ArtsWatch

DanceWatch: a big yes to November

As a new season settles in, Oregon's dance calendar overflows with opportunities

“No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!” This line begins the chapter on November in my favorite childhood book, A Time to Keep, the Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays, and is also the last line of a poem by poet and humorist Thomas Hood (1799 -1845) called NO!

The story line of  A Time to Keep is prompted by a little girl asking her mother, “What was it like when mommy was me?” Tudor lovingly illustrates each month of the year and that family’s holidays and traditions for each of them.

Tudor (1915-2008) was an American author and illustrator whose stories and beautifully detailed illustrations created whimsical, magical worlds for children of all ages to enter. 

I particularly liked November in A Time to Keep, because it describes a family coming together from all around and celebrating the holiday with food and impromptu performances as entertainment. I like to imagine that this is what we are doing here in Portland in the winter, gathering together in warm, cozy spaces, eating, drinking, and watching dance.

And this November has no shortage of dance: twenty performances, from a few Halloween carryovers to important anniversary celebration performances, circus performances with a social justice bent, Shakespeare, ballet, and much more. Scroll down to see it all! 

Dance Performances in November

Week 1: November 1-3

Members of the cast of Redwood by Playwright Brittany K. Allen that runs November 1-17 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
Photo by Russell J. Young/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Redwood (World Premiere)
Playwright Brittany K. Allen 
Directed by Chip Miller
Choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie
November 1-17
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

A young Black woman’s relationship with her white boyfriend is upended when her uncle’s exploration of their family’s lineage reveals that her ancestors were enslaved by her boyfriend’s ancestors. Guided by a hip-hop dance class chorus, choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie (choreographer of Instinctual Confidence and Fluidity Of Steel for Oregon Ballet Theater), this American family learns to live and love in a present that’s overpopulated with ghosts.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Katie Scherman on having it all

Before leaving town for Japan, choreographer Katie Scherman presents a concert of collected works on her experience of being female

Today is the first day of spring. It’s bright and sunny but cold, and I am meditating on the movement style and choreography of dance artist and BodyVox artist-in-residence Katie Scherman. Scherman’s company, Katie Scherman + Artists, an all female cast collected from Portland, Seattle, New York City, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco, will debut three works this week at BodyVoxAssez, Complicated Women, and To Have it All (a world premiere in collaboration with composer and pianist Michael Wall). The works show Scherman’s evolution as a choreographer and explore the complexities of what it means to be female, including what it means “to have it all.”

When I watch Katie Scherman dance I see a fern delicately but forcefully unfurling its fronds in every direction. When Scherman dances, she is a container of contradictory/opposing forces and I can see her “working it out” in real time. Her movements are smooth and silky, but powerful, heavy and large. They can also be small, detailed, and delicate, and she seamlessly/effortlessly transitions between highs and lows, sometimes appearing to move in all directions at once. Strong technique is present, but it doesn’t overshadow the movement. These are the forces present in her choreography as well.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Jessica Lang and Jesús Carmona

Two White Bird concerts and a South Asian American cultural festival highlight the week in dance

Two White Bird shows—New York-based Jessica Lang Dance Company and Compañia Jesús Carmona from Barcelona—bookend this week’s performance schedule. Both choreographers defy categorization, and their hybrid choreographies draw heavily on lighting and visual elements to craft their story.

Jessica Lang, artistic director of Jessica Lang Dance, decided six months into dancing for Twyla Tharp that she wanted something else. She realized that there was a discrepancy between the variety that her dance education, which had culminated at Julliard provided, and her real life as a professional dancer— “you don’t keep changing what you’re doing,” she said in an interview with Liz Johnston for Dallas’s D Magazine in 2013. “You keep repeating what you’re doing. And I am not a repetitive person in that respect…”

After Tharp’s tour came to a natural end after a year and a half (because you don’t quit a Tharp tour six months in), Lang entered her choreography into Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s first choreographic competition, and she was one of two winners. The other was Robert Battle, now the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Helen Simoneau’s work in progress

Choreography XX at Oregon Ballet Theatre give three women choreographers a voice, including Helen Simoneau

For two weeks now the dancers at Oregon Ballet Theatre have been in the studio rigorously working out new, exciting choreography by Gioconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins. The three talented choreographers were selected in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX competition, an initiative specifically created to discover new women choreographers in the male-dominated ballet world.

The three have extensive dance world credits. Barbuto is an Italian-Canadian dancer and choreographer who was a soloist with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and danced with Nederlands Dans Theater III. Haskins works as a freelance choreographer and dances with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, and she received a fellowship grant to New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute. Simoneau, an independent choreographer and teacher based in North Carolina, is also the founder of Helen Simoneau Danse.

Gioconda Barbuto’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX, presented June 29 ­30th, 2017 at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater. Photo by Yi Yin.

Since February after seeing OBT’s new Swan Lake, choreographed by artistic director Kevin Irving, I have been mulling over exactly what classical ballet is, and how it fits into the current world view. While watching Swan Lake I was struck by the lack of diversity in the company, and the sexist, oligarchic assumptions in the story line, which may have seemed cute and acceptable as a children’s fantasy once upon a time but now seems wildly out of place. In the real world different cultures struggle to coexist and discrimination is illegal, stereotypes are rude, we are trying to understand the ethics of cultural appropriation, there are no happy dancing peasants (poor people), child brides are illegal and women are not commodities to be traded for money and power, and democracy is the desired form of governance. Are we doing our children a disservice, especially girls, by replaying these classical ballet stories over and over? Can ballet companies escape their dependence on story ballets and their feudal view of the world? And what would replace those ballets?

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DanceWatch Weekly: Dualities and contradictions

As PSU pulls the plug on its dance department, the city demonstrates how vital dance is in the city

Dualities and contradictions exist in extremes this week in Portland’s dance scene.

While Portland’s talented dancers and choreographers are dancing for their lives and performing all over the city, Portland State University has decided to abolish its dance program, according to a press release for SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students. Although PSU’s contribution to the community has been waning over the years because of continuous budget cuts and the policies of the various administrations, losing a university dance program, especially in a cultural hub like Portland, will have long-lasting, far-reaching consequences.

In a show of support for Portland dance artists, and in resistance to the cultural shift away from supporting the arts, showing up to this week’s dance performances (and there are many) is the action to take.

See you in the theatre!

Performances this week

Photo of NW Dance Project dancers Lindsey McGill and Elijah Labay. Photo by Christopher Peddecord.

Summer Splendors
Works by Lucas Crandall, Tracey Durbin, and Rachel Erdos, Sarah Slipper
World Premiere by Sarah Slipper
NW Dance Project
June 8-10
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.
Internationally acclaimed concert pianist Hunter Noack will perform Chopin’s 24 Preludes to the choreography of Lucas Crandall, Tracey Durbin, Rachel Erdos, and Sarah Slipper, as part of the The Chopin Project, one of two pieces being performed in their annual Summer Splendors concert.

The Chopin Project, which premiered in 2015, “avoided an attempt to make movement that translated the music directly, instead creating a parallel sphere that mirrored the richness and delight of the music rather than the notes. And that was tremendously satisfying,” wrote ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson at the time.

The second piece in the program Tell Me How it Ends, a world premiere by NW Dance Project Artistic Director Sarah Slipper, is a work for two couples (Andrea Parson, Elijah Labay, Julia Radick, and Franco Nieto), danced to a mix of contemporary classical and experimental music. It depicts a couple’s dual perspectives on their relationship over time.

Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe, 6:30 pm June 9. Photo courtesy of Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe.

Kúkátónón 2017 Showcase!
Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe
6:30 pm June 9
Jefferson High School Auditorium, 5210 N Kerby Ave.
Kúkátónón’s young dancers and drummers will end the year with a performance featuring West African dance and drumming, ballet, and guest performances by Sebe Kan (a West African dance company) and Baramakono (an African drumming ensemble).Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe is a Portland children’s dance company founded by Rolia Manyongai-Jones in 1983, and now directed by Dana Shephard. It focuses on inspiring confidence among the troupe’s dancers and broadening awareness of African and African American cultural traditions throughout Oregon. The company offers tuition-free African dancing, drumming, and classical ballet lessons on a weekly basis, taught by professional music and dance instructors.

Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute by Trip the Dark Dance Company, June 2-17, The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St. Photo courtesy of Trip the Dark Dance Company.

Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute
Trip the Dark Dance Company
Co-directed by Corinn deWaard and Stephanie Seaman
June 9-17
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
In tribute to Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth and singer/songwriter David Bowie, Trip the Dark Dance Company takes the audience on an adventure to the center of the Labyrinth to rescue Sarah’s baby brother from the Goblin King after Sarah had wished him gone. It’s a mind-bending, hypnotic adventure that includes a little tap, contemporary dance, theater and a lot of Bowie, and… “where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.”

Jazz Around the World, Presented by Wild Rumpus Jazz Co., June 9-11. Photo by Alleh Lindquist.

Jazz Around the World
Presented by Wild Rumpus Jazz Co.
June 9-11
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St. (Entrance is on the south side door of the WYSE building)
Wild Rumpus Jazz Co., co-founded by Kelsey Adams and Lucy Brush, is bringing jazz dance back to Portland in their latest concert, Jazz Around the World, which explores jazz dance composition in relations to the different instruments, sounds, rhythms and melodies present in a variety of world music.The history of jazz dance is rooted in African American vernacular dance and over time branched out into many different styles including tap, Broadway, funk, hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean, Latin, Pop, club jazz, popping, B-boying, party dances and many more. A few historical jazz choreographers include Katherine Dunham, Jack Cole, Lester Horton and Bob Fosse. Well-known Portland jazz teachers and choreographers include Tracey Durbin and Mary Hunt.

Wolfbird Dance, comprised of Selina DiPronio and Raven Jones, will perform as part of the Dance Out Loud Choreographers Showcase, June 10-11. Photo courtesy of Woldbird Dance.

Dance Out Loud Choreographers Showcase
Directed by Oluyinka Akinjiola and Donna Mation
June 10-11
Center Space Studio, 420 SE 6th Ave.
With the intention of pushing boundaries, and in the theme of “resistance,” this brand new presenting platform, created by dance artists Oluyinka Akinjiola and Donna Mation, will present three new works by Portland choreographers Jocelyn Edelstein, Sheyla Mattos and Wolfbird Dance.

Chickens and Cheese Pizza, Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company, Disability Arts and Culture Project, 4:30 pm June 12. Photo courtesy of Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company, Disability Arts and Culture Project.

Chickens and Cheese Pizza
Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company, Disability Arts and Culture Project
4:30 pm June 12
The Rosewood Initiative, 16126 SE Stark St.
Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company, founded in 2005 by Kathy Coleman (current director), Erik Ferguson (co-artistic director of Wobbly Dance), and Jody Ramey, is a mixed-ability, mixed-age dance company that aims to further the artistic expression of people with apparent and non-apparent disabilities, by providing dance, choreography and performance as an artistic outlet.

Chickens and Cheese Pizza will be performed by Daric Anderson, Eleanor Baily, Arrow Bless, Ryan Blumhardt, Rachel Esteve, Peter Heiken, Addie Nelson, Monique Peloquin and Scott Selby (you can read their full bios here). The collection of five dances, choreographed by company members, digs into the human experience, exposing a full spectrum of emotions.

Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, a film by Eric Nordstrom, 7:30 pm June 13. Photo courtesy of Tere Mathern.

Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present
a film by Eric Nordstrom
7:30 pm June 13
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.
With the help of some of Portland’s most notable dance artists and writers, along with archival research, Portland dance artist and filmmaker Eric Nordstrom has captured six decades of contemporary dance in Portland in his new film Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present. Back in June 2016 I interviewed Nordstrom prior to the screening of the film’s first iteration, and you can read that conversation with you again here.

SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students
presented by the PSU Dance Program/School of Theater+Film
Under the direction of Tere Mathern, Dance Faculty
June 14-15
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.
The entire Dance Program at Portland State University has been cut. In this final performance, Portland State University dance students, faculty, and community dance members, will perform works that express mourning, celebration, integration, and liberation through movement to mark the department’s passing.

Performances next week

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DanceWatch Weekly: Journeys, a goblin king and an arts festival

The dance weekend features PDX Contemporary Ballet and Trip the Dark Dance Company

Two Portland dance company performances and an outdoor arts festival in Wilsonville— your dance weekend in a nutshell!

Two shows open on Friday night. PDX Contemporary Ballet’s Iterum Echo collects three works that involve journeys (“iter” is a Latin word meaning journey) by artistic director Briley Neugebauer, Margaret Wiss, and Kiera Brinkley. And Trip the Dark Dance Company will stage The Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute, which runs for three consecutive weekends.

For PDX Contemporary Ballet, Iterum Echos finishes out the company’s first full season, an exemplary feat, considering most Portland choreographers work from project to project due to the amount of funding available for dance and the financial reality of dance: maintaining a company of dancers year round is a whole other ball of wax.

Since October 2016, the company, directed by Neugebauer (who danced with the now defunct Moxie Contemporary Ballet Company as well as Polaris Dance Theatre, ART-IF-ACT Dance Project and was an apprentice with Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle), has produced three major shows: Incipio in October, Interlude in February 2017, and now Iterum Echos. The company which prides itself on experimentation in ballet, received its nonprofit 501(c)(3) last April, and has since provided a platform for numerous choreographers, who have all been women. The fact that the company is directed by a woman and performs works by women choreographers is an unusual distinction in the ballet world, where choreographic commissions and directorships are predominantly held by men.

The works featured in Iterum Echos will be performed in the intimate setting of New Expressive Works space at 810 SE Belmont St., doing away with the traditional space that separates the audience from the performers.

The pieces include Circular Wave of Circumstance by Boston choreographer Wiss, inspired by the concept of space-time where time and three-dimensional space are considered fused in a four-dimensional continuum. It employs an original soundscape composed by local artist Colin Minigan. Portland choreographer Kiera Brinkley has created The Times, which explores her “real world” profession as a nurse. Brinkley, a former performer and choreographer with Polaris Dance Theatre, is a quadruple amputee since age two. Neugebauer’s Continually Beginning considers “the ordinary, repetitive steps of everyday life, the subtle differences that sometimes occur, as well as the feeling of moving backward instead of forward.”

On Saturday BodyVox, Polaris Dance Theatre, Edge Movement Arts, and Mexica Tiahui Aztec Dance Group, a dance group formed by Oregon State University students in 1995 to help preserve and promote Mexican culture, will perform as part of the Wilsonville Festival of Arts that brings visual art, literary arts, live music, dance, theatre, and performance art, outside to the public, for free, at the Town Center Park.

If you missed it, last week I spoke with former New York City Ballet dancer Tom Gold about working with Twyla Tharp, ballet marketing and his work for The Portland Ballet. “It’s all about marketing, and money and business. Nobody’s thinking, ‘I want to encourage and nurture this.’ That’s kind of the last thing.” You can read the full interview here.
Also last weekend ArtsWatch’s Nim Wunnan reviewed the latest installment of New Expressive Works’ resident choreographer program, and noted that tension was a common thread.

Performances this week

Jefferson Dancers Spring Recital, 7 pm June 1. Photo by Fritz Liedtke.

Jefferson Dancers Spring Recital
Jefferson Dancers
7 pm June 1
5210 N Kerby Ave.

The Jefferson Dancers, a Portland Public Schools dance training program and company based at Jefferson High School in North Portland, celebrates its 41st anniversary this year and will feature choreography by faculty members and performances by students in this recital program.

Iterum Echos by PDX Contemporary Ballet, June 2-4 at New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont. Photo courtesy of PDX Contemporary Ballet.

Iterum Echos
PDX Contemporary Ballet
Directed by Briley Neugebauer
June 2-4
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.
See above.

Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute by Trip the Dark Dance Company, June 2-17, The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St. Photo courtesy of Trip the Dark Dance Company.

Goblin King: A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute
Trip the Dark Dance Company
Co-directed by Corinn deWaard and Stephanie Seaman
June 2-17
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
In tribute to Jim Henson’s 1986 film “Labyrinth” and singer/songwriter David Bowie, Trip the Dark Dance Company takes the audience on an adventure to the center of the Labyrinth to rescue Sarah’s baby brother from the Goblin King after Sarah had wished him gone. It’s a mind-bending, hypnotic adventure that includes a little tap, contemporary dance, theater and a lot of Bowie, and… “where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.”

Photo of the Mexica Tiahui Aztec Dance Group. Wilsonville Festival of Arts June 3-4. Photo courtesy of Mexica Tiahui Aztec Dance Group.

Wilsonville Festival of Arts
June 3-4
Town Center Park
29600 SW Park Pl., Wilsonville
In its 18th year, the Wilsonville Festival of Arts brings visual art, literary arts, live music, dance, theatre, and performance art, outside to the public for free, at Town Center Park. This year’s festivities includes dance performances by BodyVox, Polaris Dance Theatre, Edge Movement Arts, and Mexica Tiahui Aztec Dance Group-a dance group formed by Oregon State University students in 1995 to help preserve and promote Mexican culture.

Performances next week

June 8-10, Summer Splendors, NW Dance Project
June 9, Kúkátónón 2017 Showcase!, Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe
June 9-11, Jazz Around the World, Presented by Wild Rumpus Jazz Co
June 10-11, Dance Out Loud Choreographers Showcase, Directed by Oluyinka Akinjiola and Donna Mation
June 13, Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, a film by Eric Nordstrom
June 14-15, SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students

Upcoming Performances

June
June 23-24, Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance, Produced by Jerry Tischleder
June 27-July 2, Cabaret, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
June 29-30, Choreography XX, Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 30-July 1, Improvisation Summit of Portland 2017, Hosted by The Creative Music Guild and Disjecta
July
July 8, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton Farmers Market, Directed by Mike Barber
July 14-15, Rantom Skoot, Linda Austin, Gregg Bielemeier, Bob Eisen (NYC), and Sada Naegelin & Leah Wilmoth
July 14-16, Apparatus, by Danielle Ross
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 26, Movement and Flow: Portland Dance Films, Hosted by NW Film Center featuring films by Conrad Kazcor, Fuchsia Lin, Dylan Wilbur Media, Gabriel Shalom, Jackie Davis, and Amy Yang Chiao
July 29, Hafla, Portland Bellydance Guild
August
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil

Je suis Charlie? Oui, even here

Art and politics collide in a terrorist atrocity in Paris, and the effects are felt around the globe

Also read Brett Campbell’s “The Charlie Hebdo murders: what I told my journalism students” on ArtsWatch.

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“Je Suis Charlie” has swept the nation in the past few days, along with a few “I am NOT Charlie”s filed by people who agree that the murderous attacks on the offices of the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were criminal and repugnant, but reject the slogan for a variety of reasons: because most of us don’t put ourselves in danger the way that war correspondents and the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists do, for instance; or because the newspaper’s caricatures were often offensively anti-Muslim. (Many critics have been calling them racist, although the issue seems to be religion, not race, and the publication seems to be committed to offending pretty much everyone pretty much equally.)

Much of the world has risen in indignation and resolve against the Charlie Hebdo murders and the apparently linked slayings shortly after in a Parisian kosher supermarket. Well more than a million people gathered in Paris in solidarity against terrorism on Sunday, including more than 40 presidents and prime ministers. Encouragingly, that list included both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Controversially, neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden attended.

Mockery in art carries a long tradition. Here, Charlie Chaplin skewers Hitler in 1940's "The Great Dictator."

Mockery in art carries a long tradition. Here, Charlie Chaplin skewers Hitler in 1940’s “The Great Dictator.”

Here at Oregon ArtsWatch, Charlie Hebdo seems both somewhat distant and urgently close. We don’t deal in the sort of savage satire that is Charlie’s baguette and brie. We trade in opinion, and reporting, but within relatively narrow bounds: we write about art. Someone might be offended by something we write, even angry enough to want to punch us in the nose, but no one ever has. The likelihood of artists or readers coming after us with assault weapons is remote to the point of seeming absurd. Within the context of international politics and the struggles between cultures, the world of art, surely, is safe.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. Art can comfort, art can provoke. Art can celebrate the small and private, or amplify the large and tendentious. It can be rude, and challenging, and stick out its tongue. In its gut it’s open, and openness is a threat to terrorism and totalitarianism alike. Even the relatively open governance of the United States is wracked by obsessive spying on citizens, and state secret-keeping on such matters as the use of torture for political ends. In opposition to such things, or simply making end-runs around them, the likes of Banksy, Ai Weiwei, Piss Christ artist Andres Serrano, Madonna-and-elephant-dung artist Chris Ofili, and the makers of a dumb movie comedy about assassinating a North Korean despot are in the same cricket match. If I think Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by all odds must be a vastly superior artistic response to totalitarian thuggery than Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview (which I haven’t seen, and don’t intend to), the urge to mock is the same. And mockery comes with risk. Wherever ideas occur – good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones – danger follows.

CharliehebdoYou’ve no doubt read plenty of opinions elsewhere about Charlie Hebdo and the terrorists. A few of the more interesting commentaries I’ve seen: Adam Gopnik’s take in The New Yorker; onetime Oregonian political cartoonist Jack Ohman’s insider view for his current newspaper, the Sacramento Bee; underground comix legend R. Crumb’s view from France, where he’s lived for 25 years, in the New York Observer; columnist David Brooks’s demurring view in the New York Times; the outstanding cartoonist/journalist Joe Sacco’s graphic response in The Guardian; the English actor and writer Stephen Fry‘s musings on mockery. In case you haven’t looked at the cartoons that prompted the terrorist revenge, you can see them here, reprinted by the Huffington Post: most American publications declined to reproduce the offending drawings. (The photo insert above, from Wikimedia Commons, shows the cover of the newspaper’s November 3, 2011 issue, one of the lighter Muslim-themed drawings, with a speech bubble that translates, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”)

Well, there’s nothing to laugh about now. And certainly nothing to die about, although 17 people did in the newspaper and supermarket assaults. Until last week’s terrorist shootings I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo. Scanning what I’ve been able to see, I discern an obvious cultural disconnection between Charlie and me. I love Jonathan Swift; I re-read Gulliver’s Travels every few years. I sup at the aesthetic table of Daumier and Rowlandson and the harsher, angrier Goya in his Los Caprichos and Disasters of War mode. Much of what I see at Charlie Hebdo seems crude and sophomoric in comparison. Yet if Charlie unnerves me, and certainly offends many others, that’s the point. There’s an anarchic fervor to the thing, a relentless desire to call into question everything. And that’s what totalitarians can’t stand. Charlie is an emblem in the dangerous and often vicious struggle between freedom of expression and the drive to control thought.

Journalism and art are not the same thing, but they’re closely related in their drives to engage attention and reveal truths. Sometimes, as with the Saccos and Ohmans and Crumbs and George Orwells and Charlie Hebdos, they overlap. And often they have the same enemies. Repressive regimes, and “freedom” fighters acting in the hope of establishing repressive regimes, always want to control what’s written, spoken, and drawn. Art is a crucial player in that struggle, especially when it speaks truths that power doesn’t want to hear. The playwright Vaclav Havel became a symbol of Eastern Europe’s emergence from the Soviet bloc. Ai Weiwei is treated as a criminal in China, and something of a liberator to millions. The Third Reich outlawed “degenerate” modernist art.

It’s comforting to think the United States doesn’t act that way, except we do. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t wish to draw a parallel between the French terrorists and the practitioners of thought suppression in America, because the gap is as wide as the gap between dirty tricks and murder: they are not the same thing. I’m aware of the long historical roots of mistrust between the West and the Muslim world; I’m aware that the terrorists don’t represent most Muslims. I’m also aware that murder is murder, and nattering is not. Even the most scurrilous of American agitators – the traveling circus known as the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, which was in town a few days ago to castigate the Portland Trail Blazers, of all groups, for some sort of alleged crime of depravity – don’t put people in fear of their lives. And in the U.S., political blowhards are pretty much just political blowhards: we don’t expect them to come at us with AK-47s.

Few artists have been as brutal in their social commentary as Goya in his "Disasters of War" series, of which this print is No. 37. Titled "This Is Worse," it depicts the mutilated bodies of civilians skewered on trees in the aftermath of battle. Wikimedia Commons

Few artists have been as brutal in their social commentary as Goya in his “Disasters of War” series, of which this print is No. 37. Titled “This Is Worse,” it depicts the mutilated bodies of civilians skewered on trees in the aftermath of battle. Wikimedia Commons.

But the war on information and expression is real, even here. After 9/11 the Bush administration, remembering the power of images to sway public opinion during the Vietnam War, banned photographs of caskets and body bags returning home from the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration has done nothing to lift that restriction. In the 1980s the political and artistic worlds erupted in a “culture war” in which shrewd politicians such as Jesse Helms castigated artists over perceived depravities in an attempt to swing public opinion toward a harsher, more restrictive view of civil liberties. Artists and entertainers and arts funders and bureaucrats responded in varying degrees of outrage and caution, but one upshot was that “official” art – that art that is supported by tax dollars – became meeker; or more precisely, that the available money flowed more readily to uncontroversial projects.

In the end, one thing seems clear: civil society is designed to guarantee its citizens safety in both body and mind. It’s a guarantee that has been hard fought for, and is sometimes unreliable, but it is the goal and it is the standard. It’s not meant to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. On the contrary, it can be harsh and divisive and uncomfortable – just like some art. And the culture’s agreement to make decisions based on a code of civil laws is its chief protection from the passions of unbridled belief and extremism.

Freedom of expression is freedom of choice. Hell, freedom of expression is freedom, and that’s crucial to a civil society, even – maybe especially – when it makes us uncomfortable. Yes, we are Charlie. Whether we actually like Charlie Hebdo or not.

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