IT’S BEEN A WEEK TO PICK OURSELVES UP, DUST OURSELVES OFF, START ALL OVER AGAIN: The one-two punch of pandemic and racial injustice has kept the culture on the ropes even as some of the contenders take a premature victory lap. The United States has solidified its dubious distinction as the epicenter of the global coronavirus crisis: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in the face of a rudderless national response is the closest thing we have to a national leader on the issue, warns that if Americans don’t get serious about the threat we could be facing 100,000 new cases a day. While the nation gradually and sometimes not so gradually reopens, the numbers of infections and deaths have spiked. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has ordered that people wear masks in indoor public settings in every county, a directive that many, even those assigned to enforce the law, feel free to flout.
Culturally, in the past week the nation’s lost two towering figures. The great comedian Carl Reiner, who with the likes of Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks helped shape a stream of antic and sometimes subversively open American popular comedy, died at 98. And Milton Glaser, the graphic artist/designer/entrepreneur/American hybrid, died on his 91st birthday. Glaser’s touch was all over the culture, from book and album covers to concert posters to restaurant designs to the iconic “I (Heart) NY” logo that’s been copied by cities from here to the farther moons of Pluto, or so it sometimes seems. At the time of his death he was working on a new cultural connector to bridge the divides of troubled times: a distinctive image of the word “Together.”
As the national and world economies shuddered, the art world shuddered along with them. Jobs and bankrolls continued to disappear. Cash-strapped governments slashed their spending on the arts, New York City and Philadelphia joining many others in making deep cuts. The National Endowment for the Arts has lent some assistance to groups across the nation, including in Oregon, even as NEA chief Mary Anne Carter declares it’s not enough: “I’ve said this over and over, the demand is so much greater than the supply.” Meanwhile, the bleeding continues. The international aerial-art juggernaut Cirque du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy, throwing 3,500 world-class performers and other artists out of work. Broadway producers have shut down all shows along the Great White Way through the end of the year – a blow that could mean billions to the city’s economy – with some predicting that nothing will reopen until at least next spring. And as usual, the United States lags far behind most of Europe in public spending on culture, including relief for artists thrown out of work: This piece gives country-by-country details of what’s being done.
On the other hand, chances are good that you can now check out a good book from your local library, and even forget about those nasty late fines: All is forgiven.
IN THE FACE OF CULTURAL CRISIS ART TAKES MANY TWISTS AND TURNS. It doesn’t always respond directly to cultural provocation, but what’s happening politically and culturally has a way of shaping the art that comes out, sometimes in ways unbidden by the artist, at least consciously. Friderike Heuer – artist, photographer, scientist, writer, and frequent ArtsWatch contributor – talks about the mysteries of process and their connection to life outside the studio in her essay Fraying Around the Edges, which describes the underpinnings of her latest project, a series of photo montages titled Setting Sail. It began, she writes, as “a reaction to how much silence surrounds the deaths of the pandemic. … My intent was to put wind into their sails on their voyage to unknown shores, where they should rest in power.”
“And then,” she adds, “something strange happened to the work. The montages became darker in color, stronger in contrast … It dawned on me that the violence of racist action, the reaction to structural and personal racism, the absurdity of moments of silence in response to more killings, the call for breaking the silence by naming the names of the victims and shouting out the demands for change, had seeped in.”
LIKE MILTON GLASER’S FINAL DESIGN, THE IDEA OF “TOGETHER” will always be unfinished, and will always be the goal. Right now we’re locked in a fierce cultural battle over what it even means: Who “belongs” together is the great moral issue of the day. And sometimes, artists address the issue head-on. The nationwide protests following the death-by-police-knee of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 have sparked a movement to radically reform or replace police power and culture across the country, and to redefine the role of policing in the community.
The push isn’t coming without pushback, and public opinion has swung according to the situation. In Seattle, police took back the Capitol Hill CHOP zone after increased shootings and other violence, including the deaths of two teenagers, in the “liberated” territory. In Portland, police use of tear gas and crowd-control munitions against protesters in North Portland pitted politician against politician, with Tina Kotek, speaker of the Oregon House, sending a terse letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declaring that the use of force against protesters and the targeting by police of journalists were “completely unacceptable.”
In Accounts to follow: Documenting protest and celebrating community, the latest in her series of stories on artists who are publishing significant work on Instagram, Shannon M. Lieberman introduces work by three photographers – Saman Haaji, Mariah Harris, Joseph Blake – whose work takes viewers inside Portland’s protest movement and also into the roots and traditions and cultural core of the city’s Black community. The work is compelling both artistically and as important cultural document.
PORTLAND DANCE AND BLACK LIVES MATTER
THINGS HAVE BEEN TENSE IN PORTLAND’S DANCE COMMUNITY, where Black dancemakers have been taking on the attitudes and practices of the city’s major dance institutions, arguing that they need to address systemic racism both in the art form and in their own organizations. In How Portland’s dance organizations responded to Black Lives Matter, Elizabeth Whelan talks with several Black dancemakers and with leaders of Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, NW Dance Project, and White Bird to see where things stand.
MAY THE FOURTH BE WITH YOU: BLUES FEST & MORE
FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS ONE OF PORTLAND’S BIGGEST SUMMER ATTRACTIONS has been the Waterfront Blues Festival, which draws thousands of fans to the downtown riverfront for a giant Fourth of July Weekend bash. This year, for the first time, the festival’s going virtual, with a television broadcast on KOIN-TV 6, radio streaming on KBOO-FM 90.7, and a few socially distanced mini-concerts on front porches and in driveways and cul-de-sacs across the metro area. Blues minus the Waterfront offers the details, plus a showcase of photographic highlights by Joe Cantrell from the 2018 and 2019 festivals.
LISTENING ROOM: RUBINSTEIN & FRIENDS. You can also take your virtual concert-going with a classical tinge. Joseph Albert offers a trio of recordings of music by Hector Villa-Lobos – two by the great pianist Artur Rubinstein and one by pianist Nelson Friere – and as a bonus, a titillating tale of Rubinstein’s visit to Portland in the 1920s and a mishap on the road to Mt. Hood in the company of a businessman’s wife.
VIRTUAL FESTIVALS. As Brett Campbell makes clear, Oregon’s virtual music scene isn’t all about singing the blues, though that’s a vital part of the mix. The possibilities range from the big traditional celebrations – Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest – to chamber music, the Cathedral Park Free Jazz Festival, and even a little pop-up performance on the Pavement from Risk Reward and Boom Arts – a combination of distanced live performance and streaming. Don’t forget that countercultural granddaddy of ’em all, the Oregon Country Fair, which will be coming your way through the miracle of modern technology. As Campbell points out, “there’s nothing stopping you from wearing body paint at home, or nothing at all.”
LEARNING IN THE MIDST OF EVERYTHING
YOUNG WRITERS, BURNING BRIGHT. David Bates checks out the burning embers of Fire Writers, an innovative project that amid a high-school culture “dominated by smartphones, YouTube, social media, Netflix, and video games” brings together and helps develop the talents of young writers from across Yamhill County. “By April, of course, school buildings were shut down across Oregon,” Bates writes. “Teachers carried on through email, Zoom, and other social media, and in writing classes, attention turned to the circumstances of pandemic and quarantine — and students started writing about it.”
A VIRTUAL TAKE ON A TOTAL ART FORM. When Jennifer Hamilton set up an after-school theater program for kids at the Newport Performing Arts Center on the Oregon Coast, it was the way theater is – live and in person. Then, Lori Tobias writes, the pandemic changed everything. Welcome to Online Summer Drama Club.
Give today. Keep the stories coming.
OREGON ARTSWATCH WELCOMES YOUR HELP during the coronavirus crisis. Your donation at this critical time will go toward the Full Circle Fund to provide free ads to all cultural nonprofits in Oregon and Southwest Washington for one year. Every dollar raised will be magnified six times.
Become a member. Make a donation.
Just press the “donate today” button below.