Saturday, June 23, 2007

Great Interview with Ian MacKenzie

Freat interview of Toronto theatre blogger and Praxis Theatre partner Ian MacKenzie over at Vancouver-based "The Next Stage." While the entire interview is fascinating, I am particularly interested in Ian's answer to Question #11, in which he discusses "compassionate localism." After having devoured Bill McKibben's recent book Deep Economy, and applied the ideas to theatre as well as the broader social issues, I was thrilled to find someone developing this idea. If I wasn't so old, I'd be thinking about moving to Canada!

Pure, Unadulterated Envy

Damn, I wish I could write like Jill Dolan. This review of two shows in Austin, "Constellation" and "Jesus Christ, Superstar" just soars.

Friday, June 22, 2007

On a Small Part of Dana Gioia's Speech

Thank you so much, Malachy, for providing the text of NEA Chairman Dana Gioia's recent commencement speech at Stanford University. While I sometimes take issue with Gioia's focus on high art at the NEA, his heart is in the right place, as evidenced in this speech. As I prepare to step down as Director of the Arts and Ideas Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, I sent the link, along with my own heartfelt words, in a email to the Chancellor, Provost, and two Deans. For them, as leaders of a liberal arts university, I emphasized the following quotation:

"The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society."

On this blog, which is read mostly by those who are artists themselves, I would emphasize another part of the speech, which I will quote shortly. But first, contextualization. I frequently am taken to task for often (some might say relentlessly) focusing on "blaming" artists for failing to be concerned with contributing to the national conversation when it is the larger culture's superficiality that actually prevents our participation. This may, in fact, be so. But the reason I do so is not because I think artists narrow-minded, self-absorbed elitists -- this is clearly not the case. In fact, most artists I know are by far the most sensitive, empathetic, and thoughtful people with which I am acquainted. No, I focus my attention on artists because I believe one should focus on what Steven Covey calls one's "circle of influence" rather than one's "circle of concern." I lean toward the Stoic belief that one's focus should be on what one can influence, and not what one cannot. The larger culture is a system that is so large that changing it cannot be a prerequisite for changing ourselves. I believe we change society one person at a time, and the first person we change is ourself.

And so it is this quotation that I would offer to the readers of this blog:

In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have we experienced this colossal cultural and political decline? There are several reasons, but I must risk offending many friends and colleagues by saying that surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture.

This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life.

I agree with all my heart that artists and intellectuals need to "reestablish their place in the general culture." We, as artists, need to do our part to bridge the gap that has opened between us and the general public. We need to take part in the conversation, and shift the focus from the 10-second sound bite to a more complex and profound level of thought and feeling. But it is up to us to do this. If we wait for the general public to seek us out, we will wait a long, long time. We must ask ourselves how best to re-enter the consciousness of our culture, and how best speak in a way that we can be heard and can have influence. There are many roads that will lead in that direction, but I think we must decide that that is the direction we want to go and set out purposefully.

Dana Gioia has expressed his belief in the importance of the arts, and we should take sustenance from his words and feel pride in our calling. But we shouldn't stop there, but instead raise our colors and begin our march back to where we rightfully belong: inspiring "complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society." We must have faith in, and seek to evoke, the nobility that lies within each and every person in our society, what Lincoln called our "better angels." And we must avoid the easy cynicism, which I would define as the refusal to trust that that nobility exists, which passes for worldly wit or hard-nosed realism. We must revive our idealism, and our belief that, when all is said and done, idealism will out. Only then will we be worthy of taking our place at the center of our culture's consciousness.