Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
Right now, instead of taking physics (my suggestion) or chemistry (my other suggestion), Li Ann, our a 17 year daughter, is utterly immersed in deconstructing and transmogrifying the story of Humpty Dumpty in words and pictures as part of a one year IB art course at Corning East High.
Her joyous pursuit of this `useless’ art class instead of a tangibly `employable` science had my anxious Asian parent genes morphing into weapons-grade viral form early in the school term. It hasn’t helped that the planet’s wheezing, tubercular economy is currently seizing and gurgling in fair imitation of a death rattle.
But I’m better now. I’m even better than better.
Something magical is happening atop our kitchen table each night where she works. Have a look at the first frame of her revisionist view of the story:
Each time I look at this picture and its text, bubbles of hilarity tickle and rise past my sternum and mystified delight burps and barks joyously in my breadbasket . Art and something more is growing next to our salt shaker, sugar bowl and napkin holder.
Her choice of this odd topic, and how she has set about to accomplish the task has been a revelation and unexpectedly brought me to a new place in my thinking about what will make the world go `round in the next 25 years.
“I view Humpty Dumpty-based on my foraging from the nursery rhyme and Lewis Carroll- as a tragic figure. A tragic hero ? No, for he is purportedly clumsy, rotund, stupid, arrogant (among many other things). But what if the story were changed; what if Humpty-Dumpty realized his failure in all areas (intellection, grace etc) ?”
Li Ann Fong, Art Journal entry, pg 18 9/30/08
I must confess that the first thing that caught my chemistry teacher’s eye was not her agile creative leap, but the attention paid to the bookkeeping. (I am such a nerd.)
Every page of her journal is dated and numbered ; each entry bristles with properly annotated references, footnotes and carefully pasted-in images she has found useful to her thinking. Frankly, the darned thing looks like a lab notebook from my organic chemistry lab. It even has a fair rendition of the odors from that venue, since her journal is redolent with trial paint samples, glue, and , I think, more than a little sweat.
Far from being the rats-nest of random `artsy’ and flighty jottings and scribbles I ignorantly assumed, Li Ann’s journal is a record of carefully written reflections mixed with diverse research from history, literature and art.
By perusing her journal I have learned that Humpty Dumpty was not originally an egg but the name of specific cannon used in the Siege of Colchester in 1648 during the English Civil war. Humpty Dumpty turns out to also be18th century duplicative slang for a short, clumsy person and I have learned that Lewis Carroll transformed all of this into a supercilious talking egg sitting on a wall in Through the Looking Glass. Li Ann even recopied his most relevant dialogue on page 17 of her journal (on 9-30-08)
“I don’t know what you mean by `glory’,” Alice said. Humpty-Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t-till I tell you . When I use a word, “ Humpty-Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “ it means just what I chose it to mean.”
Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass & Wikopedia.com
Without looking askance at the use of (gasp) Wikopedia as a source, my daughter’s clearly enunciated leap of creative imagination (“… what if Humpty Dumpty realized his failure in all areas ?”) has the feel of something like sharp scientific speculation rooted in data, albeit “data” culled from the work of Lewis Carroll and research on 18th century English slang.
My own `creative leap’ here is supported by evidence of objective experimentation and recording of results in her journal. On pages 21 and 22 therein, four trial versions of Humpty Dumpty are painted on several weights of paper and there is an obviously systematic consideration of colors for bricks, egg shell and sky . On these same pages there are judicious comments, e.g.: “ bad shape for head’ , `face still needs improvement,’ and `too much detail ??’
Like a chemist culling through the myriad lines and wandering wiggles of a mass spectrum for the chemical linchpin, my daughter is assiduously testing material, color and shape for the `answer.’ This model of the process of art-as-science has a nice inclusive ecumenical feel. It’s also comforting-at least to scientist dad.
Then I came to this entry in her journal sitting by itself and seemingly out of joint with all the things that came before. It snapped my head back.
“Frame 2:…There is a single adornment on the wall in this one, the childish cuckoo clock, a symbol of time and a playful decoration. He is drinking at 9:25 AM…..”
Li Ann Fong, Art Journal entry, pg 26 10/15/08
Here’s where the artist-as-scientist analogy breaks down, and, quixotically, why I am feeling so good right now about my daughter’s future. Constrained by both conservative `belt and suspenders’ scientific culture and by the simple reality that Mother Nature doesn’t give a fig for what we think, scientists don’t get to shape `frame 2.’ They only get to unearth and display what has already been there from the beginning.
But being able to jump unfettered to a ‘next frame’ ad infinitum is exactly what’s needed now.
Technology has moved so fast and so far in the last 15 years, that the capability of our tools outstrip our imagination’s ability to use them. Moore’s law -which posits that the speed of the chip will double every 6 months- is breaking the innovation bank. We’re now at a point where using a microchip + wireless internet in your refrigerator to tell Wegman’s to deliver a 12 oz package of Oscar-Mayer bologna to your doorstep form the backbone of serious business plans.
We’re also in a world where it seems few new stories are ever told (how many vampire yarns are out there right now ???) and every major motion picture is an extension of an older, tried and true formula. (Quick, tell me, how many James Bond films have been made ???) Even as a hopelessly addicted Star Trek junkie, I have to wonder- after 7 movies and 4 TV series if we really need another retelling of that chestnut? (Quick answer: yes, but I am a sick puppy.)
What’s needed these days is someone who can fuse a few lines from Lewis Carroll and some English slang into a nascent, darkly funny story with uniquely designed and executed pictures, metered and rhymed dialogue and wry social commentary (and do it from a kitchen table in Beaver Dams NY- while listening to her I-Pod and texting her sister.)
Being able to create and think so far outside the box that geometry disappears will be more in demand in the future than any solid state engineer finagling 2% more speed out of ICs. That’s the world Li Ann’s dad inhabited, but it’s not where things are going.
The electronic games industry is bigger than the film industry, network TV or the Big 3 automakers. `Imagineers’ (Disney’s term for creative artists) rather than engineers are often the most sought after new hire at companies and inductive, intuitive thinking is now more important than deductive thinking;. The latter has led to the clunky, endlessly dissembling platform of the PC; the former has bred the elegant, seamlessly performing MAC, I-Phones and a world hurtling towards instantaneous and effortless connectivity with everyone and everything all the time.
In this post-industrial, post-consumer, post-American age someone who can turn a children’s verse into a tragedy of sudden self-awareness and failed hubris in 5 frames will do just fine. And they’ll have fun doing it.
Like Humpty Dumpty, my world view where science, math and engineering are the way of the future has taken a big fall. Yes, they are important, but they’re not the whole thing anymore. Li Ann has the sense to know it and has blithely ignored her hand-wringing dad.
And so it’s more than a little ironic that egg figures prominently in Li Ann’s final frame her story. It has ended up on more than the sidewalk, and her dad is glad to wipe it off his face and stop worrying.