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Drowning in words and images (In memory of Pete Seeger)

January 28, 2014 Leave a comment

In 1973, Pete Seeger seemed to predict the early 21st century, but he was just looking around his society when he wrote: “Americans are drowned in words. . . . We’re also drowned in pictures”. . .more information than we can use, more than we can make sense of, more than we can protect ourselves against. His brief essay turns immediately to a special case, “the independent graphic artist,” a painter, say, who would have provided the wealthy with something to hang on the wall. The figure of this artist serves to sharpen a hopeful contrast.Seeger Signature With Banjo

For Seeger, there was underway a contrasting revival of traditional open-air murals, by which artists great and modest communicate directly with the people who live around them. Not hidden away in the houses of the rich, not guarded by museum and university experts, street murals “fill a need for communication between all people.” There is an opportunity for honesty and independence that can break the silence with “ideas which will not be said by our politicians–ideas which need to be explored in public.” Something real is at stake, then.

For one thing, by painting in public spaces, artists remind fellow citizens that “we are not 100 percent at the mercy of the media.” Communicating on their own, independent from the houses of commerce, freed of those venues’ predictable formulations, and more free in general to speak, people will begin to remake the world according to their own needs and values, Seeger said. For him, the people’s values are fundamental and far-reaching: “We are going to unite for peace, freedom, jobs for all, and a clean, unpolluted world to share.” No narrow focus on commerce there.

As the tiny essay closes, Seeger anticipates a doubting reader’s question: “How will this come about? The murals will tell the story. You don’t believe me? Keep your eyes open.”

That last little bit matters, because he means that the process of social change is exploratory. It involves clarifying basic values together, in public, and it includes affiliation and action. It’s a process that has a better chance using public media of wide circulation and participation. The painting on the wall of the millionaire’s study won’t do it; media broadcast to the passive millions won’t do it either. Murals aren’t just records of the time or bursts of expression, then. They are part of the process of social change. The same must be true of social media today.

Pete Seeger’s small essay is the forward for a 1973 book called Mural Manual, which had chapters on every aspect of producing street art formed the body of the manual. Citizens need comparable skills–perhaps a comparable manual?–for the speaking and writing tools of active citizenship today, for all the reasons which Seeger mentioned when he spoke about art.

Republished from a June 2013 blog entry.

Take this in, endlessly

January 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose may have accidentally put his finger on one of the great flaws of American schools. He took a history class that required each student to do some original research with primary sources, and this insight came to him in the process:

  • “And that just hit me like a sledgehammer,” Ambrose later said. “It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world’s knowledge.” (Writer’s Almanac, 1/10/14)

In other words, he was deep into his college education before he understood that a person can help create knowledge, rather than simply receiving it from the pages of the past or the lips of a few experts.

In other words, a smart, talented young person reached adulthood with the most passive understanding of the way meaning-making might be handled by society.

In other words, the schools and colleges are often just fine with that. Take this in, endlessly, is the basic philosophy of our schools. Create nothing. Listen and learn.

Art exhibit radio

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

[audio] The word “art” does not appear in my job description, and not the words “gallery” or “exhibit” either. But somehow I ended up helping put together an art show. This has been quite a journey, and the exhibit that came of it, now open at the big new gallery at Indiana University South Bend, is full of astonishing objects created by sixty of the most interesting artists who have lived and worked in our area. Along the way I’ve learned how many hundreds of details and arrangements go into a big art exhibit. I have become acquainted with smart, friendly people committed to their work at area archives and museums and art departments. I’ve spoken with artists who always love having a chance to share their work. And almost accidentally I’ve had a small, free education in the fine arts. What a great ride this has been.

There were phone calls and letters and emails by the bucket. There were permission forms to be signed and delivery appointments to be made and people we wanted to reach but couldn’t. I cannot remember the last time I worked on a project so drenched in details. If you are a big thinker who enjoys delegating the details to others, and someone says to you, “Wanna help with our big art exhibit,” I suggest you smile and turn and run far, far away.

But then there is the art itself. If you go to the show at IU South Bend, which is free and open to the public, you’ll find your own favorites. In this snowy season I keep thinking about a particular springtime painting of an artist’s country cottage, with sunlight washing over the roof and walls. The trees are heavy with white blossoms and leaves just emerging. In the gaps between the branches, the sky is richly blue and the whole scene heralds both a beautiful day and a fresh season unfolding. The world feels full 0f possibility when you stand in front of a painting like that. In the show there are vivid portraits, playful, mind-bending abstractions, and sweeping landscapes. There are big, beautiful tributes to big, beautiful architecture. There are completely unpredictable ceramic pieces that give the impression that artists who work in clay may be the strangest dreamers of us all.

And there are quiet moments of human experience, distilled in a few simple strokes–I’m thinking here of a drawing of one man leaning over and ministering to another man on his sickbed, selflessly tending to a fellow human being who is in peril for his life.

People who love art make big claims for it. One of our country’s finest poets, Adrienne Rich, once said, “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” That seems right. I like the extravagance of these works, too. Our area artists thrive on great big challenges, and it’s good for my morale to see people tasking themselves with the making of something grand. These artists worked really hard, and they claim the freedom to create whatever they can imagine, which is inspiring all by itself, and along the way these fabulous objects are left behind for us to feel and enjoy. Maybe I’ll see you at the show, which continues at IU South Bend until January 25th.

How poverty works

January 8, 2014 Leave a comment

President Lyndon Johnson shared a small theory of how poverty works in his state of the union address in 1964. A key passage:

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper — in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

Later in the spring he sent a message to Congress which elaborated:

What does this poverty mean to those who endure it ?

It means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence. It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them are beyond their grasp.

Worst of all, it means hopelessness for the young.

The young man or woman who grows up without a decent education, in a broken home, in a hostile and squalid environment, in ill health or in the face of racial injustice-that young man or woman is often trapped in a life of poverty.

He does not have the skills demanded by a complex society. He does not know how to acquire those skills. He faces a mounting sense of despair which drains initiative and ambition and energy.

This basic understanding still states the case, I believe.

Civic teamwork

January 7, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m grateful today for the complex, deeply functioning bond between companies that make such things as snow plows, the employees with the right expertise at those companies, the city and county governments that plan for predictable emergencies, buy necessary equipment, keep a skilled team to maintain and operate the equipment, and my neighbors who believe in their community and share the cost of public services. Well done all around….

Eighty-four degrees

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

The remote thermometer on the north side of the garage now registers 84 degrees colder than the thermometer here in the room where I sit typing.

Pushed around

January 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Fourteen inches of snow on the roof of the bird feeder, I’d say. The board that forms the seat of the old-fashioned tree swing is just a few inches above the snow. Most area public facilities are closed tomorrow, when the temperature will drop to zero by sunrise and continue dropping for the rest of the day, perhaps to -14 or lower by the next morning. There is homemade soup in the fridge, and staples enough for the duration. We don’t usually see the weather push us around like this, but here goes.

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