Sunday, March 23, 2003

The arts

In times like these, art matters more than ever


Eighteen months ago, when our nation was mourning 9-11, there was only one pertinent topic for this space. How does art relate in a time of national tragedy? The answer was apparent as our arts - theaters, concert halls, museums - provided a place for coming together.

Now it is a time of war. How pertinent is art? Very. War has been a constant in human history. As has art. In fact, what we know of the history of civilization, including war, has been told most powerfully through art - consider the ancient Greek chronicles of the Trojan War, China's army of terra cotta warriors, Picasso's Guernica, stark black-and-white TV images of Vietnam.

I asked a cross-section of performing and visual artists and administrators why arts matter more now than ever. Here's some of what they had to say.

"Living is a positive act, a moment-by-moment triumph over death and theater is an affirmation of living. Actors celebrate life by presenting it on stage. With every line and movement, an actor says, "I am alive. I will survive."

"Theatre is vital, filled with the power of creativity and the spirit of life. And war ... well, war is not."

- Aubrey Berg, chairman, College-Conservatory of Music department of Music Theatre.

"The arts help us to discover, or, better, confront, what it means to be human. So when we hear the voices of the arts speak with clarity, passion, honesty, insight, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, anger, faith, disbelief, hope and desperation, then we'll know how much they matter."

- Gary Gaffney, artist and professor at Art Academy of Cincinnati.

"When the planes hit the World Trade Center, I was in the midst of planning the first Inside/Outside prison arts project - gathering poems, ideas, courage, compassion to take "inside" with me as I worked with artists to gather a circle of women committed to "re-visioning" lives with art.

"It was knowing that the painters and musicians and writers who created the art that continues to hold us up in times of despair worked in the midst of horror - war, oppression, illness - that kept me focused and sane in the days and weeks that followed the attacks.

"Now, 18 months later, as we prepare for the third Inside/Outside session, there is the horror of impending war.

"Art connects us. It shows us our history so that we might not be doomed to repeat it. It infuses us with purpose and hope, It reminds us that we are not alone."

- Pauletta Hansel, poet.

"If the war goes on for any length of time, I'm pretty sure music will change. In fact, I think it already has.

"One feels drawn to old, familiar music, music with themes of lovers reuniting and home...

"Whenever I go into a veteran's facility to perform, I make sure I have a lot of Johnny Cash songs...His music makes them sad, happy, tearful, brave all at once, which helps them chip away at their bad memories and celebrate their good memories. That this music, so simple - three chords and a chorus - should have such power never fails to astound me.

"We need plays and paintings and sculpture and dance to define our sometimes murky emotions. A painting may revolt us, and then we know that's not how we feel and the refining process goes on.

"We need the arts to help us remember to feel, because our emotions are at the core of our humanity."

- Katie Laur, bluegrass diva.

"As a teacher, I believe the act of creation develops one's own self-esteem. It's a fact that children who believe in their own worth do not feel the need to inter-act violently with other children. It seems logical this would also be true of adults.

"And arts remind us what a gift it is to be human and the whole world is populated with humans. Such potential. Such a gift."

- Regina Pugh, teacher/actress/director.

"I believe in the arts' ability to convey intelligence and understanding to a conflicted nation/world. I believe we have to do something to keep us human.

"Our innermost fears and courageous moments brought to life or to the public...I know that I have to have something to look forward to, something to make the long day seem less daunting, someone else's ideas about love, mortality and integrity."

- Jefferson James, artistic director, Contemporary Dance Theatre.

"I think artists need to be the questioners in our society, and I truly believe artists are called on to spread light throughout our communities. Even more important than the hard questions that must be asked, it's artists who nurture our docieties to find the answers."

- Sherman Fracher, actress.

"The cultural security blanket is warm in times of strife, of personal and national tragedy. A concert or museum visit helps us find our strength, helps nurture us in troubled times.

"Paavo (Jarvi)'s first concert (as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) is a great example, an evening from the heart by both players and audience. It was the kind of evening that makes us better people, sharing in a tragedy (it was three days after 9-11) in a different, yet meaningful way.

"Culture is a powerful cure for what ails us."

- Phillip Long, director, Taft Museum of Art

"Art puts people in the same room. It helps to reinforce community." - Matthew Pyle, artistic director, Know Theatre Tribe.

"At a time of social dislocation, shouldn't we come together to share in beauty, laughs, tears and joy? W. H. Auden talked about "showing an affirming flame."

"So much of wartime is talking about evil and who we hate. The arts can so much more easily show us what we believe in. Theatre specifically shows us the roots and threads that tie people together far more than the differences that tear us apart.

"Community. Sharing. Humanity. Affirmation. In an age that has become increasingly crazy, these are principles and ideas that should be celebrated through art."

- Ed Stern, producing artistic director, Playhouse in the Park.

"More than 10 years ago, I was onstage in Les Miserables at the Imperial Theatre in New York when the Gulf War started.

"It began during the long first act and we heard from dressers and technicians during our costume changes offstage, but the audience had no idea.

"It was quite strange. We all wanted to stop the show, but of course the show must go on. The word spread during intermission and, surprisingly, almost everyone stayed for the second act.

"The second act includes the long barricade scene when nearly all the characters fighting in the mini-revolution die.

"There we were on the barricade holding rifles and fighting and dying and all we could think was that across the world Americans were doing the same thing but for real. Americans and Kuwaitis and Iraqis.

"For the entire act, you could literally have heard a pin drop. At the end, the audience erupted into a huge ovation. We were all acting out something apart from Les Miz yet entirely connected.

"It brought home to me the visceral relationship between the theater and the world, life and art.

"It also forever cleared up for me the doubt that many artists feel in times of great upheaval: the feeling that what we do doesn't matter.

That night the audience let us know very clearly that they needed to be in the theater. It reminded us all of the great privilege and responsibility we have in performing before a troubled public in search of meaning and clarity.

"And it helped me understand the intangible, ritual quality that connects the stage to the house.

"As artists, we already know how much we need it. It was comforting to see that need shared by the audience."

- Mark Hardy, guest artist, Northern Kentucky University musical theater department.

Contact Jackie Demaline at

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