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The Miracle Worker
On September 11, the violence of terrorists caused chairs to fall from heights in swirls of pain and dust in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Now there are empty chairs in homes, in places of religious expression, on the governing boards of arts institutions, in civic assemblies, in schools. Foreign nationals from 86 countries and nearly all states of the U.S., including West Virginia, lost native daughters and sons.
Some of those chairs are vacant because someone was killed in the tragedy. Some because a family member, filled with sadness or anger, has retreated from social exchange and public engagement. Some chairs are empty because of assignment to public safety in police, fire, EMT, medical service or the military.
Sven Berg, Hans-Ekkehard Butzer and Torrey Butzer, the designers of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, chose 168 chairs as the central metaphor to memorialize the victims of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
We all sit in chairs during ceremonies or graduations, and our language uses the idea of a chair in phrases that denote prestige: “seat of honor,” “the head of the table.” At universities and in symphonies, “chairs” are funded by philanthropic endowments. In performing arts houses, we try to get the best seat we can afford. Actors in the theater ask, “Is there a full house?” or are pleased to know that there was “standing room only.” The Latin “ex cathedra” refers to a bishop speaking from a seat of authority.
There is also the parlor game of musical chairs which is a juvenile illustration of the scarcity model of “haves” and “have- nots,” which makes the child left standing at a birthday party weep in frustration at being “out.”
The mayor of New York and the president of the United States have enjoined us to return to active, positive and productive lives. The arts must be a part of that return. It is in the arts that we find some of the best illustrations of the human character and its capacity for beauty and truth. The arts, it must also be noted, are not a monotonous uniformity. The arts represent the rich pluralism of America, including dissenting opinions and difficult aesthetics.
Yet there seems to be some doubt about the proper response of the average citizen.
Speaking on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer last month, historian Roger Wilkins commented, “When we got into World War II, we knew we were in it for the long haul. We don’t know what the long haul is here.
“In the meantime, what are we called upon to do? It seems to me that one of the things we’re called upon to do is to take care of the country; that is, to think really clearly about what it is that we value as a nation. Democracy, you know, is perishable. We know that. You’ve got to take care of it in order to make it endure. So it seems to me the challenge to us is to find ways now to make the democracy stronger, to protect the rights that we cherish, and to show our commitment that way.”
We live in a world tied together by communication and commerce, yet we witness brutal pictures of the great divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised.
The world cannot play musical chairs in security.
By your participation in the arts you can help fill the chairs of civic engagement, and at the same time welcome the many-hued tapestry of cultural and intellectual diversity to the table.
Richard Ressmyer, Director of Arts