Friday, September 13, 2013
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
This will lift your spirits! This flash mob protest in Raleigh, NC, by Walmart workers who have the guts and audacity to believe that they should be treated fairly--and the creativity to something like this off. Some background might be helpful, in case you missed this in a news cycle of twerking and chemical warfare, but this is America at its best. September 5th was a great day as workers and their supporters rallied in 15 cities across the country to demand that Walmart pay higher wages and reinstate the 70 Walmart workers who got fired for striking this summer. Solidarity!.
Friday, July 5, 2013
Who needs Art? We're in a recession, right? During tough economic times we've always slashed health care, education, environmental protection, and programs designed to help the hungry and the homeless--critical social services--so why worry about something as ephemeral as "the arts?" Surely, we can jettison a few poems and paintings in favor of more pressing concerns...right? After all, who really needs painting, music, and literature?
The novelist E. L. Doctorow gave this speech before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in the fall of 1981. It remains a timely statement on the value of art to the human spirit.
For the Artist's Sake
I have always disliked the phrase "the arts." It connotes to me furs and black ties and cocktail receptions, the patronage by the wealthy of work that is tangential to their lives, or that fills them not with dread or awe or visionary joy but with self-satisfaction.
"The arts" have nothing to do with the loneliness of writers or painters working in their rooms year after year, or with actors putting together plays in lofts, or with dancers tearing up their bodies to make spatial descriptions of the hope of beauty or transcendent myth.
So as a working writer I distinguish myself from the arts community. I am confirmed in this when I look at the National Endowment for the Arts' board and program structure. In the past, a very small percentage of the arts budget has been given over to literature, to the grants made to young writers or dramatists or poets of promise. In all the time since its founding, the N.E.A. has found only four writers worthy to sit on its immense board. Instead, the heavy emphasis has been on museums, opera companies, symphony orchestras: just those entities that happen to cater to patrons of "the arts."
I suppose I would have to confess, if asked, that I feel about opera, for instance, that it is not a living art in this country, that we do not naturally write and produce operas from ourselves as a matter of course as, for example, Italy did in the nineteenth century, and that, therefore, as wonderful and exciting as opera production may be, it is essentially the work of conservation of European culture; opera companies are conservators of the past, like museums, and their support by the National Endowment reflects this strong bias or belief in the arts as something from the past rather than the present.
The National Endowment programs I value most are just those likely to be proscribed: first, the programs of individual grants to individual artists in whatever medium — the programs endowing directly the work of living artists; and, second, those programs that do not separate the arts from life, from our own life and times but emphasize the connection — the artists-in-education program, the poets who go into schools, for example, and help children to light the spark in themselves. I cannot imagine anything more responsible than the work persuading a schoolchild to express his or her anguished or joyful observations — and to be self-rewarded with a poem or a painting. Whole lives ride on moments like that.
Or the inter-arts programs, the folk arts, the expansion arts — all bureaucratic terms for encouraging experiment and risk-taking on the part of artists, and for bringing artists in contact with people everywhere in the country, connecting people with the impulses inside themselves. Programs that encourage participation rather than the passive receipt of official art of the past are the ones I think most important: all the programs that suggest to people that they have their own voices, that they can sing and write of their own past — people in their churches, students in their classes or prisoners in their cells. These programs — just the ones branded so vilely by the Heritage Foundation Report as instruments of social policy or public therapy and slated for extinction by our new budgeteers — are the ones I value. And not from any vague idealistic sentiment either: I know as an artist where art comes from. I know there is a ground-song from which every writer lifts his voice, that literature comes out of a common chorus and that our recognition of the genius of a writer — Mark Twain, for example — cannot exclude the people he speaks for.
Art will rise where it is least expected and usually not wanted. You can't generate it with gala entertainments and $200-a-plate dinners. You can, if you're an enlightened legislative body, see to it that you don't ipso facto create an official state art by concentrating your funding on arts establishments. Other people may talk of how many billions of dollars of business is produced from the arts, but to me that is beside the point.
But saying even this, I cannot avoid the feeling that it is senseless for me to testify here today. People everywhere have been put in the position of fighting piecemeal for this or that social program while the assault against all of them proceeds across a broad front. The truth is, if you're going to take away the lunches of schoolchildren, the pensions of miners who've contracted black lung, the storefront legal services of the poor who are otherwise stunned into insensibility by the magnitude of their troubles, you might as well get rid of poets, artists and musicians. If you're planning to scrap medical care for the indigent, scholarships for students, day-care centers for the children of working mothers, transportation for the elderly and handicapped — if you're going to eliminate people's public service training jobs and then reduce their unemployment benefits after you've put them on the unemployment rolls, taking away their food stamps in the bargain, then I say the loss of a few poems and arias cannot matter. If you're going to close down the mental therapy centers for the veterans of Vietnam, what does it matter if the theaters go dark or our libraries close their doors?
And so in my testimony for this small social program I am aware of the larger picture and, really, it stuns me. What I see in this picture is a kind of sovietizing of American life, guns before butter, the plating of this nation with armaments, the sacrifice of everything in our search for ultimate security. We shall become an immense armory. But inside the armory there will be nothing, not a people but an emptiness; we shall be an armory around nothingness, and our true strength and security and envy of the world — the passion and independent striving of a busy working and dreaming population committed to fair play and the struggle for some sort of real justice and community — will be no more. If this happens, maybe in the vast repository of bombs, deep in the subterranean chambers of our missile fields, someone in that cavernous silence will remember a poem and recite it. Maybe some young soldier will hum a tune, maybe another will be able to speak the language well enough to tell a story, maybe two people will get up and dance to the rhythm of the doomsday clock ticking us all to extinction.
--E. L. Doctorow
"For the Artist's Sake." E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Ed. Richard Trenner. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review P, 1983: 13-15.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Looking forward to "Something in the Air," a film about the events of May '68 in Paris by French filmmaker Oliver Assayas. I read an interview with Assayas in Cineaste, and he sounds fluent in the history of the time and isn’t just using the period as a cool backdrop to an otherwise formulaic story. I'm sure such a foreign, political film will vanish quickly from the art house theater (and never set foot in the Megaplexes) so I'll have a bag packed and be ready to pounce when it shows up.
The following is from Richard Porton's preview in Cineaste, and describes a scene within the film about film, a meta moment that raises questions about revolutionary art: "A spectator wonders why revolutionary films need to be made in the style of the bourgeoisie and insists that 'revolutionary films call for revolutionary syntax.' A member of the film collective responds that 'revolutionary films have to be made with a syntax understood by the proletariat' and claims that the radical style the purportedly avant-gardist audience member is advocating is just for 'aesthetes' and the 'petit bourgeois.' This brief exchange mirrors many key twentieth-century debates involving Lukacsian realism versus Adornian modernism, Costa-Gavras versus Godard and Cahiers du cinéma, as well as ongoing tensions between experimentalists and populists, who view the avant-garde as hermetic and champion the virtues of “accessibility.”
Well, it ain't Iron Man III, that’s for sure--though there's nothing's wrong with that film (I'm looking forward to it, in fact) though I don’t expect any big box office battle between the two. Summer’s here and the time is right for comic book movies, after all. (Actually, a combination of the two films might be interesting: if only the students and workers in the French film had Iron Man suits... Note to self: write that screenplay).
Saturday, May 4, 2013
May 4, 1970. The battle lasted 13 seconds at Kent State, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students, wounding nine and killing four. The photographs shocked a nation. A few days before, on April 30, with the help of Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, Nixon had broken his campaign promise and widened the Vietnam war, concealing plans to invade Cambodia from Congress and from Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird—not to mention the American people. When campuses erupted in anger, Nixon said four days after Kent State: ''I have not been surprised by the intensity of the protests.'' He went on to add that Kent State ''should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.'' Blaming the victim was Nixon’s stock in trade. He implied the students shot had been violent, throwing rocks at the Guardsmen, and that they were asking for it. Months later, the FBI report confirmed what we had suspected: that the students had posed no threat to the Guard: ''Jeff Miller's body was found 85-90 yards from the Guard. Allison Krause fell about 100 yards away. William Schroeder and Sandy Scheuer were approximately 130 yards away from the Guard when they were shot.... Sandy Scheuer, as best we can determine, was on her way to a speech therapy class. We do not know whether Schroeder participated in any way in the confrontations that day.'' Quotations courtesy of Martin F. Nolan.
Friday, April 12, 2013
Back in October of 1963, The Beatles had yet to play Ed Sullivan and gain worldwide fame, if not complete hysteria, launching a wave Beatlemania that encircled the planet. Even though they'd paid their dues playing the strip clubs and dives of Hamburg, here they're loveable moptops kicking up some joyous noise after they just happened to drop in for a set on a Swedish television show. This was music for the kids, an early version of the lads before they developed into deeper, more introspective songwriters and performers. This was a rave-up. Still, you could see the good cheer and lively music that would wipe out the Brylcreemed teen idols of the late fifties and early sixties, the endless string of banal performers like Fabian and Bobby Rydell and a slew of Elvis wannabes filling the void when the King joined the army--and forget about the old lounge crooners left in the dust. These four Liverpudlians cleared the deck. Before long, in a series of rapid and seemingly endless transformations, these working class boys would rule the world with an unrivaled catalog of music, and not just hits, brilliant layered studio creations combining experimental, avant garde composition with personal, poetic lyrics. At this point, however, it was just a lot of fun.