I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”
As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.
This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.
But the truth is, seeking to discover and then recognizing the complexity of how life works is an act of honor, and necessary to a free and democratic people. It is true of journalism at its best, and it is true of the arts, which centrally to their aesthetic concerns are intertwined with the search for truth: As John Keats encapsulates it in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The act of understanding and explaining – the sort of thing that teachers do, and journalists, and artists – is an act of public service. That’s the way we see it here at ArtsWatch. And that’s what we look for and try to illuminate in the culture around us: the complexity of life; the beauty and the peril of it all.
We find it, for instance, in the conjectures about the emotional implications of advanced artificial intelligence in Jordan Harrison’s play at Artists Rep Marjorie Prime, which Marty Hughley reviews intelligently and insightfully for our readers.
We find it in the broad variety and intellectual challenge of Constructing Identity, the Portland Art Museum’s deep look into the makings and meanings of African-American art, which I’ll write about in more detail soon.
We find it by considering the complex sounds and visions of the past, as Terry Ross does in his essay on the sacred and secular music of Venice.
We find it the promise of The Odyssey of These Days, a collaboration between painter Wesley Hurd and composer Eliot Grasso that has been deeply influenced by responses to the mass shootings at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg in 2015; it premieres this weekend at the Hult Center in Eugene.
We find it in Daniel Heila’s exploration of Cappella Romana’s Arvo Pärt Festival, and his questioning of how well sacred music and secular audiences meet – an apt topic, surely, for our belief-riven times.
We find it in I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s documentary about the life and ideas of the great writer James Baldwin, which was nominated for an Oscar although it did not win at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony (and wasn’t that little best-picture mixup a stunner of a climax!). Barry Johnson delves into the many issues Baldwin’s writings suggest in his ArtsWatch essay James Baldwin: Fighting white supremacy.
American journalism, and the American experiment itself, have a deep tradition of practicing patriotism through questioning and dissent. That is part of what we do here at ArtsWatch. And if that is what being an enemy is, you can count on us. We’ll side with history. Like our artists, we’ll keep on keeping on.
IN THE GALLERIES: CLAY MOTION. Speaking of Keats’s Grecian urn, as we were in passing just above, Future Flux – this year’s conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts – will draw people from across the country to the Oregon Convention Center in Portland March 22-25. The city’s galleries have caught the fever with a bunch of ceramics-based shows, many opening on First Thursday this week.
A few to look for:
Pretty Not Pretty. Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art explores the question with a show of works by Amy Fields, Brad Mildrexler, and Hiroshi Ogawa. Thomas quotes the Marquis de Sade on the subject: “Beauty belongs to the spheres of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary.” (Opens March 8)
Legacy Emergent. Blackfish Gallery’s March show is another group exhibit featuring ceramic work by eight artists, among them Cooper Jeppesen and Hannah Traynham.
BUILD: Sculptural Ceramics. This show promises to be fascinating not just because of the high profiles of its eight artists (among them Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Louise Nevelson, and Peter Voulkos) but also because it’s being curated by Bruce Guenther, former chief curator at the Portland Art Museum, who’s always had a distinctive aesthetic approach to modern and contemporary art. (Opens March 16 at Elizabeth Leach)
Flux Capacitor: Stored Clay Energy. At Augen, another group exhibit, this one from seven artists including John Balistreri, Chris Gustin, and Stan Welsh. Tension and movement in solid objects.
Duet. At Eutectic Gallery, which specializes in ceramic art, artists Christine Golden and Doug Jeck reveal the results of a shared residency last October at Zanesville Ohio Ceramic Arts, where they worked in tandem on a suite of sculptures.
Progression: 25 Years of Functional Form. Butters Gallery’s new group show covers almost as many artists (23) as years (25). It’s all functional art, which means you can pour or drink or eat or cook out of it it.
Northwest Perspectives in Clay. Russo Lee Gallery features work by eight leading regional figures – Frank Boyden, Richard Notkin, J.D. Perkin, Jason Walker, Connie Kiener, Geoffrey Pagen, Tip Tolen, Patti Warashina – in what could be one of the month’s best shows.
MEANWHILE, WHAT’S NEW ONSTAGE?
Brontë. Necessity, as you may recall, is the mother of invention, and it has gently prodded Bag&Baggage’s production from the proscenium of the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro to the book-stacked aisles of the Hillsboro Public Library’s Brockwood Branch, which the actors will roam (and the audience will follow) as they play out Polly Teale’s tale of the famous literary sisters. How appropriate. Here’s why necessity got called into action.
Jeff Whitty’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Translation? Adaptation? Revision? Get me Rewrite! The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project has ruffled feathers across the Shakespearean universe, partly because the new versions by contemporary playwrights of each of the Bard’s stageworks are referred to as “translations.” The objections have come mostly without having seen any of the work. Well, here’s your chance. On Sunday evening the Portland Shakespeare Project offers a staged reading on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Alder Stage of Whitty’s Midsummer. As the Tony-winning writer of the Avenue Q book and author of the wonderful The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, among others, he’s got the chops. Pre-show discussion at 6, curtain at 7:30, post-show talk. It’s free; get there early to make sure you can grab a seat.
God of Carnage. Yasmina Reza’s biting social comedy about what happens when a couple of boys get in a scrap on the playground, and their respective parents decide to get involved. Cue the claws. At Lakewood Theatre, Antonio Sonera directs a couple of actual married couples: Marilyn Stacey and David Sikking; Sarah Lucht and Don Alder.
The Bacchae. An interesting-looking college production at Portland State. Director Richard Wattenburg collaborates with prominent contemporary choreographer Tere Mathern and ArtsWatch contributor/composer Matthew Andrews on Euripides’ tragedy. Previews Thursday, opens Friday, through March 11.
BRETT CAMPBELL’S WEEKLY MUSIC PICKS:
Friday-Saturday, The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave., Portland.
The all-star, all-female ensemble best known for its exploration of rare medieval repertoire ventures forward in time in a program of madrigals from the late Renaissance and Baroque eras — along with a brand new setting of a Garcia Lorca poem, commissioned from Portland composer Craig Kingsbury. The group even welcomes some male assistance: three singers and Musica Maestrale theorbo master Hideki Yamaya. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s feature preview this week.
Saturday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.
One of the teen orchestra’s most distinguished alumni, St. Louis Symphony principal horn player Roger Kaza, returns to play American composer Peter Schickele’s (in his non PDQ Bach, not to say serious, incarnation) lively 1976 multi movement “Pentangle.” The rest of the program is equally compelling: Samuel Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, Claude Debussy’s “Clouds” and “Festivals” from Nocturnes, and Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture.
“Bright Voices of the Darkest Hour: Music and the Holocaust”
Saturday, Community Music Center, 3350 S.E. Francis St., Portland.
This show by the local amateur chamber music organization features rarely heard works by Austrian composer Hans Gál (who fled to Britain after his music was banned by the Nazis, and who founded the Edinburgh International Festival); Leo Smit, a promising Dutch composer killed in the extermination camps, whose music resembles that of his Parisian friends Les Six; Jewish Indian American composer Simon Sargon’s song cycle based on poems by Primo Levi; German-Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim; and Gideon Klein, another young composer killed by the Nazis in concentration camp.
Friday-Saturday, First United Methodist Church, Portland.
This concert of American music features two 20th century classics: John Corigliano’s breakthrough setting of Dylan Thomas poetry Fern Hill, and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring; plus music by another 20th century American master, Randall Thompson, and one of today’s most popular choral composers, Eric Whitacre. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s feature preview later this week.
Friday-Saturday, Planetarium at OMSI, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., Portland.
Read Jeff Winslow’s ArtsWatch review of Third Angle New Music’s sold-out, unilluminated 2013 Time Based Art Festival performances of contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s third string quartet, performed in darkness.
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