What the Clichés Can Teach Us

Sep 29, 2021

There is a familiar old saying that it is likely most of us know: “A picture’s worth a thousand words” Or, to be more precise, there are several renditions of that expression. One substitutes the word “image” for “picture.” Another raises the stakes to 10,000. And the origin of the cliché is as uncertain as its wording.  Bickering over these things has become an academic exercise for scholars and historians for at least more than a century now. While differences of opinion persist about those things, as well as the various nuances that those words may carry in different languages, no one really seems to argue with the truth and wisdom the expression embodies.

Pictures and visual images are almost universal in what they articulate and where and how they reach the viewer. Visual images tend to abide with viewers and survive in memory much longer than words do. One can simply look back on his or her own childhood to test that hypothesis.

Part of the universal power and eloquence of the image is that it can abide in our memories over time. Another is that it can transcend differences in language and often can “say” more than words can express. Such is the case with an extraordinary art installation on the National Mall in Washington, DC, which has caught the attention not only of passers-by but also of the national media. And well it should.

The installation, “In America: Remember,” is a creation of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg who placed 680,000 white flags in that space to commemorate, and to enumerate, the 680,000 lives that have thus far been lost in America to COVID.

The story that this work of visual art tells brings to light and life a part of America’s present, which will be our history too, that few of us could ever have conjured in our imaginations. The coronavirus has taken too much from us. That reality is indisputable. It has imparted grief and unity and it has sparked controversy and differences of opinion. It unites us and divides us.

But Firstenberg also seems to be suggesting that in all that, or above all that, it can and should give us something back as well. It can remind us that no one would have chosen this course or these outcomes. That waving the white flag is not a sign of defeat but a step toward the surrender of divisive difference.  That we were and are and ever can be “one nation indivisible.” And that is one picture and a singular truth that is worth far more than any other 10,000 words can convey.

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