New Editor’s Note. Let’s begin at the beginning, and let’s get personal. Quickly.
What were your first words? “Mom”? “Dad”? A bumbling of your sibling’s name?
Mine were “Big Bird.”
This isn’t meant to highlight my seemingly prescient affinity for PBS or overall intellectual acumen as a 0.9-year-old (though my roommate has told me that my not having cable until the Lizzie McGuire era “says a lot” about me). Besides, it sounded like “Bih Buh,” according to my parents’ recollection, replete with lollygagging tongue and dreamy eyes at the mention of my “childhood.” My absorption of these words merely demonstrates that I spent my earliest days in the world glued to Sesame Street.
Nor is it meant to enumerate and then unpack my political convictions in the context of the current election because this is an arts and culture publication, and not the space for that—right?
I’m honestly not sure, but we can use this unique and potentially radical editorial space—which has generated some conversational heat already—throughout the rest of the year to keep working this out. Two weeks ago I met with Emil Kang, the director of Carolina Performing Arts at UNC. I contacted him in light of his recent appointment to the National Council on the Arts, the advising body of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has “awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities” since its inception in 1965. True to form, the organization boasts a logo of three Mondrian-colored triangles and the snappy phrase “Art Works.” The NEA is a subject that’s been infinitely bandied about by politicians, like in 1990 when a “decency provision” was invoked after the NEA financially supported the exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photography. And like now, when Mitt Romney has announced—and then been alternately harangued and absolved for—his stated resolution to eliminate federal funding for the NEA as well as PBS and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Regarding this, a friend who also works on this publication said, “So, pretty much every job I’m planning on applying to is funded by the NEA. Does [Romney] realize that?”
Together, Emil Kang and I steered the conversation toward, and then rapidly away from, political declarations and settled somewhere in that space where I concentrate most of my talkiness nowadays—between frustration and optimism about where the arts are going in contemporary institutions like Duke or UNC. “Going,” of course, implies movement, and I’m not one to describe the arts in terms of regressive motion. But it’s sometimes hard to discern the directionality of this—the “this,” of course, being pretty multivalent and uncategorizable. As he and I discussed, many musicians blow steam at iTunes because of its genre-ifying mandate (as a Joni Mitchell-leaning contemporary songbird, would you feel more adequately represented as “Singer/Songwriter” or “Rock”?). In response to that, there’s a sense of the archetypal, individualistic, pompous artiste proclaiming his or her refusal to bow down to commercial streamlining (I’m only partly looking at you, Abstract Expressionists). But there’s also the necessary flipside: genres and categories break things down and in turn help us to connect. We may not go around babbling to each other about our love of ‘freak folk,’ but nonetheless we’ll find each other at concerts that fit that description, eyeing the crowd for a reciprocal stare acknowledging that we’re individuals but also similar types of people. I don’t know about you (though I want to!), but I attend concerts—or any artistic event for that matter—as much for the music or art as for my desire to be with other people. I guarantee you that half of my analysis of any artistic outing will be grounded in how attendees’ hairstyles, couples’ body language and the degree of proper lighting contributed to my overall experience. Art does this, inherently; it creates relatively spontaneous communities governed by the simple idea that artistic and social stimulation are intertwined.
Yeah, you may be thinking, but none of this is new, and will you ever stop writing about the arts at Duke, Michaela? I’d answer you this: It’s precisely my point that none of this is new, and no, I won’t, because it’s too damn important not to.
It’s easy, especially in election season, to become desensitized to terms like “the arts” as they’re buzzworded into nebulousness. But it’s our job as human beings to stay vigilant in our processing of daily life, and I’d reckon that for most of us that practice involves art in some way, both in the manner of documentation—from iPhone photography to mental or literal note-taking—and in the material we encounter firsthand. Currently, it seems radical to declare that things like art matter, which is both good and bad. At Duke, the directionality of the arts feels to me like a growing buzz. It feels like a stream—not “mainstream” or the more alt-peddled “lamestream,” but a stream—one that progresses through generating interpersonal energy. In one of my classes two weeks ago, a friend noted our tendency as students to envision social and cultural change from a higher level, as a top-down system; we often ignore the importance of working with each other to identify what we need to change and how to change it. This can be as simple as holding ourselves accountable for one another, which is as simple as asking each other how we’re doing, what we’re reading, how we spent our weekend.
It was for that same class that I read the transcript of a 1963 oral history interview conducted through the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. The interviewee was Mildred Baker, an arts administrator and assistant to Holger Cahill during the Federal Art Project, a New Deal initiative that enforced the notion of public artistry as well as the actual employability of artists. She reflected, “…Certainly during this period there was this, I think, genuine kind of camaraderie. With all the divisive influences which individual personalities will create, none-the-less the mainstream, the main thrust in this period, was one of, you know, friendliness and concern - genuine concern. At least I find it so; at least that’s what the papers reveal.”
This concern and camaraderie are such stuff that art is made on, both on a micro and macro level. It’s up to us to sustain this connection and strive for the recognition that what we do, culturally and artistically, is important.