ArtsWatch biz 2: The object of our attention

The first principle of ArtsWatch is that the arts are more than important—they are central to our lives together

George Cruikshank, Drury Lane Theatre, 1821

Just Monday, we started our second membership drive here at ArtsWatch. A few intrepid ArtsWatch supporters jumped right in and signed up, which was most gratifying! Thank you!

So, yes, Oregon ArtsWatch is seeking your support to keep us going in Year Two. Why would you want to get involved? That’s what I’m going to be talking about in a series of posts the next couple of weeks. To start, I’m going to talk about the arts and why they are important. That’s because the importance of an arts journalism project is inextricably tied to the importance of the subject it addresses. We should only give money to something we think is important, and a premise of ArtsWatch is that the arts are important. Why? I’m going to quote from our Mission Statement.

We report on Oregon and Northwest culture here, mostly the arts end of that culture, though we may digress from time to time, because the arts are permanently entangled within life itself, life in all its degrees and stations. The arts offer special benefits to the culture—a model for the finest execution of our daily tasks and momentary respite from those tasks, a space to consider the deepest problems and greatest joys we face as individual humans and societies, a place to wonder and laugh and celebrate together.

Deep down, we think that the arts are central to the sustenance, renovation, celebration and re-creation of our life together in the Northwest. They aren’t a decoration or a sideshow. They give us an ongoing reflection of ourselves. They suggest solutions. They grieve and roar in pain and anger. They know when things aren’t fair, and they speak out. At least at their best, they do. And then they encourage us to think and feel along with them.

This sense of social cohesion, a sense of the whole, this common sense, is often missing from our national society, and it has made democracy itself difficult to conduct. We believe that Oregon has a chance to generate a common sense that is complicated and practical and adaptive. And if we are going to succeed, it will be because the arts have helped us create a shared language, shared experiences and ultimately, shared values—even if one of those is respect for deeply held values that we don’t share.

Most arguments for support of the arts seem either tangential or tepid. We believe that we won’t have a functioning democracy without the arts to feed and nourish us. We won’t have a vigorous economy without the arts to inspire and model our creative response to the world. We won’t have healthy individuals without the insight and space for insight that the arts provide. Sure, there are direct economic benefits to arts activity. And sure, we benefit inherently from living in an environment that is more “aesthetic” than less. But what’s at stake in this is more crucial than these byproducts of a healthy shared culture.

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

That’s why we started ArtsWatch in 2011: We thought the arts needed and deserved the attention of  accomplished writers, reporters and critics dedicated to reporting on them thoroughly and creatively. Culture, Simone Weil has written, is the formation of attention.  Journalism (and I mean that in the broad sense) should be about helping us form attention around things that really matter to us. It should provide us with important information,  ignite and participate in our discussions, and then help us sort it all out. Because the arts are about such central human concerns, writing about them (in whatever media) becomes central, too.

For those us writing for ArtsWatch, that’s a big obligation, one we take seriously (even when we’re joking around). Like journalism, the arts in America—and in Oregon—have reached a sort of crossroads. Who is going to fund it and to what degree? What adaptations must the artists and administrators make to stay as pertinent to the culture as they can? How do they keep Shakespeare and Mozart and Vermeer in the public consciousness AND introduce us to new variations and visions of theater, music and art? How useful are their descriptions of us? How critical is the local art we produce here in Oregon to the health of our local culture? To what extent do they give us what we need? How can WE help them figure US out?

In our next broadside, we’ll talk about those local conditions a little more. Stay tuned!

But maybe you’ve heard enough, and you’re ready to pitch in to help? That would be great—just push the subscribe button now! Our memberships start at $35, but you can donate any amount you like. Or maybe you need some more convincing? Stay tuned.

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