My dad, who was in town for two days, said something surprising: “Let’s go see the Hirshhorn.” This from the man who, while touring Mount Vernon, was infinitely more interested in knowing what kind of rope was being used as a queue barrier than anything inside the house or on the grounds. Or who spent several minutes compulsively Googling to try to deduce the function of the little baffles he saw above the gutters on some metal shingled houses in my neighborhood (and please, don’t even get him started on the shingles themselves).
I should back up a second. My dad has never been an overly peaceful person. He was the kind of guy who would preach the value of patience and then lose his patience with me when I wasn’t patient enough. I don’t view it as hypocrisy, because I was a little shit when I was growing up. But I see my childhood as a time when we were both figuring things out. I was always trying to please him, and he put a lot of pressure on himself to do the right thing and be the best at everything whether he was hammering a nail or playing golf or re-arranging the living room or cooking or whatever. As a result, he’s absorbed in the practicalities of life, and he likes them to be in order. So naturally, we went off to see some modern art.
We tiptoed through the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden, spending about as much time looking at the Burghers of Calais and Yoko Ono’s wishing tree as we did our own distorted reflections in the weird little mirror box in the lower level. I warned him again that this would be a strange museum, and he said that was fine. He told me about something he’d read where an artist admitted he had no secret insight into the piece that he’d created — that he’d just needed to make something and that it would mean different things to different people, and that it was fine to look at his art that way. On a simplistic but totally appropriate level, he said, art will always mean different things to different people. I told him that it was like books belonging to the reader, and he said yes, and we went inside.
Then he got all absorbed in stuff like I hadn’t seen him in an art museum before. He looked at Hershey’s candy wrappers trimmed and framed into a repeating pattern. He stared at metallic arrangements and sussed out their geometric complexities until they made sense to him. He scanned a floor to ceiling arrangement of garment hangers and (I guess?) appreciated the beauty of the patterns of repeating curves and hooks. And I watched him. And then I saw “The A Train.”
I had seen this sculpture before and thought it was stupid. It’s made of railroad ties and metal girders and a miniature set of steps suspended from the ceiling. What a ridiculous thing. But thinking about each display as some sort of metaphor makes it easier to see some value, some message, where maybe none existed before. If this sculpture is life, what is life? It’s constructed of durable materials. It’s fastened together in a totally sturdy, reasonable way. But where does it go? Can I climb those steps? Do they lead anywhere? And this is what we do. We build things and hope that they come together the way we want them to, and we fasten the pieces of our life to other pieces that seem study enough to take it, and sometimes that works and we make a ladder, and sometimes we just end up making three steps that hang off another piece of metal and don’t take you anywhere.
This piece could just be some sort of commentary about angles, or something more abstract that I may probably never understand, but I think my dad is right. Art belongs to the viewer. It’s your right to find a metaphor that makes sense to you. You don’t have to figure out what it means, but just unscramble what you see so that it makes sense to you.
And that brings me to one of the things I love most about my dad. He can code shift. He can fuss over the practicalities of any given situation but he can reduce a complex situation to a digestible idea in one sentence. He flirts with his fair share of steps to nowhere, but he’s also one of the real things that I fasten myself to when I want to make sure I don’t float away.