Art Lets Us See What We Ordinarily Can’t See

In 1952 there was Polio hysteria. In America there was an outbreak of 58,000 cases of polio, causing at least 4,000 deaths.

Polio was a virus that rendered victims paralyzed. Not since the outbreak of the Flu Pandemic of 1918, that killed thousands, were Americans so panicked.

Public swimming pools were closed in our community. Even movie theaters were requested not to pack in patrons for fear of spreading the virus.

I can remember the day I heard I had been one of its victims. I fell to the ground outside the Veterans Hospital in Long Beach, California.

It was one of the only times I saw my mother cry.

I was seven at the time and was not able to comprehend the fear that gripped the Los Angeles area where I lived.

It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral studies, twenty years later, in Educational Psychology at the University of Southern California, that I finally internalized the hysteria people felt during that period.

But, I didn’t get it by merely reading scholarly articles. No, oddly enough, it was when I saw Pablo Picasso’s painting entitled Guernica in one of the editions of the magazine, Psychology Today.

I set my eyes on Guernica, and I instantly understood what hysteria is like when people are under extreme stress and fear.

The condition, under which Picasso painted Guernica, was the Spanish Revolution of 1936. Spanish dictator and general, Francisco Franco, killed thousands of Spanish citizens who were pushing for democratic reform.

Picasso’s painting communicated the hysteria of being a victim of acute violence. Everything flies apart in your mind. It was the same thing my mother and most parents felt in trying to protect their children against the polio virus that was attacking, crippling, and killing their children.

But this essay is not necessarily about people caught in the grips of pandemics, diseases, and military violence, but about the artists who capture and communicate what these people were experiencing.

Art, whether produced in music, verse, painting, etc., is powerful in helping us to see and feel what we ordinarily can’t see and feel. Such was the case when I first saw Guernica. Look it up and tell me if you agree.