If you live on the Vineyard, you’ve seen the signs. If you don’t, here’s the Martha’s Vineyard Times story about them. The short version is that the signs are part of an art installation by psychotherapist-artist Julia Kidd. Many of the signs are planted in the ground and can be seen from the roadside. One is a banner hanging over Edgartown’s Main Street; another is displayed on the schooner Shenandoah. At least two signs are indoors, one at the West Tisbury library and one in the high school cafeteria. Perhaps most ingenious are the ones being displayed on-screen before the feature film at several island movie theaters.
To say that the signs have created a stir is an understatement. Everybody seems to be talking about them, and some of the talk is passionate. This is a good sign. Some people insist that the installation isn’t “art.” I think it is. It’s an antidote to the notion that art is what reposes in museums for the passive admiration of reverent visitors. Julia Kidd had a vision, and she’s managed to realize that vision against daunting odds: anyone who’s ever tried to accomplish anything on Martha’s Vineyard has to marvel at her persistence and courage in dealing with numerous town boards, private individuals, and public institutions.
In any case, “Is it art?” is a dead-end question. The more interesting questions include “What kind of art is it?,” “What is the artist trying to say?,” and “How do I respond to it, and why?”
Art comes in myriad varieties: confusing, opaque, accessible, political, abstract, and so on and on. It’s often several things at once. I want art to deepen my understanding, expand my vision, show me life from a different angle — in short, I want it to unsettle me. Maybe it’ll disturb my sleep. Maybe it’ll make me get up and dance. Maybe it’ll do both.
Once I acknowledge the vision and admire the persistence that went into this installation, I have to admit that it’s cloying and annoying and it pisses me off. These signs are handsome and well made, but they’d be at home anywhere: on a suburban golf course, alongside an interstate. The ones I’ve seen so far sit uneasily on the landscape, sharp-angled against the contours of the land — as alien as the mega-mansions we profess to despise though far more modest. They make me wonder if the entire island is on Prozac.
What bugs me most about this art are the words. I’m a writer by avocation, an editor by trade: I have fun with words, but I also take them seriously.
Regardless of the artist’s intent, these words come across as insipid because they’re used all the time, to sell stuff, to manipulate people into buying stuff, to manipulate people into bed, and maybe to manipulate people into paying their therapy bills. Which makes me wonder: What is the artist trying to manipulate me into, and why do some people consider these messages “positive” and “inspirational”? My hunch is that at least in part it’s because they go down so easy. They don’t unsettle anything. They’re like, well, Prozac.
Note that these messages are all in the first-person and second-person singular: I and you. Yes, the English “you” is both singular and plural; “thou” died out of colloquial usage a long time ago. Perhaps the artist did have a plural you in mind, even in such messages as “You are a bright idea” (which hangs in the high school cafeteria). But I doubt it.
Imagine, if you will, heading up-island on State Road and spotting a sign that said “Don’t mourn — organize!” or “We shall overcome.” These messages are positive, inspirational — and plural. “Aha,” you object, “but they’re also political.” And Julia Kidd’s installation isn’t?? Of course it is. If it weren’t, she would have stuck these messages up on her medicine cabinet, her fridge, or the walls of her office. She acknowledges implicitly that Martha’s Vineyard has problems. The solution, she seems to be saying, or at least the next step, is love and improved self-esteem.
Nothing wrong with love and self-esteem, of course. But the notion that they can be packaged and doled out on signs and in seminars is a tad problematic — and, for those privileged enough to not want their boats rocked, self-serving. The civil rights movement did wonders for the self-esteem of millions of African Americans, and who can deny that love was a big part of it? It rocked boats in a big way, however, and there’s a reason it wasn’t started by white people.
“My whole feeling about the whole project is you’re either going to come from a place of faith and love or you’re going to come from a place of fear,” Ms. Kidd was quoted in the M.V. Times as saying. “And that’s a lot of what came up for people, is either one or the other.”
Really? Ms. Kidd’s dichotomy greatly oversimplifies the matter, not least because faith, love, and fear regularly manage to coexist in human motivation. It also ignores Vineyard history. Our history, like that of the country, the continent, and the whole planet, is one of natives showing hospitality to new arrivals and then being steamrollered by them. Faith and love are often misplaced, and fear — or at least skepticism — is often warranted.
The day-to-day lives of working Vineyarders, Vineyarders of modest means, are heavily shaped by forces imposed on us from without. It’s always been so, but once upon a time the most decisive forces were beyond human control: weather and the sea. These days the forces are mostly human. Many of us don’t believe we have much control over our lives — because we don’t have much control over our lives, at least not as individuals. What if we organized, the way the civil rights movement organized? What if we had faith in our own collective power?
Love would be singing in the trees, and our self-esteem might shoot off the charts.
P.S. For a master sign-maker’s take on the signs, check out “You Messages in Eleven Places” by Tom Hodgson, proprietor of TheTomPostPile. Funny thing, there was a cop car on the overlook when Tom went there too.