Art-To-Art Talk

What people talk about when they talk about art

Talking about art is one of the most pleasurable conversations -- better than talking about sex, really, because talking about art is more intimate. Talking about art -- especially with artists -- is revealing in ways that talking about sex rarely is. For example, in preparing to play Willy Loman at the Rep a year or so ago, Joneal Joplin spent months before rehearsals studying the script, seeking footholds onto a character that towers as the American Lear. Yet with all that groundwork beneath him, Joplin remarked, he'd fully begun to realize Willy after he'd worked with the costumer and found the right pair of shoes.

Death of a Salesman is read in high schools and colleges around the world, but it's doubtful that among those thousands of discussion groups any thought is given to Willy Loman's shoes.

Joplin, who has a storehouse of life-in-the-theater anecdotes to tell, also related, during those early rehearsal days before Salesman took the boards, a dream he had about meeting Brian Dennehy (who was playing Willy in Chicago at the time) in a bar. The physically imposing character actor was in a psychotic rage, cursing the play, cursing the lead role, cursing Arthur Miller for writing the damn thing.

Nan Wyatt is all sharp edges. Her arms slash through the air; her hands are like martial-arts weapons framing pointed, stiff gestures.
Jennifer Silverberg
Nan Wyatt is all sharp edges. Her arms slash through the air; her hands are like martial-arts weapons framing pointed, stiff gestures.

Joplin also talked about his childhood, of summers spent helping out on neighbor's ranches around his native Ponca City, Okla., and how calling across the fields and over the tractor's roar he developed his rich baritone -- the only vocal training he ever needed.

Talking about art elicits infinite themes and personality quirks, be it Susan Gash arcing her arms and neck and torso to express a gesture she's working on in a new piece of choreography or the way Michael Byron drops in the word "posits" when he talks about his paintings. Talking about art is inevitably sexier than talking about sex. Sex basically comes down to a matter of lighting (to paraphrase Noel Coward), anyway.

But when people talk about "the arts," the dialogue is as inevitable as the morning after a night of Noel Coward-octane martinis. People talk about "the arts" the same way Democrats used to talk about social-welfare programs: They are good for all; they will make everything better; they will solve any crisis; they need more funding. Many people who begin on the path toward becoming artists end up working for "the arts," which is sensible because "the arts" usually provide a more stable means of employment. (This column tends to list toward "the arts" as well -- "the arts" being newsworthy, meaning "of the moment" -- rather than art, which is trivial, meaning "eternal.")

This is not to disparage the valuable work that arts administrators do. They make a lot of work happen that probably wouldn't happen if it wasn't for them cajoling some political clod whose appreciation of the arts is about as profound as running a Shania Twain video in slow motion. It is not easy to pitch the idea that having dancers and painters and actors and musicians and writers making their art in St. Louis actually raises the town's appeal. Attracting the kind of people who appreciate art to live and work and pay taxes and generate greater civic well-being in St. Louis isn't so attractive to a political clod anyway, because those are the sorts of people who will probably vote the clod out of office, which explains why people like Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft are no friends to "the arts" -- or to art, for that matter.

Arts administrators are the lesser angels, better at reciting Deuteronomy than singing the Song of Solomon. So Don Roth, executive director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra -- who, with SLSO PR diva Susan Sherman, organized the first St. Louis "Arts Forecast 2000" panel discussion at Powell Hall on Feb. 24 -- doesn't need to be chastised for largely leaving artists (those people who make art rather than "the arts") off the panel (with the notable exceptions of Gail Cassilly, Joan Lipkin and Steve Woolf -- and Sally Bliss, who was one hell of a dancer in her day). This first-time experiment was a night for "the arts," which is the field where the 13-member panel toils. "Where's the individual artists rather than the institutions?" Roth says on the day before the event. "It's a good question. It's a good one to look at for the next time and make sure there is a balance in that way. That sounds like a good criticism."

The ensemble that does take part attracts quite a crowd. Close to 200 either sit or stand around the Powell stage, admiring the musician's-eye-view of the hall, with the panel seated at a long table, their backs to the auditorium. For a first-time event, Roth and Sherman have done well in landing the big fish, including Brent Benjamin from the St. Louis Art Museum, Charles MacKay from Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Jill McGuire from the Regional Arts Commission, Betsy Millard from the Forum for Contemporary Art, Stephanie Riven from Center of Contemporary Arts and Beej Nierengarten-Smith from Laumeier Sculpture Park. Some in the audience are making odds as to whether Nierengarten-Smith will show up, given some unfavorable publicity in the press recently, but there she is as the panel takes to their seats as in a church processional.

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