Even amid upheaval, art goes on
Bill Cleveland, author of “Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines” spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people Thursday night at Left Bank Books in the Central West End.
The book talk was part of Cleveland’s annual St. Louis trip. Twelve years ago, Cleveland, in collaboration with the Regional Arts Commission, set up the Community Arts Training Institute. Cleveland, an advocate for art as an agent of social change, helped design CAT so that local artists, activists, social workers and educators could work together to create art programs in the community. CAT takes eight artists and eight non-artists each year for a five-month program. More than 155 people have graduated from CAT,and now work with art programs in homeless shelters, after-school programs and prisons, among other local organizations.
Surveying the room, Jill McGuire, executive director of the RAC, said that most of the attendees worked with the RAC or had graduated from the CAT program. McGuire, who helped facilitate the book talk and Cleveland’s visit, marveled at Cleveland’s presentation. “He is, to me, one of the smartest, most in-touch people.” Cleveland’s talk spanned the background of for “Art and Upheaval” as well as some of the work he had done with prisoners. At one point, he called on audience members to read lines from Northern Irish actors who had put together a play during The Troubles to set the stage for what art could do for a community.
What he learned in his journeys, Cleveland said, was how people respond to hard times. “In the face of despair I think we’re compelled to create.” Despite the difficult circumstances that he witnessed, Cleveland’s message was one of hope. One of the biggest problems art faces in the community, is working with people who have a limited worldview, Cleveland said. While external factors remain out of an individual’s control, “our world view is something we can change.”
The optimism that concluded Cleveland’s talk, was mirrored in the spectators’ response. As the audience filed out, Roseann Weiss, director of community art programs and public art initiatives for RAC, said, “We know how to collaborate. We know how to move forward. We know how to use art to spur development.”
Cleveland talked on Jan. 9 with Beacon intern Jennifer Gordon:
Q: How did you go about finding the stories for "Art and Upheaval?"
A: I began in Northern Ireland and basically that prompted my interest in looking for artists beyond the United States. I called a network of people I knew around the world and within about two months I had about 500 stories. Basically, in any place facing difficult circumstances there were artists trying to solve problems and making a difference.
Q: Were you able to help out these individuals in any way?
A: The people that I wrote these stories about were strong, resourceful survivors. The biggest help that I offered was to be an outside storyteller, to get their story into the world so more and more people are aware of the circumstances in which they're operating.
Q: Did you find that any of the artists' stories have anything in common?
A: None of them saw themselves as extraordinary in any way: they just saw themselves as individuals with a talent to share with their community.
Most were obsessively persistent on their journey. All were extraordinarily talented not only as artists, but as negotiators in difficult and constantly changing terrain.
Q: What inspired you to make the trips?
A: I spent most of my life working with artists in nontraditional environments so it was kind of natural extension for me to move outside of America into an environment where the challenges were more difficult, were more extreme.
Q: What about art in particular helps individuals understand what has happened to them, in particular these war-stricken communities you visited for "Art and Upheaval"?
A: In Northern Ireland, you had two communities that had been in a slow motion civil war for years and the political process was reaching to build a bridge between these two communities. Creating a play about an issue that affected them both -- mixed marriage of a Protestant and a Catholic -- is really practical, the process of peacemaking. In this instance making theatre was making peace.
Q: How is the art community adapting to an unstable economy? How can art survive in a community in recession?
A: Individual artists are going to be affected by a downturn in the economy no matter what. Individual artists are also the most resourceful. I think times likes these call forth an earnest and a passionate need for telling stories and making art. I don't think there's anything you can do to curtail art making. One of the most compelling stories of our time will be what happens in the next four years and there will be artists there depicting it.
Q: How does the role of art in American society differ from international communities? Are other countries more attune with the idea of the "shaman"? (The shaman, in ancient culture, was the custodian of a community's culture: he would tell the younger generation stories about the community's history, settle disagreements, and pass on artistic practices. The shaman linked the community to its artistic heritage, but Cleveland believes modernity has neglected that connection.)
A: If you look at new immigrants to this country you'll find that many of them are trying to pass on their cultural practices ... because it is important to survival in the world.
Most countries treat cultural resources with more reverence and respect than the United States. For good or for ill, we've "commodified" our entire culture. When things get defined as good or bad based on their economic impact, then a lot of the other spiritual qualities that they bring to people's lives are kind of dismissed. But many artists in this country completely understand that excellent cutting edge art making and community development are not mutually exclusive. St. Louis Regional Arts Counsel, for example, has excellent training for reintegrating arts into the community. St. Louis is a leader, in that respect, for the country.
Jennifer Gordon, a junior in the Journalism School at the University of Missouri, is an intern with the Beacon. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.