Artists of the Year

We identify the most interesting, influential and inimitable artists of 2007.

When British author Doris Lessing accepted the Nobel Prize last month, she told a remarkable story about her travels to Zimbabwe and the thirst among poor Africans for knowledge. Her vivid and eloquent speech concluded with this passage:

"Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to fire and ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.

"The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise...but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us—for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the mythmaker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative."

Jim Denomie, 'Koochie and Tuffy'
Jim Denomie, 'Koochie and Tuffy'

Her words could apply not just to writers but to artists generally. Art is not just an entertainment or a diversion, Lessing is saying, but a primeval urge—something ancient and noble and essential.

Our painters, poets, authors, musicians, actors, and dancers feed us spiritual sustenance. Like a chef reduces a sauce to enhance its flavors, artists condense life into something richer, a sensual consommé that allows us to better see, hear, feel, and ultimately judge the essence of the thing.

For all of their inestimable contributions, though, we sometimes treat our artists rather shabbily. The "starving artist" is common enough to be a cliché. We force them to subsist on patronage and grants, we gut arts programs in schools, we make them keep their day jobs.

And so each year, we try to restore some balance and give artists their rightful due. City Pages' Artists of the Year issue is an effort to reconfirm the worth of our creative spirits by asking prominent writers and people in the arts to pay tribute to an artist of the past year.

Here we set them on our ink-and-newsprint pedestal and bring verbal burnt offerings to our storytellers, dream-makers, and mythmakers. As we should. —Matthew Smith

City Pages' 2007 Artists of the Year:

Stephen Colbert

By Eric Lorberer

Satire was in trouble. An art form nearly as old as civilization itself, it had fallen on especially hard times of late. In the age of reality TV, the edifying gesture of the genre seemed all but dead. Fortunately, a gaggle of comedic talents started fighting back, among them Larry David, Ricky Gervais, and Jon Stewart. But no one skewered our political pratfalls better this past year than Stephen Colbert.

Colbert pokes fun at our media-obsessed state with a proctologist's gloved finger—or make that fist. His pitch-perfect riff on punditry, The Colbert Report, takes the most sacrosanct aspects of our culture—religion, race, patriotism—and whips them into a Jabberwockian froth. But Colbert does far more than merely parody a conservative blowhard. This year, his caricature of our self-obsessed culture extended to having himself as a guest on his own show; his "Better Know a District" segments shamed members of Congress left and right; and his unconditional "support" of the president reverse-engineered a probing analysis of the executive branch.

This willingness to tackle the commander-in-chief isn't new; aficionados of Colbert's antics may remember how last year, as a wolf dressed in sheep's drag at the White House Correspondents Dinner, he goosed the president and his sycophants but good. This year, however, he topped that performance by running for president himself, a campaign so ridiculous it made the other campaigns look...just as ridiculous. Like any good satirist, Colbert knows that the best way to make fun of his targets is to become them.

Colbert's erstwhile presidential bid arrived hand in hand with his other modest proposal this year, the book I Am America (And So Can You!), which, like the silent Ts in Colbert Report, starts lampooning our penchant for huff-puffery in the very title. Replete with charts, stickers, and Colbert's trademark nonsensicals (e.g., "It's time to impregnate this country with my mind"), the book has something serious to say behind the chuckles—there's even a transcript of the aforementioned Correspondents Dinner speech included for those who missed it. The result is a paradox we Americans deserve: the silliest book released this year is also among the sagest.

Eric Lorberer edits the award-winning Rain Taxi Review of Books and directs the annual Twin Cities Book Festival.

William E. Jones

By Dean Otto
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