Close Encounters of the Third Kind came on the telly this evening so I left it running while I was finishing up the budget for a grant proposal. I’ve been reading this murder mystery that takes place in Wales, which makes me say things like “telly.” Not sure why, but reading has always been a full-contact sport for me–mental and physical. In real life, I often feel like I’m standing just on the edge of things, observing. But in books, I’m always in situ. I finally gave into the cravings for rice and eggs after a few days of reading Clavell’s King Rat because all the POWs were only ever served rice and eggs. It’s not always convenient, but it certainly makes reading more vibrant.
Back to the telly. I’m not always keen on background noise, in fact, I’d say I alternate fairly evenly between clamor and silence when I’m trying to get things done. But today happened to be a noise day. Sometimes, noise days are iPod-generated with a single song set on repeat. I’m always pretty busy inside my head–most artists are–and having an easily-dismissed-but-constant-uniform sound helps me focus. I am not ADD or OCD or whatever other string of letters might describe this behavior, just a busy thinker.
Anyhoo, an interesting thing happens in Close Encounters, something I really hadn’t put together until now. (I saw the movie just as I was entering my banking phase, long before life as a professional artist.) The story culminates with humans encountering and departing–presumably back to the home planet–with aliens. Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but the plot is pretty much disclosed in the title. Leading up to the inevitable finale are signs and communications, alien travel confirmations and ETAs, if you will.
The interesting part is that these communications come as drawings and sculptures. One woman is obsessed with sketching what turns out to be Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. And who can forget Richard Dreyfus’s mountain of mashed potatoes, which is just a preliminary model for the nine-foot mud-version in the middle of his living room. Maybe aliens speak to humans in this way because the art-brain is more receptive to connection and less encumbered by expectation. I know this sounds a little wacko; I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with (save the obvious Dali-ites who relish the wacko label).
Fundamentally, artists act as a kind of surrogate for society–we do what others cannot or will not. We express sensitivity and vulnerability, we expose and consider the things others turn away from. It is an artist’s job to grapple with fear, discomfort, and inadequacy in order to lead the examined life, disturb the peace, and make our discontent everything except quiet. Art is, by definition, unsettling–like mud-mountains in the living room.
Then again, maybe all artists are just visitors here on Planet Normal and you humans allow us to stay because you know you need us…