Post from July, 2023

“Protecting the Children”

Sunday, 30. July 2023 21:46

Book ban attempts hit a record high in 2022. What used to be individual book complaints have morphed now into movements for multiple removals and are organized by national groups. A number of librarians have been harassed and threated. A large majority of complaints about books come from conservatives and are directed toward works with LGBTQ+ or racial themes. Conservative states have passed or proposed laws restricting books, and there has been a push to make book bans and challenges easier in red states. An Arkansas law that allows librarians and booksellers to be criminally charged over providing “harmful” materials to minors has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.

Aside from the fact that practice of book-banning is simply censorship, there are several problems with the current conservative rage to ban books in both schools and public libraries.  First, it is done under the guise of “protecting the children.” What it’s really about is protecting the comfort of parents. This has been true historically and is true now. (“In the 1950s, adults in Alabama crusaded against The Rabbit’s Wedding, which told the story of a black and white rabbit getting married.”) Today the topics are primarily race, ethnicity, and gender identity. The exact reasons for the push to ban vary, but the targeted books have one thing in common: “they empower the people those groups [who want to ban them] would rather see weakened.

Book-banning often ignores the lives of the very kids they purport to protect. For example, many want books that refer to characters having two parents of the same gender banned, when that may be a fact of life for some of the students involved or their classmates. Students often experience bias and prejudice based on skin color or hair style at very early ages; a fact which the book-banners are quick to ignore.

What began as a movement ostensibly about parents’ rights in their child’s education has become something else; it has become a movement to eliminate access—for all students—to books with which certain parents disagree. Theresa Vargas, writing in The Washington Post, says, “I can respect that some people will want to put down the books I want to pick up. What I can’t respect is their belief that they have the right to snatch from my hands, and the hands of other parents, books that we want to read to our children. That picture books are coming under attack shows that the objectors fight never was about supporting parental choice. It’s always been about eliminating choice.

So what this book banning is really about is parents or groups trying to prevent children—any children— from encountering any ideas of which they don’t fully approve. It’s a matter of attempting to brain-wash children into believing exactly what their parents want them to believe. However, it won’t work. Even with all this effort, kids will discover ideas in the most unlikely places (they have access to the internet after all) and they will be who they are, regardless of parental indoctrination. As Rob Sanders, author of Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag says, “Look at me. I’m almost 65, I grew up reading only books that featured parents who were heterosexual and characters who experienced the world in gender-normative ways. Those books did not make me straight.

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The Mystery of Making Art

Sunday, 16. July 2023 22:44

Entire books have been devoted to the subject, yet in his book The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rick Rubin says that nobody really knows how or why a work of art is created. “We are dealing in a magic realm. Nobody knows why or how it works,” he writes. We do know, however, some of the steps involved, even though we understand very little about how those steps work.

First comes the idea—but from where? It seems that ideas for art works can come from virtually anywhere: a snatch of conversation overheard in a restaurant, observation of a couple crossing the street, a phrase or snippet of prose, a riff of music, a glance at a picture, a memory, a fragment of a dream. The story goes that the idea the culture-shattering play A Doll’s House came from a brief news article that Henrik Ibsen read. Anywhere. Why one particular idea of the many that an artist encounters in the course of a day intrigues the artist is the mystery here—especially an idea that strikes others as uninteresting or mundane.

Once the artist has the idea, they play with it, which is to say they examine it, look at it from all angles, study the implications, trying to determine if the idea has potential as a work of art. Perhaps they make some scribbles and doodles or perhaps jot some notes or make some sketches, again trying to establish the potential of the idea. The result of this play is the determination that the idea has traction or not. If not, it is discarded, its place taken by another idea and the process begins again. If the idea has traction, the artist will move to the next part of the process. The criteria for this decision are unknown, and probably vary from artist to artist.

Shaping and crafting come next. This stage, at least, has some rules and principles. There are aesthetics to consider, and there are notions about which colors go together and which arrangements of words are acceptable. There are principles of design to consider—or disregard. There are elements of style which may or may not be adhered to. There are key signatures and tempos. This is the stage where parts are added to the idea to make it into a fully-realized work of art. And this is also the stage where pieces are taken away. And there are very few rules about what to add and what to take away. Within the guidelines of the craft of the discipline in which the artist is working, the work is done primarily by instinct and experience, and again no one really knows how the artist does that, only that they do it and shape the work of art before them. During the latter part of this stage, the artist may discover areas of the art work that just do not work; this will demand a reworking of that section and re-integration of that part into the whole. Again this is done by instinct.

Once the shape of the work of art is determined and most pieces incorporated and others removed, comes the polishing of the piece, when the artist examines the work in detail, adding tiny bits here and there, and trimming tiny bits away as well. This is the time when artist effectively finishes the work. Here again, the artist’s own instinct and sensibilities are at work, inexplicably.

Next comes publication of the work. This can mean any number of things, but whichever form it takes, this is the stage where the artist releases the work into the world either by formal publication, or showing the work, or simply making others aware of its existence. The artist may have a predetermined method of showing their work, or may choose a different avenue for each piece.

Not all artists will adhere to the steps outlined here, but most will, although each artist will approach the problem in their own way using their own working methods. What doesn’t change is the mystery of how or why a work of art is created.

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Artistic Chemistry

Sunday, 2. July 2023 21:17

In the “Classical Albums” documentary Cream: Disraeli Gears about the blues/rock band Cream, one of the band members talks about the immediate artistic chemistry that the members of the band experienced when they first got together. That chemistry is a thing that all great bands have. In interviews band members talk about how they “click,” then go on to talk about how they feed off of each other when they are creating. It occurs to me that this is true of any artist who is involved in a collaborative art—and some who are not considered traditionally collaborative.

Actors, for example, will often talk about working with other actors and the on-set/on-stage chemistry they experience with those others. They tend to feed off of each other, which ups both of their games. If we look at the body of work of film directors, we find that they tend to do their best work when directing a small number of actors repeatedly. Again the artistic chemistry is what makes that happen.

The same is true of stage directors as well. In my own experience, some of the best work I have done occurred with actors with whom I had worked before. It’s the chemistry—the almost mystical clarity of communication that is experienced between director and actor. It is as if we are all thinking on the same wavelength, so the work becomes unified, and very, very strong. One supposes that it is the fact that we have worked together previously, but that’s not all of it, because it is not true with all actors with whom I have worked before. I think it must have to do with a shared sense of what we are trying to accomplish. This, of course, is not to say that I have not done good work with actors with whom I did not share a mental connection—just that it is more likely that better work will result from working with those with whom I “click.” Other directors report similar experiences.

The same experience is to be had when, as a photographer, I work with models with whom I share chemistry. These turn out to be my favorite models, whom I repeatedly consider for shoots, because, even though others do good work, it is much better, much easier with those who have chemistry, and seem to anticipate direction rather than waiting for it or taking off on some unrelated track. Painters of models probably experience much the same thing.

Even artists traditionally considered non-collaborative, such as novelists, will talk about the rapport they have with their editors or first-readers. It turns out that writing, at least the final stages, in not quite so isolated an art as we may have thought.

And of what use is this information? For one thing, we can come to recognize that we will do better work if we can find partners with whom we share artistic chemistry. Perhaps we can cultivate a small groupof collaborators (or a large one) with whom we naturally connect in order to our best work. Or perhaps, more the more ambitious of us could find ways to develop that connection and establish chemistry with new artists, so that we effectively develop a pool of potential collaborators.

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