A Call to Step Out of Line

Last week I toured an art exhibit at my local Lightcatcher Museum honoring the life work of a man I had never heard of before. It’s called “WANTED: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace.” I recommend going if you can.

The docent focused on getting our group to voice what the artist’s images made us think about. There was so much to see, so much to let settle into my mind and heart. She talked about how Ed Bereal uses symbols and white space to make a point, and that the power of art is that it is interactive with the viewer: we bring our perspective to the piece in a kind of conversation with the artist, and (in this instance) with each other. I never took Art History in school, so have never really had a guided experience of talking about art with others.

Bereal’s images are disturbing. Near the entrance of the exhibit, in a life-size sculpture, several bored-looking white people (mannequins) stand in line to step up to a podium where a man, eyes wide in a head that had been turned upside down and backwards, is being staked through the throat by a mechanized Statue of Liberty/Miss America.

With my word-of-the-year (VOICE) still very much in my mind, I immediately thought, “this is about how we are all standing in line, waiting to have our voices stolen from us.” The image has stayed with me. Our voices are stabbed out of us—yet we seem surprised when it happens. We wait in line for it to happen! This is killing us, obviously. No one in the line—again, all white people—seems to be paying attention to what is happening, what they are in line for. As a white person myself, I can’t help but think this is about me. We are all just waiting our turn, patiently.

The Title of this piece is: MISS AMERICA: MANUFACTURING CONSENT (UPSIDE DOWN AND BACKWARDS)“

Wake up, world!” this seems to say. Wake up, white people! Your America is not what you think she is. She is dangerous. She is mechanical. She is at least a little obscene with her fleshy bulbous breasts exposed. Does that mean she is supposed to be nurturing or sexy or…? I didn’t get the idea that she was a puppet, but definitely man-made, a destruction machine. We have made her what she is, we Americans.

I can see that I could take this as a warning from minorities that whites need to shut up, open their eyes, and get a different perspective.  Or/and it can mean that whites have created this appalling reality we live in where people feel powerless to change anything. Or that the reason we feel powerless is because we are waiting in line to have our power—our voices—removed from us. Or/and…or/and… This must be the sign of great art, or art that has done its job anyway: it gets a response.

Along with much of the world, I heard Greta Thunberg’s words at the United Nations this week. Her voice, her passion, her youth, her total knowledge that she has not just the right but the duty to speak, the duty to act, reminds me of Joan of Arc. She shames us, we who tippy-toe into our support to stop raping our planet and the life Earth sustains.

It’s too easy to stand in line and let those in the White House make me feel like a stake has been driven through my larynx. Stepping out of the line is scary, because I’m not even sure what it means. I’m not sure what I’m doing, not sure what I’m risking, not sure that I have the  energy as a not very ambitious writer who gets extremely nervous at the thought of talking to people I don’t know.

But Greta Thunberg is doing it. She’s doing it brilliantly. And if we all step out of line to speak and do SOMETHING—make those in power pay attention—make our friends and neighbors pay attention—we will all model for each other.

And we must do it now. I must. I need to walk the talk and talk the talk also, knowing I cannot be perfect, knowing that even if I fail, I will have tried.

What comforts will I ignore to push for more action? What other causes and passions? What friends will I lose when I step out of line? What friends might I gain? Personally, locally, regionally, nationally, globally? I’m pretty scared I’ll fail, but my good heavens, Mathilda! What have I been trying to learn and teach  my whole life? Failure is not the problem. The problem is having no hope, of letting despair take me over and give me permission to do nothing.

“How dare you?” Greta Thunberg demands.

How dare I allow myself this luxury of having no hope? How dare I?

NOTE: Just as I was about to push “publish” on this post, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper entitled “It’s Time to Step Out of Line” came up in my email. I guess my psyche keeps pretty grand company.

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