Culture Quilt

Great Arts Blogger Challenge – 1

Spring For Music has initiated the “Great Arts Blogger Challenge,” and while I don’t go in much for contests, I do enjoy a challenge (and my kids encouraged me to participate).  The prompt for round one, “New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?” has already been criticized for being crass, easy, outdated, or obvious.  One can question the definition of “America,” (and I hope some bloggers do) and one can develop entire PhD programs around the definition of “culture.” For me, however, the question is interesting because it reflects my lived experience interacting with “culture.” The best blogs are those that take us inside the writer’s experience to help better see the world writ large.  I hope I can rise to that challenge.

I was raised in New York consuming and absorbing its cultural products, trained there to work at the pinnacle of professionalized theatrical production, and having done so, on some level “made it in New York.”  But, can a culture that excludes the 99% through economy or geography or both, truly be the culture of “America” in all of its diversity? (I use “America” here to mean USAmerica, although I understand that the challenge sponsors wrote “North America.” I doubt very much if the denizens of Mexico City now or have ever considered New York to be their cultural capital.)  I grew up believing that Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cover view of “America” was accurate.  I realized after three years of working on theatrical productions from the Bowery to Broadway, that there was an entire continent of arts and culture west of the Hudson River. And so, I moved west.

Relocating to the Midwest, I soon realized that I could do more meaningful work as a lighting designer in regional theatres than in New York where the economic exigencies of either commercial production or my own finances forced me into artistic compromises. I found pockets of extraordinary cultural richness in Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas City, and even southern Utah.  I found American culture all around me.  Much of what I saw at first was “professional” culture – the finest LORT theatres, excellent regional museums (Mt Horeb WI’s Mustard Museum being a notably kitschy counter-example), and so on.  But as I shed my New York armor, the blinders came off as well.  I started to see people in neighborhood community centers taking art classes, children taking dance classes, and some extraordinary craft fairs featuring beautiful handmade objects from local and national artisans.

Today, I engage with the production of culture of far more breath and depth.  Having made a second move further away from New York, and to some extent away from lighting design, I find beauty – and excellence – in places I never would have expected to.  I wrote here recently, albeit briefly, of observing a dance class in what is usually termed an “inner city” high school.  The class was being led by a special guest, Cassie Meador, artistic director of Dance Exchange.  Cassie was helping 16 teenagers express their perspectives on what they see in the desert and what they don’t see there through movement.  The result was new material that the students will perform as a work in progress in April.  It was deeply moving.  Later that same day, I observed about a dozen adolescents at a Boys and Girls Club making beats about their streets in a session facilitated by a local spoken word artist, a music professor, and a graduate student.  These kids were expressing their culture in a form that is culturally theirs.  They may never get to hear an opera at the Met, but I would argue that their street performances are more American than the Met’s latest production of L’Elisir D’Amore.  And, I would further argue, it always has been.  It’s not that New York used to be the cultural capital of “America” and is no longer, it’s that people all over the country, professionals and amateurs alike, recognize that their local work has value.  This transplanted New Yorker thinks so too.

I recently brought an extraordinary craft work into my home.  It is a quilt by Diane Friedlander-Bowman from her Room for Squares series.  It is made up of 169 small squares, framed by 169 larger squares, making up 5 overlapping squares, within one larger square.  Each little tiny square of fabric is hand dyed, mottled, deep. This quilt is the quintessential metaphor for American culture – small separate discreet bits of a variety of colors and sizes, sometimes overlapping, all sewn together to make a whole, hand-made in America.

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About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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1 Response to Culture Quilt

  1. Great post Linda!

    Maybe its something about a ‘New York attitude’, but I have run across this idea that New York represents the center of the Universe before. I remember working in a coffee shop in Philadelphia and serving this visiting New Yorker who made the point of telling me that “Philly is a Mickey Mouse town”. (!)

    But maybe its not as much about New York as it is about the natural human temptation to see our own selves as somehow occupying or residing near the center of significance. Maybe its just plain hard to put others before ourselves, or to consider other people’s values as measuring up to our own. Perhaps what we need is a more open and accommodating perspective. Like you are suggesting.

    The blog challenge you describe still makes the assumption that if not New York, then somewhere else, and asks us to lobby for this different center. It asks us to push our own agenda rather than to understand things from the multiplicity and plurality of other people’s points of view. It makes the assumption that one truth will win out by standing above the others, once New York, and now somewhere else. Or that the babble of contesting voices somehow serves a purpose…..

    I like to think that each of us has an equal claim on truth, and that disagreement is not always decided by everyone else being wrong. Sometimes its not either/or but both, as strange and inconsistent as that may seem. Communication is often sketchy enough as it is, but the idea of us each only pushing our own agenda can make it seem like a new Tower of Babel, talking past each other with oblivious zeal. What is often lacking is the humility to see that we are not the center of everyone else’s universe, and the tolerance to accept that just possibly other people might be on to something.

    I like your idea of the patchwork quilt! It expresses this perfectly!

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