The Wisdom of Insecurity

Years ago I read a book by the philosopher Alan Watts titled The Wisdom of Insecurity, and although its contents have largely faded from memory, I often recall its title. The phrase seems particularly apt when it comes to those rare occasions of deep transformation produced by an encounter with a work of art.

Reflecting Pool, 9/11 Memorial, New York. Photo credit: Colin Selleck.

One such encounter stands out among others, both for the ways in which it continues to inform my thinking about art and for the unexpectedness of the shift it instigated in me: my first and only visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Although the memorial had been open to the public for some time, I’d never really given it much thought, let alone considered visiting, until out-of-town guests insisted we go. Not especially a fan of memorials and admittedly a skeptic when it comes to public art in general (how could anything designed for everybody possibly speak to me?), I went somewhat begrudgingly, armed with a heavy jadedness and fully expecting the kind of sentimentality that often attends public expressions of grief.

I returned home that day not only wholly disarmed but also beset with an uncomfortable suspicion that all the specialized knowledge I’ve acquired over my years as an art-world “insider” has set me further apart from, rather than drawn me closer to, what I value most about art.

It’s not just the memorial’s design that makes it so powerful. Of course, as anyone who’s seen it can attest, the design is the antithesis of maudlin; elegant and understated, the two pools of inwardly cascading waterfalls that sink into the ground where the towers once stood are nothing if not formidable. Nowhere—mercifully—does any explanatory text intrude. But more than these, what makes the work so moving—and the experience so penetrating—is the very thing about which I’d been so cynical: the presence of that “everybody” for whom it was made. Never have I felt so connected—both to complete strangers, with all our shared humanity, and to the larger whole beyond us of which we are but a minuscule part.

What I realized that day about memorials is that perhaps it is their function not just to commemorate the victims of a particular tragedy but also to serve as catalysts for bringing back together what has been wrested apart. Art’s synthetic power—its singular ability to weave together seemingly disparate phenomena and open our eyes to larger wholes of which we are usually unaware—is certainly why I chose to pursue it in the first place. And yet I wonder: How much of our art is oriented in exactly the opposite direction? How much of our activity as artists serves primarily to deepen the grooves of our separation from “the other” through increasing specialization and the project of personal distinction and achievement? Toward this end of the spectrum we have art that requires special theoretical knowledge to decode, art laced with references to other art whose meaning is dependent on their identification, art concerned primarily (if not exclusively) with its position relative to the tradition in which it tries to distinguish itself—do these not in some sense run counter to art’s ulterior purpose as a means of achieving union between individuals, cultures, epochs, and beyond?

We all strive for identity, for achieving self-definition and the sense of security that comes with it. But if one of art’s most powerful roles is to evoke connection, might we also, when it comes to art, consider the word in its other sense—i.e., identity as sameness? By recognizing a fundamental sameness with that unspoken other against whom we “insiders” define ourselves—the public—we might replace identity in the familiar sense with the much richer and more potentially rewarding experience of identification. If we’re willing to make it, it’s an exchange that can give rise to the most deeply satisfying feeling one can have. This, to me, is the wisdom of insecurity, and it is something I’ve come to seek in all my experiences with art.


Taney Roniger

Taney Roniger is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn and the Catskills. She teaches in the Fine Arts Department and Honors Program at the School of Visual Arts, where she earned her BFA. She holds an MFA from Yale University.