I was walking past University Hall on the brisk, sunny morning of Nov. 30 when I heard a faint chipping sound. After two months living next to Harris Hall, my brain categorized the noise as construction and promptly ignored it. Until I realized the sound was coming from the Rock.
I turned to see a group of students with hammers, screwdrivers and pickaxes beating at the Rock. Not violently, but not gently, either. If I had to pick an adverb, I would say they were beating at it daintily. One student, dressed in black skinny jeans, a wool scarf, and a brown corduroy jacket, threw his axe with a form that only years of never performing physical labor could produce.
One girl must have noticed my slack-jawed stare, because she stepped away from her work to say, “Do you want to feel the Rock?”
Wordlessly, I followed her as she pointed toward what was, indeed, bare rock. Inches of caked paint surrounded the spot. A brilliant array of colors circling a dull patch of ordinary rock.
After a few minutes of dumbly feeling the rock’s surface, I asked, “How — how many years worth of paint is this?”
“Since the ’60s, at least.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked, with a tone more pleading than I intended.
And, obviously exhausted from numerous questions and physical labor, she answered with practiced informality.
“We think The Rock is more historical than all the club announcements and birthdays and shit.”
I learned that the group was an independent study dubbed “The Rock Excavation Organization,” and I proceeded to go about my day. Later, I sat in the Unicorn Cafe trying to write a paper on Singaporean English, but my mind kept falling back on the Rock.
Does the Rock itself carry more historic weight than the paint upon it? What is more meaningful: an object, or the tradition associated with this object? The 40 years worth of party announcements, birthdays and the eccentric miscellany (which I’m forced to assume falls under the “and shit” category in the girl’s previous explanation) must have some value. Granted, we would never see these layers, but isn’t there some worth to knowing that this chronology of the past five decades exists just under our noses?
I’m not an art historian. I don’t know how to appraise the worth of anything. But common sense tells me that the Rock’s historical value does not stem from its being a rock. The Rock’s value stems from everything associated with the Rock.
The Rock isn’t necessarily a universally worshipped monument. At best, it’s quirky. At worst, it’s childish. But it’s something we can all reference as a bona fide Northwestern tradition. And everyone who tours our university certainly remembers the painted monstrosity outside University Hall.
Chipping away these layers of paint does not uncover some true historical value. Our historical value is these forty years of words, art, and — as one art historian so eloquently put it — “shit.”
I understand that a chunk of this paint went to the University Archives, but that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that, when we paint our Rock, we connect in some small way to generations of students who’ve done the same thing.
The point is that, when you strip the paint away, all you have left is a stupid rock.