The air is full of an earthy, livestock smell that is somehow both horrible and wonderful. Small children stare goggle-eyed at carnival games or beg to ride the carousel as impatient mothers jerk them along behind. Teenagers strut around, haughty, obnoxious, hand-in-hand, others, lurking behind, engage in the silent and awkward battle of adolescence. An electric firmament wheels overhead carrying angels up, down, and around, its raucous, momentary gleam outshining the antediluvian glimmer-light beyond. Mad, calliope sounds and the din of a thousand-thousand voices wrap us all in waves of clamor-induced deafness and somewhere nearby a motorcycle’s guttural belch punctuates the night.
The county fair.
I wander through this landscape of communal madness and wonder if I’m appalled. By turns it’s amazing, exhilarating, lunatic, and abominable. I’m glad it’s here; I’m glad it’s almost gone.
I’ve seen enough of the spectacle, it isn’t why I’m here, and I go in search of the Arts and Crafts exhibit. The fair is, in this turn at least, beautiful to me. It is right and proper that a community should hold up its art, its craft, and honor those that offer it–if only for one brief week each year.
I find the exhibit at last, tucked into a small building on the outskirts. Inside there is some measure of quiet. The place is empty. I’m alone. I walk through the displays, smiling. Watercolors, oils, a quilt ten years in the making, gorgeous fruits and vegetables canned up for years to come, a dozen colored-pencil permutations of Naruto, etchings and engravings, photographs of sunsets and butterflies and children’s rosy faces, a charcoal sketched self-portrait of a black man in a white room, a pie, a pastry, a clay hand clenched into a fist. Not all are well-executed. Some are plainly awful. But they are all the expressions of a community of people. Each piece hanging is a word uttered of the soul. Some ill-formed, misunderstood and mispronounced but all spoken in hopes of being heard. And I’m alone here, listening. Of all the crowd, only I. Outside, the multitude is engaged with the noise, and the food, and their hundred carnal delights. Bacchus slouches, drunken on his throne, and eats. I’m reminded of the church sign I passed on the way here: “You seek that which consumes you.”
I begin taking mental notes of each entry awarded a ribbon and end my tour taking more interest in which pieces were passed over. I believe art feeds on appreciation. People create as a way of self-expression, they are trying to say a thing for which they haven’t words and when a person engages that creative instinct, they deserve to be acknowledged. If they aren’t, the instinct atrophies–they join the crowd outside.
I believe this is true on a community level, also. If a society ignores its art, an important part of its identity loses its voice and a silenced voice is fertile ground for frustration, anger, and upheaval. I read in the news that a school district is cutting its art and music programs and I think about that church sign and wonder what is consuming our community. It certainly isn’t beauty or truth. We, as a society, are consuming ourselves with success, money, sex, and self-gratification, a great, eyeless, serpent engorged on its own tail.
I leave the exhibit. No one sees me go. The sounds and lights of the carnival swell, pushing everything else from my mind. I buy a funnel cake and make my way through the crowd, toward the parking lot. The metallic squawk of a radio from behind makes me turn. A deputy jogs past, talking into his walkie, his head turned down to the microphone on his shoulder. Ahead of him a group of young people are crowded together, shouting, the sounds of violence almost lost in the scream of the calliope. They scatter as the deputy arrives. I lose sight of the commotion as I turn the corner into the parking lot.
On the drive home, I think about the works on display, how few they were, how valuable. I wonder who it was that created them and I hope their voice is strong. It will be a long and silent year before it’s heard again.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.