Idyllwild Arts Academy President Pamela Jordan spoke to an enthusiastic audience of students and community members at the first in a series of public discussions on the role of the artist in society, at the IAF Theatre on Friday, Feb. 13.
Directly addressing her students, she said, “Idyllwild Arts is not only a place to make art, but it is also a place to use one’s art to make a difference.” She recalled that a founding principal of the school and summer program was the broader integration of art with society. She referenced founder Max Krone who said, “The arts provide the best common ground for friendly cooperation among the peoples of the world.”
In introducing moderator and faculty member Chris Wegemer, Jordan credited him with having the passion and vision to initiate this public discussion of the role of the artist in society by convening a distinguished panel of artists to talk about how art can influence social change.
Before introducing the panel, Wegemer talked of how Idyllwild Arts was, from the beginning, a forum for societal change where many activist artists taught at the Summer Program for then-Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts. He quoted German playwright Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” in setting the theme for the afternoon — that artists are not just lonely creators, separate and apart from society, but are often important instruments of social change, moving civilization in new directions through the practice of their craft.
The panel included Mariana Amatullo, co-founder and vice president of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; Claudia Rankine, Henry G. Lee, professor of poetry at Pomona College in Claremont and National Book Award finalist; George Blake, doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara; John Pennington, artistic director of the Pennington Dance Group and A Room to Create in Pasadena; and John David Mooney, internationally known sculptor.
Pennington spoke first of Bella Lewitzky, his mentor, who founded the dance program at IA, noting that one of her seminal beliefs was that art is a catalyst for societal change and social justice. Pennington, who was a member of her company for 14 years, said Lewitzky created dances about social issues that mattered to her. “She could not understand war and these themes kept making their way back onto the stage,” he remembered. He recalled Lewitzky refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, when she said, “I am a dancer, not a singer.”
“By her act of non-compliance, she gave others the courage to [refuse to comply],” Pennington said. And, illustrating how activism in art can have economic consequences, Pennington recalled Lewitzky’s returning a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts because it contained a clause forbidding creation of “obscene” art. Although the grant return put the Lewitzky company’s future at risk, Pennington noted Lewitzky said she would not accept a grant with censorship as a condition. The clause was eventually removed in subsequent NEA grants. Pennington encouraged students to “live your lives and change the lives of those around you. Find a mentor, strive for excellence and contribute to your community.”
Using jazz as his reference, ethnomusicologist Blake encouraged students to find their “emotional virtuosity,” and like great jazz improvisers, “work with who’s around you, learn to listen and make it meaningful.”
Sculptor Mooney asked students, “Why, when we create art, do we give it all we’ve got?” He posited that art fills voids, in space and in society. “Discover where the voids are and fill them,” he encouraged his audience. “Be a problem solver. By giving, we become. Give your talent back to society and make the place a better place.”
Poet Rankine said that although she does not think of herself as a social activist, she is an active listener, at all times, to everything in her life. “I pay attention,” she said. “I try to take moments of everything I have read or heard and find a place for it in the piece.” She challenged students to “be aware, be conscious. All of that awareness contributes to the making of art and the making of you.”
Amatullo, the last of the panel to speak, got an extra round of applause as mother of IA senior Theatre Arts student Nico. Her day-to-day work, in the program she created for the Art Center College of Design (Designmatters), is specifically designed to have students work to advance social change by applying good design to an array of social problems. “Remember a key concept — as artists you have an amazing opportunity to make a difference through who you are,” she said. “Listen to yourself and integrate who you are, where you come from, your passion and your education in learning to create and influence change,” she said.
In answer to a student question of what is success in the arts, Rankine answered, “You sign up for a lonely life. You’re always striving for something that doesn’t exist. Success happens when that thing that you imagined gets made.” Amatullo reminded students that their projects, their activities, affect the spaces and people around them and encouraged students to “learn by failing better and learning from those failures.”