Hey – sorry that the “Excellent Article” I was trying to send you to required registration. It is from the St. Paul Pioneer press:
Posted on Sun, Feb. 06, 2005
In the arts, the right tool makes all the difference BY DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA Pioneer Press
NEW YORK ‚?? My father-in-law is a woodworker, and his workshop holds a variety of tools. I understand what most of them do, but he has a few gizmos whose use I can never quite get straight in my head. This is fine: I appreciate the grace of his creations; I don’t necessarily have to understand every step of how they came to be.
I’m a little better versed in the workshop of the arts. I know the implements and the techniques better. I understand that sometimes you need the muscle and efficiency that a power tool gives you, and sometimes you need the careful deliberateness of a hand tool for the fine detail work.
The metaphor was kicking around my head as I wandered around New York last week. Early on, for instance, I plunked down my $20 to visit the Museum of Modern Art, which just completed a hugely expensive renovation (at a cost of $858 million, which will pay for construction and a boost to the museum’s endowment). MoMA is now open to the public again in Manhattan after being closed for more than 2?Ω years.
Here, you’ll find Jasper Johns, Picasso, Matisse, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Miro, Toulouse Lautrec, Andy Warhol ‚?? and that’s just in the prints and lithographs room. Venture beyond that, and there are paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat; architectural visions from the orderly Frank Lloyd Wright to the asymmetric Frank Gehry; and a pair of industrial-strength wet-dry vacuum cleaners stacked in Plexiglas cases ‚?? the work of Jeff Koons.
The whole place is designed to within a millimeter of its life. Even the brushed-aluminum stalls and the minimalist sinks in the restrooms are arty. Grab a bite in the second-floor restaurant overlooking the sculpture garden, and you’ll find yourself wondering at the delicate interplay of fork and knife when they present you with a wire basket of cutlery.
Walking into the new MoMA is kind of like being handed the granddaddy of all Swiss Army knives: Every conceivable gadget and device is offered to you in one package. Can you identify them all? Probably not. Will you use all of them over the course of your life? Doubtful. Will you unfold one of the thingamajigs and say to yourself, “Well, whoever would’ve thought of that?” Almost certainly.
POWER TOOLS Step into a Broadway theater, and you’ll see different tools in use. At the Walter Kerr, where “Gem of the Ocean” is closing today after an abbreviated run, you can see playwright August Wilson chiseling away at the words. Watching the play puts you in mind of the way Michelangelo is reputed to have created his statue of David: Wilson takes a mountain of words and meticulously cuts away the extraneous matter, releasing the play from its source.
Down the street at the Gershwin, where “Wicked” is playing, it’s all about hydraulics and pneumatic devices. It’s not that the technical staging is so complex ‚?? it’s no “Miss Saigon” or “Phantom of the Opera.” But the musical ‚?? a retelling of the “Wizard of Oz” story from the perspective of the witches ‚?? is all about the flash and clatter of making theater magic. Witches rise up off the stage and later melt into it. Monkeys sprout wings and fly. Emotions soar and sink elaborately. Take all that away, and you’re left with some mediocre music and a good story told too quickly.
It’s an odd irony. The performing arts, by their nature, are handmade and transient. But on Broadway, the temptation to reach for the power tools is almost overwhelming. Why, the logic too often goes here, hone your concept with fine-grit sandpaper when a chainsaw will do the job so much more efficiently? There may be some ragged edges here and there, but everyone will get the general idea, and, these days, who wants more than a rough outline?
PROMISE CUT SHORT And then there are those times when the tools of art find their way into the real world, as they have in the sad case of Nicole duFresne. The story about the murder of the one-time Twin Citian in New York has improbably linked the two places. The heartening part of the story is that a random murder like this is now sufficiently unusual in New York that it merits major news coverage. What’s less heartening is why duFresne’s story apparently captivated the media in New York and the Twin Cities.
Mentioned prominently in every story is the fact that duFresne was an actress, and almost as omnipresent is the “headshot” of the attractive blond performer taken from her Web site. Stories both in New York and the Twin Cities have reported extensively on her artistic pursuits, bemoaning that hers was a life of promise cut tragically short.
Never having seen duFresne’s work, I couldn’t guess what kind of a tool it was or how she wielded it. I do know that the press has used her art as one of the simplest and handiest of tools. It was a hook, driven deeply into the wall to bear the undue weight of a story that grew far behind the sad but all-too-common tragedy that it was.
Scanning the New York papers the day duFresne’s killer was caught, I saw short reports on three other shooting fatalities, plus the hit-and-run death of a 14-year-old boy and the death of a New Jersey Marine in Iraq. The circumstances of their deaths were, perhaps, as poignant or ironic as those of duFresne’s. None of their stories merited color photos in the Times or made it onto the covers of the tabloid newspapers. Maybe their back-stories weren’t unique or compelling. Or maybe none of them had a pretty resume photo.
The thing about tools ‚?? artistic ones or otherwise ‚?? is that they can be used to build or to demolish. They can make things neat and clear, or they can blur and obfuscate. And, though the degree might vary, there are consequences to decisions about how to use a tool ‚? whether you’re in a theater or a gallery or a newsstand. The job for all of us is to try to make sense of the handiwork and put it into context. No matter whose workshop we’re in.
Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola’s “Culture in Context” column appears Sundays in Life. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org”