e n d n o t e s k a t h e r i n e m c n a m a r a
Art Lets Us Live
Helen Vendler, the esteemed scholar of poetry, delivered the Jefferson Lecture in May at the National Endowment for the Humanities. She proposed that the humanities ought to take as their central study the esthetic works of the imagination, because, she argued, “after all,” societies are remembered principally for their arts. She pointed out that the arts (and religion) used to offer training in “subtlety of response” – a lovely phrase – and so, would most truthfully show us representations of ourselves, far more “responsibly” than commercial culture can or be expected to do. She urged that the children of our society be taught their cultural patrimony, which is rich and wonderfully varied, as, generally, our “students leave high school knowing almost nothing about American art, music, architecture, and sculpture, and having only a superficial acquaintance with a few American authors.” Humanely, she affirmed that, just as art is only “half itself without us – its audience, its analysts, its scholars – so we are only half ourselves without it.”
The audience must have rejoiced to hear this. It was all true, but no one had said it out loud, in public, in Washington, for a long time.
“But,” she went on to say, “these patriotic and cultural aims alone are not [justification] enough . . . .” That is, if we set ourselves to read Stevens, or Eliot, or Marianne Moore, or “Hamlet,” before reading history, or economics, or political science, our minds would be finer and clearer and we would not “lose sight of individual human uniqueness – the quality most prized in artists, and most salient, and most valued, in the arts.” She called upon us to recognize that “The arts present the whole uncensored human person – in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form – as no other branch of human accomplishment does.”
The arts, she reminded us, recalling Wallace Stevens, on three of whose poems she centered her text, let us live our lives, meaning (as artists mean) “to live in the body as well as in the mind, on the sensual earth as well as in the celestial clouds. The arts exist to relocate us in the body by means of the work of the mind in aesthetic creation; they situation us on the earth, paradoxically, by means of a mental paradigm of experience embodied, with symbolic concision, in a physical medium.”
The arts situate us on the earth and in our body. I want to believe this; I do believe it; I know it to be true. It is true for me, who live in my study, surrounded by books, in a house free of television, in a cultivated garden. At another extreme, in the Alaskan bush, in bitter cold and darkness, poetry once helped me live. Reading Heaney and Milosz lit the mind with sounds of distant worlds brought close. The elegance of form quieted and ordered a spirit agitated by that immense landscape indifferent to human presence. The poems were as real as the night sky. Into Athabaskan schools I had then the pleasure of carrying great literature. There, I was sobered by the real lives of students, yet the work was not lessened but made urgent. I saw certain desperate youngsters writing their own poems, singing their songs as if to save their lives. They were not deaf to the joy and power of their making, although poetry did not always, or perhaps often, save their lives. Art helps us live – I believe this – although I do not believe it must save our lives. Art helps us live, until we cannot live.
Helen Vendler would know as well as any of us does that men of cultivation have been among the great tyrants and butchers of history; yet, even so, that other men of little learning have, as in the present time, orchestrated enormous wars. It is the populace about whom she is concerned: the great mass of our people who seem to live “‘blankly, scarcely seeing the earth on which they lived. . . .’” It is they, it is we ourselves, she offers, whose lives can only be refreshed and delighted by true acquaintance with and knowledge of the arts.
She asks two questions that strike the heart of the matter. They are vital ones, yet nearly unanswerable, except by the work of art itself; and then, by the careful description (this is the work of the scholar) of how it came into being. Her questions:
Who has the right to be an artist?
How does one claim that right?
An Instrument of Transmission
Art lives in the body and rises from the body. I was typing this insight on an instrument of transmission, my laptop. There came a curious thought. Using a wireless network, I had been paging through ArtsCanada, about which I was going to write, and suddenly I wondered whether an American soldier similarly using a laptop and wireless network could see what I saw. If so, what would she do differently?
What Is That By Which We Will Be Remembered?
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a public agency, opens via the Web a doorway into a digital imaginative space called ArtsCanada. Those Canadians have found out how to offer broadband storytelling and documentation of high quality in a well-designed format. Yet, how often on the Web does bad design ruin content. Not at this site. Canada was the home of Marshall MacLuhan, afar all. In their digital medium is ArtsCanada’s message: the arts matter to us and we will – and we certainly can – do good work with this cool technology. So simple an idea; so interesting its working out.
To go there, you need a computer with a broadband connection, Flash, and a good sound system. Community and university libraries usually have this kind of set-up. Recently, I spent time on their program True North, the Concert. Annually, the CBC sponsors a concert in a small community in the far North – the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Cree Quebec – presenting artists from across northern Canada. Last year the concert was held in Oujé-Bougoumou, in Cree Quebec, a handsome community designed by the Blackfoot and Ojibwa architect Douglas Cardinal. ArtsCanada hosts an excerpt of the concert in sound, photos, and video; the links from splash page to the performers menu are easy to follow. I want to draw your attention to a group called Ceramony (as they write it). Click on “Ceramony.” When the frame loads, you will see and hear three young men – whose names I could not quite catch – talk about themselves, their Cree identity, and their band. They formed in 2002, having “a mind set to get certain messages out, implementing our culture but going for the mainstream.” Then, they discovered who they are and what they stand for.
First voice: “Art raises you up a level – instead of being in politics, being a leader in that sense, music makes you move, makes you want to move, makes you want to think. Politics won’t do that for you. Art speaks a lot and on different levels.”
Second voice: “In the midst of the Agreement in Principle [the recent agreement between the Cree Grand Council and the Government of Quebec allowing hydroelectric-development in the James Bay area, a hugely controversial act] and the new relationship signed between the Government of Quebec and the Crees of Northern Quebec, we raised a lot of concerns. As it progressed, we realized there were a lot of questions rather than a lot of answers. We learnt about the agreement, we learnt about what was happening behind the scenes. A lot of it is just fact, whether people like to believe it or not, and we wrote a song behind it.” [“First Son,” video]
Third voice: “In any story, there are two sides. This was ours – and many others’. Many people felt silenced. We feel it is the right thing to do, to speak up in this way – instead of being violent. As you can see how the world is turning out now, this is the best way to release something that you need to release, instead of going out there and killing each other. This is, I guess, our war, with this music.”
The James Bay agreement caused, and still causes, much dismay among the Cree, as they relate.
Voice: “The youth were not consulted, and the youth are the more educated. Nobody listened to us, and we thought, ‘Well, politics ain’t going to do it.’ We tried to do things by the book, we tried to show respect. Nobody listened. We were avoided by the Grand Council – the Grand Chief himself! So we thought, there’s one way he has to listen: if all the youth, all the kids are driving around town blasting these lyrics. And last night, we had a special guest in the audience, and that was the Grand Chief that ignored us. And this time he couldn’t ignore us, there was 20,000 watts of sound blowing right in his face. (chuckle) That was our little ‘You’re listening now’ kind of thing.”
Voice: “Another thing we can relate personally is that [“First Son”] relates to indigenous people world-wide, from Australia all the way to South America to North America – it’s a statement a lot of indigenous people want to get out there, or have tried to get out there. This is our way of doing it as well.”
Voice: “It was written innocently, the lyrics just kept coming, and now it’s the definition of what we are at the moment.”
The definition he spoke of is their song “First Son,” with a driving refrain, “First nation, assimilated son.” It is a resistance song. Ceramony is part of the culture wars taking place around the world, and these three musicians are young men working out, by means of their art, how to be native in the present world, within their society, without killing or doing violence. They know themselves as artists. This knowledge is huge when it comes. They throb with energy. Their kind of music is not one I normally feel close to, but I would get up and dance if I were in the audience; and I was moved and thrilled by the sound of the war cries – or sorrow-cries – that open and close “First Son.”
Another page of ArtsCanada, under “Features,” is “Variations on Gould,” a delightful virtual movieola on which the visitor can select and mix an audio-visual program to his heart’s content. No doubt the purist would be appalled; but the interface is clever and playful: “The world adored Glenn Gould the pianist, but from the earliest years of his career, he was also fascinated with the possibilities afforded by radio, tape and the recording studio. Gould, to whom innovation came naturally, used a technique which he called ‘contrapuntal radio’ – a process where sound counterpoints ideas. In the spirit of Glenn Gould’s CBC Radio work, we’ve created an interactive playground where you can create your own ‘contrapuntal web’ piece with rare audio clips from the archives, reminiscences, music, images, and more.”
And then, there is the National Film Board of Canada. Several years ago, the NFB helped back a film called Atanarjuat / The Fast Runner, an Aboriginal-language feature film, directed by Zacharias Kunuk and produced by a professional Inuit film company, Igloolik Isuma. Atanarjuat is (as the Web site describes), “a $1.96 million historical thriller based on a legend of love, jealousy, murder and revenge in the Igloolik region.” This was a true community project, with script, costumes, and sets organized with the advice of elders and culture-bearers. It has been shown internationally to admiring audiences and is recognized as being of the highest quality. Its subject is a thousand-year old legend. The film was made with Inuit actors; the script is in Inuktitut, with subtitles. (To my pleasure, I recognized one or two words.)
Why is there no ArtsCanada in this, our country? Where is our national film board? What federal agency devoted to the arts or the humanities has as its purpose the task of portraying this multicultural nation to itself and the world? These are not quite the right questions, because we can find excellent programs on public radio and television, in independent movies, and on a whole range of .org Web sites. Fine works are located in all sorts of niches and crannies in the public airwaves, art movie houses, and the new media. But that is just the problem: as a nation, we care very little for the living arts and the humanities as our cultural treasury. And now we must live with another kind of imagery: the digital photos from Abu Ghraib. The man with the hood over his head and the wires attached to his body. The soldier leering into the lens of the camera as she points to his genitals.
Have Darkened Our Spacious Skies
If the world does begin in art, then in what does art begin? In a speck in the eye, or sound in the ear . . . a hand or a foot wanting to move . . . the sound of a gun in the background . . .
I live in the home city of Jefferson, who did not free his slaves, except for the children of Sally Hemings, whom he – can I say, loved? Jefferson and his children, both lines, are part of my cultural patrimony, even though my forebears came to this nation some time after Jefferson’s death. Up the road, so to speak, lived Washington, who was the only Southern Founder to contemplate freeing his slaves, then do so in his will. As a Northerner, I am always aware of this history of which, by the seeming accident of residence, I am barely part. In this small city the past is in the air and walks the streets in the bodies of residents – the black men in coveralls plodding along Preston Avenue through the humid summer heat; Rob Coles, fifth-great-grandson of Jefferson and for decades his impersonator, making his way up High Street one wintry evening after a performance, the snow settling on his great-coated shoulders and his reddish, clubbed hair.
This year marks the fiftieth Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. In Virginia, the response to court-ordered integration of the races was Massive Resistance, lasting from 1954 until 1968, in which white fathers shut down the public schools, denying even a minimal education to black children, while enrolling their own children in academies organized in opposition to the law. In April came the DNA sweep described in this issue, in which the Charlottesville police asked nearly 200 black men living in the city to give up voluntary DNA samples, in their desperate pursuit of a serial rapist who has plagued the area for six years. But a wound was opened in the polity. Was the sweep a matter of racial profiling (but the rapist is known to be African-American); was it the kind of “voluntary” invasive search now encouraged in our national climate of fear and excessive longing for security? I wanted to understand why the chief of police had chosen this, of all measures, and how the people of the city are making sense of it. And so, as Nell Boeschenstein writes in “Just the Facts, Ma’am,” we turned our editorial attention to our own community.
Although I had not anticipated this, it happens that all but one of the contributors to this issue live in Charlottesville, though they are known widely as historians, poets, and men of letters. One essay, that by Paul Gaston, about the betrayal of the utopian colony of his childhood, appears in a book just out. A passage from the Foreword to that book speaks directly, I think, to the larger issues that have concerned many of us since the 2000 election, that allowed our government to invade Iraq without legal justification; and speaks also of a shadow haunting this community:
We would fool ourselves by supposing that our national policies do not have roots in our various localities; and, equally, that the ethical content of those policies does not then trickle back down into our very streets and houses.
If the arts let us live, nonetheless they do not soothe us. Literature and the ancient art of storytelling are not easily typified, nor will they willingly let their reader off the hook. George Garrett has written a funny story about a sober subject, but he can’t decide whether the story is fiction or non-fiction. That is the complexity of a “true” story: what do we know, exactly? This one is about Nazi saboteurs who landed on Long Island in 1941. What happened next was a Keystone-Kops sort of comedy, until the invaders were caught and secretly executed. Border security was a little patchy, even in wartime, but in the end the darker powers of the government won.
I return to Helen Vendler’s lecture, and conclude that we should not mistake her. Her argument is not meliorist or celebratory. The arts are neither entertainment nor distraction, nor do they soothe us, nor will they – nor can we allow them to – lie to us. Scholars and interpreters must, surely, teach us to keep our eyes and ears open to what is real, our judgment wary of the false narrative and the unearned happy ending. Artists – those who are our best – mirror us as humans back to ourselves, they show us images of how we live on this earth, they portray us as persons to the world.
We are at a crucial point in our existence as a republic. We are obligated to look at ourselves clearly, without illusion, as we are, as we were, and as we might become. Where else but in the arts will we find what we seek?
Helen Vendler, “The Ocean, The Bird, and The Scholar,” The Thomas Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C., May 6, 2004
Anthony Dunbar, ed. HERE WE STAND, VOICES OF SOUTHERN DISSENT (Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2004)
Nell Boeschenstein, “‘Just the Facts, Ma’am,” this issue
Paul Gaston, “My Yellow Ribbon Town,” this issue.
George Garrett, “A Story Goes With It,” this issue.
Inuvialuit “Inuit living in the western Canadian Arctic call themselves ‘Inuvialuit’, meaning ‘real human beings’, and have long considered themselves distinct from other Canadian Inuit. Today this distinct identity has a political dimension; the Inuvialuit chose not to join Nunavut (the new Inuit territory in the eastern Arctic), but to remain in the Northwest Territories under their own land claim agreement. (See Canadian Museum of Civilization)
The National Film Board of Canada “produces and distributes films and other audio-visual works which interpret Canada to Canadians and to other countries.”
from Marianne Moore, “Poetry”. From THE COMPLETE POEMS OF MARIANNE MOORE. Copyright © 1961 Marianne Moore, © renewed 1989 by Lawrence E. Brinn and Louise Crane, executors of the Estate of Marianne Moore. On the Web site Poets.org, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets.
Incoming, Vol. 8, No. 1
The Only God Is the God of War, Vol. 7, No. 3.
Where Are the Weapons?, Vol. 7, No. 2.
Patriotism and the Right of Free Speech in Wartime, Vol. 7, No. 1.
A Year in Washington, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4
Lies, Damn Lies, Vol. 6, No. 2
The Colossus, Vol. 6, No. 1
The Bear, Vol. 5 No. 4
Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3
Sasha Choi in America,Vol. 5, No. 1
A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1
The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4
The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3
On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1
A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2
Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1