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Politics and the Artist

Sunday, 12. September 2021 21:11

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” according to celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. If this is the case, how are artists to respond to the politics of suppression and public health recklessness practiced by the legislature and executive leadership of the State of Texas and some other states as well?

Should artists bend their style and practice to respond to such or should they stay their artistic course and protest some other way? Probably it depends on the artists and their art. For example, a painters of floral still lifes would be hard put to modify their art to incorporate a political statement, while news or editorial photographers would not. The inclination of the artist is also a factor. Some are so concerned about their style or brand that they do not wish modify what they are doing, regardless of their feelings about current politics.

Historically, some artists, particularly playwrights and filmmakers have responded by creating work that indirectly commented on the problem; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are excellent examples of this kind of work, as well as the number of subversive films made in reaction to  HUAC activities in the 1950s. Interestingly, this type of work was well-received, although it unclear whether audience members fully understood the connection between the work and the political situation.

Other work that is well received is by artists who respond to current events and find themselves becoming known for political commentary. Instead of shying away from the label, they embrace it. Both Shepard Fairey and Banksey come to mind.

Other artists may maintain their standard brand, but initiate a side-brand, perhaps of T-shirts or coffee mugs that are political in nature; sometimes these artists will even produce the political work under a different name in order to keep their primary brand “pure.” They might also use a storefront name on one of numerous online marketplace sites.

If the artists do not want to change their styles or subject matter, how might they respond to current situation? At least six creative people I know think that the problems are not just state, but national and are actively researching leaving the country; they plan to practice their arts either in a different location or via international media. Certainly that is a valid choice, even though some may consider it a bit drastic. Others are politically active in avenues outside their art: Several, including writers, directors, actors, and some photographers maintain an active political life on social media, commenting on the current situation and encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. One photographer/blogger I know produces a semi-weekly newsletter highlighting current events and decisions for his readership.

Some choose to ignore politics completely, but I am finding that these individuals are becoming rarer and rarer as US politics and pandemic reach out to touch nearly everyone. Paying no attention to these issues can be attractive and comfortable, so long as one doesn’t mind living with their head in the sand and with the understanding that the issues won’t disappear.

How any particular artist responds to political and national health issues is certainly an individual decision.  Artists need to decide whether to deal with the problems head-on or in a more private way. The one choice we as artists don’t have, at least according to Kurosawa, is to look away.

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Be Prepared to Pivot—Again—and Again

Sunday, 15. August 2021 22:00

Counting from March, 2019, we are now half way through the second year of the COVID pandemic, which unfortunately, in the US, is becoming increasingly politicized. At one end of the spectrum, some theatres in Washington, DC, and various concert artists are requiring proof of vaccination, masks, or a negative COVID test for audience members. At the other, venues in Texas are forbidden by the state government from requiring any sort of proof of vaccination to the point that restaurants have been threatened with revocation of their liquor licenses if they require patrons to provide proof of vaccination.

What does this mean for live theatre, for the arts in general? Nobody knows. In states where mask or vaccination requirements are forbidden, will audiences be comfortable sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre? Will audience response be what the production needs in theatres where the audience is socially distanced? Will patrons feel comfortable mingling in art shows, with or without masks? Is there really any way to know who is really vaccinated and who is not? How will all this impact the world of art, in all of its aspects?

The answer, of course, is that no one knows. And beyond that, the question becomes what is the correct response for the art world. No one knows the answer to that question either. Some theatres are trying to come back with live theatre; others are honing their online production skills. Some are trying to do both. It’s all a balancing act (and it’s going on in arts other than theatre). Those who are going live are trying to figure out how the audience will respond to whatever restrictions. Those who are online are discovering that the best way to do online production is to turn theatre into cinema.

And what of departments and schools of theatre? Does anyone want to train in a field, the future of which is so uncertain? Again, nobody knows.

What we do know is that theatres, art galleries, arts schools and departments must be ready to reevaluate their practices if they are to survive. They must have alternative plans in place and be ready to pivot to any of those plans on a moment’s notice.

In the words of Shakespeare, “The readiness is all”—because there is no “normal” any more—not even a “new normal.” Every day is new territory. We are now in a time when what we have learned in the past is of little value, because today’s present is so very different, and the old rules and ideas simply do not apply.

So what do we in the arts world do? We become agile. We become prepared to pivot—on a moment’s notice, in any of a number of directions—because we cannot be guided by the past. And not only that, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. There is no research to support our decisions. All we can do is make our best guess. Some organizations and individuals have already guessed wrong. That’s okay, because if they are nimble and can pivot, they can correct their courses, and make better decisions going forward.

The world is different than it ever has been, particularly for live performance. If we are to survive, we must be ready and willing to pivot.

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Reopening the Performing Arts

Sunday, 9. May 2021 22:49

Earlier this week, I attended a combined band/choir concert at the college where I teach. It was their first performance in 17 months and was an outdoor event on a warm Texas early evening. The audience was invited to bring their own chairs and many did.

While the concert itself was interesting, the audience was equally interesting. The audience arranged itself into rough rows with people who came together sitting together. Between every group there was a space: without direction, the groups had socially distanced themselves. About half of the audience was masked.

The concert seemed to provide a concrete example of the way people are feeling in May 2021: anxious to get out and do things, but cautious because there’s still a pandemic going on. And, of course, there are those who have pretty much ignored the virus from the beginning in the mix as well.

One wonders what this bodes for performing arts in the future. Some movie theatres are already open. Broadway is scheduled to reopen in September. But will the audiences be comfortable with going back inside for their entertainment? If the concert I attended is any indication, audiences who voluntarily social distance outside will certainly want to be socially distanced inside. To accommodate that need/desire, some ticketing software companies have added a social-distancing feature to their software which automatically creates a “bubble” around sold seats. Then there is the question of masks: will an audience be comfortable wearing masks for the entire length of a performance? Will they be comfortable with no one in the audience wearing masks, or some wearing masks and some not?

With all that social distancing, at what point will performing arts, which struggle to make a profit under the best of circumstances, be able to support themselves? How will they manage to survive if social distancing limits them to 50%-75% of capacity? Or, if they operate at 100% capacity, will audience members be comfortable enough to purchase tickets?

In addition to the question of finances, there is the question of audience response. It is well-known that a tightly-seated audience will respond better than when audience members are separated by empty seats. If a significant portion of seats are empty due to social distancing, what will that do to the audience response? And what, in turn, will that do to the performance?

As difficult as performing arts have been during what we hope was the height of the pandemic, the return to “normal” may be just as difficult. Just as we had to climb the learning curve of virtual production and adapt our techniques to streaming, we will have to adapt again—to the “new normal,” which will not be, cannot be as things were before March 2020. Then as the situation hopefully improves we will have to adapt again, and again, and again.

And we will. The world has seen pandemics before, and the performing arts have survived. And so will they this time. However, I suspect, they will be changed. Indeed, some performing arts companies have already announce permanent changes based on things learned during the pandemic. So we may never go back to “the way things were before.” And that, once we figure it out, will be just fine.

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Take a Moment

Monday, 15. February 2021 0:04

Yesterday, I was half-finished with my blog post, which was about the artful response to the once-in-generation winter weather event that we are about to experience, when I stopped. I had suddenly realized that I had no idea about the circumstances of my readers. While I know that most of the readers of this blog are interested in the arts and creativity, I have no idea what their lives are like, and I had made the mistake of assuming that they were much like mine. So I took a moment to think about it.

A number of creative people are, and have been out of work for almost a year. This likely means that they have had to change their lifestyles, including their living arrangements. They may have had to take other types of jobs to make ends meet. Or they may be trying to survive without making ends meet. Others have seen markets dry up and have had to turn to different venues to sell their work, with differing levels of success. Certainly they are operating differently than they were a year ago.

And there is no reason to think that all who read the blog, or even a majority, are in the same life situation that I am in at the moment, so what I was writing not only might not have resonated, but may have been an affront to them—something I had no intention of doing when I sat down to begin the post.

I had been thinking about this severe weather event as providing a temporary respite from pandemic fatigue, which is plaguing many of us as we approach the first year anniversary of the pandemic. It did not occur to me that it might well do that—but in a negative way. And one of the things we do no need more of at the moment is anything negative.

What we do need is something positive. So if the once-in-a-generation winter weather event can bring us something positive, I am all for it. And it doesn’t have to be something big or life-changing. It could be something as small as a warm bowl of soup, a mug of hot chocolate, a moment when we can sit by the fire and read, a minute to stand by the window and watch the snow fall, or just a short time when we don’t have to think about the pandemic and all that that means.

One of the positive things that it has provided me is an occasion to take a moment to appreciate my own situation. For all the complaining I do, I have been very fortunate. Perhaps more importantly, it has provided me the opportunity to take a moment to say how much I appreciate those who take the time to visit this blog. And it allows me the forum to voice my hope that you are somewhere safe and warm and dry as the temperature drops and the freezing rain and snow begin to fall.

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Take Care of Yourself

Sunday, 27. September 2020 23:34

You can’t make art if you don’t. It’s just that simple. But it’s hard, because those of us who are still hunkering down and being careful are working very hard at avoiding risk. That leads us to stay home, which is normally a good thing these days. But self-care demands that we break our pandemic routines.

  • Make and keep your dental appointments. Making art is difficult enough. Making art with a toothache may be close to impossible. Every dentist I know of has strict COVID protocols, so they are among some of the safest places you can go.
  • Keep your appointment with your optometrist or ophthalmologist. While it’s true that some artists, such as Claude Monet have worked with clouded vision, that is far from an ideal situation. For almost every art, our eyes are important; see a vision professional regularly, even in a pandemic. They too have rigid COVID protocols in place.
  • See a medical doctor when you need to. You may not even have to actually go into a clinic for an office visit; now there are phone, video, and e-consultations that can take care of a number of problems, and you don’t have to leave the safety and comfort of your home. And when office visits are required, most clinics have procedures to not only keep us safe, but the doctors we are seeing as well.
  • Along with seeing a medical doctor, avoid putting off necessary surgery. There are whole areas of hospitals that COVID has not penetrated. Operating rooms are among them. Conditions requiring surgery do not usually get better by themselves. We need to do what is necessary to restore our health.
  • Take care of your mental health. Most of us have pandemic fatigue at the very least, with any number of anxieties added on. We have to take time to restore our mental health so we can let our creativity work. In an earlier post, I suggested several things that might improve our mental health. Here they are again:
    • Rest. The stress of our current situation is unrelenting. Sleep in. Take a nap. Disengage. Allow your mind to settle. It will improve both your creativity and your productivity.
    • Take some time for yourself. Along with resting, take some time to do some of the things you haven’t had time to do. That time may involve doing nothing. It may also involve any number of things that you consider enjoyable that you haven’t taken the time for.
    • Watch a movie. Streaming services up and running and will show you virtually anything that you want to see 24/7.
    • Stop and listen to some music. Not background music. Actually stop and listen and enjoy some music Well, now you have the time. It will enrich you in ways you can’t even think about until you do it.
    • Go outside. Let the sun shine on you. Enjoy the grass and flowers and birds. It’s refreshing both physically and mentally, and something we don’t do often enough.

These are just a few things we can do to take care of ourselves, and in doing that we cannot but improve our creativity and our productivity—which, after all, is one of our goals as artists.

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Is It Worth the Trouble?

Monday, 14. September 2020 0:08

A friend of mine is a cold brew fanatic. For every pot he grinds the beans, measures the amount of ground coffee on a scale, and precisely measures the filtered water. And then he waits. Exactly 13 hours later, he drains the coffee concentrate and bottles it for the coming week. Recently we were discussing coffee and the subject of a certain coffee that he likes came up. “I don’t drink that anymore,” he said. When I asked why, he said that it was just “not worth the trouble.” It seems that that particular coffee causes problems for the grinder, which has to be stopped and started and unclogged repeatedly just to get enough coffee to make a pot.

Some of us are feeling that way about our art these days. In the last post, I mentioned some of the difficulties that photographers and theatre artists encounter when they try to pivot to a different way of doing things. Sometimes that new way of doing things comes with a very steep learning curve in addition to the unexpected difficulties. And then, the results are never quite what we had hoped for. The whole experience can be full of anxiety and frustration, and that leads some of us to ask whether what we are doing is actually worth the trouble.

Of course, some of us will answer loudly and immediately, “Yes!” Those are the ones who feel that because it’s art, it’s worth any amount of trouble. All that matters is producing, and circumstances be damned. Others of us might take a more measured approach. There have been, and probably always will be, projects that won’t be under-taken regardless of the external conditions. Those are the projects that are too big for the budget or that are too difficult because of their conceptual requirements. It may be that a project is completely beyond our capabilities. In the past when those cases came up, we would move on to other projects that were—because of their lesser cost or complication or requirements—doable. And we didn’t think less of ourselves for that.

So perhaps when it seems impossible for us to embrace an entirely new methodology and/or a completely new medium, we might want to cut ourselves some slack. Change is often difficult and always stressful, and a forced changed without a modification in schedule can be unmanageably problematic. So we might want to consider altering the schedule or the scope or the range of our work. We might want to find ways to make the situation into a workable one, or we may decide it’s just not worth the trouble.

Making art under the best of conditions is hard, but making art under extraordinary conditions we are experiencing in the US today is doubly difficult. Sometimes it does become a choice between bearing up under crushing stress or, as noted above, figuring out a way to make the situation more workable and thus more tolerable. And, of course, there’s always the third choice: declaring that it’s not worth the trouble and walking away. And we may find that we have different responses to different projects. Ultimately, however, which of these three paths we take will, as always, depend on each individual project and each individual artist.

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Pivot

Tuesday, 1. September 2020 0:04

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us thus far, it’s that things are not going to go right. And it’s not just the things that we expect to go wrong; it’s things we didn’t even see coming. No matter what art we are engaged in, we have to be ready to pivot. Some would say that this is just a variation on Bobby Shaftoe’s advice to “display adaptability,” but it’s more than that, or at least it seems that way. Things change and plans fail at a dizzying speed these days. Not only do we have to plan for normal contingencies, but we must plan for the extra-ordinary, and we must be able to do it quickly.

And sometimes that requires a whole new way of thinking, primarily because many of us are now working in uncharted territory. Even artists who are used to working alone are denied their normal in-person social network, or if they still enjoy that luxury, it is changed by the necessity for masks and social distancing. Things are even more difficult for collaborative artists. In addition to normal preparation, photo shoots, for example, now require immense preparation for health and safety reasons. This may include considerations that impact the work, such as lens choice, allowing the model their safe space and still getting the work done—so the pandemic influences the art, perhaps in subtle ways, but the influence is there nonetheless. Other choices for shoots are little better, risking the safety and health of photographers, models, and assistants, or postponing the shoot until who-knows when.

Theatre, perhaps the most collaborative of the arts, brings in a whole new set of issues that can overwhelm the savviest of producing organization. First is the choice of whether to attempt some sort of live performance with not only socially-distanced performers, but a socially-distanced audience as well. Most of us realized that this is not a practical solution. Then we pivot to some sort of virtual performance. And that brings with it a whole host of new considerations and problems. It begins with securing virtual performance rights. Since the agents who control the rights to live performances were, before April of this year, not in the business of granting streaming rights, they have had to pivot to incorporate that into their businesses. Because the process is new and because it requires decisions to be made out-of-house, it can sometimes delay a decision on rights acquisition for weeks.

Then there are the technical considerations: what platform or what combinations of platforms are the best for presenting theatrical fare like we have never done before? For many of us who have worked long in live theatre, there is much to learn—just in order to know what to try and what to reject. Sometimes, the most desirable approaches must be rejected because there is no way to employ them without exposing the performers and technicians to danger. And even after those choices are made, there are difficulties that come up for which we are not prepared: there seems to be no end to connectivity issues and timing problems and scheduling difficulties—because everyone involved in the production is dealing with all of those issues in their own lives, issues that are extra-ordinary, even after months of self-quarantining and coming to terms with the new facts of life.

So we have to be ready for nearly any eventuality—all the time—which means that we must be twice as prepared as we normally are, and prepared for brand new twists and turns. And yes, it can be immensely stressful. But art is what we do, so we, like any good basketball player, must be ready to pivot—sometimes with no notice at all.

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Beware of the Shoulds

Sunday, 26. April 2020 22:53

So, you’re sheltering in place or you’re going to your essential job or you’re working from home or you’re passing the pandemic in some way or the other. Your situation likely is not like your neighbors’. As a matter of fact your situation is unique to you, and that’s why you ought to beware of the shoulds.

Every time you open an arts web site, some “authority” or the other is telling you what you should be doing during this time of international stress and disease. And many of them press the point so hard that if you were to take them seriously, you would feel guilty if you didn’t follow their advice. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined; Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus while quarantined. You should do something equally spectacular.” “Make art, even if it’s bad art.” “Now that you have time on your hands, use it constructively.” “What a perfect opportunity to do research for that story you want to write.” “This could be the time for you to make your best art!” “It’s a perfect time to learn those dance steps you were talking about.” “Now you can set up that home studio.” “Now is the time to write that novel.” “This is a perfect opportunity to work on that difficult piece you want to play.” “Now you have all this time to edit that last photo shoot.” “Why don’t you work on that sculpture now that you have the time?”

STOP LISTENING TO THOSE PEOPLE!

They are not you and do not know what you are dealing with. You may feel like the world has changed completely; it has. You may feel that the rug has been pulled out from under your existence; it has. You may be spending so much time dealing with exigencies of doing your job on line that you don’t have time for anything resembling art-making. That’s okay. You may be dealing with the unbelievable stress of having to completely change your lifestyle just to survive. That’s okay too. You may just not feel like making any art today, or this week, or this month, much less attempting a masterpiece. And even that’s okay.

Those you-should-be-doings are other people’s; they are not yours. Only you know what is right for you at this particular moment in time, and, if you are anything like me, it changes from day to day. Some days you may be super-energetic about developing new ways to work from home or approaching some other project. Other days may be hum-drum. On yet other days you may be totally depressed. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. You have to take each day as it comes and deal with yourself and your situation on that day only.

And on some days you may make art, or you may not. Although it feels like we have been doing this forever, we are still just feeling our way along, trying to deal with the shock and grief and uncertainty as best as we can on a day-to-day basis. We have no idea where we’re going, but we keep inching forward. What we do NOT need to do is beat ourselves up for not being creative and productive every minute of our existence. What we are going through takes some time to come to terms with—if we ever can. Our minds will turn to art and making it when it is appropriate for us—as individuals—not according to an admonition by some smug Internet pundit.

Chapter 24 of Jerry Saltz’s How to Be an Artist, is entitled “There are no Wasted Days.” In this very brief chapter he says that “your artist’s mind is always working, even when you think it’s idling….You are your method; your life is part of your work.” And it’s true. All that time when you are trying to cope with the new reality, your creative mind is working, absorbing, combining, understanding. When it’s time for you to produce, you will produce. And just as each person’s art is unique, each artist’s method and timing is personal and distinctive.

You will make art when you feel it is time, and it will be as good as it can be. Until then, just keep living and learning—and ignoring the shoulds.

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Overload

Monday, 13. April 2020 0:19

It seems that there is only one topic these days. That, of course, is the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic-social distancing-quarantine triad. And it’s understandable. It’s fair to say that this triad of connected issues has impacted our lives probably more and more profoundly than any other “event” we have experienced since we first drew breath. It has changed the way we live and is even now changing the way that we think and react. As I suggested in the last post, it will certainly affect our futures in ways yet to be determined. Everything that we see and hear seems to be related to one or all three of these topics. And, combined with what we are personally enduring, it’s just too much.

Not that some good things have not come from this situation, much of it virtual. Many of the responses to this situation have been truly beautiful. For example there have been some moving virtual musical productions done from quarantine, such as the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s abbreviated version of Beethoven’s 9th  Symphony or the Italian youth choir il coro che non c’è performing Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” which is impossible to experience without crying.

In art there is the remarkable Izoizolyacia Facebook group, where Russians and Russian-speakers are engaged in a project to replicate artworks while in isolation. The rules are only that entrants must only use items on hand and that the work cannot be digitally manipulated. The range, quality, and quantity of the recreated art works is astounding.  (And you don’t have to read Russian to understand and appreciate the images.)

It may be too early for fiction, but a number of excellent essays are being published every day. For example, David Patrick Stearns has written a timely article on “Why Beethoven is so relatable right now.” Stanford professor of classics and history Walter Scheidel has written an intriguing article on “Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics.” And there is also a thought-provoking piece by novelist R.O. Kwon that suggests that part of the mental problems we are facing is because, without knowing it, we are grieving. And these are but a few.

Every day artists and thinkers in all disciplines are responding to the pandemic. Much of that work is moving and thoughtful and intelligent. And many of these artists and thinkers are looking at different sides of the situation, but it is still only about one thing. Even “Saturday Night Live” produced a virtual “At Home Edition” on April 11, which was all about the pandemic.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that artists and thinkers look in a different direction, consider other topics. Perhaps the pandemic is simply too big to be able to do that. But I am beginning to feel saturated, over-saturated. Whatever we see, read, listen to is about the pandemic. It is almost impossible to get away from without isolating ourselves even more than we already are.

And I can’t say that I’m recommending that. The head-in-the-sand approach is never desirable. What is desirable is that we—for our own mental health—take a break: turn off the TV, shut down the news feeds, listen to some favorite music, watch a movie—for a while. Yes, we need to grieve; yes, we may need to cry, but we also need to lessen the overload on our psyches. Now might be the time for us to think about a project completely unrelated to what we are enduring.

It may not be time yet to activate those sorts of projects, but it is certainly time that we spent a little while away from the current state of the world and think about some other possibilities for our arts.

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