I originally posted this at the ArtsJournal.com NPAC blog as one of my liveblogging contributions:
Today [Friday] was a very different day at NPAC, for me anyway. Yesterday was crammed from 8:00 am until 11:00 pm with discussions, speeches, sessions, and stimulating conversations. Today there seemed to be fewer things going on, and I found myself more inclined to buy books in the exhibit hall -- a LOT of books. After three days at this conference, I have come to the conclusion, as a teacher, that I must work harder to introduce my students to the many ideas and studies about the arts that are being published. Whether the Wallace Foundation, or the NEA, or WolfBrown, or any number of other sources of ideas that contextualize, explain, and reveal the larger issues that permeate our artistic landscape, there are too many opportunities for artists to take control of their artistic lives. Why does the academy focus almost exclusively on "skill development" and leave to chance the development of a worldview, an aesthetic philosophy, a socio-political understanding of the place of the arts, and a sense of the economic life of our nation? By doing so, we disempower artists who find themselves at the mercy of those with a broader perspective. As a result, the art suffers as well as the artist, both of which fail to acquire depth and profundity. It must be changed.
A disturbing controversy arose at today's keynote following the truly inspiring conversations with Jose Antonio Abreu and Germaine Acogny. Both of these brilliant artists illustrate the point that I was trying to make above: they have a strong sense of their art form, its place within the world, and its effects on society and the artist. They were thoughtful and passionate, and as a result they transformed those who worked with them. After they were finished, and after we had given them an enthusiastic standing ovation, we were offered a performance by the Colorado Children's Chorale Tour Choir, a group of young singers who sang with energy and innocence. As the strains of their rendition of "America, the Beautiful" faded away, an NPAC participant approached the podium as a large number of audience members stood up holding signs that read "Where is Madhusree Dutta?" The woman at the microphone explained that Dutta was supposed to be the third panelist, but she had politely declined to attend when she was told she must edit out two pieces of her introductory film, pieces that condemned George Bush and the Iraq War. The word "censorship" was uttered, and the image of the NEA 4 raised, and a plea for solidarity among artists made. The source of the request for the de-politicizing editing was left rather vague -- was it American Express, the NPAC organizers, the US government? Whoever it was, and whatever the reason, what is disturbing is the idea that politics cannot be discussed in this setting, and criticism cannot be expressed, and all in the name of what? Of avoiding controversy in order to forge a fragile sense of unity and togetherness among the attendees? It was clear that the person who made the announcement was being careful not to be "incendiary," as if we were all children who were not to be worked up lest we become overwrought and unruly. But what is puzzling is that the political content was unexpected -- how could you look at Dutta's work and not expect political content?
The very basis of this conference is political: Taking Action Together. And so to exclude the political expression of someone who stood as a symbol of taking action together seems lacking in self-reflection, if not hypocritical. If this is where we have come to in this final year of the Bush Administration, where self-censorship is the order of the day, then as artists we should abandon our idea of "taking action together," because we have not thought deeply, have not developed courage, and have not understood our role in society.
Perhaps if I change my approach to teaching and introduce my students to the broad thinking that is this conference at its best, then iat future conferences they will be able to listen without fear to the political, religious, or philosophical expression of those who have strong feelings and commitments without fretting about the effects of controversy. Perhaps then we will have become a mature group of artists who have fully embraced our own power.