by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 4, 2009
A FRAGILE TENSION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "Are Artists Special?" was the title of an amusing and insightful talk that the painter Wolf Kahn gave at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center on Saturday.
Kahn is an extremely successful artist, and his point seemed to be that as people, artists are no more or less special than anyone else. But their lives are guided by special - and precious - rules.
"An artist is not allowed to do market research," he said. "He is expected to be born refreshed every day... You don't have to take orders from anybody, but you're not allowed, even in commission, to listen to what people want... . If you worry about whether people like your work, you're already corrupted."
Kahn also made a good case for arrogance, saying it is "extraordinarily important." Modesty, he said, "is a decorative adjunct, but you get much further without it."
At the heart of his talk was a plaintive cry: "In each generation, maybe 40 artists will be great," he said. The rest will be "soldiers in the ranks. I've spent all my life trying to prove I'm not a soldier in the ranks."
When I first came to Brattleboro, in 1987, the town had a wacky sort of creative wildness that I deeply appreciated. But it was anything but an "arts town."
Instead, it was a place of serious industry, where hardworking people held good jobs in factories and warehouses and made things and farmers plowed fields and milked cows. But there was also an undercurrent of the unexpected.
Some of it came from the hippies who settled here in the 1970s, some of it was born here, and more of it came from people who thought they would pass through Marlboro College or what was then called The Experiment in International Living (and is now called World Learning) and instead plopped down to live. (I'm one of those.)
The creative unexpected took many forms. It was the samba dancers in the Fourth of July parade. It was the endless series of fine Boston-based blues bands that played the now-defunct Mole's Eye. It was the long line of Buddhist practitioners who flowed in and out of town. It was the progressive politics. It was the performers from many, many lands who were here one day and gone the next - like the stripped-to-the-waist young Japanese drummers who beat on huge drums outside the museum one year. It was the large number of painters, potters, writers and poets who were trying to eke out a living in the woods.
All this spiritual and creative energy rested safely on a broad-based work force.
But most of the factories and farms are gone now, and the jobs left with them. The few that remain are struggling. Now the arts - and those fragile, refreshed-every-day artists - are trying to take their place and support the town.
They have done this by organizing. The museum grew bigger and stronger until today its main show features works by such important artists as Kahn and Emily Mason, Jim Dine, Jules Olitski, Julian Schnabel, Sol LeWitt and Robert Rauschenberg - all drawn from local collections.
Since its creation, Gallery Walk has grown so popular that most of the stores in town now also serve as art galleries. The New England Youth Theater sprung into being as a place where young people can learn every aspect of putting on a play. The Smith sisters came back to town and started training circus performers. The Strolling of the Heifers established Brattleboro as a tourist destination. The Latchis became a powerhouse arts initiative.
The Farmers' Market expanded. The Food Co-op not only owns its own shopping center, but in cooperation with the Windham Housing Trust (which was the Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust when it helped me buy my home) is planning to build a large new store with apartments above it. Lonely Williamsville artists got together and created the Rock River Artists Tour. Other open studio tours were organized. The Brattleboro Literary Festival started bringing admired authors to town every fall. Town government now has an arts council.
It's a little overwhelming to see the strange, the wild and the unique organize and become an economic movement. Even the manufacturing here has changed. Instead of making tissues and wooden salad bowls and books, we're roasting coffee and making natural medicines and optical lenses that power microscopes and fly through space.
The individual and the unusual, however, have not quite been lost in all the gentrification. A few weeks ago I joined about 30 people in a round house tucked away in West Brattleboro to watch the Purnama Sari Balinese Dance Company perform sacred dances. Friday night, I went to the opening of Ang Lee's "Finding Woodstock," where the Latchis was filled with people who were either in the movie or knew someone who was. Cheers went up every time someone familiar came on the screen.
And then Kahn gave his talk, defining artists as people with a "capacity for spontaneity... they see the world fresh."
There's a tension between seeing the world fresh, avoiding market research and being arrogant and earning a living and becoming part of an organization. Brattleboro is one of the rare places where we live with that tension every day.
It seems that artist, even the "soldiers in the ranks," are now special in at least one way - they have become the economic building blocks of a small town in Vermont. Whether this will be the town's ruination or its salvation is yet to be known.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.