The infamous image portrayed in numerous films is of a hero dealing with a moral dilemma, listening to the conflicting voices of good and evil perched upon his shoulders. There stand two make-believe beings, both resembling the hero, small in stature, one dressed as an angel, and the other as a devil. The two sources of "reason" then make their case for why the hero should or should not proceed with an action that could very well be detrimental to his or someone else's existence. It's an age-old metaphor for what we all go through when faced with a decision that either reflects ethical integrity or selfish intent.
Essentially, what most of us experience is a moment where our heart and mind meld together to near-instantly justify making a move in one direction or another based upon our understanding of right and wrong. At times, these cross-roads of moral decision can instigate a much deeper need to reflect on the potential outcome. Quite frankly, there are moments where a healthy and wise human being will need to take extra time to contemplate the potential repercussions. But no matter the situation, some level of internal conflict will exist and it will be up to our experiences, our upbringing, and our sense of good and evil to determine how we will act.
Why the existential discussion? Conflict! From what to wear to work to whether or not to cheat on a loved one, we all face internal conflicts multiple times a day. And what keeps most of us sane is our ability to navigate through the gauntlet of benign and some moral dilemma with relative ease. We've been seasoned by past mistakes and rooted in an upbringing that taught us to typically reflect upon our actions and take responsibility for them. Like putting one foot in front of the other in rapid succession, we jaunt along our own life-paths seeking opportunity and happiness while carefully navigating through patches of muck and mire.
UNTITLED, 2002 by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is a sculpture of an arm with two hands on either end. Chiseled from a singular slab of marble, this piece has oft been cast in bronze for display at various museums and art events and labeled Give or Take, 2002. Bourgeois was a French-American artist and sculptor who became known as the founder of confessional art. She often employed sexual innuendo and imagery in her modern pieces to depict vulnerability and became more interpretive in her contemporary works. Each of her pieces, however, have been directly associated with her passion of seeing all of us face our own insecurities and inadequacies in order that we may embrace who we truly are.
This particular piece is one of her most subtle but poignant expressions of the natural occurrence of conflict within ourselves. As we strive to live out our lives, at some point we will need to face realities that may bring about an incredible amount of discomfort and thus, the polarizing decision of giving or taking. As can be clearly seen, the arm is laid out, underside upward, with an opened hand on one end and a closed hand on the other. The opened hand seems to be sculpted similarly to how we'd reach out for a piece of candy or change from a vendor. The closed hand, however, appears to be grasping something specific in such a way that it is snatched up quickly and will not be lost.
Subtly and most importantly--in my humble opinion--is how the arm is laid out with the underside facing upwards. Regardless of the specific intentions of the hands, in the end and no matter what decision is made, we're left vulnerable to who we are in that moment. The arm is uncomfortably exposed and in direct contrast to how we as humans typically shelter ourselves in rhetorical defense. For instance, when conversing with another who may disagree with your assertions, often the individual will fold his arms across his chest psychologically exhibiting disagreement. In children, this is often attributed to disobedient and disgruntled behavior and can be coupled with pouting, whining, or crying.
Ultimately, the piece is simple yet extremely expressive. Bourgeois' work over her many talented years was almost all an attempt to encourage people to turn and face reality, accept truth, and knowing move forward despite feeling inadequate, insecure, or uncomfortable. This isn't easy for everyone but that's what makes art so wonderful. In pieces like UNTITLED, 2002 we're able to understand that all humans deal with similar levels of conflict; that we are not alone in our struggle to become more aware, wiser, and courageous. Each of us has a choice to make and thankfully, Bourgeois' piece shows that no matter what, we will be exposed in that very moment. What, if anything, will you give or take?