Sunday, January 25, 2009

Use Your Imagination

Back in the early 1960s, when his administration was being compared to Camelot,  President John F Kennedy remarked:
"I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."
On September 29, 1965 -- nearly two years after Kennedy's assassination -- President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law. Originally conceived during the Eisenhower Administration, the Kennedy Center for the Arts officially opened its doors to the public on September 8, 1971.  

Think, for a minute,  about the "tools of the trade" that we now take for granted, but which were not yet available to artists and arts administrators at that time.  No one owned a personal computer that could put WYSIWYG word processing programs with scalable fonts at their fingertips. There were no computer-based graphics programs, no ways to manipulate pixels, no ways to resize photos, and no means by which one could transmit files to remote stations for printing or media distribution. No one had the ability to use spreadsheets to estimate costs or run "what if?" calculations. No one had relational databases they could use for target marketing to subscribers as well as single ticket buyers. 

There were no websites, no email and no cell phones.

What little information or expertise was available about the various artistic disciplines was not easily shared. Professional service organizations such as Dance USAOpera America, and the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) were still working with index cards and Rolodexes

Since that time school arts programs have withered and died, anti-intellectualism has flourished, and America has suffered a severe "dumbing down" of its educational system as well as its cultural assets. Although grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities  have proven less controversial, for the past three decades the National Endowment for the Arts has been reduced to an underfunded political punching bag. 

Now, think of how the arts function as a powerful economic engine at the most local levels. Think of how today's electronics have transformed creativity. Think of what happened on January 15, 2009, when a passenger on a ferry used his cell phone to send the first picture to the world of USAir's downed flight #1549, an Airbus A320 afloat in the Hudson River, via Twitter. If you have trouble understanding the power of art, think about what this picture says to the man on the street:

Then think about what might take root if, instead of entering a culture that celebrates violence and destruction, America's children could grow up in a world that encourages and nurtures their creativity. A world that gives them a sense of owning their creative output. A world in which broadband is available to every child in every community. A world where schools are fully equipped with computers that can stimulate a child's creativity in its crucial nascent stages.

Think about what might happen if, instead of entering the armed forces as a career choice of last resort (simply because there are no other economic opportunities on the horizon), children from any part of America could grow up with sufficient computer skills to not only create art, but understand how to bring their creative output to market and manage the business of growing their art. Whether you think about such possibilities for writers, sculptors, musicians, photographers,  dancers, painters, or any other kind of creative artist, the impact on the global economy could be astonishing.

With billions of dollars having been flushed down Wall Street's financial toilets (with absolutely no accountability whatsoever from Henry Paulson or Ben Bernanke) and even more money being targeted at saving America's ailing auto industry, is it any wonder that famed "turnaround king" Michael Kaiser wants to know: Where's A Bailout For the Arts?  

The buzz continues to spread. Quincy Jones has been urging President Obama to create a new cabinet-level post for a Secretary of the Arts.

Art therapist Cathy Malchiodi discusses the concept of a Secretary for the Arts in Psychology Today.  A diarist on Daily Kos has issued a Call For A National Arts Summit.  

Just think of what a Secretary of the Arts could do for the nation's collective spirit.  Think of what that office could do for the nation's children.  Think of what that cabinet level position could do for the nation's artists and its economy.  Then, while you're thinking about all that, think about the role that art (from the creation of the Obama logo to the dissemination of Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster)  played in the success of Barack Obama's campaign to become the President of the United States of America.  

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Several years ago, Jeff Ross screened Popaganda: The Art And Crimes of Ron English.  A wonderful documentary about the power of taking art to the streets, this documentary gives audiences a hunger for more of the kind of political and social activism that has helped to make English famous.

English returns to town next month as part of this year's SFIndie Fest with a riveting and rollicking new documentary entitled Abraham Obama: A Subversive Journey Through Art and Politics.  Director Kevin Chapados follows English and his merry band of street artists (including Shepard Fairey, David Choe, Sam Flores and Mr. Brainwash) as they create murals on blank building walls and plaster English's provocative image of Abraham Obama all over America.  

As one of the people in the film notes, "Obama seems to get it. He sticks up for artists, so we'll stick up for him." To understand Obama's importance to the hip hop generation, I urge you to read Jermaine Dupri's touching piece from The Huffington Post entitled President Obama's First Big Move: Making People Care.

Abraham Obama goes to the heart of two key factors that helped Obama win the election: image and branding. While the film includes interviews with numerous people attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado-- from the Reverend Al Sharpton to award-winning documentarian Morgan Spurlock, from a Denver art critic to a clueless media hack from World Wrestling Entertainment -- perhaps the most pertinent quote about the power of art comes from a letter Obama wrote to Shepard Fairey:
"Your art, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign, has the ability to encourage Americans to question the status quo." 
Abraham Obama will be shown on February 15 and 18 at the Roxie Cinema. Don't miss it!

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The term "triple threat man" was first used in the sports world to describe Bradbury Robinson, a St. Louis University athlete who, in 1906, threw the first legal forward pass in the history of American football.  Fifty years later the same term was used to describe the type of talent Jerome Robbins was seeking for the cast of a new musical named West Side Story which would require performers who could sing, dance, and act. Until that time, the casts of most Broadway musicals were divided into separate groups of singers, dancers, and actors. Because Robbins was in the process of creating a new style of musical, he needed "triple threat" performers.

A talented actor, producer, and playwright (as well as author of the on-line graphic novel, InFlux)Michael Phillis is rapidly evolving into a triple threat artist. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Phillis has been seen around the Bay area performing with groups such as the New Conservatory Theatre Center, California Shakespeare Theater, and SFPlayhouse

Having written three full-length plays (Finding Mrs. Miller, D*Face, and Wish We Were Here), Phillis is now breaking in his latest creation: a one-man show entitled Dolls. 

When seen in an early preview at the New Conservatory Theater Center, Dolls struck me as a surprisingly mature piece of writing.  As directed by Andrew Nance, Phillis uses very few props other than his voice and obvious physical agility. Whether impersonating a Southern Belle of a porcelain doll, an action figure commando doll, or a series of cloned "off brand" dolls (who all tend to speak like a caricature of Keanu Reeves), his characterizations have depth, breadth, and a life of their own. It's a fascinating and highly original monologue that is well worth your attention.

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Written and recorded in 1971, John Lennon's song Imagine has become an anthem for everything up to and including world peace. But look at what an inspiration it has provided. 

Barack Obama imagined what could be done if ordinary people, rather than special interests, were the backbone of his campaign. His campaign manager, David Plouffe, and chief strategist, David Axelrod, didn't hesitate to imagine what could be achieved with today's social networking tools and by encouraging volunteers to use their imagination in the field.  Former skateboarder and acclaimed contemporary artist Shepard Fairey imagined all those posters of Barack Obama (an original was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and is now part of its permanent collection). 

Michael Phillis imagined all those dolls coming to life in a one-man show.  People have been unleashing their imaginations for more than two decades at northern Nevada's Burning Man Festival. Scott Weaver imagined this amazing interactive sculpture of San Francisco.

Just think what could happen if, as "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people," the United States of America imagined the positive side effects of unleashing the intellectual, spiritual, physical, and economic power of all its artists -- and then took a more determined approach to nurturing their collective powers of imagination.

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