Modern Art make caveman feel old

When you’re very young, many things confuse you. Over time you change and you begin to understand more and more until you hit the prime of life, that fleeting moment when you understand as much about the world as you are ever going to. For that split second, you are in the grove, a knower of things, wise and worldly.

Then the world changes, and you understand less and less. Green reality turns to brown, dries to a brittle sheen, and floats away on a chilly breeze. All at once you are old.

I am old.

There are many things I no longer understand, but that which most recently warned me of my slipping mental grasp is stripes.

I didn’t understand stripes in my youth either. Circa 1971, my parents dressed me in a polyester shirt of many discordant, horizontal stripes, sporting a zipper V-neck with a metal hoop pull tab. I never figured out why. As I grew up, I discovered horizontal stripes look best on flags, while slim, sparse, vertical ones are better for fashion.

I thought I’d made my peace with stripes until our visit to the local art museum this past weekend.  The horizontal stripes were back, bigger and bolder than ever.

Even on my peak day in this world, I would not have presumed to understand art. My peak day is farther behind me than I realized. There are two huge rooms of stripes, and nothing else.

Hover over photos to see captions.

My wife asked the docent about the fabulous stripes. What I got is second-hand, but the upshot is the courageous artist freed us from the bondage of needing anything more than big stripes on big canvas to be aesthetically fulfilled. Perhaps this explains the tingle of aesthetic liberty I’ve been experiencing all week.

If only it were just the stripes conspiring to age me. There was also this.

or not so falling

Walls just don’t collapse the way they used to.

I roused the courage to ask the docent about this one. “It’s a falling wall,” she told me. I didn’t want to upset her, so I didn’t point out it wasn’t actually falling. There was more timber holding up that wall than the non-falling walls all around us. Maybe they were just supporting it until the crowd got there. I suppose you don’t want to advertise a ground-breaking Falling Wall exhibit and have all the latecomers be disappointed by a run-of-the-mill Fallen Wall exhibit.

Also in this gallery were two projector lamps projecting nothing but light onto the walls. The docent confessed the projector exhibits were open to interpretation. The boys interpreted them to mean they were to make shadow puppets on the wall. Some of the hand gestures were very artful.

We didn’t have time to view the rest of the museum because my family had to rush me to the Home Goods section of Target so I could flip through framed prints before I started shaking my cane and shouting demented gibberish at our brave new world.

Our friend, Mr. Lincoln

About a year ago, someone gave us a book about Abraham Lincoln. The book is for a much older child, but I read some of it to my son anyway. Since then, every time we see Lincoln’s image somewhere, the boy shouts, “Look! It’s Mr. Lincoln!”

My son never refers to the man as Abe Lincoln or President Lincoln. It’s always Mr. Lincoln, which has that perfect blend of the familiar and the respectful that I find so endearing. I now also refer to the 16th president as Mr. Lincoln.

Lincoln life mask in Smithsonian

The Lincoln life mask at the Smithsonian. Even though we both thought it was a little creepy, the boy stopped racing through the museum long enough for us to take a good look.

My son doesn’t really know who Mr. Lincoln was. He doesn’t fully understand the role of the presidents yet. As far as he knows, Mommy is the only Chief Executive in the world and Daddy is her office intern. Mr. Lincoln is famous mostly because his image keeps popping up in various places from time to time, much like Mickey Mouse.

In spite of his ignorance of Mr. Lincoln’s place in the world, my son has developed an affinity for the man. This became evident on our recent trip to Washington, D.C. when we spent an afternoon visiting Ford’s Theater.

We were early for our tour at Ford’s, so we went to the nearby wax museum. Every president was represented in wax. “Creepy,” my son pronounced them, and not just because they were politicians. We began taking pictures of ourselves with the figures, but the boy would have none of it. He wouldn’t be in the same frame with any of them. Washington, Madison, Jackson, Pierce, they were all just scary zombies. I don’t blame him about Pierce; I wouldn’t have my picture taken with Franklin Pierce either.

The only wax figure the boy would consent to take a picture with was the statue of Mr. Lincoln. He wasn’t especially comfortable with the idea, but he agreed to it. He knew Mr. Lincoln was a good guy, the kind of guy that would never hurt a little kid.

Presidential Box at Ford's Theater

The Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater. Because of all the references to this room, my son calls Ford’s the “Box Museum.” Although it’s not the kind of place you might expect to appeal to children, my son has already asked if we could go to the Box Museum again.

At Ford’s Theater, I explained to the boy that this was the place where Mr. Lincoln was shot. The shooting was, I believe, news to him. It took a while for it to sink in. We saw a sculpture of John Wilkes Booth in a room with photographs of all the conspirators. My son pointed to the picture of George Atzerodt and asked, “Is that the man who shot Mr. Lincoln?”

I guided him to the correct photograph. “This is the man who shot Mr. Lincoln. His name was John Wilkes Booth.” The boy studied the picture in silence.

The derringer Booth used was in a sealed case. Behind it was an illustration of the moment of assassination.  As my boy looked at the picture he became agitated. “I wish I had that gun,” he said, “I’d shoot that guy.” He pointed at Booth in the illustration.

My first impulse was to tell him he was a few days too late, but I held my tongue. This was serious. Somebody had shot Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln, that nebulous man who somehow only existed in pictures and in wax, was familiar. He was a friend. The boy wanted to save him, even though, deep down, he realized that he couldn’t. He knew he was too late and it made him sad.

Currier & Ives lithograph of Lincoln assassination

A sad moment in history, and in the afternoon of one little boy.

Three-year-old children can’t always explain how their emotions are affected. We went upstairs to the theater to hear a 30-minute talk about the assassination. My son sat through the entire presentation without making a peep or kicking the back of the seat in front of him. He didn’t stand up and he didn’t ask me how long we had sit here. His behavior was as unusual as it was exemplary.

My son sat quietly; I dare say he sat respectfully. I don’t think he did this for me, nor for his mother. I don’t even think he did this for the speaker. I think he did this for his friend, Mr. Lincoln.