Talking Action (Together)

Today [Friday] was a very different day at NPAC, for me anyway. Yesterday was crammed from 8:00 am until 11:00 pm with discussions, speeches, sessions, and stimulating conversations. Today there seemed to be fewer things going on, and I found myself more inclined to buy books in the exhibit hall -- a LOT of books. After three days at this conference, I have come to the conclusion, as a teacher, that I must work harder to introduce my students to the many ideas and studies about the arts that are being published. Whether the Wallace Foundation, or the NEA, or WolfBrown, or any number of other sources of ideas that contextualize, explain, and reveal the larger issues that permeate our artistic landscape, there are too many opportunities for artists to take control of their artistic lives. Why does the academy focus almost exclusively on "skill development" and leave to chance the development of a worldview, an aesthetic philosophy, a socio-political understanding of the place of the arts, and a sense of the economic life of our nation? By doing so, we disempower artists who find themselves at the mercy of those with a broader perspective. As a result, the art suffers as well as the artist, both of which fail to acquire depth and profundity. It must be changed.

A disturbing controversy arose at today's keynote following the truly inspiring conversations with Jose Antonio Abreu and Germaine Acogny. Both of these brilliant artists illustrate the point that I was trying to make above: they have a strong sense of their art form, its place within the world, and its effects on society and the artist.  They were thoughtful and passionate, and as a result they transformed those who worked with them. After they were finished, and after we had given them an enthusiastic standing ovation, we were offered a performance by the Colorado Children's Chorale Tour Choir, a group of young singers who sang with energy and innocence. As the strains of their rendition of "America, the Beautiful" faded away, an NPAC participant approached the podium as a large number of audience members stood up holding signs that read "Where is Madhusree Dutta?" The woman at the microphone explained that Dutta was supposed to be the third panelist, but she had politely declined to attend when she was told she must edit out two pieces of her introductory film, pieces that condemned George Bush and the Iraq War. The word "censorship" was uttered, and the image of the NEA 4 raised, and a plea for solidarity among artists made. The source of the request for the de-politicizing editing  was left rather vague -- was it American Express, the NPAC organizers, the US government? Whoever it was, and whatever the reason, what is disturbing is the idea that politics cannot be discussed in this setting, and criticism cannot be expressed, and all in the name of what? Of avoiding controversy in order to forge a fragile sense of unity and togetherness among the attendees? It was clear that the person who made the announcement was being careful not to be "incendiary," as if we were all children who were not to be worked up lest we become overwrought and unruly. But what is puzzling is that the political content was unexpected -- how could you look at Dutta's work and not expect political content?

The very basis of this conference is political: Taking Action Together. And so to exclude the political expression of someone who stood as a symbol of taking action together seems lacking in self-reflection, if not hypocritical. If this is where we have come to in this final year of the Bush Administration, where self-censorship is the order of the day, then as artists we should abandon our idea of "taking action together," because we have not thought deeply, have not developed courage, and have not understood our role in society.

Perhaps if I change my approach to teaching and introduce my students to the broad thinking that is this conference at its best, then iat future conferences they will be able to listen without fear to the political, religious, or philosophical expression of those who have strong feelings and commitments without fretting about the effects of controversy. Perhaps then we will have become a mature group of artists who have fully embraced our own power.

Posted by Scott Walters.

June 14, 2008 10:43 AM | | Comments (1)


From what I have heard from several very reliable sources was that the decision was made by the conference organizers themselves (not at the request of any funder--in fact, major funders were surprised to hear that this took place and were equally surprised that artists have censored each other). I believe that Melanie Joseph handled the situation incredibly well. Prior to the session, the moderator and panelists didn't know the situation.

If we can't be trusted with having civic dialogue around an artistic product, how can we work together for change? The conference organizers couldn't have handled the situation in a worse manner. Shame on them. I have the feeling that this isn't going to be the last we hear of this. The Rocky Mountain News picked it up in an article, and I heard rumblings that the New York Times would be covering this incident. And rightfully so...

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About this blog From April 1 through June 9, 2008, weekly entries were posted here by some of the performing arts community's top bloggers. This 10-week intensive series served as a unique forum for digital debate and brainstorming, and both the entries and comments were archived for use at the live NPAC sessions in June.  Participants:

Jaime Green - Surplus
Nico Muhly
Kristin Sloan - The Winger
Jason Grote
Jeffrey Kahane
Eva Yaa Asantewaa - InfiniteBody
Greg Sandow
Hilary Hahn
Tim Mangan, Paul Hodgins, Richard Chang - The Arts Blog
Andrew Taylor -
The Artful Manager

During the convention, June 10 through June 14, 2008, a
ttendees from across art forms and job functions reported on their conference experiences. Participants:

Amanda Ameer
- web manager, NPAC
Sarah Baird - media and public relations executive, Boosey & Hawkes
Joseph Clifford - outreach and education manager, Dartmouth College Hopkins Center for the Arts
Lawrence Edelson - producing artistic director, American Lyric Theater
James Egelhofer - artist manager, IMG Artists
Jaime Green - literary associate, MCC Theatre
James Holt - composer; membership and marketing associate, League of American Orchestras
Michelle Mierz - executive director, LA Contemporary Dance Company
Mark Pemberton - director, Association of British Orchestras
Mister MOJO - star, MOJO & The Bayou Gypsies
Sydney Skybetter - artistic director, Skybetter and Associates
Mark Valdez - national coordinator, The Network of Ensemble Theaters
Amy Vashaw - audience & program development director, Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State
Scott Walters - professor, University of North Carolina at Asheville
Zack Winokur - student, The Juilliard School
Megan Young - artistic services manager, OPERA America

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the independent contributors and participants, not the National Performing Arts Convention or the organizations they represent.

NPAC - the National Performing Arts Convention - took place in Denver, Colorado on June 10-14, 2008. "Taking Action Together," NPAC sought to lay the foundation for future cross-disciplinary collaborations, cooperative programs and effective advocacy. Formed by 30 distinct performing arts service organizations demonstrating a new maturity and uniting as one a sector, the convention was dedicated to enriching national life and strengthening performing arts communities across the country. 

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