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Creative Research Center

WHY ART NOW? – Responses to a Virtual Symposium

Posted in: Director's Essay

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Over the past half-year, have you paused to wonder why you are doing what you are doing? Does making, teaching, and critiquing art seem to be more difficult, perhaps even less-pertinent, during this time of social upheaval, global suffering, and relentless conflict? [Or, conversely, do you view these questions as immaterial, and respond by forging ahead with a heightened sense of urgency?]

KATHLEEN KELLEY, Theatre & Dance – It is hard to know how to talk about the impact of our current sociocultural/political climate. I’ll start where I always start, with my body. I feel the pressure changes on my skin, the air shifts around me. My body feels heavy, rough, exposed. My breath is sharp. My eyes are wide, darting. Every little act of hate I witness cuts. I feel betrayed. My trust in the landscape around me has been disintegrating for the past few years as I’ve witnessed the racism thrown at Obama and Black Lives Matter protestors, the casual misogyny of the “Bernie-bros” and the gross misogyny of Trump and his apologists, and the echo-chambers that are curated social media news feeds. I am especially frightened and destabilized by the large-scale shift away from of critical discourse and critical analysis that allowed us to be vulnerable to Russian influence hacking. My initial impulse is always to disengage. And to daydream. To become a utopian imaginer. As an art maker, I’ve always been fascinated more by the future than the past or even the present. But these days, in this body, I am confronted with the present. In the studio, I’ve started to slow down, ask more questions. The biggest question: why are we doing this? I don’t know if I have the answer now. But I still show up, and I still book rehearsal space, and I still teach artistic skills to my students. But I think the work has a bigger sense of urgency now. BE PRESENT. BE AWAKE. BE READY. As dancers, as artists, we know how to do this. Maybe this is the role we play in the current world? In my technique class the other day, I went on a rant when my students were performing a step with a kind of cold technical detachment. “Where is your imagination, your humanity? Your thoughts, your dreams? Why aren’t they here in this moment? Your imagination is yours, no one can take it away from you. We can never change the world if we can’t imagine a new one.”

HARRY W. HAINES, Communications Studies – I’ve taken to riding the tram to Roosevelt Island a few times each month. I go on solo pilgrimages to contemplate FDR’s enormous bronze head, the Four Freedoms etched in stone, and the most dramatic view of his generation’s postwar vision, the UN buildings on the Manhattan side of the East River. Sometimes I sit, reading an old New Yorker or scribbling some notes, but most often I just think about what’s goin’ on, in the sense that Marvin Gaye asked the question. The phrase subclinical malaise comes to mind. That’s how a sociologist described the consciousness of Vietnam War vets somewhere in the 1970s, and it summed up the psychological dislocation that many of us felt as we navigated the World, having purged our military service from our resumes, trying to get back to “normal” in a society where “normal” was hard to come by. I remember experiencing it as simply anger, but it was probably more complex than that. During the last six months, I have felt transported back to that condition, and I am not alone. Family, friends, co-workers, strangers on the train, all seem off-balance and often pissed-off. My vet buddies especially so. Ken Burns’ Vietnam series prompted therapeutic phone calls during which a few of us suggested to each other that we needed to take R&R, not just from Burns’ intense reimagining of the war, but from Trump’s America itself. I don’t like the condition. In fact, I resent it. I have done my time with American weirdness, and I didn’t willingly sign-up for it in the 70’s, let alone now. There seems to be a systematic attempt to undermine social and political norms, or perhaps it isn’t systematic at all. Perhaps it’s just the collateral psychic damage of the narcissism and contempt that play out in the Tweets and get amplified nightly by our thoroughly fractured media system. I can’t help but take it personally. Trump beat the Vietnam draft by means of a bone spur diagnosis that still raises more than a few eyebrows among my crowd of aging draftees. The disrespectful comments about McCain, the claim that a bad-boy prep school provides better training than most actual soldiers receive, the comment that Retreat was being played to honor his or Hannity’s TV ratings, the gratuitous humiliation of transgender soldiers, and the self-disclosure of the hardness, the distress, the personal suffering involved in communicating with Gold Star parents leads me to conclude that we should not thank the current crop of returning warriors for their service. We should apologize to them. So, that’s the frame of mind that contextualizes my current work, including a memoir about my experience as a gay soldier at Cam Ranh Bay and my initial research for a literary biography of W.D. Ehrhart, the Wilfred Owen of my generation. I am often immersed in the Vietnam War archive at LaSalle University. Come to find out, the anger actually helps. There’s a lot to be said for sublimation. And the anger is familiar. I, along with so many others, have been here before, whether we like it or not. With the benefit of maturity and a bit of luck, we may actually be able to use it productively against the tyranny that threatens us all.

MARISSA SILVERMAN, Music – One of my recent publications is Artistic Citizenship: Artistry, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Praxis. This book investigates the very issues your WHY ART NOW? symposium seeks to address. We have a website that further illustrates the ideas in the book.

ANONYMOUS – The current climate outside of ourselves is so loud, disjointed, and polarized that fight or flight reflexes are on overdrive. Returning to the body, which is an environment of healing, collaboration between systems, and possibilities, has never felt more necessary. The students come to class and rehearsal and they seem overwhelmed; but after they begin to move together, collaborate, problem solve, I observe them tuning to each other, and a vitality and resilience return.

JULIE HEFFERNAN, Visual Arts – I started a series of paintings featuring CampBedlam with the desire to scold, to lambaste the likes of Exxon Mobil and other degraders of our precious environment, to expose their depredations of the land, and to publicize in high resolution what they have wrought. This seemed to me to be the only subject worth giving time to. What are our talents for — if not to further our most cherished beliefs, critique societal ills and serve our deepest concerns? But attentive painting does not lend itself well to propaganda and I was saved from my own zeal by the pull of art’s greater wisdom, that is: letting the paintings tell their own stories. What I discovered underneath the desire to make painting into a screed was a more interesting journey of the imagination, there for the uncovering. We are at a momentous point in history. We find ourselves at another cusp, one that will certainly prove to be as wild an upheaval to life-as-we-know-it as the Industrial Revolution was for all those farmers like my grandfather, who worked by the seasons and wasn’t controlled by a time clock. I see similar furies to our own simmering in the work of Thomas Cole as he confronted the particular struggles of his time: the changes that technical progress and industrialization wrought on both the landscape and civil society. Today, instead of locomotives tearing a wound through pristine wilderness or the timber industry logging out old growth forests, it’s the invisible nature of our environmental problems that we have to contend with as well as the overt ones. Whether it be Monsanto’s poisons creating superweeds and superbugs, or the Keystone XL pipeline running stealthily through the Ogallala aquifer, potentially contaminating our biggest underground freshwater supply, the average person can’t see what’s happening to the world, because the causes of toxicity can be thousands of miles away, or simply kept secret. As we know all too well, Greed and Secrecy are co-habitants in toxic practices, whether manifest in Trump’s and Weinstein’s crotch grabbing or governments creating endless wars for multinationals to profit from. And yet, as a painter, I am still drawn to Beauty and Art, to the cultural artifacts and rhetorical devices that allow us to imagine a better world. Art reminds us to believe in powerful imagery that can manifest truth and change minds. Whatever happens with the slowly rising waters and wild fluctuations in precipitation, it will be incumbent upon us to figure things out fast, bringing real inventiveness to confront those dilemmas whose outlines we can barely recognize. It will be a journey of the most profound sort, and I am always keen for a good journey: that is what, in miniature, the painting process offers me practice in: imagination as a mechanism for preparation. Unlike the kinds of pre-packaged adventures video games offer, painting a world allows the maker to have real skin in the game, as she must research and invent the terms of that particular world, while virtually living it. Like the game Chutes and Ladders, whose basic thrust is to fly down slides and plod up pathways, I make my paintings with the idea of a journey in mind, encountering in that imagined space what I need to see and experience in microcosm in order to understand the huge reality of our actual predicament. Things are heating up fast, but we still have art to slow us down, give us pause to imagine alternatives and how they might be achieved.

BRADLEY FORENZA, Social Work & Child Advocacy – These Ai Weiwei exhibits on immigration have been installed throughout New York City. The installations are quite provocative, and– I think– accomplish exactly what art should accomplish.

ERHARD ROM, Theatre & Dance – Art is not escapism. Art is contemplative. Art allows us to see the world more clearly, providing a means for us to contemplate everything imaginable without it affecting our personal needs, wants or desires. “things are certainly beautiful to behold, but to be them is something quite different.” “aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.” “Aesthetics is at the heart of philosophy for Schopenhauer: art and aesthetic experience not only provide escape from an otherwise miserable existence, but attain an objectivity explicitly superior to that of science or ordinary empirical knowledge.” Aesthetic contemplation is the highest form or thought humans are capable of achieving in life. Art forces us to confront ultimate reality good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Art provides a means for exploration of the unknown and opens door for all who are curious. Art strives to reveal ultimate truth. Art and Science both strive to uncover the truth, but one picks up where the other leaves off, so both are essential. Art is known to produce something the French call – FRISSON – Skin Orgasm (known only to 2/3 of the population). An interesting article: Why Does Great Music Give You the Chills? Results from the personality test showed that the listeners who experienced frisson also scored high for a personality trait called openness to experience. Studies have shown that people who possess this trait have unusually active imaginations, appreciate beauty and nature, seek out new experiences, often reflect deeply on their feelings, and love variety in life. Some aspects of this trait are inherently emotional (loving variety, appreciating beauty), while others are cognitive (imagination, intellectual curiosity).

ELIZABETH McPHERSON, Theatre & Dance – When I was in college, I had a button on my jean jacket that said “the time has come for peace.” Alfredo Corvino (one of my favorite and most beloved teachers) stopped me in the hall and said, “the time has always been for peace — it is not something for just right now.” I thought about it, agreed with him, took the button off, and dropped it in the trash. I tell this because I do not think now is a more or less important time for art than any other time. Art reflects/investigates/comments on human experience. It does not just begin or stop. However, in thinking about the prevalence of violence in the larger world and our own communities at present, I have thought about what we are saying through the productions we put on. Because I often stage other choreographers’ works instead of choreographing my own, I have been pondering if there is a dance that might be particularly relevant that I might consider re-staging, like Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table or Anna Sokolow’s Dreams. Those dances speak to man’s inhumanity to man. But on the other hand, maybe it would be better to stage a dance that speaks to the goodness in people, that focuses on hope.

HANNAH LEATHERBURY, Yoga & Meditation Teacher – From my perspective in the healing arts, given my background in yoga and meditation, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the level of stress that my students are shouldering over the past nine months. The election and state of the world – including natural disasters happening with unprecedented regularity – seems to have created a bit of a vortex that has been difficult for many to climb out of. I spend much more time now teaching simple practices – focus on breath, simple stretches, restorative poses, meditation and compassion practices. My students are responding best to these cues: (1) whatever you came from, and whatever you have to do next, you can lay to the side because this [e.g. laying on your back and breathing] is the most important thing. Just for right now, give yourself permission to be here and no matter where else your mind takes you, gently remind it that you came here for a reason, whether it had a name or it was just a feeling in your body; (2) take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. (Sighing breath is a strategy for activating parasympathetic nervous system response); (3) let your body feel the support of the props. No matter how heavy you feel, know that there is something meeting you, supporting you from beneath, allowing you to be lifted and to feel buoyant. (restorative yoga postures are held for long periods of time with the support of props creating an opportunity for muscle tension to become neutral and the nervous system to reset.) This small bit of evidence in my life leads me to believe that people are hungry for beauty and release. The healing arts treat our bodies like a canvas and I believe people come to these classes because they are hungry to paint something simple, beautiful and peaceful on their canvas.

SARAH GHOSHAL, Writing Studies – As a poet, one of the first lessons I was ever taught in a formal setting about the importance of my art was of my responsibility as an artist. I have often been pointed toward Adrienne Rich’s famous speech “Poetry and Commitment” in this regard – that it is the poet’s responsibility to inform the world, to speak out against injustice, to be a part of a larger and more important conversation than the one between herself and the blank page in front of her. I believe this is true now, maybe more than it was then, and especially in light of the current political and social climates in our country. If artists don’t use their voices to bring light to injustice, then why are we creating art? One might argue that we are doing it for beauty and wonder, and that’s a valid and important argument. But I would argue that art, in any form – poetry, journalism, visual art, creative memoir, or any of the very many others – is a mouthpiece, a way to bring both sides of any issue into the open and to start dialogues. Many of my friends joke about being afraid to speak out right now, but doesn’t this, just the fact that they feel the need to “joke” about this, even more of a reason to speak? Just as the NFL players are using their platform to speak out against an injustice that they have witnessed, artists can and should use their platforms to teach and to foster intelligent, reasonable, nuanced thinking. Why art now? Because we need it more than ever.