Forum addresses arts role in communities

As Pablo Delano, this term’s artist-in-residence, explained in 13 Carpenter yesterday, he wished to bring together four artists whose determination in participating in their community offers an alternative to the proverbial conception of the artist as a toiling and asocial genius.

For Delano, Antonio Martorell, Nitza Tufino and Ralph Lee, “mission” and “vocation” have become synonyms for “art.” Each one of these artists told different stories, yet they all partake in the same ideal. They want to make their society a better place for all.

Martorell has touched upon every imaginable expression of the graphic and visual arts. In the ’60s he designed caustic posters that denounced the colonial presence in his native Puerto Rico. Throughout his career, he has created vivid costumes and numerous performances including one where he emerges from an oversized book disguised as a bookmark.

Even Martorell himself has trouble categorizing his versatility. He calls himself “a communicator,” though “a provocateur” would probably suit him better. Apparently, the Whitney Museum in NYC would agree, since it has included Martorell in this year’s “Biennial,” a show known for its audacity and innovation.

“You got to experiment…be courageous,” Tufino summoned the audience. And her own life could not better prove her point. With little or no financial backing, she decorated, among other sites, the 86th Street subway station in New York with the help of 40 high school drop-outs. She “retaught” them to believe in themselves and initiate a rewarding dialogue in the community.

Just as Tufino finds inspiration in the arts of the Caribbean and of Latin America, Lee joyfully ignores the boundaries that artificially segregate peoples and cultures. Outdoor theater productions, under Lee’s direction, seem straight out of a Woodstock happening, or Alice’s Wonderland.

No matter what the subject an Eskimo folk tale or Shakespeare’s “Tempest” — Lee’s costumes and stage sets entice our imaginations into the magical worlds of myths and legends. He too manages to overcome the barrier between art and life, between the artist and the community.

A discussion followed the artists’ presentations. When asked if they felt constrained by their responsibility toward their community — whether or not their “public artist” status compromised in any way their work — Martorell, Tufino and Lee all agreed that they consciously chose their position on the public stage, although their motives differed somewhat.

Delano, by bringing together energetic voices, gave us food for thought. The panel discussion highlighted the dangers awaiting the public artist and the reward in conciliating adversaries, destroying animosity.

However, the panel indirectly raised another, more crucial question. Who will replace the generation of artistic activism represented by Delano, Martorell, Tufino and Lee?

Whereas the ’60s gave them the assurance that one person can make a positive difference, much art today wallows in self-contemplation, contents itself of easy and superficial passive narcissism,contemporary artists would do well, at least once in a while, to venture “beyond the community” and start “engaging the community.”

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