The Woodchopper's Bawl

"Like loggers," wrote arts editor Patricia Ohmans in 1993, "City Pages arts writers spend a great deal of time chopping down trees and very little time surveying the forest." When Ohmans made this assessment in her report on "The State of the Arts," she and her fellow writers at this paper had already been wandering the arts wilderness and hacking at dead wood for years. As Ohmans went on to note, however, the constraints of weekly opinion-making too often meant that short articles and shorter deadlines preempted more in-depth coverage. In those early days, theater critic Robert Collins set the tone for much of the arts writing to follow with short, crisp reviews of local productions, including, of course, those of the venerable Guthrie, but also highlighting the efforts of smaller, now-defunct troupes like Chimera Theatre. As early as 1981, Collins was declaring Broadway "a museum for dead art"--an evaluation that seems remarkably sage in retrospect.

Shortly after its evolution from the local music rag Sweet Potato into the more inclusive music, arts, and news rag City Pages, the paper expanded the scope of its coverage to include visual arts, dance, and book reviews. Though reviews were customarily relegated to the aft of the paper, individual articles often distinguished themselves through wit and the absence of the bland boosterism endemic to mainstream arts coverage. During the mid-Eighties, profiles of local painters, poets, and playwrights began appearing under the broad heading "Arts Pages." Such longer arts feature stories would eventually become a staple of the newspaper's coverage and would generate some of its most interesting writing.

Notable early feature stories included Collins's diatribe against the prospect of a "national theater," an incisive analysis of then Guthrie artistic director Liviu Ceulei's decision to end the theater's rotating repertory schedule, and an early profile of playwright August Wilson written by Michael Phillips. In 1990 Judith Lewis also wrote about Wilson and the Guthrie in a caustic and controversial article criticizing the venerable theater's tendency to ignore African-American playwrights. Though the relationship between critic and artist remained occasionally adversarial, it was clear that by the time Lewis's article appeared, City Pages was becoming a sounding board for local artistic debate--a paper that spent as much time surveying the forest as inspecting the trees.

In addition to traditional theater, dance, and literary criticism, by the mid-Nineties the arts section began including more ambitious and discursive surveys of the culturescape. These stories were as different in style as those who told them, and they often veered into unexplored territory. Will Hermes's 1995 discussion of heterosexuality in literature, for instance, was a model of a new sort of arts feature that was not bound to a single event or news issue, but free to roam with the writer's imagination. While the new didacticism of the arts feature often stayed the left-leaning intellectual course of the alternative press--censorship is bad; in the art-versus-commerce debate, art must triumph; hypocrisy sucks--City Pages writers also used the platform to discuss the changing climate of the arts world.

In the late Nineties, the most significant development in arts criticism was prefigured by New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce's sight-unseen dismissal of a performance piece by a gay African-American artist. Although it was a grandstanding move on Croce's part, it also signaled a shift in the arts and, by extension, arts writing. "Identity art," a genre broadly defined as art that presupposes the supremacy of bathos over aesthetics, was quickly becoming a fixture of the arts. In City Pages, Julia Caniglia weighed in eloquently and ferociously with a cover story titled "Why Art Sucks." Up to that point, no single article had so completely epitomized the forum for wider cultural debate that alternative arts writing had become. The forest was larger and wilder than ever, but arts writing had grown with it.


 

Great audiences demand great art, but great audiences are made, not born.

Robert Collins, August 10, 1983

 

Before the federal government, or any government or foundation, antes up money to chase after the chimera of a national theater, let's make certain that the regional theaters have the kind of funding they need. If we can't support the theaters we already have, how can we justify creating another white elephant?

Robert Collins, December 14, 1983

 

Drama can be found in a library, but theater is what happens when the curtain goes up.

Robert Collins, September 10, 1986

 

One can't help but wonder if the Twin Cities didn't, in Lou Bellamy's words, let one get away. But [August] Wilson is not the kind of man to seethe about anything--even if he wonders aloud if the Guthrie Theater mightn't have considered doing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom if it hadn't been a "black" play.

Michael Phillips, April 1, 1987

 

Like the art they show, the galleries are not weakened by occasional missteps: Their strength is in the chances they take, in their diversity....Though it's hard to generalize, most of the local spaces show a broad range of artists working in a variety of media, and their success is as hard to quantify as personal aesthetic taste. In the end, we all have to make our own judgments. And the only way to do that is to get up and go.

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