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.

Jeffrey Kastner, August 9, 1989

Now, there are many reasons to praise the Guthrie, but I doubt that they, or any other theater of their stature and influence, will ever reach the point where we can all just sit back and accept what they offer without question or criticism. In a healthy artistic climate, an arts organization should thrive on controversy.

Judith Lewis, May 23, 1990


Probably the smartest thing I've ever heard [Jeff] Koons say is that his work competes with TV and movies by using their techniques of manipulation and seduction (all the while communicating that love, warmth, and happiness, of course)....His work is art for our times, bound up in head-spinning layers of contradictions, media hype, and self-promotion, along with kernels of social truths and genuine enigmas.

Julie Caniglia, January 14, 1993


Leave it to Duchamp to irrevocably muck things up. In his tsunami-scale wake, to admire the play of colors and forms in art suddenly seemed nostalgic or sentimental--almost a guilty pleasure.

Julie Caniglia, November 16, 1994


Cut a deal with your conscience: Stop aggravating yourself with thoughts of how silly and pointless the touring shows are, as long as there are no Bradys or Partridges or Osmonds in the cast. If there are, then you deserve to vent a little.

Carolyn Petrie, January 4, 1995


The identity politics at the fore of art-making, grant-giving, and critical theory these days has done a great job creating new communication channels; trouble is, much of that communication is inter-tribal. And if you're not in the tribe, everyone seems to agree you're on shaky ground if you want to get into the conversation.

Will Hermes, February 8, 1995


In the six years since the opening salvos of the so-called culture war, Jesse Helms and his legislative ilk have mostly given up their attempts to define art. Instead, they're hoping to end public arts support altogether. Is this the death of the arts? We don't think so.

Will Hermes and Julie Caniglia, November 8, 1995


I hate art, I've taken to saying to friends lately, and only half jokingly. I'm not talking about pretentious beret-wearers, or obtuse theory masquerading as art, or even just bad art. I'm talking about art that's had vitality and surprise and play and pleasure sucked out of it, art that's only concerned with its rightness and virtue, art that urgently--desperately, one might say--foists its Message on the audience. I'm talking about a particular, not insignificant share of the art that enjoys recognition by major funders these days, and has found a measure of prominence in local galleries, museums, and performance spaces.

I don't need, for instance, to be told by performers that the message of Diva X, a recent and otherwise quite funny show at Patrick's Cabaret, is "self-love for all that you are...without apology, without qualification." Nor do I want to hear that "women are strong, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful," as a recent film screened at Walker Art Center's Women in the Director's Chair series proclaimed. Simply reading that a dance piece is about the state of U.S. arts funding is enough to make me stay away.

In the art world as elsewhere, the multiculturalism that appeared so revolutionary ten years ago has curdled into a fractious politics of identity, resulting in a new and, for the most part, incredibly banal didacticism: work that "explores" this personal issue or "documents" that social problem, that "provokes" the viewer regarding the artist's identity, or "confronts" the artist's traumas (usually of childhood origins). Art has become burdened with the duties of affirming, establishing, or asserting "identity," with healing or otherwise helping a certain "community," or imparting platitudinal messages of social or political import. It's become a therapeutic forum in which everyone insists on having her say before an audience of witnesses, believers, potential converts, or even penitents.

Julie Caniglia, April 24, 1996


Yet above the fanfare that has trumpeted Dowling's revivification of a venerable theatrical institution and will no doubt accompany this new season, a troubling set of questions has come into focus. The theater faces momentous challenges--feeding the maw of the box office, surviving a national funding squeeze, and beating off new competition from touring blockbusters--and the shifting identity of the Guthrie may be edging toward a kind of definitional paradox: How many compromises can the Guthrie make to preserve its mission without compromising the mission itself?  

Kate Sullivan, March 18, 1998

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