Thursday, March 20, 2008

The art of politics and the politics of art

By Paul Gordon Emerson

Where does art intersect with global issues?

Sometimes the answer is easy and obvious. Literature -- and words in all forms -- have a long and profound legacy of inspiring and codifying change. But the more abstract the art, the more the reach of art as a political mechanism is stretched. There are exceptions of course. “Guernica,” Picasso’s angry, anguished protest against the Fascist massacre in that otherwise unknown town during the Spanish Civil War is perhaps the best-known contemporary example. Rodin’s “Burghers Of Calais” was more metaphorical because it dealt with something historical, not contemporary, but the impact was clear and, regardless of the backstory, remains powerful today in every museum and sculpture garden where the work is to be found. Protest art is consciously (and often self-consciously) overtly political, as is its step-sister, state-sanctioned political art, which the Soviets made into a calling for artists in the 1920s. Sometimes, as with Rodin, the work is made powerful because it is so literal. Sometimes the power lies in heroic abstraction, and sometimes, as with Picasso, it is the stretch, both in form and message, which fuels the fire.

With dance the possibilities are exceptionally rich.

Dance is uniquely positioned to pose questions about the human condition, because it is a uniquely human art, requiring no intermediary steps, no paint or pianos, no canvas or carvings, to convey its message. We are the art, and the art is us. Only the human voice, raised in song, compares, requiring no intervention, no innovation through another medium. But, for that very reason – its literalness – dance can struggle as a vehicle. Literal messages, whether about love or injustice, risk becoming trite. Deeply abstracted messages, using movement to suggest mood and intent, leave many parts of an audience behind, engaged in that “was that supposed to mean something” miasma.

In seeking to “say something,” then, the choreographer and the dancer walk that line between what is honest and what is obvious, what is literal and what is ephemeral. It’s a problem to solve in making work.

Which brings us to climate. A dance about social injustice has obvious entry points. But a dance about climate change and habitat loss? For Brenda Way, in making “On A Train Heading South,” the story is very much about human impact and ignorance laced together to create profound change. For Isabel the entry point is nature -- and the creatures who face the immediate consequences of our actions with no understanding of how these changes are occurring and why.

How does a dance on that subject arise? And how do humans represent nature in the face of nature being devastated by humans?

(there was, on Nat Geo, the other evening a program about ANWR -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- and about the devastation of polar bear habitat. The bears are becoming scavengers, reduced to seeking out carcases of whales from the native hunt)

Where does our humanity, and "human-ness," allow us to intersect and interpret nature?

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