Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The value of Art

My good friend Jessi Baden-Campbell sent this to me about an hour ago, and I thought I would share it with you. It is a quote from Rachael Maddow who, as many of you know, has a political talk show on MSNBC. She was invited to speak at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires this year, and so her comments are aimed at dancers. I think, though, that it is not much of a stretch to apply the comments to all arts. In fact, that may be the intent.

“Sometimes we choose to serve our country in uniform, in war. Sometimes in elected office. And those are the ways of serving our country that I think we are trained to easily call heroic. It’s also a service to your country, I think, to teach poetry in the prisons, to be an incredibly dedicated student of dance, to fight for funding music and arts education in the schools. A country without an expectation of minimal artistic literacy, without a basic structure by which the artists among us can be awakened and given the choice of following their talents and a way to get to be great at what they do, is a country that is not actually as great as it could be. And a country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not being a great country. It is a service to our country, and sometimes it is heroic service to our country, to fight for the United States of America to have the capacity to nurture artistic greatness.”

“Not just in wartime but especially in wartime, and not just in hard economic times but especially in hard economic times, the arts get dismissed as ‘sissy’. Dance gets dismissed as craft, creativity gets dismissed as inessential, to the detriment of our country. And so when we fight for dance, when we buy art that’s made by living American artists, when we say that even when you cut education to the bone, you do not cut arts and music education, because arts and music education IS bone, it is structural, it is essential; you are, in [Jacob’s Pillow founder] Ted Shawn’s words, you are preserving the way of life that we are supposedly fighting for and it’s worth being proud of.” -Rachel Maddow

Oh, by the way, here is the link to the source: http://dancingperfectlyfree.com/2009/08/10/rachel-maddow-on-dance-art-and-society/

Growing up in a two party household (mom is a dem, dad is GOP), I learned that it is not polite to mix politics with your dinner conversation or your art. Art was to be put on a pedestal and revered, studied, dissected or even worshiped. It was not, however, to be used as a tool for political and/or social ends. Though I understood that some artists did preach their politics in their work, that road was not for me. That road was dangerous, especially as a practitioner of an art that requires so many people and so much money to produce. Besides, I am an interpretive artist not a creative one, (I would think to myself). I don’t create the message. I am a vehicle for the composer or the conductor or the director or the producer or the Board. I am a medium. I sing songs primarily by European men who have been dead for at least half of a century. Just sing your songs, keep your head down, practice your Italian and try to get thinner for your next audition.

Now, Ms. Maddow speaks to an idea that has been growing in me for sometime. That is the idea that art is not a thing, it is an act—a verb. It is a verb that encompasses so many other verbs like create, imagine, interpret, practice, develop, network, nurture, fundraise, promote, perform… and on and on. I have come to believe, and what Maddow says so eloquently, is that practicing your art is in and of itself an act that has value to the society even though the society does not value it, and those of us who continue to practice art under these conditions are patriots of a kind. For the country needs its art and its artists to tell us who we are, where we have been, and where we might be going. It is a sacrifice to devote one’s self to that necessary practice that is so underappreciated. So take heart, friends. There are those who understand and who take up our cause even when most do not. We must continue to make our case that we as artists deserve a place at the table where decisions about the future of this country are discussed and planned, that they may provide valuable insight and to our country’s leaders and creative solutions to our country’s problems.

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