Recently by Alicia Anstead
For the last few years, I've been occasionally writing for Art New England -- and I've always enjoyed the experience. It's a niche magazine, but one that is dear to the hearts of many artists and visual arts readers. The magazine is undergoing a leadership change and looking for a new chief. Here's the skinny for those looking to lead a magazine and work for (I assume, based on fees to writers) labor-of-love wages.
Sebastian Smee, the chief visual art critic for The Boston Globe, was on a furlough day enjoying the beaches of Miami last Friday when executive editor Marty Baron called to say the writer had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. When Smee landed in the newsroom on Monday, he gave a speech that praised his editors for holding to "a belief that the arts matter, and that good writing about the arts is going to be an important part of newspapers as they evolve.'' When I called to congratulate him this week, Smee reiterated the passion he has for his work in New England, spoke of the importance of value judgments in reviews and explained why he believes arts coverage is necessary to the future of journalism.
In your 2008 article The Mind of the Critic, you mention three categories people tend to associate with criticism: to judge, to educate and to entertain. What is the role of criticism?
It may not be the most interesting part of a critic's job, but it is the most important: that he or she expresses an opinion. That's what people are expecting from a critic. There's a tendency out of politeness or good manners or fear for critics to sit on the fence sometimes. I understand that, and sometimes I succumb to it myself. But I do think you need to form and express an opinion about the merits of something. Of course, that opens onto a whole world of much more interesting questions, and you can delve into ambiguities and mixed feelings and a certain amount of education.
You're not talking about stating that something is good or bad. You're talking about expressing an opinion.
Yeah, but good or bad is part of that. That's a critic's job: to make a value judgment on what they see. It's not imposing that value judgment as the only possible judgment about the thing. I see it very much as starting a discussion, but the discussion is going to get off to a much less interesting start if the critic hasn't actually said whether he thinks the thing he's looking at is good or bad.
What do you think about Boston generating two Pultizers in the arts this year? We might expect such numbers from New York, but what does it say about Boston right now?
Another approach to Chihuly's work might be embedded in the title of the MFA show: "Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass." The pop-culture reference is obvious, but as I descended into the bunker-like Gund Gallery in the basement of the MFA Art of Americas Wing, I felt the Alice label was only the beginning of a journey. Maybe Chihuly for all his twirls and twists and whimsy and wackiness is really an artist of the remix.Here are all the associations I made while walking through the exhibition (backward first, and then forward aided by wall narratives): the poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, a Mozart overture, I Dream of Jeannie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (with Gene Wilder), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (with Johnny Depp), every touristy store in Venice, a chemical stew of nuclear waste, Disney World's It's a Small World and mutations in nature after a post-apocalyptic disaster. (Sorry, I have no image for that.)
Yes, I feel the love in Chihuly's work, too. But I also felt as if I had stumbled upon a mad scientist's secret (and very moodily organized) laboratory that investigates the impact of over-loving Italy, primary colors and drugs.Barbara Rose, who wrote about Chihuly in 2000, called the artist a "mischievous, cunning, inspired shaman--a magician, a contemporary Merlin, a Ken Kesey Merry Prankster who produces the psychedelic experience of a magical, glowing, and sparkling, brilliantly alive panorama without drugs. This enchanted glass world has as much to do with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz as it does with the great Renaissance and Baroque festivals that sovereigns arranged to entertain their courts and subjects."
So I guess I'm not alone. But I'm also not put off, pissed off or particularly captivated by Chihuly. To me, his work is puzzling in the most engaging sense of the word. Best of all, seeing his creations made me curious to know more about his influences outside of RISD and Venice. Through the Looking Glass got me thinking about the history of glass art in this country -- and that got me climbing up the vaulting Americas Wing staircase. And wouldn't you know, three floors higher: works by two of the most famous glass pros -- Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge.
In the end, the experience reminded me of what I like best about art: It sends you on a quest. Like Alice down the rabbit hole.
Photos: Alicia Anstead
Having worked behind the scenes on a number of non-arts national conferences, I know the challenge arts leaders face when suggesting that non-arts types consider arts as a viable and provocative session theme in nearly any industry. Think of the potential conversations between those who work in the arts and those who work in: science, politics, healthcare, education.
What distinguishes arts discussions at a media conference (as opposed to arts conferences such as for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, which I have helped organize for six years) is the drive to look at the arts from outside the arts industry bubble. Plus organizers of NCMR included performing arts -- a dance party -- at the end of the day. (Extra points for that.)
I was drawn to the conference for other reasons, too: a determination to see the arts in relation to media, a line that gets blurrier and blurrier in our blogosphere era. While most of the conversations I heard were about net neutrality and its impact on the industry -- from grassroots efforts to major commercial artists -- or about how culture, especially online communities, have replaced watchdog media as an agent of change, the most compelling panel I heard was Artists and Advocacy: Engaging Creatives in Cultural Change.
This discussion, which will soon be available on the NCMR site, covered the Hollywood writers' strike, the rise of one classically trained musician to director of programs at the Future for Music Coalition, the training process for young artists to be activists and the importance of copyright rentention for DIY artists.
As a journalist, arts activism and media are still uncomfortable bedfellows for me -- even as I was impressed by the level of commitment on the part of this group of arts spokespeople for the role of activism in their art forms and their adamancy about the importance of artists engaging in policy conversations at all tiers -- locally and globally. Each of these members of this panel regularly interacts with media, acknowledging the continued power of both traditional and new media outlets in the arts.
If the inclusion of arts and culture at NCMR reinforced anything for me it was the importance of not silo-ing ourselves in the aesthetics of the arts. I, for one, would prefer to write about the infusion of dignity and inspiration of empathy in F. Murray Abraham's portrayal of Shylock in the Theater for a New Audience production of The Merchant of Venice than about the wonky policy issues of the FCC, the difference between the 501(c)(3) and the 501(c)(4) tax exemptions, and the social, political and financial implications of the idea that "code is god." But this conference reminded me how tied the aesthetics are to policy, corporate control and social media. Like the artists, journalists must stay attuned to the changes that take place behind closed doors and in the fine print.
Finally, I was also interested in a session on The State of Boston Media, in which not one person on the panel mentioned the arts. "Culture" as a general term, yes. But nothing about the arts, which was disappointing because Boston has such a rich arts life right now. I also didn't see any local arts media in the audience. That doesn't mean they weren't there. It means I didn't see them -- at any of the sessions I attended. Which only supports my earlier call to arts journalists: The arts are not just about what happens onstage. Or better: The stages for the arts are far greater than the ones in performing arts centers. They are on the floor of the government halls, the tables of corporate power and the forums in which artists make their voices known.
Maybe it's true of all botched vacations: There can be a silver lining. To paraphrase Dorothy, sometimes when you're looking for your heart's desire, you may not have to go any further than your own backyard. Which is a good thing because that's how far I got when I had to abandon plans to spend spring break in Chile visiting my brother and reporting on the arts. I ended up staying in the Boston area where the arts chops are pretty sharp these days. And yeah, it's true: I didn't have to go more than four T stops to find my heart's desire.
1. Prometheus Bound directed by Diane Paulus at American Repertory Theater's Club Oberon in Cambridge.
Do you like your revolutions Greek style? Diane Paulus does. Her decision to focus American Repertory Theater's season on classics - as in Aeschylus and Sophocles (add her touring Broadway revival of Hair which, coincidentally, stops in Boston this month) - has turned out to be prescient given the headlines in Africa and the Middle East. Prometheus is another example of Paulus' gift for musical spectacle with gender-social-political-choreographic (did I leave anything out?) commentary glinting from a disco ball. For a show in which the protagonist is chained to a rock for most of the story, there's a lot going on here. There's no escaping the action whether you're with the groundlings - the throngs of fist-pumping youths on the center floor - or seated off to the side in a banquette where a trio of hauntingly pale chorus angels in combat boots might nudge you aside to use your table for a scene. Paulus had a dream team in script and lyrics writer Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and composer Serj Tankian (System of a Down). The storyline may feel Greek to our ears because of the volume, but the production is rousing - and features the usual lineup of hyper talented performers who seem to give their souls to Paulus' vision of Outsiders Are Powerful. Thank you, Prometheus, for the bright ideas. We have some people in Wisconsin who would have found you very inspiring.
2. The Sun Also Rises by Elevator Repair Service at Arts Emerson's Paramount Theater.
After last year's Gatz, which ranks in the Top Ten Performances I've seen in three decades of theater going, I hoped Elevator Repair Service wasn't going to be a one-trick pony. It isn't. Director John Collins has three important talents: He understands pacing - and isn't afraid to take it slow. He understands humor - and isn't afraid to combine the nuance of the aforementioned pacing with the nonsense of stagecraft. And he loves literature enough to know that a book is one thing and a stage play is quite another and that the two are related but not pathologically. If anything, Collins is a master of the remix. Purists may have walked away saying, "This isn't Hemingway!" Fine. That is fine. But I walked away wondering if I got the cultural wink in the Ferrante & Teicher poster on the wall - and not caring much for the answer because, well, it seemed very Hemingway not to overwork a symbol. In the end - and Collins crafts one of the
Everyone knows that identity runs deep in Brooklyn -- and I confess that one of the reasons I like living there part time is that it reminds me of the willful neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was a kid in Anacostia and Hillcrest. But like all places of identity, you don't really get to claim ownership unless you were born there or somehow got there when the most mythical neighborhood-building activity was going on. By every definition, I'm a latecomer to Brooklyn. I'm a post-hipster, post-hardscrabble, post-we-did-it-our-way interloper.
All of this was reeling in my thoughts when I saw the recent Boston premiere of In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards at ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater. In the spirit of The Laramie Project and journo-actor-writer Anna Deavere Smith, the Brooklyn-based "investigative theater" group The Civilians conducted interviews, residencies and research around politicians, activists and neighbors involved with the controversial development projects in their beloved community. They developed the script based on those stories. ArtsEmerson provided a residency to the cast last year and, after its Brooklyn premiere, brought it back to Boston -- where similar civic issues such as the Big Dig and Harvard's Allston project have also been contentious -- even as everyone seems to agree that the stunning Paramount renovation has been good for the city and the arts.
The Civilians piece is a primer about Brooklyn's spirit and acreage -- the neighborhoods -- and about the power of The Man. But I found myself distracted by another quality that I've come to associate with documentary theater: righteousness. That's the nature of political theater, of protest theater and (I guess) of investigative theater. It may even be the soul of a community done wrong. In some way that righteousness tells the story better than newspapers, but it rarely makes for a gripping night of theater. (And I've seen the Civilians do gripping.)
More importantly, the show left me wondering: What is the role of narrative in reporting-based theater? And why is theater increasingly taking on the documentary format? Is it our longing to see neighbors, rather than celebrity, depicted onstage? Is life really stranger than fiction?
In the Footprint has a scrappy, gutsy cast digging around at scabs that go beyond building a sports arena. The piece has much to teach us about standing up, acting out, fighting strong, and writer/director Steven Cosson makes sure there's a lot of humor amidst the anger, angling and displacement, particularly in Michael Friedman's original tunes. I wanted more story, but I did get the picture.
PHOTO: In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, presented by The Civilians. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Hadero and I were preparing for the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference, and I asked her about the new APAP program for artist fellows she was heading. My question was: What can the rest of us learn from artists, particularly in tough economic times?
Her answer could easily have been published in the Edge lineup, but instead it appeared in Inside Arts, the magazine I edit for APAP.
"We conduct so much experimentation in our everyday lives about how to be artists," Hadero said. "You do it creatively. You do it economically. You do it in terms of how you tour and the ensembles you want to play with. And you're always experimenting. Right now, we're in a place where we don't know what's going to happen in the arts, and we don't know how the field is going to change and develop and morph and shift. The thing that's going to get us through and help us adapt the most will be our creativity and our ability to take risks -- which artists are doing all the time. In order to survive, you have to constantly be experimenting, and that's the spirit of openness and willingness -- to embrace the not-knowing, the ability to be flexible and to be responsive creatively to changing circumstances. Artists are great at that."
At the conference, Hadero and I heard many attendees talk about the value of creative thinking -- the type artists and scientists do every day. I suspect arts journalists, particularly those of us who are freelance, have a special insight into this mode of thinking, too. In the process of problem-solving, the best in our fields are fearless about risk, open to discovery and dedicated to finding meaning in unexpected places.
You can read an analysis of the Edge "mini abstracts" in today's Guardian, but you might find stimulating and useful answers if you contact the artists in your community and pose a similar question: What artistic process would improve everybody's toolkit? My guess is that most of the answers will cite risk, discovery, letting go and, yes, embracing the non-knowing.
This weekend, I may stop by the Paramount Center's Bright Family Screening Room in Boston to see a free screening of "The Sound of Music." By my calculation, I've seen the film 20 times, as a child and again as the parent of a child. It showed up in my life around the same time as other movie musicals such as "Peter Pan" and "Cinderella" that were made in the 1960s and were on TV each year when I was a kid. That was before DVDs and Netflix (and VHS), so the annual showing was a fairly exciting family event. It was also before replay buttons on remote controls, and I feel sure I watched TV with far more focus and clarity than I do these days when I'm likely to also be tweeting or texting at the same time.
In other words, my little mind was taking in far more information with fewer distractions, and I memorized those musicals in the same way I learned to say prayers at Mass: It was all rote, but the practice with musicals was far more challenging given that they came on once a year and Mass was once (or more) a week.
In any case, it was a testament to just how deeply "The Sound of Music" was embedded in my long-term memory when I recently attended Doug Elkins & Friends' production of "Fraulein Maria" running through Oct. 3 at the Paramount Center in Boston.
Elkins is an award-winning choreographer whose creds come from the break dancing world. For "Fraulein Maria," he combines modern dance and ballet with his street moves and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein's soundtrack featuring a full-throated Julie Andrews. Which means that when Elkins started popping and botting and ticking as the Mother Abbess in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," he augmented the song from an operatic pep talk about dreams to a display of just how much tutting a righteous B-Boy can achieve within about a four-foot halo of spotlight. He wore a black and white hoodie - a kind of wimple for the hood couture - and embedded the symbols of the tune (his hands do an itsy-bitsy spider-like move when the refrain is sung) and of contemporary hand jive such as basketball shots and, for lack of a better term, the pinkie-and-thumb-connecting-to-the-mouth-and-ear "call me" action. His moves and the choreography throughout the show were utterly new to me and yet they made perfect satirical sense given my familiarity with the movie.
Elkins is a virtuoso. And he has surrounded himself with a troupe of virtuosic dancers who suggest what it must have been like in, say, Shakespeare's time or in the early years of traveling circuses when you had to be a polymath of artistic ability to be part of the company. Many of the Elkins dancers have had conservatory training. But they are also gymnasts, martial artists, trapezists, break dancers, actors and comedians. Their previous tenures are as varied as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Bill T. Jones, the Metropolitan Opera and "trained Chris Brown." So there was 20-year-old Gui Greene defying gravity with his airborne power moves performing an "I Am Sixteen (Going on Seventeen)" pas de deux with David Parker, who was swan-like as a corporeal, middle-aged, cross-dressing Liesl. And there's Deborah Lohse who strutted on her tiptoes to connote the high heels her stridently bitchy Baroness might wear but suggesting in elegant slapstick the way Carol Burnett might have played the role had she been cast in the movie instead of Eleanor Parker. I wasn't exactly surprised even as I still gasped during the sentimental duet "Something Good" when Jeffrey Kazin, as Von Trapp, did a full-out run at Meghan Merrill, as Maria, and leapt into her arms for a traditional, though role-reversed, ballet catch.
It strikes me that Elkins takes his street aesthetic to the level of "cultural remix," which his company represents: a diverse group of dancers in terms of race, age and gender roles (plus five Emerson College students who join the troupe for one number). But he also engages in a form of remix in his use of varied dance genres that equally celebrate ensemble and individual talent. From this complicated pastiche emerges an appreciation of the American musical as a form so pliable it breaks down the high-low art rules - ballet meets graffiti dance - and becomes a trope about the elasticity not only of the human body but of a work of art. In other words, "Hamlet" is still becoming "Hamlet." "The Great Gatsby" is still becoming "The Great Gatsby." And thanks to Elkins, "The Sound of Music" is still becoming "The Sound of Music."
And I, for one, can't wait to see the movie for the 21st time.
Photos: Doug Elkins as Mother Abbess by Yi-Chun Wu; troupe photo and Robert Parker as Liesl by Christopher Duggan.