Tuesday, March 29, 2011 • 10:49 AM Comments ()

The Creative Conversation

posted by Dan Blask

The state agency I work for, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) supports the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences across the Commonwealth. The most obvious form of that support is funding to organizations and individuals, including an annual allocation of state funds to our partners at Mass Humanities. But in all of our programs – including my own area of focus, individual artists – we also look to foster dialogue. Why? Because, of course we do. Because, what are the arts and humanities if not dialogue? Because, the dialogue between painter and canvas, between story and reader, between historian and the poet whose work the historian inspires (or vice versa) is at the very core of our work – and supporting that dialogue is the key to our support of the cultural community.

When I first started at the MCC in 2005, I took over a program called the Artist to Artist Dialogues, where we invited past recipients of our Artist Fellowships Program to participate in live, public conversations. Artists of different disciplines – composers and novelists, sculptors and playwrights, poets and photographers – talked about both creative issues, like where their work is headed, and practical issues, like how they support themselves and how they balance life and art. The events were something we in our role as a state agency, with many connections to the different cultural sectors of the state, were uniquely suited to organize.

In 2007, we started to consider how media platforms that were by no means new at that point but were still undiscovered country to us – like the now-ancient craft of “blogging” – might serve the dialogues we were already seeking to have in Artist to Artist and other programs. In January 2008, we published the first post on our then-new blog, ArtSake.

After we had decided to launch a blog but before that first post, we asked ourselves a lot of questions (probably a good thing to do whenever embarking on something new): What ground is already covered? What already exists out there in the local arts blog-o-sphere? What gaps, if any, could we fill? What resources and strengths do we have uniquely available to us to do so?

Would ArtSake be, as one possibility went, a source of arts criticism and local arts news? It seemed to us those grounds were already covered, and better than we could. Arts critic and journalist Bill Marx had created The Arts Fuse, a comprehensive, locally-focused online source for criticism in all areas of the arts. Greg Cook’s New England Journal of Aesthetic Research was already the smart, irreverent, quick-on-the-draw visual arts criticism and news resource that it still is, and at the time, the late, lamented Big RED and Shiny was still going strong. Besides which, was a cultural agency and arts funder really the best equipped to tackle real criticism, or nimble enough to be a timely purveyor of news?

We instead decided that ArtSake would focus on artists’ voices – on dialogue about new art. My personal favorite posts on ArtSake have been conversations about the questions and choices and struggles of creating new work. Those, in my mind, are the conversations we as an agency are uniquely privileged to have.

For instance, playwright Eric Henry Sanders wrote on ArtSake about three stages in the creation of his play Reservoir, a reimaging of Georg Buchner’s unfinished Expressionist masterpiece Woyzeck. In the post, Sanders discusses his decision to update the story in light of the PTSD epidemic among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. The post includes an audio performance of one scene by Company One Theatre, with the Woyzeck character, now a military veteran named Hasek, reporting for his first session with an overworked therapist. I like the post because it exemplifies the different levels of dialogue always possible with a new work of art: between the artist grappling with the conflicts of his/her times; between the individual artist (in this case, the playwright) and a group of collaborating artists (the theatre company) bringing the work to life; between a story and an audience interested in how it is told. Since the post is published on the web for the foreseeable future, the dialogue between us and the reader can continue, too, in reader comments and correspondences. (On this last point: I was thrilled when a dramaturg in Ohio Googled Woyzeck and somehow found Sanders’s post, later offering to produce his play!)

Similarly, when artist Betsy Damian wrote about a trip to Haiti and the children’s book that resulted, the story of the story includes another, much larger turn of events. After the trip but before the book was finished, Haiti was devastated with the 2010 earthquake, casting Betsy’s work in a new and more vital light. Arts and humanities not only incorporate history – they are in dialogue with it.

And we found a new platform for our Artist to Artist Dialogues, now continuing the conversations online. Sculptor Julie Levesque and painter Candice Smith Corby discussed family and domesticity in visual arts. Writer Karl Iagnemma and new media artist Brian Knep discussed the intersections of art and science. And most recently, multi-faceted writers Lise Haines and Elizabeth Searle discussed how some of the central issues of our times--terrorism, celebrations of violence, celebrity culture, and female identity--drive and inhabit their work.

Here’s a sample of that discussion between Lise and Elizabeth:

Elizabeth: When you’re writing, do you see the scenes cinematically?

Lise: I think my mind is very cinematic when I write. For me, an average day has three realities. Along with dream/sleep time and the waking world, my writing life is like a very vivid daydream. I feel like part of my job is to report back on this third reality.

Elizabeth: That’s a great metaphor. You’re mixing, in that dream-like way, so many things from your real life. But it creates something new.

It’s a fun thing (one of many) about working in this field: in the dialogue between the arts and humanities, between the storytellers and their stories, between the idea and the art, the resulting conversation always has the potential to create something new.

Images: Eric Henry Sanders (playwright), Shawn LaCount (director), Fedna Jacquet (actor), Brett Marks (actor), and Anne Morgan (dramaturg) read a scene from RESERVOIR; a page from REV ABNE A: ABNER’S VISION by Betsy Damian, a Creole/English picture book for emergent readers (2010); cover art for GIRL HELD IN HOME by Elizabeth Searle (New Rivers Press, Fall 2011) and GIRL IN THE ARENA by Lise Haines (Bloomsbury USA, 2009).

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