Finding Meaning in Art

July 17, 2020

My moment came at one of the least expected times for me over the past few weeks. To begin, I am not a lover of art. I generally am not a fan of art museums at all. About four years ago I married my wife who was a fine arts major at Penn State University and is currently an art teacher in Wake County, North Carolina. She has tried to convince me of the value of works of art and she has taken me to numerous art museums. I have never been one to get it, though, as I see a painting or sculpture and then move on to the next one.

On Wednesday July 25th, 2018 our NEH Summer Institute (Contested Territory) made a trip to the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina and my group went to the second floor to spend thirty minutes looking at one piece of art from Southeast Asia. This work was by Dinh Q. Le called Untitled #9 from Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness and I could not believe there was nothing else in the room beyond one piece of art. We were asked to bring our chairs up close to the piece. When we were asked to explain what we saw in the work, I was amazed that so many people could see so much and such a variety of things in the work. We switched angles and people then explained the new things they saw from a different perspective. I couldn’t believe it. One work of art could bring so much out of so many different people. The artist in this particular piece was attempting to display some of the horror and emotion associated with the violence in Cambodia in the late 1970’s.

When I spoke with my wife about it that evening she got excited. Without even seeing the piece she tried to explain what the artist may have been attempting to do with colors and what he may have sought by placing the pictures how he did. While I am in no way going to become an art expert, the emotion one work could bring from so many people was a valuable lesson for me and gives me new appreciation for the role art can play in keeping history alive.