Defining the Role of the Arts in Dangerous Times


(Image: Street art in Lisbon, photographed by Maria Panichelli)

That we are living in times which are both insane and very dangerous can’t be disputed. That such times have occurred throughout human history is also indisputable.

As Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, I think it’s essential to examine the role we play, as an arts organization, in supporting artists and the arts at such a time. Our mission has always been to “serve the underserved artist”, and we’ve done our best to live up to that mission. There are so many kinds of underserved artists, however, that it feels overwhelming. Still, this mission seems even more important, during times when the budgets for arts funding are stretched to the limit, when grants for individual artists have all but disappeared across the United States, when other countries – most whose funding for the arts has far outstripped that in the U.S. – are also falling victim to neoliberalism, austerity and the winds of authoritarianism. Art is always under attack in such times, and this is no exception.

What also seems important in these times is to explore the kind of art we, at Hidden River, are supporting and promoting.

Diversity is increasingly important, both in the artists we support and in the art that we are helping to fund through our competitions, our live events, our publishing. A chorus of voices, a multiplicity of perspectives, a growing community willing to honor and celebrate each others’ differences – that is very much a part of what we hope to build. This is an area where I feel we still have a lot of work to do. We will be working harder than ever this year and onward to reach out to communities of artists both here in the U.S. and internationally, which are more racially and religiously diverse. It’s true to say that we have always tried to do that; it is also true that we need to try harder.

This autumn, I left my academic work in order to focus more of my time on Hidden River Arts and its programs. I did this for several reasons, all which constellate around the idea of hope. I left academia because I no longer have hope in the possibility of restoring American higher education by fighting from the inside. I plan to work as an educational activist now, standing outside the institution. I choose now to focus on my own creative work and on the important work we can do through Hidden River. That is where I feel an enormous amount of hope. As an individual, I have come to a crossroad, and I believe that Hidden River has come to its own crossroads as well.

On a personal level, I am no longer willing to allow useless negativity, victimhood or learned helplessness to exist in my life. That there is negativity, that people are victimized, and that feeling helpless or hopeless has become a kind of default state – all this is true. It’s actually a normal reaction to the abnormal conditions we find ourselves in. But I’ve personally lived weighed down by such negativity, with a sense of victimization and helplessness for too long. I know I’m not alone; I think that far too many of us have, in the last several decades, fallen into this kind of despairing state. There are some who would say that this is part of an intentional crushing of the human spirit that comes in times of great inequality and growing authoritarianism. So, as an individual artist, I want my work to stand in opposition to that which crushes the human spirit. That doesn’t mean that the negativity we observe and experience shouldn’t be addressed. Quite the contrary. What it means is that addressing the negatives is only part of what must be done. Seeing beyond them to the newer visions, to possibilities for rebirth, to the rebellious and the revolutionary – that is essential. Art is essential to rebellion and revolt as Chris Hedges says so beautifully. That’s why authoritarian governments work so hard to control it and to crush what can’t be controlled. Vercors believes that the very source of art is man’s revolt against his own ignorance, and his desire to create a universe over which he has some sovereignty.

And as Director of Hidden River, I want to rededicate our organization to that same goal: to stand against that which crushes the human spirit. We want to call forth rebirth, rebellion, and yes, even revolution.

What This Means for Artists

That means that we stand against that which crushes the artist. In this economy, that means the invisibility, the desperation and the struggle which are likely to be the realities of those wanting to live creative lives. This year, we are expanding our programs to offer more supports to artists: that includes interviews, craft discussions and reviews on this blog. It also means a brand new series of podcasts, online classes and an online interdisciplinary arts journal. We are going to be very busy.

We are also expanding our competitions, offering more awards and publication possibilities to writers in a variety of genres from literary fiction to historical fiction, to speculative fiction to YA. We are offering new playwrighting awards, poetry competitions and non-fiction competitions. We will also be offering awards to visual artists and musicians, filmmakers and animators . Our online journal will include all these genres, and will be published bi-annually. It’s about growing our community, providing platforms for artists to speak with each other, to discover and build their audiences, to create transformative networks.

We are growing our internship program, which is already robust, so that more students and interested beginners of all ages will be able to work with us, and will have opportunities to work with the many artists with whom we hope to be building community.

Hidden River Arts has never pursued grants or funding from organizations that would then claim the right to have oversight of our choices or our activities. We have only held one small fundraiser in our entire 20 year history. That will change this year, since the expansions will require that we hold some crowd-funding activities. But pursuing that kind of fundraising means that the power remains in the hands of the people who are members of our community, not in some hierarchical power structure to which we have to answer. It also means that the power to make their own kind of art lies within the purview of the artists themselves. Art by and for the people, not for the powers that fund.

For The Community

First of all, it means that we are looking to make our programs more accessible to the larger community. Out of financial desperation, there are arts organizations, theaters, performance venues and programs which are now “rebranding” themselves for exclusivity, charging exorbitant ticket prices to guarantee that the audience is filled with members of the 1%.

We will never turn ourselves into a luxury brand. We are here to provide, as best we can, for the 99%.

This restated focus means that we will do our best to make our programs available to as many people as possible. We have always offered free live arts events and readings, and will continue to do that. Our podcasts and craft discussions online will be available to everyone. So will our online journal. In other words, we stand against anything that crushes the spirit of our arts audience as well, or anything that would turn audience away for lack of funds.

It also means that we will be looking more actively for art that speaks to the human spirit and the social predicaments, the economic struggles, the issues of human rights. It does not mean that we will be looking for preach-y or pedantic work. Nothing crushes the spirit more than that! We want work that looks closely at the human experience, the social worlds within which we live, the governments, the economies, the power structures and how we can navigate our way through them, as individuals, as families, as societies — maintaining and acting through our many strengths.

We want art that presents truth while reminding people of their own power. We want the energy of the trickster to be alive and well. I was asked recently, “Do you want to be a victim or a trickster?” I think the answer should be obvious to all of us. We want artists and art to reflect the ways we can remain unvanquished, resilient, buoyant, rebellious, triumphant. That is our re-clarified mission at Hidden River Arts, and we hope that you will join us.

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Arts and Activism

What is the role of the artist during times of social upheaval and tumult? Elie Wiesel said “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” This is even more true, when it comes to the role of the artist in society. The problems of our society are extensive, and the voices of artists – playwrights, poets, musicians, performers – are essential to raising public awareness and giving voice to the issues, raising the call of dissent.

Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, Debra Leigh Scott, has been invited to give a presentation at The Davinci Art Alliance at 704 Catherine Street, Philadelphia, PA, on Thursday, May 21, from 7 to 9 p.m. where she will discuss the importance of activism in the arts.

Since its founding way back in 1931, the Da Vinci Art Alliance has been a dynamic organization presenting artists and their work, focus on community-based arts, cultural and educational dialogue for artists, individuals and families.

Da Vinci currently has over 140 members and holds exhibitions of members’ and non-members’ artwork as well as special events, workshops, performances, poetry readings, and lectures, and keeps its members informed on community events, news and opportunities. The mission of the non-profit artists-run organization is to support its members and to further community-based arts, cultural, and educational exchanges. I am proud to be offering my presentation there, since I’ve been fortunate to work with the many artists of Da Vinci, and admire the work that they do in supporting artists, the life of art, and the community.

Please join us at the Alliance. For those who are not in Philadelphia, Debra will be developing the program and offering the presentation in an online format – so stay tuned!

Defining Creativity

“What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one…. It’s this in-between that I’m calling a province, this frontier country between the tangible world and the intangible one—which is really the realm of the artist.” — Federico Fellini

Questions about creativity, art, the creative process, the artistic life — however you phrase it, the curiosity is based on one thing: the fact that those who do not experience their own creativity are incapable of understanding those who dwell within theirs.

Fellini is right that the artist lives in a liminal world, between dream and manifestation. But so do we all.  The biggest difference is that the artist recognizes that world of liminality; others aren’t aware of the fact that a part of them lives in that place of dreams all the time.

The best way for anyone to understand creativity is for them to be introduced to their own creative energies.

We live in a world that has systematically devalued and destroyed opportunities to experience our creativity.  Standardized testing, rote teaching, drilling and killing — that is too often how our children are “taught”, and with that kind of numbing out, adults rarely have ever felt their own creative energy.  And to live a life without ever having felt your own creative energy surging through your mind and body — well, that’s not living at all.

Pedagogical theorists are, finally, realizing how under-developed our students are when they are denied time to explore creativity.  But after reading mountains of educational theory on “teaching creativity”, I’ve come to the conclusion that none of them know what they are talking about.  Unless you are an artist, you cannot introduce someone to art.  I saw this in the years when I was a residency artist in the state arts council programs.  I remember one day, walking down the hall of a public school in New Jersey, overhearing a kindergarten teacher giving instruction to the children:

“We’ll be drawing pictures of apples today.  And what colors are apples?  They are red, green, yellow.  There are NO purple apples.  No blue apples.  So, let’s be sure that we use the right colors, everybody!”

I wanted to scream.  I wanted to rush into the room and push her out of the way, and tell the children, “YES there are purple apples!  There are blue apples!  There are polka dot and striped apples!  And where are they?  In your imagination!  So draw whatever kind of apples you can imagine!”

It is impossible for a non-artist to teach creativity.  There, I’ve said it.

So what we need is an avalanche of artists, a flood of artists, entering all levels of the population — interacting with the youngest children and the oldest seniors — inviting them to see their own purple apples, to imagine their flavor, to smell their perfume.

Our society needs its artists now more than ever.  They are the shamans who will lead the way into that liminal province, that is the place where all is possible, pre-manifest and yet real.

So how does one begin to experience their own creativity?  Here’s how:

Go find the artists.   Turn off the TV, the computer and the smart phone.  Surround yourself with live art, if only a little bit, each and every day.  Go to an art museum, listen to all kinds of music (not just the kind you are most used to!), learn about the theatres in your area, and buy tickets — or better yet, go to their preview nights, when audience is often invited to view for free.  Watch live dance performance. Go to poetry and literary readings. Attend open mics in your neighborhood.  Read books – all kinds, but especially literary works and poetry.

Carry a notebook in which you can sketch and write.  Consider taking music or singing lessons.  Try acting.  Draw.  Take a pottery class.  Dance — even if it is only in your living room when nobody is watching.   Invest in some inexpensive art supplies – a sketchbook, some pencils, maybe some water color.  Buy a cheap camera and start taking pictures.  Buy a box or two of those magnetic word poetry kits and play with word combinations on your refrigerator each morning, as you wait for your tea or coffee to be finished.

Buy yourself a copy of THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron and read it.  Do the exercises.  Follow her guidance.

Hang out with artists.  Get to know some of the people in your community who are involved in the arts, and spend time with them.  Get involved with what they do.  Your life will begin to change.  It will widen, and suddenly feel more infused with energy.

YOU will feel more alive.  You’ll realize that artists are all around you, and that the world is filled with creative wonder.  You’ll begin to feel the flow of that creative energy moving  around and through you.  You’ll never need to ask again, “What is creativity?”  You will know for yourself, and it will feel wonderful.

Enter the flow of Hidden River

Hidden River Arts is the independent literary and performing arts organization based in suburban Philadelphia, dedicated to the service, support and celebration of all artists. Named after the Schuylkill (Dutch for “Hidden River”) which winds its way through the region, Hidden River™Arts is committed to nurturing the artistic community by providing varied and supportive services to creative writers, and artists of all genres.

Hidden River™Arts is committed to the “Outsider Artist” —  living up to our name — in the on-going search for creative talent and creative activities.  While we would never exclude any artist, we are dedicated to finding the artists who exist outside of the expected places: those creative people developing their craft and finding their voices outside of the MFA programs, those independent writers’ or artists’ groups not affiliated with a university or any funding institution. We will search for the writers who are finishing their novels while working as Emergency Room nurses, sculptures working as steam-fitters, song-writing dairy farmers or choreographer cowboys. We want to reach out to all creative talent, including that which is grown, nurtured, matured in the kiln of “real” life experience. We will endeavor to present information about independent arts groups and support organizations. It is our belief that many, many talented people go unheard because they labor in obscurity or isolation. Many are dispersed throughout the non-academic population with little or no support for the practice of their art. Since it is our position that college campuses should not be seen as the sole training ground for creative talent and skill, Hidden River Arts will always strive to reach out and encourage those more far-flung voices, to aid and support them in their efforts to be heard.
Another of Hidden River Art’s objectives is to offer support and guidance in the form of arts education through outreach and workshop programs for all ages groups. Through our education program, we hope to provide support in all disciplines of the arts. Currently, we have an extensive program called Hidden River Writers, where we offer a variety of workshops, tutorials, on-line teaching or manuscript review, residencies and classes which address the needs of all those aspiring creative writers among us, ages 5 to adult, who want to learn more about the art of creative writing. We are excited to offer support to our very youngest writers. Just as children are given private lessons in dance, or music, or the visual arts, Hidden River Writers believes that lessons in creative writing should be available. Similar outreach and private supports are offered for the teen and adult populations, and we offer private classes, workshops and programs in all kinds of places, including private, public and parochial schools, homeschool populations, Veteran’s Hospitals, Retirement Homes, Clubs (or Communes!) It should also be noted that in all of our creative writing programs, Hidden River is happy to work with individuals or groups with special needs. We are always willing to work with adapted processes, needs for technical support, differentiated instruction. We believe that the study and creation of art should be accessible to everyone.

Our outreach programs now include something we call Hidden River Live. We will be working with venues throughout Philadelphia to create community outreach open mic opportunities for musicians, poets, writers and performers, as well as chances to display for visual artists.

We are always interested in hearing from artists. Let us know how we can better support you and your creative process. And for those independent arts groups out there: please let us hear from you — we would love to partner with others who support the independent artist, in every discipline and genre.  Email us at hiddenriverarts@gmail.com