A surprised eye on `this elegant nation'

Stanley Boxer's paintings and sculptures have been appearing in one-man shows for three decades. His works are in many museum collections. His new drawings go on display tomorrow at the Andr'e Emmerich Gallery in New York. After he was nearby (in Harvard's Learning from Performers program) and we asked him for some reflections as an artist, he sent us something totally unexpected. THAT this person is ``artist'' has caused him the most profound surprise. Surprise at himself, his circumstances. Those circumstances that are more than chance but hardly of premeditation. It is a surprise that creates rivulets to all parts of the past. How easily matters could have been otherwise! It is not the detail but the sum of events that provokes this reflection.

This person is 58 years old. By circumstance of the times in Europe -- exclusion and worse -- he was born in America: ``first generation.'' That is at the heart of this reflection.

He thinks of the time before World War II, then the war itself, the taking of millions of people from ``here'' and placing them ``there.'' This migration bringing with it the deepest kind of change. A great mass of people was never (and could not be) the same again. The physical movement itself injected differences, brought new possibility with a speed never before encountered by such a mass.

This person is prototypical of these times -- and of one thing more, as a participant in the United States armed forces. A GI Bill of Rights was established. This entree to education for a vast body of people -- made clear as to purpose -- was to be ``used.'' Opportunity! To provoke still greater change. Optimism seen as a ``naturalness.'' A most elegant compilation in its hope, its broadness, its ``coax!''

Yes, he thinks of the GI Bill: Its promise was never offered before by any people at any time in any place. Means were given. Given quite aside from national gratitude. Given with the same decency that has become ``American'' tradition. A nation that has at its core, hope. The bill was not a cynical salve but, in its larger implications, the right thing to do. Beyond any gain. Just as American decency was -- is -- the main catalyst for the actions by the mass of the nation.

The GI Bill -- its yield was/is this: that nothing would be the same again. The enormous differences reflected the broad scheme of choice, the options offered a generation of men and women to learn a trade, to go to college, to do, for better or worse, any number of things they might never have done otherwise. The consequences, even for those who did not participate, changed the course of the world. The results are everywhere.

This person thinks of an instance: The atmosphere of hope, once generated, gave impetus to the civil rights movement.

And this ``artist'' thinks of a United States once considered (by Americans in particular) to be permanently without ``culture,'' materialistic, etc. He knows that most of the best art, literature, science, music, in these several decades after the initial GI Bill is American!

In the repository of America the expectation of choice has become a ``naturalness.'' Ready to accommodate and make better, the nation is a giver but, more to the point, is inherently receptive to change.

It is irrelevant whether this person is a good or bad artist. What is important is the source of the surprise that he is one at all. Without the bill and where it was spawned, without this elegant nation, without his birth in it, without his ``being American,'' he would still have existed, whether managing well or not. He would have existed differently, perhaps not better but probably far worse, in the complete acceptance of a lesser, narrower ambition. But there was that chance, that choice, that ``sense of'' which the GI Bill gave in its fundamental insistence on ``something much more!''

The essence of America is now no longer mere instinct and intuition but has become an enormous presence of hope. He is convinced that whatever is flawed will at least be given the possibility of repair through the will of an unhomogenized people to effect change, bloodless, knockless, quietly, as the nation buds to more magnificent bloom. He sees the tenderness of the whole, so easily abused, ``taken for granted,'' along with its extraordinary toughness, its ability to bend and turn, to gather spiritual muscle.

The surprise then is the fact of himself in this scheme, this American tradition. It offers to the ``such as he'' the purest of possibilities ``to be,'' to blink and wonder in the silent gift given by America.

The GI Bill, in its particular innocence, gave just the right nutrition. In the decades following, the surprise becomes clear. That is, it ``is not'' a surprise. He came out artist. He came ``out.'' The nation ``came out.'' He is the usual. It is American.

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