“I write to make sense of the world” – Chris Deguire
“The job of the artist is to make the audience care about his obsessions” – Martin Scorsese
Hanging on the wall in my cabin are three photographs of me and the guys I used to play poker with. We’d play every month on a Friday night, and once a year, the annual Wisconsin World Cup Poker Bowl would take place over a long weekend at my cabin and property in northern Wisconsin. Over the course of the three and a half days, we’d drink, play poker, drink, fish, play poker, drink, ride ATVS, drink, play poker, see bears, drink, frequent local establishments, drink, play poker, walk around in the woods, drink, shoot clay pigeons, drink, and play poker. We’d also drink and play poker.
That was a few years ago now, and most of us have gone our separate ways. Although once or twice a year we still get together for a local poker night, the monthly games are gone, and the Wisconsin World Cup Poker Bowl hasn’t convened for a few years now. But it sure was fun when it lasted, and every time I look at those photos a different memory returns, a different story, and I can’t help but smile. The most recent photo, from one of the last of the Wisconsin World Cup Poker Bowls, shows us sitting at the picnic table outside of my cabin, with red plastic cups and near empty bottles of Maker’s Mark and Crown Royal and bottles of Rolling Rock, and big grins on everybody’s faces. Looking at it now makes me remember the story of Russell the Unbluffable, or the story of the Italian moon over the city of Madison, Wisconsin, or the story of the bear that nearly caved in the locked front door, and it makes me think that had we been Cro-Magnons dwelling in caves in the south of France, the photographs would be drawings on the cave walls. Looking at the photographs, I am struck by two things: one, how little at least this group of men has advanced since their cave dwelling ancestors, and two, by how elemental story telling is and has always been to being human.
Story telling is what sets us apart from the animal kingdom. It’s how we communicate, it’s how we relate, it’s how we connect with each other. When our spouse gets home from work, the first thing we ask is, “how was your day?” In other words, “tell me the story about what happened to you today.” In answering, we use all of the tools we’ve mastered over the years. We use language, gestures, vocal inflections, rhetoric, exaggeration, understatement, humor and irony.
Why is telling stories so important to us humans? I think there are many reasons, but the most obvious and primal reason is the knowledge of our own mortality. We put stories down, whether ink on paper, paintbrush on canvas, whatever, as a means of reminding others that at this point in time, I was here, and this was important to me. We have at our disposal the collected articulations and attempts to make sense of the universe and our place in it of all those who came before us, and as the universe and our world changes, art will be there to tell the stories of these changes and what they mean. It’s vitally important to our continued survival as a species, and to our continued evolution as individual complex organisms.
A few years ago, when cell phones were still proliferating, they came out with the first models with cameras embedded in them. I remember thinking, what a dumb idea, phones and cameras, it makes no sense. Another example of what a brilliant cultural visionary I’ve always been. It finally hit me when one night, at an after work function at a microbrewery in the northern Chicago suburbs, none other than Michael Jordan and a couple of his friends came in and sat at the table next to us. Appropriately star struck, I eventually looked back at the rest of the crowded restaurant to see nearly everyone holding their phones up, snapping pictures , and it hit me. They could call home and not just tell their families that they had seen Michael Jordan, they also had photographic proof. It had to be similar to when the printed word was first developed and later the printing press. Suddenly we had more than the oral tradition to record stories and hand them down and remember them.
Now, with the internet still relatively open and free, we are living in a golden age of expression. Anybody with the motivation and where with all can post their stories on web pages, just like I do on this one. Although this results in a tremendous amount of crap and drivel (this sight not excluded)to wade through, we should enjoy and treasure this brief period for as long as it lasts, as there is little doubt that once the powerful determine how to limit and censor these expressions they will. Art and freedom of expression have always been in the crosshairs of those who wish to manipulate and control, of those who want to impose their will on us. Every time you hear about a book being burned or banned you’re hearing an assault on the very essence of being a human being.
But no matter how much they try to control and limit us, corruption and cynicism will never triumph. As long as men and women can draw a breath, they will tell stories, stories of love and truth and beauty, of justice and injustice, of hope and dreams, of happiness and misery, of joy and agony, of moments stolen and preserved for all of time. It’s how we’ve always responded in times of oppression and brutality. It’s what we do. This is the story that all the trillions of stories told since the dawn of the human race combine to tell – that we are living and aware, and that each one of us matters.