Monday, January 30, 2017

The Least Passive People In America

I just spent the most remarkable evening, among the least passive people I've seen. Deep in the wild heart of Lawrence, Kansas, I witnessed two groups of people not content to receive pre-packaged culture, so they made their own. In some ways, it ratified ideas they have percolate, unvoiced, inside my head for years. In other ways, it upended my expectations, and I may never be the same again.

In the first part of my evening, I participated in a painting session. About 32 people gathered in a storefront studio with photographs of their pets, and turned their images into acrylic-on-canvas memorials to how much humans can love small animals. For only about $25 per head, the participants, mostly but not exclusively white women, received paints, prepared canvases, and guidance from experienced artists to recreate their fuzzy or feathered buddies for posterity.

Then, still flush from the creative moment, my companion and I hurried across town to a downtown watering hole where, every Sunday afternoon, nearly two dozen musicians, a group as racially and sexually diverse as their famously polyglot town, gather for a three-hour Celtic music jam. At its peak, the jam included eight fiddlers, four guitarists, two banjos, three percussionists, two flutists, and a concertina player.

The two were very different experiences. The former was scheduled, with a fixed start and end time, a buy-in cost, and designated professionals. The latter was more free-from, with skilled and unskilled players drifting in and out throughout the night, and no definite leader. Some of the musicians, like some of the painters, were appalling compared to others. And both events created venues for undiscovered and unpolished, but gifted, artists waiting for guidance to great accomplishments.

Yet they had more in common than their differences. Both allowed people who almost certainly did something else for a living, people who, I'm sure, don't identify themselves as "painters" or "musicians," to create something worthwhile together. Simply sharing a space and a goal gave their lives shape and definition, even if only for three hours. For that time, they weren't consumers, mere statistics in someone's supply-side graph. For that time, they were creators.

I did it myself. Acrylic on canvas.

Watching these events unfold (and, in the former case, participating), I remembered back in college, when my friend Roger and I led our small prairie town's local pub quiz. For nearly five years, we led what I believe to have been Nebraska's first and, for many years, only British-style pub quiz. At our peak, we filled a good-sized bar, in a moderately prosperous university town, from wall to wall, two Tuesdays per month.

Yet we never achieved my goal, to cultivate a maker culture in our town. Because Roger and I stood before the assembled crowd, engaging (admittedly good) banter into the microphone, while the crowd watched and listened, our making remained one-sided and hierarchical. The few occasions we had balls enough to relinquish the Mike to crowd members, a whole different vibe developed. Yet I lacked perspective enough to recognize what happened.

Until now.

Roger, who is from Scotland, used to mock Celtic music, claiming he moved to the American prairie to escape what he called "deedly-deedly-dee" music. Yet hearing that music created before me, I realized why Celtic music tends toward repetition: because it's not meant to be heard, unlike Anglo-American pop music. It's meant to be created and, if necessary, constantly re-created. No wonder the earliest Irish albums were just live recordings of pub-house craics.

I love attending concerts, and travel to the Kansas City area to attend big-ticket live concerts two or three times per year. But watching the Celtic music crowd, I realized I wasn't seeing a concert. In a concert, the musicians face the audience, who face the musicians, reinforcing a strict hierarchy of makers and consumers. The effects be entertaining, but ultimately dehumanizing. At the Celtic event, the musicians crowded the room and faced one another, creating a truly small-d democratic experience.

Besides concerts, I've long enjoyed museums, poetry slams, and community theater. All reward a maker culture, and encourage people to participate in culture creation... to a point. Unfortunately, all three also enforce a division between artist and audience. Having witnessed two truly participatory creative experiences, I can't shake off the gap between these and what I've seen elsewhere. Sadly, I have no easy solutions. I just have a vision for a society that demolishes the wall between active creator, and audience.

If you need me, I'll be studying chiaroscuro and practicing my mandolin.

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