The image above is a sculpture made by the artist Ron Mueck. An incredibly gifted artist who is able to render the human form with profound authority; he captures the “experience” of what it means to live and imbues his sculptures with rich, emotional interiors. They radiate a captured “moment” that leaves the viewer wondering about their narrative: What is this couple dealing with, what kind of problem or news have they been discussing, what are they presently trying to work through, or understand. They are at the beach, a beautiful day, and yet the emotional residue of their posture alludes to something “other.” The way this man holds on to what we might assume is his wife’s arm, as though an anchor…her empathetic smile of knowing, or of compassion…it is incredibly powerful, and deeply captivating, and causes an unlocking as we yearn to understand.
I am currently lucky enough to lead a book club in my son’s 4th/5th grade class, and we are reading a terrific book by the author R. J. Palacio, called Wonder. The story is about a boy who is entering school for the first time at the age of 10 (the 5th grade). He was born with severe facial deformities and has spent the majority of his young life in and out of hospitals, having surgeries performed to improve the quality of his life, and appearance. The author touches lightly on providing direct description of Auggie (the central character’s name), allowing the reader to imagine how he might appear (by and large) through the reaction of others when they see him. It’s a powerful book to read with kids at this age (9 and 10), an age when differences really matter, when everybody wants to be like everybody else, when “standing out” is cause for embarrassment or despair. But there is still a “purity” to kids this age, an ability to “see” others without putting a lot of preconceived ideas around them…and a willingness to accept, because they want to play handball or soccer or freeze tag! Their rules aren’t yet complicated, and by and large, they play things pretty straight forward.
And so Wonder…and the sculptures of Mueck. The gift of this book, and of these sculptures, is the free license for us to stop and stare, to gaze directly, to talk openly, to engage in our curiosity, without feeling like we must cloak ourselves or our feelings. In real life we can’t stop and stare at a stranger, it would be considered rude. But here, Mueck stages “moments” that allow us the open window to stare all we like, to try and better understand our fellow humans: their struggles, their experiences, their sorrows, their being…as does Palacio, with her novel. So much of life is mysterious, and I believe that we all feel, from time to time, this bewilderment of wondering and wanting to ask, and wanting to know, and wanting to reach out and better understand…but we stop ourselves out of fear of embarrassment, or appearing rude, or inconsiderate, or afraid that we might cause discomfort by bringing up the “White Elephant in the Room.” The power of Art to transform is indisputable, and if we are willing to look, we can deepen the way we experience our own lives.
Sometimes, in order to see the small, the minuscule (like an individual life), we need to see it bigger than it is, blown up in our face, so that we can experience the totality of this one mighty, and powerful thing. An entire universe resides in the life and body of one being…one simple, ordinary, human being – one completely and profoundly unique human being. Wonder, and Mueck’s sculptures, act as a mirror, providing us the portal to see ourselves in the “other” – and to see the “other” in ourselves. To see the wonder, in who we are.
The discussions that I’ve had in my son’s class with these 9 and 10 year olds, about Auggie (the disfigured central character of Wonder) have been incredibly hopeful and uplifting; the students are open, accepting, and talk with compassion about what they think it might be like to look so different from everybody else. And yes, I suppose you could say it’s all theoretical – Auggie is only a character in a book, and the students have never had to face, in real life, a fellow student who was so deeply disfigured. There is truth there. But, I deeply feel that books like this expand their understanding of the world, and all the possibilities of it.
Because the kids are reading a challenging book about a challenging life for a boy the same age as them, I truly believe that they would be better able to engage with that individual, in real life – because they were able to explore this, safely, through Art. Art provides safe distance, a way to talk openly and without reservation about challenging life “things.” The doorway to Questioning is the Arts’ greatest asset…to question, to ponder, to think. Ultimately, we come to know more of who we are, and why…and that can, and will, elevate all of society.