February 22, 2011

Not enough excellent art? O rly?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 12:14 am by chavisory

This opinion piece (What Is Wrong With the Arts?) from the Huffington Post made the rounds of Facebook last week among my theater friends, mostly garnering at least some degree of agreement with the thesis that, contrary to much common knowledge about what’s hurting our arts culture, the arts are suffering the most because there’s not enough really good art being made.

But I wasn’t on the side of the author (Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser) until fairly deep into his article; in fact, I started out fairly upset at what he seemed to be charging, when he says that “the arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created,” and goes on to list a large handful of iconic choreographers, conductors and composers of the 1950’s and ’60’s, and that “the classical arts have simply not kept up” with the kind of creativity and innovation going into television, movies, and rock music.

(Though I may be inclined to agree with him about rock music, given the intelligence and loveliness of some of the rock music I’ve heard in the past couple years.)

Young artists today just aren’t up to it, he seems to be saying.

And I don’t believe him, because I see astonishing art almost every day.  There’s almost not a week of my working life that goes by in which I don’t feel privileged and blessed and astonished to be seeing what I’m seeing.

But by the end of the piece, he’s saying something different, when he writes:

But the institutional nature of our arts ecology, a relatively recent phenomenon, means that groups of people are now more responsible for arts making than the individual. Boards, managers and producing consortia are overly-involved.

And these groups are misbehaving. They are overly-conservative, subject to “group think” and so worried about budgets that they forget that bad art hurts budgets far more than risk-taking does.

Now he’s not indicting artists at all, but producing and funding organizations.  He’s confused the creation of art with production on a high level.  And isn’t that exactly what he’s complaining about, when he bemoans the substitution of celebrity for excellence, of ever bigger and more expensive spectacle for insight?  Isn’t THAT the problem?  He’s got artists and what they do confused with institutions and what they do.  And he’s right about the behavior of the institutions.  It’s not that excellent art isn’t being made, it’s that it isn’t being chosen for support by institutions and canonization the way it was in the decades he’s nostalgic for.  But I promise you, it is being made.

It’s just that I’m not going to the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center or Broadway to see it (and that’s a whole ‘nother discussion about the cost of art to working people, including actual artists), but places like La Mama ETC, and Manhattan Theatre Source, and the Fringe Festival (yes, as much as we all love to complain about the Fringe Festival).  It’s being done by groups like New York Theater Experiment and Company XIV.

It’s often being done in the low, low budget shadows.

One of the most daring, emotionally riveting and heartstoppingly good pieces of theater I’ve ever seen to this day was called The Warzone is My Bed, and it was done at La Mama with no sets but one wall and a bed.  And I have no idea what, if anything, happened to it after the end of its 2007 showcase run.

I think about the projects I’ve worked for which have brought me to both tears and elation, night after night as I sat and ran the cues.

There’s not enough excellent art being chosen for financial support and further production and distribution.  That doesn’t mean that no one’s making it.  It means no one’s paying attention.  Or that the people who are don’t have the financial means to bring it to a wider market.  Or that the people with the financial means are making bad judgments about what’s good art.  Or that we all lack faith (maybe justifiably, given the box office success of No Strings Attached and Jackass 3D) in the willingness of the wider citizenry to pay for daring, challenging performing arts.

But in any of those cases, if we were to actually, substantially, visibly support the most talented and insightful of individual young artists, I bet we wouldn’t be complaining about not having enough good art.

February 21, 2011

Last snow day

Posted in City life, My neighborhood tagged , at 3:16 pm by chavisory

I know better than to get my hopes up when we have a warm snap in February that it’s going to last.  I do, I do, I do.  Still, my heart sank a little when I woke up this morning to an unexpected coating of new snow on my windowsill.

{Sigh}.  The lakes and mountains of dirty slush were almost gone.  The mountains of uncollected trash were, too, although piles of dead Christmas trees still depressingly remained, their fragrance dissonant with the bright sunshine, green grass, and warm breeze in which I went out for a walk in t-shirt and hoodie just a couple days ago.

Now we start all over again.

But these are actually pictures from that last big snow day in January…when it was still pretty and childishly exciting…of my tramp through the park to Harlem Meer and the Conservatory Garden.

Snowy branches straight up against the sky.

February 9, 2011

Evolution FAIL

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:49 pm by chavisory

I’m not a big fan of mandatory schooling, as most of my readers will already know.  Okay, I’m not a fan at all.  But I’m starting to think it’s about time to require everyone to read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

And I mean everyone.

I read it myself last year, in a campaign of reading stuff that we should’ve been assigned in school but weren’t.  I was a little bit (okay, a lot) appalled that as much as I thought I knew about evolution, I had actually attained a degree in biology without ever having read the seminal work on the subject.

If you need evidence that our schools are profoundly failing to educate, consider that.  Most biology students never have to actually read On the Origin of Species.

Or that, according to a Times article (On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan) on a survey published in Science magazine last month, 86 years after the Scopes trial, only 28 percent of high school biology teachers are actually teaching the straight facts about evolution, the foundational principle of modern biology, while 13 percent are still explicitly teaching creationism.


The article shines a light on what the study calls the “cautious 60 percent” of biology teachers who in some way, shape or form, compromise on teaching evolution outright.

In what other discipline would it not be outrageous to allow 73 percent (the 60 who don’t teach evolution straight up + the 13 who openly teach creationism) of our educators to bow in deference to religious fundamentalism?  But that’s what we’re doing in biology.  Wouldn’t there be nationwide outraged panic if it were found that an authoritarian sect of some religion other than Christianity were managing to seriously compromise how our kids are being taught?

Yet this is what’s going on in the overwhelming majority of our biology classrooms.

One professor quoted, Randy Moore, doesn’t think that better science education for instructors will help.  “They already know what evolution is,” he says.  “They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them.”

But do they really know what evolution is?  I doubt it.  If nearly three quarters of biology teachers aren’t really teaching evolution or teaching it in a half-hearted way; or if they, like me, got through school as high-achieving biology students without ever reading first-hand the definitive books on the topic, then they really might not.  And fundamentalist churches aren’t simply rejecting evolution; they’re lying about what the theory actually says and does not say.  So when someone who hears about evolution in school but rejects it for religious reasons, are they honestly rejecting an accurately presented representation of evolution, or are they believing their pastor over their science teacher when it comes to what evolution by natural selection really is?

So I come down, cautiously hopeful, on the side of the slightly more optimistic Dr. Eric Plutzer, who says that “We think the ‘cautious 60 percent’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”

This is a cycle that can be broken, if educators know how to stand up for the facts.