“The Wire” and Understanding Art

wireThere are moments when I realize that I’ve completely adopted the once strange ways of my English teachers. Habits that once seemed forced now come as second nature. I realized one of these new habits last fall as I was observing an English classroom; the teacher paused an activity and asked her students to list off the things we can connect to texts.

After poking them with a cattle prod, she was eventually able to get them to mumble out the three connections: text-to-self, to-world, and to-other-texts.

The sight was strange to me (beyond the presence of cattle prods in a classroom) because I never intentionally think of the ways to connect texts, it happens instinctively now.

Coming back to that scene a year later, I realized something else: the whole exercise was lifeless. Granted, to me, terms like “Text-to-World” seem fairly lifeless in themselves, especially when presented as just a thing to remember to do. But that’s the tragedy.

It’s tragic because making connections isn’t a boring, lifeless, momentary thing. In fact, it should be the exact opposite of all those things.

Enter, “The Wire.” The turn-of-the-century show revolves around the simple premise of pitting law enforcement against drug dealers, but it marked a new age of television in the process. One of my favorite scenes demonstrates how texts can come alive and interact with our own lives, almost like an ongoing conversation.

(Some offensive language.)

Because the scene takes place on a rickety furniture in the middle of the tenements, it’s not easy to recognize that the scenario is basically an interaction between instructor and pupils. D’Angelo, the instructor, begins explaining chess in a fairly straightforward manner. His pupils begin making connections to their lives.

On the king: “Like your uncle.” (The boss)

On the queen: “Remind me of Stringer.”

The strongest connections are made when the game becomes most relevant to them, with the discussion of pawns. The low-level dealers, the front-lines, the expendables; these are the pawns.

The older pupil’s connections begin to redefine the text based on life experience, making the game about the pawns (himself) instead of the big picture. In his mind, if a pawn makes it to the other side and becomes “top dog,” then he wins.

D’Angelo restores order back into the game, and in the gang-hierarchy, by clarifying that pawns usually don’t make it. A brutal moment of honesty about their roles and fate.

At the end of the discussion, everyone’s understanding of chess and life is enhanced. The two pupils understand the game of chess by relating it to something they already know: gang life. They also understand their own lives and their own positions in a hierarchy by comparing it to their text: chess.

And this isn’t a simple, single exchange, either, which is the beauty of connecting texts to other things. Their new understanding of chess leads to a new understanding of their life, vice versa and ad infinitum. It’s like a dialogue between text and life that adds new dimensions and understandings the longer it’s allowed to last.

Which is where I find the wonder of art. Great art never exists as something that’s great just by itself. It becomes great by the ways we experience it, by the ways it incorporates and challenges our world and leads us to experience it in totally new ways. Great art isn’t just a creation of something beautiful; it’s the creation of a new way to see and experience life around us.

Textual connections don’t just help us “get” a book. They breathe life into a story and create new meanings in our lives. That this exercise is so often a lifeless thing, hastily thrown onto the bottom of a worksheet for students to check off, is tragic. Art is transformative. Hopefully someday it will be taught that way.

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