though the same experience can be had through engagement with art.
Matisse and the Fauvists were lambasted for their paintings, as was Picasso. Ulysses by James Joyce was banned in the United States for a time because it was considered obscene. Modernist poets like Eliot, Pound, H.D., Williams, Stevens, Moore, Bishop, and others all faced backlash (some more than others, I’m looking at you Pound). Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Edward Albee, Paula Vogel, Eugene Ienesco, Samuel Beckett, Lynn Nottage, Ben Jonson, even Shakespeare (and this is by no means an exhaustive list), have all faced degrees controversy from their contemporaries for their work. Indeed part of the job of the artist is to find new ways to tell truth, particularly if its uncomfortable.
While much ink has been wasted in the name of “experimental” whatever (because some of it is drivel), the spirit of experimentation is crucial. We need artists to recognize patterns in their mediums, as well as society, and have the wit and wherewithal to break patterns to wake audiences out of their somnambulism. Like with Declan and I, he broke with his mischievous pattern for a moment, I misunderstood it, and a third party (my wife) was able to create dialogue and jostle me out of a lazy behavior. As a result Declan and I have a better relationship. Beyond that, I can rattle off a number of plays, films, poems, novels, and books that have changed me – I think we all can.
But we need it to happen more. There are so many things in our routine lives that dull our senses, that distract us from the beauty and challenge of truth. So many patterns that have become too common, tired, stereotypical, or cliche. Some of these are artistic forms (like the sonnet), some are stories (who isn’t tired of the same boy meets girl narrative?), some are social, or economic, or religious, or a blend of all. But they need to be shaken up so we can be more present in life, to re-evaluate our life, and, hopefully, garner realizations about our life and how we live it.
But more art is only half an answer. We need to make our engagement with art stronger, more enriching. We need to be open to the ideas, and really be thoughtful about what it is we are taking in. If we don’t, we have zero chance of breaking with our own patterns and letting art change us.