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You Took My Joy And I Want It Back

If you found yourself agreeing with the thesis of my post yesterday about claiming someone is selling out or is dumbing down art is an attempt to exclude those people in order to save Art, I have something else challenging to suggest.

We don’t get to dictate who is allowed to enjoy art.

While you might immediately agree that this should be so, remember there was an effort to organize an art strike during the recent presidential inauguration. Artists have disavowed works they sold to Ivanka Trump and asked her to remove their works from her apartment.

While I can appreciate the various motivations which move artists to make these statements, I don’t think it is constructive in the long run to be sending a message that art is for you as long as the art makers approve of you. In fact, as soon as I wrote that sentence I realized how much it sounded like the rationale people make when refusing to provide services for same-sex weddings.

This is not like being upset because a political campaign is using a song without permission.  They paid the asking price, and for the most part the work appears as the background of their lives as a statement of their taste rather than to imply tacit approval.

The bigger and long term issue is that there is a contradictory message in saying art is everywhere, everyone has the potential for creative expression and engages in it more often than they realized…and then put out a call for all that to be withdrawn in solidarity.

First of all, since everyone can access some type of creative expression on their phone, they are less likely to notice something is missing than they were when accessibility was tied to a physical place.

Second, if everyone can do it, then everyone has to participate in the art strike, which is damn difficult to pull off.  In these instances you can’t go around saying, Oh no, we are the real owners of real Art, not you, we are hiding it away and you should be concerned.

The constructive thing to do is encourage people to cultivate and employ the abilities they have in the service of expressing what they think about an issue rather than withholding access to something that has no relevance to the issue of concern.

Because lets face it, there are a lot of people out there who have no compunction about expressing their views emphatically and loudly. Investing energy into removing, rather than contributing a new or counter expression, seems counterproductive.

“Makers and Takers” slides too facilely off people’s tongues these days. Let it never be said artists are takers, creativity is all about making.

Ultimately, there can’t be advocacy for universal investment and ownership in creative expression by the individual, education system, foundations and government while also reserving the right to reclaim it all.

Post title is from the lyrics of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy”

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The Club Bylaws We Wrote Are So Stringent, Even We Aren’t Allowed To Be Members

Last week The Guardian wrote about how the current political climate in a number of countries has brought Arthur Miller’s The Crucible into relevance again.

There are a couple sentences in the article that keep echoing in my mind and I have spent the last week trying to decide about what angle to take in my commentary about them. Ultimately, I decided to just toss it out there and let my readers decide how they are most relevant for them.

In the article Douglas Rintoul writes,

Miller talks about the paradox of a community that has created a society grounded in the idea of “exclusion and prohibition”. Its sole function is to keep the community “together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction”.

The reason these two sentences kept coming back to me is that they evoked the oft cited comment about assault on Ben Tre during the Vietnam War, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

(The full context apparently should be: “‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’, a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.”)

There is definitely a paradox in the idea that in order to keep a community together, you had to expel any element that might drive the community apart.

So….don’t the people pushing for expulsion constitute a divisive force in the community? Who gets to kick them out?

Every community needs ideals that they form around, but it gets a little strange when the ideals are so stringent they can’t tolerate the flaws of the membership. That is almost a corollary of Groucho Marx comment “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”

Lets all agree that there are times when you do need to remove destructive and dangerous elements from society.   But the reality on which that standard should be based before applied is pretty high.   The perceived need for removal often demands the standard to be set pretty low. The rationale is easy to make and it is easy to employ fear to shut down opposition.

While this may seem most easily applicable to the current political situation in regard to immigration, it pretty much crops up in a lot of decisions we make and places we frequent and groups with which we associate.

At this point you might be thinking about those other judgmental people you know, but be aware that accusations of “dumbing down” and “selling out” are basically attempts to save Art by excluding from the Arts Community those who are perceived to be cheapening it.

It is really easy to employ this type of thinking and not even recognize it.

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You Know The Type, They Only Want One Thing–Your Fund Raising Ability

If you ever doubted that executive director positions were all about the fundraising and light on requiring artistic vision, the recent news about the firing of Ft. Worth Opera general director will disabuse you of that notion. It was with some dismay that I read about his firing due to lack of creativity when it came to fund raising.

Now I don’t intend to understate the importance of strong fund raising. I probably would have just scanned the Dallas Morning News piece and moved on with my day. While unfortunate, organization leaders get fired or resign fairly frequently.

Except that as I read on it struck me that Woods wasn’t an idler as general director. Every sentence brought accolades for different accomplishments. He brought the opera to greater prominence, navigated challenges with performance facilities, engaged in some innovative programming that appears to have interested a larger segment of the community, and yes, did a respectable job with fund raising against a shortfall.

Just to be sure the Dallas Morning News writer wasn’t personally biased, I sought other reporting on the firing and they seemed to agree on these basic facts. All in all, he didn’t sound like someone you would want to blithely part ways with.

Certainly, there may be some underlying problems that no one is talking about publicly. The comments by the board in all the articles I came across focus so strongly on their desire to find someone who can handle fund raising and business development as Woods’ replacement that it appears that is about all that matters. Artistic and community relationship building skills seem to be such far seconds that I fear all the accomplishments Woods has been praised for will stagnate and perhaps decline.

The opera seeks to hire a leader to “focus more on business and management … to be creative with the fundraising and development aspect,” he said, adding that, “we just didn’t feel Darren could provide us with that leadership from that aspect.”


Martinez said Woods has brought the opera “to a point where we felt good artistically.” Now, he said, it’s time to move forward with a new general director who can help shape the company’s future, which includes being a good steward of donors’ money.

That last line made me wonder if the board really did approve of Woods’ artistic choices or if there is something going on that isn’t being spoken of.

Over the history of this blog, (holy crap, is it really going to be 13 years on Friday?), I have often cited studies about how fewer people are interested in taking on executive roles in non-profits. Of those energetic people I know who want to assume leadership positions, few to none have a vision that involves fund raising as their primary role. They get excited by the prospect of making an impact and aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, but job descriptions like this, (and lets be fair, Ft. Worth Opera is far from the only one emphasizing this skillset), don’t really fire their imaginations.

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Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A To Preserve Your Culture

Last month I saw a story in the New Yorker about an attempt to preserve the culture of the Iñupiat of Alaska through the creation of a video game. I initially thought that the game hadn’t come out, but apparently it was released in 2014.

It really is a gorgeous looking game. It takes the player through the challenges of an Iñupiat heroic journey story that had previously only been passed down by oral tradition to the eldest child. The whole concept of using a video game to preserve and disseminate cultural heritage is pretty interesting.

One of the central concerns for the Iñupiat who were involved was that their stories would be subject to adaptation and appropriation as has often been the case. The game company invested a lot of time in an attempt to assuage those concerns.

With any creative project in which a group of privileged Westerners look to recount the tales and customs of an indigenous group, there is a risk of caricature, even amiable racism. “We’ve repeatedly seen our culture and stories appropriated and used without our permission or involvement,” Fredeen said. “People were skeptical that the project would turn out like these other examples, all appropriation and Westernization.” To reassure them, the development team assembled a group of Iñupiat elders, storytellers, and artists to become partners in the game’s development and lend their ideas and voices to the venture. “As it became clear to the community that this project was only going to move forward with their active participation, that hesitancy quickly evaporated,” Fredeen said. “We’ve had everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School involved in the project.”

Even though there are concerns and anxieties about people sitting alone in dark rooms in front of screens among those of us who advocate for live arts experiences, I feel like this video game development process contains some important lessons. One of the primary lessons relates to how to go about engaging communities to tell their stories.

Just because stories are told in video game form doesn’t close the door on the opportunity to provide a live experience. There are numerous examples of video games being adapted into movies, most of the results being unimpressive. With the bar set so low, there isn’t terrible risk in attempting to depict the core stories employing other methods and media.

(If you aren’t up on your video game lore, the post title refers to the Konami Cheat Code)

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