Every week, Kurt Andersen asks the question "What work of art changed your life?" Andersen is the host of PRI's Studio 360, a weekly radio show and podcast that focuses on art, architecture, literature, design and culture. He is one of my many heroes.
This is a question I've been contemplating lately. Since settling into my job and new lifestyle post-grad school, I find myself missing what it means to be inspired. Productive, yes, and efficient, maybe, but inspired? I miss that.
There are those moments of awe that one expects when encountering a famous work of art. I remember the hour I spent at the Prado in Madrid, standing opposite the gorgeous, caterwauling Guernica. How I'd never survived anything so harrowing and yet was struck by an insane sense of familiarity, staring at all those mournful open mouths, those absurd horses. I still think of wandering into Neue Wache in Berlin, where Kathe Kollwitz's iconic sculpture Mother with Dead Son filled the entire room with an emptiness that only solid rock can create. I remember hearing Amy Goodman speak one winter at UCSB, in the depths of Bush's second administration, when all things independent and all things progressive seemed somehow at risk, and here she was, this small woman with the loudest, smartest, clearest voice.
These were all grand, immense moments of feeling; experiences that made me want to go home and write like mad, find the truth of it, whatever it was, and make it real. Make it raw.
And yet one moment somehow stands out, perhaps because of its irreverence. It was the summer of 2007 and I had just moved back to the States after a year abroad. I was working as a teaching assistant and camp counselor, the kind of job that requires you to be awake and on for 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week. I was a year out of college, lost in that schizophrenic gap between being a student and being a professional. My students were loud and outgoing and demanding of attention and time. I was worn out.
One of our last responsibilities during the three-week session was to host a camp talent show. There were skits and inside jokes, magic tricks and songs. I kept my eyes on my watch. And then a young woman came to the stage. She couldn't have been more than 15. She was wearing dance clothes but she didn't look like a ballerina, at least not the Balanchine kind. She danced to a long, slow song, a breathy song, a mournful song, a song that cast a pall over our teenage audience. The room grew quiet. I couldn't tell you what it was exactly that she was doing--they weren't pirouettes, but rather something more modern, more messy, yet controlled. It was a quiet, intense fury. It was adolescence; underrated, difficult, surprisingly articulate. She never broke a sweat. She had a self-possession that I, years older, had yet to learn. I had no idea what I was doing with my life but she expressed it all for me, without the crutch of words.
I never found out her name. As talented as she was, I almost didn't want to know. I've been lucky to witness a number of amazing performances since, but I've never forgotten the way she danced. The abandon, the forgiveness, the grace.
There's no comparing her performance to any other work of art that has left its impression. What makes art impressive to me is the narrative it creates for us--whether it's a story we all know, or a story we believe is being told to us, and us alone. And those are the stories I want to write.