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America is hardest to see

Ali Dipp

In a decade, will I remember the phrase that encapsulates the past five years? Words stretch, we grow, and more often than not, after a phase, passes it forgets its phrase. I’ve found, or maybe lost, time in a phrase—America is hard to see. America is Hard to See: the first show at the new Whitney in 2015. While memory returns to a few pieces often, the title of the show impresses most markedly (the show’s appellative originated from a Robert Frost poem).[1]

  1. Moffett, D. (1987). He Kills Me [offset lithography]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  2. Kelley, M. (1987) More Love Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin [Stuffed fabric toys and afghans on canvas with dried corn; wax candles on wood and metal base]. The Whitney Museum of American Art.

America is hard to see. I agree, Whitney, but a disclaimer regarding the task’s profuse difficulty could have helped 1,460 days ago—five bloody years of searching. Don’t believe me, let me ask you this, what impossibilities are present when one envisions America? A first few attempts expose the vastness of the question. We might begin by simply naming off fifty states, or compiling a list of rivers, lakes, and mountains, whatever suits your trivia night dreams. This is one formal way of describing a nation, yet these topographical qualities alone are mere attributes (quite literally, scratching the surface). So, again, I ask, what really makes a clearly demarcated territory inscrutable to the bare eye?

America eludes a potential to fit into a concise definition. Therefore, to describe America undermines the entire notion of our nation. ‘Examples’ even at best, never move beyond ‘exemplars.’ As for my exemplar example, not an hour passes that I don’t consider my grandfather. As a metaphor for generations of work before, seeing my grandfather’s green card for the first time marked a homecoming. He has been here all along. I stopped caring to see America because I found the country. I saw an America I had always known as my own. For the first time, from the archives of a cardboard box, my Dad unearthed a ghost’s green card. Yet, it was only in seeing this image, where I recognized America is not hard to see—it was staring right at me. Yet, I won’t contest if my rendition of ‘America’ means nothing to you. The greatest of one’s own meaning proves insignificant to most others.

The Whitney reminds me of the invisible: the America we know as ours that never stands as representation. Life, abundant and proliferating, ungulates too quickly for the retrospective glance—life escapes capture, whether in paintings, museum, or an installation. What is lived is surely never found and nearly always lost.

So, what are we to do? If America is both seen and forever invisible? What is love for a country, when a nation is both everything and nothing? I must attest, any of my affinity for a country is critical. Call it tough love. Yet, I love, love in dreams, and see the future through the past.

From five years ago, I remember never to forget:

“Often an artist looks back in order to move forward”

Salle, David. How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art (p. 187). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

And how does this love beyond time manifest in words? I ask America to become better, because it can, and it must. For the love of country, we must ask more of this definition of justice. For, it is in asking more of ourselves, that we can best protect inherent dignity. Justice defends dignity. And representation must work to further recognize our humanity.

Throughout high school and college, I’ve devoted my work to my grandfather’s ghost. The ethical examples of my parents, my grandfather, the heritage, serves as a testament of labor and continue to resuscitate endless energy. This contributes to personal purpose. I thank them all. And while I’m just about—God willing—finished with this first book for my grandfather, I realize that reverberated gratitude has to transgress the bounds of a book’s binding. While the platitude ‘actions speak louder than words,’ proves all but expected, do actions speak louder than verbs? I’d hope to disagree, as a writer acutely invested in verbs. Yet, verbs can be cruel, even in speaking verbs, some words silence the present—after all, does a future tense care to acknowledge today’s ethical deficits? Sure, hope is one idea, yet, hope that strives to a future dream often negates the what must be remediated now. Therefore, in the actions taking place in the present, we must reconcile what has yet manifested, we must care about today not as a nascent future, but instead as the time we must critically live through and love most. Let’s not forget what ‘critical’ really means, critical is as crucial as breath. Yet, to think ‘critically’ does not come in metaphors. ‘Critical’ is not as or like life, critical must be of life itself. So, let’s dream in verbs, but let’s live through action.

[1] From Frost’s poem “And All We Call American,” first published in 1951. Frost, R. (1967). Complete poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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