• Peter VanderPoel

Sticks and Stones


The Blair Witch Project was a feature length campfire story that made the rounds in the movie theaters in the late 90's.

The most effective aspect of the movie is that the antagonist is never seen (see other posts about the artistic value of ambiguity).

At one point, the terrified kids tumble out of the tent and are conftronted with a stack of stones. They are reduced to shivering wrecks at the sight of this composition. Now, there was nothing particulary terrifying about the stones. They weren't that big, they weren't stacked that high and the kids could see thousands of the same type of stones lying about on the ground. What made this collection unique is not the stones themselves, but rather the meaning they represented. They reminded the campers that, unbeknownst to them, someone was sitting outside their tent last night and this someone probably meant to do them harm.

There are many places in the world where natural patterns appear and, when discovered by humans, are attributed to human-like dieties such as giants, devils and so on. When we see such clear patterns, we automatically imagine an intelligent origin. Below is Ireland's Giant's Causeway.

The work of Andy Goldsworthy portrays nature in a way that defies our understanding of nature. His two works, shown below, are made entirely of natural materials and appear in a natural setting. Most animals would think nothing of running across either of these circumstances. But humans will be startled by these scenes and try to find an explanation that makes sense as compared to their understanding of the natural world.

We believe that we can read human intent based on pattern; and we imagine a meaning that comes from it. In seeing the pattern we try to "understand" it and use that information predicively. I believe this is a solely a human trait. It's why we love murder mysteries and puzzles; they reveal hidden knowledge that is actually before us the whole time; the only thing missing is our understanding. Imagine reading a murder mystery that ends with the revelation that the butler did it, and then realizing - there was no butler in the book.

Although I am not an avid movie fan, I saw the movie, Forrest Gump. When I thought about it afterward, I interpreted it as a Silver Screen remake of the Garden of Eden with the twist that Adam does not take a bite. I don't know if that was the point the writer intended or not, but I felt I had a position that I could use to consider it, a meaning for me to test against what I believed to be its biblical precedent. Most of my friends were familiar enough with the Garden of Eden that they could discuss it in that vein as well. I felt like I "got" the movie, and so liked it. Most artist have some understanding of work that provides a precedent for their own. When the Blues Traveler's song, Run-Around started with the phrase, "Once upon a midnight dreary...", the same opening line as Edgar Allen Poe's, The Raven, I instantly loved it because I was familiar with the allusion, ( and it's so much more danceable than The Raven).

My father was a minister and once delivered a sermon about the Garden of Eden story from Genesis. This was at a time when there was a new revival in the debate about whether the events of the Bible were to be understood as literally occurring.

My father's point was this: Whether or not these events literally happened is not as important as what these stories are to teach us. He said that the story of Adam and Eve is the biography of every man and woman in the room. We have all desperately wanted to know something or to grow up, and it's not until that goal is obtained that we realize that what we so desperately wanted is not what it's cracked up to be - and we can never go back to our innocence. That's a meaning which all can relate to and understand.

As Victor Hugo pointed out in Notre Dame de Paris, architecture served a similar goal in medieval Paris and 90's movies. Like the Blair Witch Project, Notre Dame a pile of stones is imbued with meaning and purposefully communicates something that the creator wants the viewer to know.

In Percy Shelley's poem, the king Ozymandias, uses the arts to tell future generations of his power. For the traveller who relates his discovery of the remains, the poem describes the destruction wrought by nature and a long forgotten king, long dead and bereft of power, whose only remainder is an inscription of his arrogant boast that lies ignored in the sand.

Most artistic endeavors are conducted with a goal of reaching and touching other humans - to provide an emotion or understanding that is passed from artist to viewer whether in music, theater, architecture, sculpture or painting. The human desire for understanding, perhaps unique on Earth, may also be the most human trait. Harnessing that desire, understanding it's range and history is a powerful tool and the basis and value of most Art.