Over the years I've spoken with many people about the "state of the arts," especially arts groups' prospects for attracting new audiences. But at a meeting yesterday hosted by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the author of a new think-tank report put things in stark and perhaps unintentionally ironic terms.
RAND Corp. researcher Laura Zakaras asked: "How can we attract more Americans to their own culture?"
Technically, of course, our culture is simply however we live; we don't need to be attracted to it because we're already in it. But at meetings like this, words like "art" and "culture" have an implicit meaning: Fine arts and traditional performance, usually from the Western canon, and usually as found in nonprofit settings from museums to concert halls.
What's implicitly excluded is the sort of cultural product most contemporary Westerners are utterly immersed in: Pop songs; YouTube; Hollywood movies; Facebook; reality TV; best-selling novels; and commercial expression of all kinds.
For arts groups, the troubles are plain, and not really new. Speaking at the Benedum Center, Zakaras summarized her report ("Cultivating Demand for the Arts") for about 100 arts professionals: For a quarter-century, we've seen rapid growth in the number of arts organizations -- but their average revenue is down and so is demand, especially among the young, the nonwhite and the underprivileged.
Some consider the stakes high. To Zakaras, it's about whether we'll commit to democratizing access to the arts, or just continue the slide into elitism. GPAC panelist Sarah Tambucci, executive director of Pittsburgh's Arts Education Collaborative, said that without the common, enlightening language of the arts, "Our very culture ... our very democracy might be at stake."
The solution, Zakaras says, lies in the fact that people patronize the arts because it's a rewarding experience. So we should focus not on maximizing the sheer number of offerings, but rather in boosting the quality of the experiences people have with art, as well as the number of people who can have them.
Because access to arts education -- especially among kids -- is the single best predictor of future interest, Zakaras emphasized the poor state of said education in the U.S. Suggesting reforms, she cited Rhode Island and New Jersey as states where government arts agencies have successfully worked with schools.
That's great. (The report is downloadable at www.rand.org/pubs.) No one wants symphonies or art museums to disappear. But it all left me thinking about more fundamental dilemmas.
Our consumer society creates enough wealth to support arts institutions large and small, but not enough people who want to consume what they offer. (Most arts groups are heavily subsidized from both public and private coffers.)
Again, though, we do have a plenty of art that's thriving -- popular art. So what the meeting's attendees and panelists spoke so passionately about, in essence, was the struggle to preserve and transmit a canonical culture in a consumer society that demands novelty, simplicity and speed.
Is the insistence on a canon a way of valiantly holding back the tide of pop-cultural barbarism -- or just a means, after all, of defending elitist presumptions?
I'm not arguing against government subsidies for the arts. But what if the specific, mostly centuries-old art forms we're mostly subsidizing -- the ones we've codified as "the arts" -- no longer resonate with people? What if they no longer serve the very purposes of art, to facilitate expression and foster understanding?
Others at the meeting seemed to be thinking this way, too. "There's a demand for the arts, it's just not in the form we might all like it to be," said panelist Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. Solomon. Solomon grew up playing steel-pan music under her father's tutelage, and recalled struggling to convince the musical authorities at Oakland Catholic that the steel pan was a "legitimate" instrument. As a curator of theater, music and dance, she said, she prefers "things that feel like they're from this time period."
I found most interesting, however, comments by Amos Levy. The 2007 Carnegie Mellon grad now works with CMU's Center for the Arts in Society, whose community-outreach endeavors include a hip-hop project and a neighborhood-news publication, both for city kids. Addressing the meeting, Levy said that the Center's had success reaching kids where they are culturally, especially through hip-hop music and film.
Hip hop, of course, is a genuinely up-from-the-streets culture encompassing distinctive music, dance and visual art. Much (if not all) of it is commercially oriented, which is one reason nobody's nearly as worried about hip-hop as they are about chamber orchestras.
I talked to Levy after the meeting.
While reading the RAND report, he'd written in a notebook: "Do we need to learn to appreciate and support and create the arts that people in communities create on their own, and not just share with them the arts that we appreciate, support and create?"
"We should go and ask the teens and other people what are the arts things they participate in now," he said.
Levy observes that older art forms are simply less exciting to kids, and seem irrelevant to their lives. Compare opera and rap. The latter's rapid free-associations and verbal jump-cuts reflect the hyperlinked world we live in. Youths "enjoy that form because it speak to that experience."
Yet that needn't mean the death of opera, or of Elizabethan poetry, any more than street art invalidates the Old Masters. Kids drawn to art want to know more about it, said Levy. "Expanding on wherever you start, you'll reach all of those things, you'll reach that history."
Prior to the announcement that writer and activist Peter Matthiessen would speak here April 15, I wasn't -- to my chagrin -- terribly familiar with his work. Offered the possibility of a phone interview, I boned up with the help of an anthology of Matthiessen's nonfiction, and was quickly entranced by the beautiful prose in books like Wildlife in America (1959), as well as his sense of commitment (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse), spiritual devotion (The Snow Leopard) and sheer fun and adventure (The Cloud Forest). Thus the preview Q&A in the April 8 CP (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A61520) focused on Matthiessen himself, who gave a gracious interview despite a balky phone connection.
Nonetheless, space precluded much attention to the very reason for Matthiessen's visit: The local premiere of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries, an hour-long PBS profile by local filmmaker Jeff Sewald. It's a fine piece of work, as viewers can see for themselves on Fri., April 24, when the film receives its national broadcast premiere.
The April 15 screening, in Chatham University's Eddy Theatre, was the second time I'd seen the film. (I'd also gotten a screener from Sewald.) It held up great on the big screen -- from the vintage photos and home movies from the Himalayas to Sewald and crew's original footage of Matthiessen at home on Long Island and canoeing in the Everglades. The talking-head interviews include the likes of Jim Harrison, Terry Tempest Williams, Tom Brokaw and Steve Kroft; Glenn Close narrates.
Possibly most impressive is how much Sewald packs into an hour: Matthiessen, something of a living legend, has led a very full 81 years. He's a novelist with two National Book Awards to his credit (for At Play in the Fields of the Lord and last year's Shadow Country); a hugely influential nature writer; an activist on behalf of the natural world and indigenous people; and a Zen priest. He also co-founded The Paris Review.
Sewald even manages to cover Matthiessen's brief employment by the fledgling CIA -- an undertaking that helped birth the Review, and a part of his life still little-enough known that its revelation drew at least one gasp of disbelief from the capacity Chatham crowd.
Sewald is a North Hills native who started out a humble newspaper rock-music writer here, and got into documentary film in the 1990s. As noted April 15 in an introduction by Chatham professor and filmmaker Prajna Parasher, in No Boundaries Sewald demonstrates especially a facility for finding visual imagery to echo the spoken language in this richly verbal film. He maintains a fast pace while getting all the key points across, including an account of the epic libel suit over In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. (In the post-screening Q&A, Matthiessen spent a good 10 minutes recapping the case for clemency for Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who Matthiessen's book argued was railroaded in the 1975 shooting of two FBI agents. Despite international outcry over his conviction, Peltier remains in federal prison.)
One writer who saw the film later told me that while he'd liked it, he wished Sewald had had more time to evoke the sense of space that's found in both Matthiessen's writing and in the globe-spanning terrain he's explored. At Chatham, Matthiessen himself offered a mild critique about the point of view in the film, which also covers his three marriages and sometimes strained domestic life: "It's very much loaded in my favor."
Nonetheless, it's a great introduction to Matthiessen even if you've never read the man, and an engaging recap if you have.
Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries airs on WQED TV at 10 p.m. Fri., April 24, and repeats at 8 p.m. Thu., April 30.
This show of short pieces, most choreographed by the dancers, alarmingly fell just two weeks after the troupe's spring concert, Exposed. And you could have forgiven the dancers for seeming drained after hustling to get this unique showcase on its feet before their summer break kicked in.
But on the contrary, it was a delightful show, full of energy, and in general a nice contrast to the intensely emotional, often dark Exposed. Alloy on Alloy was tapas dance: an evening of diverse styles, a little something for everyone in the intimate confines of the Alloy's studios, in Friendship.
That spirit was perhaps exemplified by the opening of Adrienne Misko's "String Them Along," whose first performer was a little remote-controlled extended-cab pickup truck. Maribeth Maxa dueted with the vehicle, and then was joined by Christopher Bandy, Stephanie Dumaine and Michael Walsh -- the whole company -- for a series of playful vignettes.
For further variety's sake, there was live music -- by Richard Hutchins and Curtis Boyd, on guitar and vocals -- with "For a Special Someone." This affecting solo, choreographed by Alloy education director Greer Reed Jones, was danced by Stephanie Dumaine, who seldom fails to communicate the essence of a work. Jones herself, meanwhile, danced "Conversation," a very short solo set by Alloy artistic director Beth Corning, and full of Corning's intricate gestures.
The evening's most obvious crowd-pleaser was Michael Walsh's "Soap Box Solo," a sort of illuminated comic monologue in which the Alloy's longest-tenured member spilled the beans on what dancers are really thinking: "You think we do this for you?" The piece was in three parts, scattered throughout. Part one established its intimacy (i.e., brief nudity), while in part two Walsh showed off a little under guise of complaining about choreographers who just can't be satisfied. ("Yeah -- I can do that twice as fast. [Oh, fuck!].") "Solo" was catnip for anyone who's been inside dance -- or thought he or she might like to be (pretty much the whole audience, I'm guessing).
Walsh's stand-up-and-spin-around comedy notwithstanding, the dancer who seemed to have the most to say was Bandy. The Alloy's newest member (he came straight from the Pittsburgh Ballet just last fall) set two pieces. One, the charming "Without You," danced by Dumaine, Maxa and Misko, featured comedic audience interaction and commentary on romantic stereotyping. Bandy's second contribution, "Fall," was an intense and intensely physical duet between Bandy and guest artist Brienne Wiltsie. Danced to a deeply moving choral Stravinsky piece, it showcased Bandy's leaping ability (also put to good use in Exposed) as well as his choreographic chops, and it just might have been the evening's high point.
Chris Hondros is a war photographer. As he noted this past Sunday, in the South Side photography studios of Jeffrey Swensen, he also listens to a lot of music during the inevitable and often lengthy stretches of waiting that punctuate the life of an embedded conflict photographer.
Thus was born a rather stunning art event. While Hondros showed a half-hour's worth of slides from his six years in post-invasion Iraq, Pittsburgh Symphony concert master Mark Huggins played Bach's wrenching Partita in D Minor, a solo piece for violin.
It was a word-of-mouth show, and not surprisingly the 80 or so attendees were heavily drawn from the local photography community, in which Hondros is, deservedly, lionized. (He once lived in Pittsburgh briefly, and last year visited to give a couple lecture slide-shows. Swensen was his roommate at Ohio University.)
Hondros, 39, is a New York-based senior staff shooter for Getty Images. Over the past decade and half he's been all over, including Kosovo and Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the West Bank. His stuff's published worldwide. He's been a Pulitzer finalist, and iconic images like one of a Liberian militiaman, airborne in exultation over a direct rock-launcher hit, are sufficient testimony. Hondros has it all: beautiful compositions, unflinching intimacy and, maybe best of all, a sociological acuity. In his pictures, you sense him not just reacting, but also thinking.
That came through, too, of course, in how he grouped and ordered the photos in the show Sunday. One sharp sequence segued from scenes of Iraqis at worship to images of U.S. soldiers at prayer, like the one in full uniform, gripping his assualt rifle.
The whole thing was engrossing, including a recapitulation of a sequence that includes one of Hondros' best-known photos -- the almost unbearable one of a tiny Iraqi girl, barely a toddler, wailing after the shooting of her entire family by American soldiers at a nighttime checkpoint.
Most striking to me, though, was a passage that subtly contrasted the everyday lives of Iraqis with those of U.S. soldiers in downtime. Even in an occupied country fractured daily by violence, the Iraqis are clearly connected, to the place and to other people. The U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, are isolated, thrown back on each other, sprawling in front of big-screen TVs.
We know this disconnect from the people they're meant to protect is largely necessary -- a matter of security and psychological decompression -- but you can't help thinking it only makes the mission that much harder.
Huggins' beautiful performance of the Bach work was a perfect accompaniment. Hondros hopes to do some version of this show elsewhere. If you hear of another, run don't walk. No matter what you think about Iraq, you'll think something different after you've seen this.
Last night, at what was billed as the venerable IPF's last go-round, I sat with Michael Simms. The Autumn House Press chief kept calling it "the end of an era," and the phrase sounded appropriate.
IPF founder and director Sam Hazo had announced in February that this season would be the group's last, making it Pittsburgh's first established arts group to fall victim to the funding climate.
The IPF was completing its 43rd season -- which makes it older, for instance, than any independent theater company in town. Older than the Mattress Factory. Older than Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Not older than the Carnegie Library (whose lecture hall IPF inhabits), but you get the point.
Since 1966, for several nights each year, the IPF has been the go-to venue for world-class poets. A partial list, starting with the very first guest, sounds like a roll-call from your college English-lit anthology, plus overseas guests: Archibald MacLeish, Robert Penn Warren, Czeslaw Milosz, Annie Dillard, Seamus Heaney, Richard Wilbur, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Updike, Maxine Kumin, W.S Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Muriel Rukeyser, Howard Nemerov, Elizabeth Bishop, Hayden Carruth, Kamau Braithwaite, Robert Pinsky, C.K. Williams.
W.H. Auden read here, for crying out loud, in December 1969. (I'm surely missing some big names, because the IPF's Web archive, thepoetryforum.org, while it contains wonderful sound clips, isn't quite complete). In just the past few years there, I've seen Wilbur, Merwin and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, among others. Nor did the series ignore younger poets, like Martin Espada, Mary Karr and soldier-poet Brian Turner. And it made room for such locals as Lynn Emmanuel and Terrance Hayes.
But last night the courtly, Hazo, 81, didn't dwell unduly on the past, so there's no point doing so here. As always, the Forum's Lecture Hall stage was formally set. The plaque for the group's Charity Randall Award, to be given to Zagajewski, was perched at stage right, upon a little table covered with a cloth. On the stage wall hung the big, old-school IPF medallion, with its dancing piper and goat. Hazo took the stage, and after a long ovation merely said that "barring some unforeseen act of generosity," this would be it. Then he introduced the poet: "Welcome to Mr. Zagajewski's living room, where he will share some poems with you like cocktails."
Zagajewski writes in his native Polish, and reads his poems in translation, low-keyed and dry-humored yet moving: "Sometimes I envy the dead poets … Their doubts vanish with them / Their raptures lives," went one newer, unpublished piece. Another was inspired by Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano: "'You should heal yourself,' I thought," Zagajewski read, addressing the book's alcoholic protaganist. "I'd become a Philistine."
Some nice images: "A plane ascended from the runway like an earnest student who believes the ancient masters'sayings." Another poem described "white cars clean as a bureaucrats' conscience." Zagajewski, whose family fled Poland when he was an infant, in advance of a Soviet takeover, read one about "Old Marx": "He still had faith in his fanstastic vision. In moments of doubt he worried he had given the world a new version of despair."
The reading reminded one that the Forum is one place in town where a significant portion of the crowd will get a pun in French (which the poet attributed to his wife).
The turnout, if less than you might expect for "the end of an era," was a little higher than usual, about 200. It was a little smaller than the crowd when Hazo himself headined in February (though attendance at that reading was likely boosted by Hazo's private announcement, ahead of time, of the Forum's demise).
Hazo's opening remarks, no less than Bob Hoover's feature on the Forum in last Sunday's Post-Gazette, left open the possibility that the series might continue, if in a different form, should Hazo find funding. If not, Zagajewski's final poem, one from his "self-portrait" series, included the appropriately elegiac line, "every morning opens a shining new chapter and can't finish it."
Hazo's parting words sounded a bit more hopeful. He praised Zagajewski for "the tone of absolute acceptance you hear in every poem." And then he quoted Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet Zagajewski had referenced earlier: "Wayfarer, there is no road. You make up the road as you go."
It's notable that Quantum is staging Yerma: It's a rarely produced work by a famed playwright who is seldom performed in these parts, Federico Garcia Lorca. But the most striking thing about it is likely the presence of Ethan Margolis and Cihthli Ocampo -- and how this singer/guitarist and dancer are used in the show.
The two, husband and wife, are acclaimed flamenco artists, based in Spain, specializing in this art form closely associated with Gypsy culture. (Both Margolis and Campo, somewhat unusually given their prominence in their field, are U.S.-born; Margolis grew up partly in Ohio.) Director Melanie Dreyer deploys them expressionistically, in "roles" particular to their talents and found nowhere in Lorca's script about a rural woman's obsession with bearing a child.
Margolis is actually the first performer we see, entering the stage-in-the-round only to mount a sort of pedestal in the risers where'll he spend most of the intermissionless show, alone with his acoustic guitar. All the music was composed for Yerma. Margolis' dramatic strums and burbling runs of single notes comment on the action. He even (as he told me when I visited the East Liberty space during rehearsals) provide musical motifs for each of the characters: desperate Yerma; her workaholic farmer husband; a strapping young shepherd; and so on.
Yet it's Ocampo you won't be able to take your eyes from. In one of the show's better visual gambits, the dancer (first name pronounced "Seely") is introduced in silhouette, backlit behind the translucent white drops that enclose the seating and stage like a tent. The entrance showcases the serpentine hip movements, liquid arms and butterfly hands that characterize her performance -- accentuated by her fluttery-sleeved blouse and a skirt that's floor-length but skin-tight from waist to mid-thigh.
The show's centerpiece is a long solo in which Ocampo adds to her repertoire footwork that thunders on the wooden stage -- it sounds like artillery tapdancing -- plus peremptory fingersnaps and percussive tongue clicks. All the while the look on her face remains fierce, defiant, sensual -- all the things Yerma herself would like to be, or express, but can't.
Yerma has its problems. Dramatically, the biggest might be that, as the action opens, Yerma (played by Melinda Helfrich) has already crossed the line into obsession. Her desire to have a child -- the only sort of fulfillment open to a woman in her time and place -- and her husband's refusal (and apparent inability) to fulfill this wish has pushed her over the edge. The character's got nowhere to go but into higher keys of desperation, and if the sentiment is naked the drama can get repetitive and even grating.
Still, one's glad Dreyer reworked the show as she did, if only to incorporate Margolis and Ocampo. A theater person in the audience told me afterward that Quantum's version of Yerma (which runs through April 26) is much abridged from the original. Yet its 85 intermissionless minutes made considerable time for the dancing and music. I was especially glad of this during Ocampo's big solo, during which Margolis leaves his perch for the lone time, descending to stage level to accompany her dancing with handclaps. And time stops beautifully.
The fourth floor of the Mattress Factory was the busy one this past Friday. Well, the lobby was busy, too, because that's where the drinks were. But the fourth floor was where the museum had arrayed perhaps 100 of the venerable local artist's works in a sort of sculptural forest. Mosley's carved-wood pieces and mixed-media assemblies tend toward the vertical, but it was still slightly challenging to maneuver among them, so closely were they set.
Too challenging, apparently: Sidling over to what I thought was a knot of folks admiring one of the works, I found Mosley himself, reassembling a piece someone had accidentally bumped over. The work consisted of an inverted V, with one deadwood upright stout and another taller and more slender, the second with an additional appendage that suggested an oar, flown like a flag. Mosley and a helper rebalanced it, with the help of a shim made from the wood shavings that had been artfully piled at the base of another sculpture as part of the installation.
The repair complete, Mosley, shifted, turned to his left and saw another piece that looked slightly out of whack. "Don't touch it," he softly cautioned another bystander as he raised his own hands to the wood.
The show consists of most of Mosley's output over the past decade. It's a bit much to take in all at once. However, another gallery-goer (who'd also watched Mosley reassemble his fallen piece) was self-possessed enough to note that the works -- most of them abstracts -- look great from any angle. And Mosley himself, natty in his silver beard and a fancy cylindrical cap, seemed to be having as fine a time as you'd hope an 81-year-old artist would have at his biggest opening in a few years. (The show continues into July.)
On the third floor, where the exhibit continues, things were quieter. The lights were low for a video installation of an interview with Mosley about his life, times and influences. (More wood shavings here beneath the screen, a bigger pile.) Another room exhibited items from Mosley's nearby, North Side home studio, toy cars and other ephemera, a boxed chainsaw. One of them was a large, dully gleaming silver object, a vaguely organic shape that suggested an aluminum honeycomb wrenched out of alignment. A few of us puzzled over it. Was it some sort of industrial tailing Mosley meant to work into a sculpture?
Then there appeared a woman with short, dark hair, one of those pithily poetic types it's fun to run into at gallery openings. She told us it was a painted mass of corrugated cardboard. "Beauty in all things," she added.
The modern-dance company's new evening of three works by three choreographers is exceptional. (There's one performance remaining -- tonight, Mon., April 6, at the New Hazlett Theater.) I'd already seen versions of all three of the pieces -- two of them more than once -- in the course of writing last week's CP feature on the troupe. I was impressed how well they held up when I saw the finished show on Sun., April 5. One reason I even gained new appreciation for the works was something I'd not seen while sitting in on several rehearsals and preview performances: the costumes.
The lead piece, Alloy artistic director Beth Corning's "4-2 Men," was inspired largely by bunraku puppetry. I'd already seen dancers Stephanie Dumaine and Maribeth Maxa act as "puppeteers" for Christopher Bandy and Michael Walsh. But on Sunday, the women's all-black, pajama-like outfits, based on the ones worn by bunraku artists and complete with see-through hoods, added a dimension. The anonymity imposed (or perhaps granted?) by the hoods provided a mystique, but also amplified the work's evocation of gender politics, in which the women (literally and figuratively positioned behind their men) went unacknowledged. The effect was doubled by the men's cheeky costumes: proper gray suits with white shirts and bright red ties -- except that the trousers were shorts, which inevitably cast them as little-boy puppets rather than man-puppets. As is typical in Corning's work, the movement was psychologically rich and often dreamily slow. Solos by Walsh (fearlessly danced with an actual doll-sized puppet) and Dumaine were especially effective. The costumes are credited to Corning herself, with "construction" by Maxa. (The men also wore handled harnesses to facilitate manipulation.) An additional outfit, the lovely "big girl dress" worn by Adrienne Misko (while she was both on and off Dumaine's shoulders) was by frequent Alloy collaborator Marina Harris, herself a name choreographer.
The program's lone older piece was Victoria Marks' "Dancing to Music," a wonderful short work from 1988. Corning, Dumaine, Maxa and Misko play four women waiting for a train. Performed to haunting piano-and-vocals by Wim Mertens, it suggests the label "movement piece" more than traditional dance: For the first half of its 12 minutes, the dancers don't even shift their feet. Rather, it's built around precisely timed and subtly executed glances, gestures and other interactions between silent characters slowly shedding their closely guarded status as strangers. "Dancing to Music" had been great in a street-clothes preview in March, too. But the costumes -- particularly dark vintage cloth overcoats (by Eons boutique's Richard Parsakian) -- created elegant lines and helped construct the aura of buttoned-up commuter formality which Marks sought to break down.
Seemingly simplest of all were Marina Harris' beautiful costumes for Nora Chipaumire's "becoming angels." The Zimbabwe-born, internationally acclaimed Chipaumire had created this world-premiere work for the Alloy's five dancers. It's an intense study of humanity under duress and of the human struggle (as Chipaumire has said) to be "good." The dancers wore loose, shimmering two-piece outfits, some with long-sleeved tunics, some sleeveless. The slinky, supple material, unadorned but for a pleat here and a detail there, highlighted the dancers' bodies in this at-once earthy and soaring work. Ultimately, of course, angelicism is suggested, but it's the hard-earned sort, not the kind one is born into. Harris' costumes communicated this succinctly and, in a grace note, even managed to glow in the more darkly lit passages.