Commentary: Is art above politics?

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian Theatre Blog, 8/12/13

Jonathan Mill's announcement that he would be excluding independence-themed productions from the 2014 festival has inevitably attracted attention, and not just in Scotland. The recently knighted outgoing international festival director says his plans for the 2014 festival programme haven't been influenced by the upcoming referendum, and instead he will be concentrating on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War In truth, probably many of his plans were well advanced even before the announcement of the referendum, but I still find his reasoning bizarre. Using the royal "we" he declared: "We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that." If Mills really believes that there is such a thing as a "politically neutral space for artists" and EIF provides it, he is a far less intelligent man than I'd previously thought. Where theatre happens, the context in which it takes place, how and why it is programmed, the conditions under which it is made and shown are all inherently political acts -- and they don't happen in a vacuum. There is an agenda embedded in every choice and commission that Mills makes when curating the EIF, whether he is conscious of it or not. If he doesn't realise that, then he shouldn't ever have been running a major arts festival.


Commentary: Why aren't more arts leaders also "cultural" leaders?

Douglas McLennan on his ArtsJournal blog Diacritical, 8/10/13

For the most part, the big cultural debates of our time take place without participation of our artists and arts leaders. Somehow, our public debates about values -- and by extension, what our culture looks like -- have become the exclusive domain of politics. But why? The issues may be political and how we deal with them as public policy might be political, but the values needn't be. There have certainly been many political artists. And artists have had influence on politics. But for the most part that's in the past. Today's big arts institutions [have] gotten squeamish about expressing values, for fear of being drawn in to politics. So we have an amazing pretzel of a response from the Metropolitan Opera this week to an online petition asking that the Met Gala in September be dedicated in "support of LGBT people." The petition protests Russia's laws discriminating against gays by noting that the Met is featuring two Russian artists who "support Putin's recent laws against homosexual people." But it doesn't ask the opera house to remove or censure the artists or to cancel the production. The petition asks the Met to dedicate the event to support the rights of gay people. A simple declaration of values. Maybe not so simple. The Met responded: "...since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause."  Easy to understand that an institution doesn't want to be bullied. But it's "not appropriate" for its performances to be used for political purposes no matter how noble or right they are?"  That's quite a claim for the position of art in our culture. No wonder we're not cultural leaders.


Reply: On Putin, petitions, and cultural leadership

The Clyde Fitch Report, 8/12/13

The press coverage of the petition and the controversy so far is lacking. For while we know Gergiev and Netrebko have in the past supported Putin, we don't know that they're maniacal homophobes. Netrebko published a statement on Facebook that disavows homophobia. Is it perfect? No. Is she a lying bitch? No, probably not. [But] she's living in a totalitarian state. Maybe she's in the unenviable position of wanting to practice her art without alienating the repressive government that lets her to do so? We are not offering excuses -- Elia Kazan and Jerome Robbins were cowards, not heroes -- but we're not reading a lot about the context of the situation, either. And so we return to an old conundrum: Can we divide art from the politics of the artist? Richard Wagner remains the gold standard for this topic, one Alex Ross revisited in the New Yorker last year. McLennan blasts the Met for refusing to admit that art is political. And yet. In quiet rooms, perhaps it can be further argued that the Met's reply to the petition is in fact a counterintuitive example of cultural leadership after all. Let's say the Met did dedicate its gala to the "support of LGTB people." What would it prove? That gays can bully the Met? What's next? Wait, we already know: the Met must cancel its contracts with Gergiev and Netrebko. Then the Met would be prioritizing politics over art, something as morally repugnant as the Met politicizing its art and then denying it. Why can't the politics of art speak for itself?   But back to the petition. We suggest it's the wrong one to pursue. A smarter petition would demand Gergiev and Netrebko interact in public, abundant and frequent ways with as many members of the LGBT community and its supporters as possible. Don't just dedicate a gala to "the support of the LGBT community." Dedicate proceeds from every performance, including part of all artist and management fees, to a different LGBT charity each night. If what you want is to push the Met to make a statement, then push the Met to make a statement. Dare the Met to act like the cultural leader that we, McLennan and you know they are.


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Commentary: Arts orgs that will thrive will be ones that address social issues

Thomas Wolf and Dennie Palmer Wolf, WolfBrown e-newsletter On Our Minds, 8/9/13

[At] WolfBrown, we've been building the argument that, in the 21st century, the cultural institutions that thrive will be the ones that help their host communities call out and address major challenges. Many of the guiding concepts of this work are summarized in a new publication from the National Guild for Community Arts Education, More than the Sum of the Parts, co-authored by Dr. Thomas Wolf and Gigi Antoni of Big Thought. In terms of large-scale organizations, we have been partnering with Carnegie Hall's Musical Connections program to document the positive role music can play in the juvenile justice system. We've also been partnering with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and with Yo-Yo Ma, who has been working to promote the concept of Citizen Musician -- an expansion of the definition of artist to include the role of first responder, a person who places his or her skills at the service of their communities: in schools, hospitals, prisons, or as part of public ceremonies and memorials. In terms of smaller, community-based organizations, we have been partnering with City Lore, a pre-eminent folk and traditional arts organization in New York City. Their programs teach young people to love and investigate the city in which they live, insuring that children take the subway, visit studios, museums, gardens and bakeries, and develop an intense curiosity about the lives around them - experiences which build cosmopolitan citizens for a new century.

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