Thursday, July 13, 2017

Leveling Canton's cultural field?

By Tom Wachunas

   “…The most positive aspect of “culture”—the idea of personal, humane enrichment—now seems especially remote. In its place, the idea of culture as unconscious groupthink is ascendent.”  - Joshua Rothman

   Location, location, location. 

   On August 4, the fifth public artwork in ArtsinStark’s much-ballyhooed “The ELEVEN” project will be officially “unveiled” (though it’s been entirely visible throughout its making over the past few months) during the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF) Enshrinement Festival.  Popular mural artist Dirk Rozich was awarded the $40,000 commission to memorialize Joe Namath’s famous guarantee that he and his fellow underdog New York Jets would win Super Bowl III in 1968. For more background, here’s a link to ArtsinStark’s web site. Before proceeding any further into my comments, consider clicking on this link and reading the info as a kind of pre-game show:

   As a work of art, the heraldic configuration of Rozich’s superbly painted mural exudes a certain spectacular majesty. Poised to throw the football, a focused and determined Joe Namath steps out of the escutcheon-shaped frame (looking like a coat of arms), into our field of vision, and stands over his bold prediction emblazoned in white letters on a blue ribbon, “I guarantee it.” 

   Even bolder (dismayingly so, as some folks have already expressed to me in the past several weeks), was ArtsinStark’s decision to locate this work on the huge, south-facing brick wall of the Cultural Center for the Arts  at 1001 Market Avenue North, which houses the Canton Museum of Art, Canton Ballet, Players Guild Theatre, and VOCI. 

   I confess to being initially dismayed myself (though now I’m merely conflicted). Haaarrrumph. The audacity!! To co-opt our beloved Cultural Center for the Arts – our local temple of high aesthetic pursuits – by attaching such an unabashed glorification of something as common, ordinary, and…low as the game of football is just… well, it’s just… In the end, it’s just… not surprising. 

   Culture, cultural, cultured. Or cluttered? 

   What does culture really mean today? What are our assumptions, expectations, predilections? Here are several things Merriam-Webster says about it:

a :  the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations 

b :  the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time * popular culture * Southern culture
c :  the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization *  a corporate culture focused on the bottom line 

d :  the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic *  studying the effect of computers on print culture

   OK, so let’s say it’s now halftime in this admittedly long missive. The show I’ve planned is for you to once again click a link to a very timely and thought-provoking piece from 2014 by Joshua Rothman, writing for The New Yorker:

   It’s interesting to note that behind the football mural, on the other side of the brick wall, is the Players Guild Theatre mainstage. Knowing as much, are we to take this public art gesture as some sort of implied, “insider” message, a looming symbol of football (or for that matter, perhaps any sports activity) being a type of theatre, and therefore an art form in its own right? While I might be over-thinking this a bit (and without knowing the exact reasoning behind designating The Cultural Center for Athletics…er, uhm, the Arts… as the location for the mural), I know that many folks continue to make a moderately reasonable argument for some sports being types of art, or at least ‘artful,’ in that they’re consciously created spectacles adhering to certain rules of design, form, execution, and presentation.

   Some intriguing questions come to mind. Is the perfectly executed pass in a football game, the home run hit in a baseball game, or the tennis player’s ace, for example, to be considered as a “thing of beauty,” or noble, or personally enriching to behold in the same way as, say, the exquisitely chiseled marble hand of Mary in Michelangelo’s Pietà, the gripping painted drama of Picasso’s Guernica, or the transcendent emotionality of a Beethoven symphony? Is there any more need or desire in our society for nurturing a hierarchy of meaningful aesthetic forms and experiences? Should there be?

   Like it or not, the football mural is now a permanent fixture both on and of the Cultural Center for the Arts. That said, I think it’s much larger - and arguably more important - than the story it tells of one Miami sports event from 1968. It speaks volumes about the Canton zeitgeist, which is to say Canton’s communal identity, its sense of cultural purpose and priority, however mixed (or confused) it might be. I suspect that this particular work of public art – a marvelous painting, to be sure - will generate some intense reactions and dialogue as time goes on. 

In fact I guarantee it.   

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