Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pointer: Tom Borrup

Every once in a while, I like to point my readers toward essays that I have found inspiring or stimulating. I prefer to do so without adding my own comments, in the hope that readers will offer their insights in my comments box without my having spun it first. This is from Tom Borrup's great essay "Toward Asset-Based Community Cultural Development: A Journey Through the Disparate Worlds of Community Building":

I've thought a lot about how the arts contribute to (or work against) building empowered, civically engaged communities. The paradigm shift for me came when I was able to look into the community, the neighborhoods of everyday people around me, and see a vast well of creativity, culture, art and history. I no longer saw a cultural void or vacuum needing cleaning up, educating or the importation of great art and the cultural canons.

I believe that people are more engaged when they're respected for who they are and what they bring to the table. For cultural administrators, leaders and policy makers, it's more than the half-empty or half-full glass perspective. Contrary to most cultural institutional practices, I think it's about seeing opportunity to learn from the people around us, to foster exchange among them, to respect their cultural richness, and to nurture their creativity and talents. It's not about devising better packaging and marketing strategies for the artists we decide will be best for the community.

Some reluctant arrivals to the "multicultural movement" have simply substituted the idea of importing or imposing western European cultural norms with a wider menu of great cultural accomplishments, a view that still denies the self-worth and the existing cultural resources of their constituents and neighbors. It's not that masterful artistic achievements, Eurocentric or otherwise, aren't worth experiencing, it's that they're more meaningful to those who have their own sense of cultural self and self-worth.

It's about understanding that people are interested in the cultures of others and in great artists, but are likely to shut down or turn away when these works are brought to them with the attitude that they are superior to their own cultural experience. Respectfully drawing out the creative and cultural assets of each person, and of communities of people, is a first step to sparking an expansive cultural dialogue.


Art said...

I take that Amtrack train regularly from Boston to New York and back and can attest to the compelling morphing of the landscapes, (I took the train right after that blizzard in 2003 also.)

The thoughts of community arts development, when expressed in the way of this article, reminds me of Emerson:

"The fountains of invention and beauty in modern society are all but dried up. A popular novel, a theatre, or a ball-room makes us feel that we are all paupers in the alms-house of this world, without dignity, without skill, or industry. Art is as poor and low. The old tragic Necessity, which lowers on the brows even of the Venuses and the Cupids of the antique, and furnishes the sole apology for the intrusion of such anomalous figures into nature,--namely, that they were inevitable; that the artist was drunk with a passion for form which he could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine extravagances,--no longer dignifies the chisel or the pencil. But the artist and the connoisseur now seek in art the exhibition of their talent, or an asylum from the evils of life."

Zack Mannheimer said...

Just read the entire article. I agree completely with the man, and would add one comment - that when you bring the Eurocentric arts to a community without recognizing whether they want them or not, the other problem is you tend to only serve those who have seen it before, thus making the art "high class" and unintentionally alienating anyone who does not consider him or herself "high class". Thus the art is recycled again and again. I could name too many communities in America that practice this.

Praxis Theatre said...

I recently asked a colleague of mine about his interested in graffiti art. He feels that graffiti is a direct and less filtered reflection of a community by artists who tend to be less literate and empowered in traditional art-making (thus, art-speaking) techniques. I think this speaks to Borrup's point: it's not about repackaging graffiti art to make it more palatable to viewers who are used to seeing their art through the traditional western lenses of modernity and post-modernity – it's about stopping to look at the work that's already happening outside of those boundaries, celebrating it, and learning from it. (And probably, not fetishizing it.)


Scott Walters said...

I agree with your colleague, Ian; similarly, I think we learn much more about a society from its melodramas than from what is considered its best examples of theatre. But as Zack says, most artists don't care about the class that graffiti and, in the early 1900s, melodrama represents. Most artists care about college-educated, upper-middle- and upper-class patrons, and that is who the art is created for. Dudley Cocke made this explicit when he spoke of the theatre audience being a gated community. If, as Emerson says, the "fountains of invention and beauty in modern society are all but dried up," it may be because artists have left the common watering hole in order to drink from the bottled water of the upper class.