I was making dinner the other day, and I happened to glance out the window and see three boys walking home from the neighborhood swimming pool. They were fooling around, as boys are wont to do, and I paid them little notice until I saw one stooping down in the middle of the street with a piece of chalk. They all glanced around furtively, giggling a little as the boy finished. Then they dashed away.
This is the drawing he left on my street:
Well, it’s not exactly “street art,” despite its having been drawn directly on a street. It’s what you might call a “representational” drawing, not at all observational–or, for that matter, particularly interesting even as graffiti goes. Despite the fact that the artist must have seen a number of such objects in the real world (remember, he just left the locker room of a public swimming pool), he does not even attempt a proportional rendition, nor is there any attempt at the provocative exaggeration so typical of the genre. Vapid and jejune, this drawing fails even to mildly shock to middle-class suburban proprieties that it was probably intended to transgress. There is nothing even remotely unique about the drawing, nothing to arrest the attention of a passerby. If it was meant as a protest, it is a remarkably feeble one. If it was meant as a joke, it’s one we’ve all heard before. We take in the banality at a glance and dismiss it with a shrug.
But that, I suppose, is only to be expected given its being executed in about twenty seconds by a twelve-year-old boy. It got me thinking, though, that occasionally we all have the opportunity to express ourselves– to make our mark, to say something significant–outside of or even against the constraints of our cultural norms. How do we respond to that opportunity? If we could say anything and get away with it, what would we say? How many people really have something more significant to say than this twelve-year-old boy did?
Such opportunities come seldom and without warning, and we are likely to react by reproducing whatever one of my friends calls “the artwork on the walls of our minds.” Whatever images or objects we have contemplated, whatever songs or poems we have memorized, it is these that will naturally spring to our consciousness when we are summoned to make a public statement. And when we fail to respond to that summons with anything substantial, it reveals how impoverished our memory and imagination truly are. The average mind is cluttered with trash–advertising jingles, sentimental quotations, and (let’s be frank) pornography–that has become permanent by sheer force of repetition.
What would have happened, I wonder, had this young man spent some serious time in school (or even at home) contemplating the works of the great painters and sculptors? What if he had memorized a few evocative poems? Perhaps he might have left something really provocative on the street outside my house. I know some poems from Catullus that he might find downright shocking.
My preference, though, is for irony. So I grabbed a piece of sidewalk chalk and wrote an ironizing caption underneath the picture.
The quotation is from Proverbs 5:16: “Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?” I don’t expect that the original artist would recognize or understand the quotation, let alone the sexual imagery of the lines. I left off the source reference because, where I live, anything with a Bible-verse reference is generally taken as a criticism. I wasn’t aiming to condemn; I just wanted to provoke a moment of puzzlement in anybody who happened to see the captioned drawing.
I happened to know this quotation because I teach sections of Proverbs as poetry in my World Literature class. It’s part of the artwork hanging on the walls of my mind, alongside lines from Shakespeare and poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins and W. H. Auden. (My stock of visual images is more limited, and consists mainly of furniture types and species of wood.) I’d like to add more, so I’m working on memorizing a few Psalms, alongside poems by John Milton and T. S. Eliot.
It takes a lot of work to hang such artwork on the walls of our minds, but it will stand us in good stead when we are called upon to leave our mark on the world.