Friday, May 18, 2012

...But Is It Art?

                    art:  (√§rt) noun 1. any form of human activity that is the product of
                       imagination and skill...
                                                       ~Gage Canadian Dictionary

With art and The Arts on my mind a lot lately, I have become very away that we all define art as something different, depending upon our own individual experience.  I have been told that art is only what you can hang on a wall.  That it is things like opera and ballet, obscure entertainments for the elite, but not for regular folks. That the people on the street don't understand art unless they have a university degree.  That true art is made by those passionate amateurs who squeeze it in between their day job and sleep.  That those who wish to be paid are "sell-outs", or worse, con-artists.

I have also been told that what I do is not really art.  The kinder critics inform me that I make fine craft.  (The "fine" is there to differentiate it from "macaroni-and-glitter" craft.)  Those less kind inform me that making yarn is not an art-machines can do it.  That knitting is not an art-grandmas can do it.  Weaving, well, sure, that's an art-except that since I only do plain-weave, maybe not so much. And best of all, I have been told that if I were a "real artist", I would be making art, not teaching.

I have been told all of these things, and more, by people who themselves profess to be artists.  And if artists can't agree on art, how can the rest of the world?  So I've decided it's time to re-define "art".  Or, rather, remind people of the actual definition of art.

Art is not something other, it is a part of the human experience.  Art stems from our observations of the world around us, both the natural and the mechanical.  Art comes when we apply the physical skills we have to our observations.  And for some of us that means painting a picture.  For others, it means telling a story.  Yet others dance.  Or make yarn. 

All of us are born with imagination.  We all have the power to observe the world around us through sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches.  We all have responses to our experiences.  We laugh, we cry, we get angry, we hurt.  We live.  And all art is is the expression of the experience of living.

Now, not all of us have been trained to wield a paintbrush or execute a perfect arabesque.  In fact, most of us have not.  But we can still see the beauty around us, and we can choose a way to express our response that fits our skill set.  We can create a cozy home, or tally up a tidy column of numbers, or build a solid shed, or plant a garden, or cook an appetizing meal.  We can go to plays and movies, read books, or follow the patterns designed by others to make our own object of beauty. We can stand still and appreciate a beautiful sunset.  We can show a child how to arrange macaroni in the shape of a flower and sprinkle glitter on it to make it pretty.  In doing all of these things, we celebrate imagination and skill. 

There are those who have trained their minds and bodies to execute a skill that conveys their experience to the rest of the world.  Painters, dancers, singers, writers, designers, architects, sculptors, filmmakers, and makers have all worked hard to find a way to express that experience.  They share their observations with the rest of the world through the products of their labours.  They place experience in a physical context for us to see.  We don't always recognize the perspective, and it may make some of us uncomfortable, but for others, that viewpoint resonates and they see the art.  Our own skills may not extend to the designing and making of beautiful objects, but we all have the skills to choose, to combine, to rearrange, and to place context on the expressions of others.

Art is not other.  It is not strange, or unapproachable.  It is not a privilege reserved for the very rich or the very educated.  Art is our human experience, made physical.

Go out and make art.  Or live life.  It's the same thing.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Full Disclosure and The Other Side

On Friday, I issued a tiny crie de coeur here on my little blog about string.  I told the story of staff firings at our local college from the point of view of the friends I have who worked there and from students who will be impacted by the choices made.  I framed my comments in the context of the larger picture of the way the world is going and how those in the arts are perceived. (If you didn't take the time to read the link I provided, you missed out on a lot of the context.)  The cuts made to the Keyano VPA are, in my opinion, simply a small local reflection of a larger attitude, that Oil is King, and arts don't make money.  It was, simply, another blow in the battle.  One that struck close to home

What I didn't expect was that my post would be picked up and passed along the way it was.  I figured my Mom and the six other people who read me would shake their heads, mutter that I was off on another tangent, and the world would go on.  But picked up and passed along I was.

So, after two days of silence, the college has issued an official statement in response to the outcry by not only myself, but others stunned by the suddenness of Friday's events.  You can read it in it's entirety here:

I encourage you to read this statement, and to make your own conclusions.  I also, however, stand by every word of my post as the truth as it was presented by those effected by these events.  I do realize that the official perspective and the personal perspective are vastly different.  I know that people exaggerate when telling tales to make their side look stronger, and I know that people in shock tend to use strong language.  I simply repeated the tales I was told, in the words they came to me in.  I am simply a chronicler of my experiences, and of those experiences shared with me.

I still feel that ANY cut to ANY arts education is a matter for public discussion.  I still feel that the manner in which the community was informed-or not informed-of the upcoming "improvements to arts delivery" was, at best, ham-fisted.  Perhaps, Keyano Folk, if you had been open and honest in explaining cuts and re-alignments in the first place, there would not have been the response to my post that there was.   Those six readers would have muttered, and that would have been it.

I would like to add at this point that there is a real need for trades training in our province.  I know that. I would also like to say that educational institutions do have to shift and grow as the focus of our society and economy changes.  But these changes were implemented with no warning to the college's staff, students, or community.  When change is introduced gradually, we move with it and adapt.  When you put a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually increase the heat, he will remain still until he is cooked.  When you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, he screams and tries to fight back.

So this little frog screamed a little.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Another Sad Day for the Arts

Why does it seem like the only time I post anything to this blog lately is when I get my knickers in a twist?

Perhaps it's because I am creatively and physically blocked right now.

Perhaps it's because I am turning into that cranky old blogger who has nothing better to do than bitch.

Or, perhaps it's because so many stupid, petty, oppressive and small-minded people are doing so many stupid, petty, oppressive and small-minded things around me lately.  The list is never-ending,
and here's another one:  At 11:30 this morning, the faculty of the Visual and Performing Arts programs at our local college (Keyano College) were rounded up and given 15 minutes to clear their offices, then escorted from the premises by security.   They were not met with by the administration and gently informed that their programs and jobs had be cut.  They were not given pink slips.  They were not even notified by email that this was their last day at work.  They were escorted out.  By security.  Like common criminals.

These people had done nothing wrong.  The plain and simple truth is that the Board of Governors and the new president of the college crunched the numbers and the arts lost out to in-house training provided for the oilsands industry.  Plain and simple.  Money talks, and the arts walk.  Every. Fucking. Time.

It does not help that I read this little essay on the perception of a "cultural elite" from Salon this morning, either.  It speaks directly to the American experience of the arts, but the principle applies here, too.  For those who do not wish to follow the link, here is a brief summary: Art is something that children do.  It is a nice hobby for housewives and retired people.  Anyone who wants to be a professional artist is actually just trying to avoid having a real job while they live off of our hard-earned tax dollars.  Artists are "the other"-they are not regular, hard-working folks like you and me.  They do not belong in our country.

Now, I consider myself an artist, and I don't know about you, but I think I work damned hard.  I work 8-10 hours a day, if not longer, at my art.  I do not apply for an endless string of government grants.  I use the money I earn to pay my mortgage and buy groceries and make car payments and give my kids braces, like regular folk.  I PAY TAXES.  I am a regular working person, just like Joe Lunchbox, and I do not feel that I am entitled to special privileges because of what I do.  It's my job, just like being an accountant, or a doctor, or a truck driver.  Or a college president.

I am now one of a fistful of people who are making money in "the arts" in this community.  And I am not making "a living".  I am making money.  Modest money.  Nor am I making my money in the community I live in.  I have to travel hundreds of kilometres before I can get paid to do what I do.  And the way I make my money is to teach.  I teach people who dream of making art, of being creative, of living a life that is satisfying to their soul.

And that is all the young people of Fort McMurray want to do, too.  Not every kid who sings in a school choir is going to be the next Justin Bieber.  Not every kid who gets their artwork put up on Mom's fridge is the next Picasso.  And to be a working artist, they don't have to be.  Why shouldn't they have a chance to explore the art that makes them feel complete in an educational setting close to home. Why are we sending our best and brightest away?

Two of my three very artistically inclined children had to do just that.  And one of them was educated at Keyano College, in the very program that has now been slashed.  He, among other alumni, IS making a living (though a meagre one) as an artist.  My daughter had no other options, she had to leave this community to become a make-up artist, and she is now thriving in the fashion scene in Vancouver.  These are two home-town kids who could have added richness and variety to the community, but the opportunities were dwindling.  And now there are none.

So, Fort McMurray Moms and Dads, if you want your kids to stay in town, don't give them dance classes or piano lessons.  That sort of thing has no future here.

Teach 'em to drive a truck.

'Cuz that's what Keyano College wants them to do.