Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

Home front: arts at a distance

ArtsWatch Weekly: As coronavirus reshapes the world, our virtual and physical realities begin to overlap.


HOW IS SOCIAL DISTANCING WORKING IN YOUR CORNER OF THE WORLD? Are you out and about at all – one of the vital people in our food and delivery and public utility and medical-care systems, maybe, keeping things going through the crisis? Are you busily creating a makeshift world while you keep inside your home, bringing the outside in virtually, via emails and social media and radio and television and music downloads? Are you keeping a sense of the actual, physical territory of our lives that we take for granted until it’s not under our feet anymore?

It’s been five weeks since I’ve been anywhere but home, and my reality has shifted both very little and very much. I’ve been lucky. I have good shelter, and food, and I’m sharing space with close family (including one indispensable and highly entertaining cat). I work from home, anyway, so the adjustment hasn’t been nearly so abrupt as it has been for many people. I miss my afternoon coffee-shop breaks, and going out for conversations with writers or news sources, and real-time, face-to-face interaction with performing and visual art. But those things are small potatoes. I’ve been spared the horrors the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on so many.

The difference between the real and the virtual becomes stark when the real is taken away from us. The other day I was reading Out of Time: Mortality and the Old Masters, a particularly timely column in The New Yorker by the veteran art critic Peter Schjeldahl in which he ponders why “the art of what we term the Old Masters (has) so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries.” It’s an imaginative and provocative piece of writing, bound to raise a few hackles and also prompt a lot of nods of agreement. In it he comments on the real and the not-quite-real – “… the art in the world’s now shuttered museums: inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers. Online ‘virtual tours’ add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience. Inaccessible, the works conjure in the imagination a significance that we have taken for granted.”

El Greco, “View of Toledo,” 1596-1600, oil on canvas, 47.8 x 42.8 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

WELL, YES AND NO. It’s true that a work of art can only be seen and felt fully in real time and space. Even at its best a videotaped version of a dance performance or a play is a ghostly approximation of the original, lacking the vital “hereness” of the moment. And many gallery and museum workers do what they do precisely because working first-hand with the art allows them to truly know it in a way that no reproduction can match. As viewers we can almost enter into something of a lovers’ relationship with a particular work of art. Whenever I’m in New York, for instance, I make sure to spend time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art communing with El Greco’s wondrous late 16th century painting View of Toledo, always finding new depths and subtleties that simply aren’t visible in any reproduction. I have several such good friends at the Portland Art Museum, too, that yield their mysteries slowly and in person, among them Chaim Soutine’s wonderful The Little Pastry Cook, an attachment which I suspect I share with many other people, and Erastus Salisbury Field’s flat, oddly distorted, yet somehow strangely riveting Portrait of a Young Woman, a fascination I suspect I share with relatively few.

Real or virtual? LEFT: Chaim Soutine, “Le Petit Pâtissier (The Little Pastry Cook),” ca. 1921, oil on canvas, 60.25 x 26 inches. Museum purchase, Ella M. Hirsch Fund. Photo: Michael O’Brien. RIGHT: Erastus Salisbury Field, “Portrait of a Young Woman,” ca. 1830, oil on canvas, 35.25 x 28.5 inches. Museum purchase, Helen Thurston Ayer Fund. Both Portland Art Museum.

UNQUESTIONABLY, REAL IS BETTER. Yet in a culture in which we’re already inundated with the virtual, it’s tough for me to see, as Schjeldahl does, the insult or injury in approximations of the real thing. In a time of mass shutdown, virtual is what we have: Is nothing better than something? Some virtual experiences work better than others. Film versions of operas tend to work better than filmed versions of plays, maybe because opera is more of a visual and sonic experience than theater, which is so much about language. Stage gestures and vocal delivery can seem artificial on film, a lesson Hollywood learned in the 1930s, in the first decade of talkies: The movies had to develop their own language and technique, just as artificial as the stage’s but more suited to the medium. And while no recording can duplicate the unique experience of a live concert, the world would be a vastly poorer place without music recordings. In his new MusicWatch Weekly, Don’t just do something, sit there!, music editor and columnist Matthew Neil Andrews takes a mind trip into the ever-varied glories of CD Land. (He also suggests you get out and take a walk.)

Still, the sudden cutting-off of first-hand experience has had a devastating economic impact on the arts and artists, as it has on the culture as a whole. From the smallest organizations to the biggest, jobs are being lost. A sharp shutdown at the museum details the new reality and long-term implications for the Portland Art Museum, which has put 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave. In Coronavirus art news roundup, ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson provides an update on some major fund-raising efforts to provide financial relief for cultural workers who’ve lost jobs. In State of the Arts: “Everyone is experiencing the worst,” Johnson talks about the sudden climate shift with Brian Rogers, director of the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust, whose view is pretty much summarized in that headline quote. “The worst” includes, for many people, heightened anxiety, and maybe even more so for school kids. Alex Behr addresses the issue in ArtsEd: Age of anxiety, her story about the arts-based program Create More, Fear Less, which is taking its face-to-face work – where else? – online, to kids who suddenly are closed in at home.


Downtown Portland, 2018. Photo: K.B. Dixon

IT’S ALSO TRUE THAT, DESPITE THE HYPED-UP ACTIVITY of, for instance, video games, virtual reality can seem an empty space, with something vital missing, as Schjeldahl suggests. Even that emptiness can be a riff on reality when it’s rendered in the pristine spareness of writer and photographer K.B. Dixon’s sensibility. In his photo essay Photo First: Running on Emptyhe reflects on the natural rhythms that, in Portland’s lull times, have always given the city streets a time of solitude. 


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The solitude continues in the city’s many performance halls, a silence that can be life-threatening to the organizations that ordinarily create and present performances in them. One of them, White Bird Dance, a long-time vital fixture on the city’s cultural scene, is a little more than halfway to its goal of bringing in $200,000 in donations to continue operating once the coronavirus sequestering is lifted. Another dance fixture, BodyVox, has turned to streaming its performances for virtual audiences: Its show Rain & Roses is available to watch through April 26, and Death and Delight through May 10. 

Brett Campbell’s story A Decade on Broadway, about an intimate series of mostly jazz house concerts in Eugene, is a tale of triumph and a holding pattern as musicians and audiences alike wait for the music and potlucks to begin again. Portland pianist Joseph Albert, on the other hand, took advantage of the slowdown to do a little virtual investigating of a story that’s been lurking in the back of his mind since 1987, when he attended a concert at the University of Oregon by the legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman and then attended a talk by Berman about the comparative virtues of the different scores Tchaikovsky wrote for his Piano Concerto No. 1. Using the virtual wonders of vintage recordings, Albert lays it out in Finding Tchaikovsky’s voice in his first piano concerto.

If Dixon’s Running on Empty emphasizes the isolation that has always been a part of the city, Portland photographer Geoffrey Hiller sings a visual ode to the simple glories of gathering in groups – in this case, the energetic and continually shifting scene at the Laurelthirst Pub, one of thousands of gathering spots where people meet and mingle and do the opposite of isolating. Hiller is selling prints from his Laurelthirst series as a small-scale fundraiser, one of many such efforts by artists and others to help support displaced workers.

The way we were, and might be again: Summer outside the Laurelthirst Pub. Photo: Geoffrey Hiller

AND SOMETIMES VIRTUAL CAN GO MUCH FARTHER THAN REAL CAN GO. Portland Center Stage at The Armory had to call off its production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, its stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel about a 15-year-old mathematician “with some behavioural difficulties” that seem a form of high-functioning autism. The company had also put together an art exhibit of works by artists on the autism spectrum, and with the theater shut down, PCS has put the exhibition online, where it can be seen, at least virtually, anywhere.

“Happy Beach,” Nole Jovanovic, fifth grade, Rieke Elementary School, Portland. In the virtual exhibition “Artists on the Autism Spectrum,” from Portland Center Stage at The Armory.


VIRTUAL DISTANCE AND PHYSICAL DISTANCE  ARE VERY DIFFERENT THINGS, although they’re intimately related. This struck me forcibly this morning while I was reading David Gelles’s story ‘This Is Going To Kill Small-Town America’  in The New York Times. Gelles investigated the effects of coronavirus and its economic impact on Bristol, New Hampshire, a town of 3,000, and while the headline seems a touch extreme (it’s a quote from a townsperson) the story underlines some tough truths about the economic and cultural divide in America between urban/suburban and small city/rural. You can’t eat scenery, the saying goes, and the century-long migration from farms and small towns to cities has followed to where the jobs are. 

But as disruptive as the COVID-19 crisis continues to be, it’s also opening the possibility of new ways of thinking about things. Millions of workers are discovering that, thanks to their computers, they can work from home. Thousands of employers are discovering that maybe it doesn’t hurt to let their workers work from home. Low-population areas are hurting partly because state and federal governments haven’t pushed vigorously for businesses to expand out of the cities to smaller areas, and businesses have insisted they need to be close to major urban trade and transportation hubs. And what if that’s not true? What if, in our brave new virtual/physical world, we have a chance to reinvigorate the hinterlands? What might that new culture look like? What art might it produce? How might artists follow the changes, or anticipate them, or help shape them, in a world that is at once intensely local and inescapably global? Will we go back to the same old same old, or create something new?

That’s the way things are looking on the home front as we enter week six of our New Virtual World. From my social distance to yours, see you next week for more cultural adventures of the imagination.


“The greatest gift is the passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.”
– Elizabeth Hardwick, in the interview The Art of Fiction No. 87, The Paris Review, Summer 1985 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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