Thursday, October 9, 2014

NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth?

The Flight of Dedalus and Icarus by Roger Brown (detail)
If you live in Chicago, you probably know about one piece of public art that serves to remind us of the nuclear weapon-dominated world we have created for ourselves: the Henry Moore sculpture Nuclear Energy that sits at the spot on the University of Chicago campus directly above the site where scientists achieved the first atomic chain reaction in 1942, "Chicago Pile-1."

The Moore sculpture is one spot where activists in Chicago have traditionally held protests and vigils against the nuclear threat.

But when it comes to nuclear age public art, Chicagoans should thing in twos.

Floating over strange land, skating over thin ice

I've long wanted to write about the mesmerizing music of XTC, particularly their Oranges and Lemons album.

Uffington White Horse
"the oldest chalk hill figure in the country"
(More aerial views.)
(See also XTC's English Settlement album cover.)
I remember the moment when I made the connection between the song "Chalkhills and Children" and a stunningly beautiful mural in the Chicago Loop.

I'm floating over strange land,
It's a soulless, sequined, showbiz moon
I'm floating over strange land,
And then stranger still, there's no balloon

But I'm getting higher . . .

There is a mural at 120 N. LaSalle Street (just across from City Hall) that clear depicts Dedalus and Icarus.

"It's all about me! (Isn't it?)"

In one of my episodes of personal crisis as a young adult, a therapist helped me see that I had gotten into a perilous situation of cruising along, higher and higher, on top of the world, everything going great; and that I had no concept that there could be another side to life, or that things might change. I was set up to crash and burn.

The Flight of Dedalus and Icarus by Roger Brown
120 N. LaSalle Street, Chicago
I'm skating over thin ice,
Upon blunted blades of metal soft
I'm skating over thin ice,
While some nonesuch net holds me aloft

But I'm getting higher . . .

So the story of Icarus -- who flew on wings made for him by his artisan father Dedalus, until he flew too close to the sun, the wings disintegrated, and he crashed into the sea -- felt like a narrative that to reflect on for its relevance to my personal life.  The soothing tones of the XTC song suit that kind of reflection; and the rich blues of the sky (sea?) in the Dedalus and Icarus mural invite personal connection.

And those tones and hues suited a category of dream that I often have -- a dream of flying over the landscape. ("How did I not realize that this is all that it takes to fly?")  After those dreams, the moment of waking has always been filled with a sense of regret -- I can't quite remember how one does the flying thing . . . it's slipping from my grasp . . . . 

It wasn't until I went to a film screening about a group of Chicago artists -- including the creator of the Dedalus and Icarus mural -- that I saw these dreams of soaring in another light.

Nightmares of fire

At a screening of a new film about artists who have helped define the Chicago scene ever since the '60s -- Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists -- I was startled to hear one of the artists describe the influence on his work of dreams and nightmares he had as a child.

Roger Brown (b. 1941) was describing traveling as a child with his parents in the U.S. South during the summer months, and dreaming that cities on the horizon were being consumed by flame. Those dreams seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by the fire and brimstone preaching at the revival meetings they were attending. But I can't help imaging that, growing up in the duck-and-cover, post-Bikini-Atoll, fallout-shelter -- hey, where's our fallout shelter?? -- '50s, Roger Brown had another inspiration for his dreams of burning cities.

City Expanding, Roger Brown

In the film, Brown explains that these terrifying dreams gave rise to a signature element in his art: the glowing horizons present in many of his paintings.

When I went to look at examples of his paintings on the Internet, I discovered not just glowing horizons -- lots of glowing horizons -- but also that Brown is the creator of The Flight of Dedalus and Icarus at 120 N. LaSalle.

It's about us

So now I'm marveling at the adjacency of this piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city.

I'm soaring over hushed crowds,
The reluctant cannonball it seems
I'm soaring over hushed crowds,
I'm propelled up here by long dead dreams
Still I'm getting higher . . .

I think that Roger Brown, with all of his social consciousness, must have wanted us to think as a collective about what we are doing to the world by soaring too high.

(Expect to hear more from me about Roger Brown - a lot more . . . . )

Related posts

I never quite understood how much of a Chicago story the Bomb and opposition to it really is. I can think of at least three reasons why people right here in Chicago -- today -- need to make themselves heard about nuclear disarmament . . .

(See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

Do we have a way to immerse ourselves in the experience of what the use of those nuclear weapons would really mean -- prospectively -- so that we can truly cause ourselves to confront our own inaction?

(See Stop engaging in risky behavior )

"It's not enough to remember this just once a year; it's not enough that we make a single book -- Hiroshima -- required reading, and never go beyond that. There should be a whole canon that people study progressively, year by year, to grasp and retain the horror of this."

(See FIRE AND BLAST: A Curriculum that Confronts Nuclear Danger?)

In a world that grows increasingly drone-crazy, I marvel as I read Asimov and see the way in which he foresaw the ethical conundrum in which we now find ourselves embroiled. Story after story and essay after essay tease out the issues involved. The "I, Robot" literature is well-known to techies, but should be much more broadly studied by the general public.

(See A Modest Proposal: Debate the Drones )

What if the rest of the world suddenly found itself in a different position?  What if the rest of the world had a button in front of them, and by pressing that button, they could make the United States vanish? Would they say, "We must never, ever press this button; no, we will just continue to implore the United States to eliminate the weapons that threaten our destruction" ? Or would the rest of the world say, "This is our only salvation" ?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States) )

I wonder how many young people will go to see The Wind Rises. We in the antiwar movement talk a lot about "counter-recruitment" -- obstructing the attempts to lure high school students into the military. I can't think of a more meaningful form of counter-recruitment than encouraging young people to see The Wind Rises, and to think about the questions that it asks.

(See Boys and Their Toys (Trying to Understand "The Wind Rises") )

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