Sunday, July 24, 2011

Life Is Short, Art Is Long

In the last week, I've been to two operas, a rock concert by a (the?) legend of rock n' roll, and a jazz concert.
Let's talk about art.
First, the rock concert.
Bob Dylan and his band in Albuquerque. Before driving down, I do my homework. Check recent set lists and accompanying reviews. By all accounts, Bob is on a roll. Now 70, his shows of late have been energy filled, vocally edgy, full of passion.
Yeah, I know. And this is Bob Dylan I'm talking about.
So we drive to ABQ, make the hike to the funky little hatch-shell-like stage. Not a big crowd. Amazing. If Bob Dylan comes to my town, I'm gonna be there! But apparently, New Mexicans have something better to do.
The band comes out--grey suits, cool hats, looking good. Bob comes out. Little flat-brimmed hat, boots that make it look like he's wearing spats, dark pants with a strip up the side, a little-boy-lost jacket, some kind of shirt that sparkles when he speaks--little goatee. He looks good.
He sounds great! Rips through his songs. Terrific vocals, sharp elocution, a real poet's elocution, singing the words sharp and biting them off. The band is tight. And Bob! He comes out from behind the keyboard and sings! He croons! He sells the songs to the audience! He freakin' emotes!
No, he doesn't talk to us, but he looks at us! He grins at us! He dances around for us!
I've been to Dylan shows where you wonder if he's got a pulse! This 70-year old dude is rockin'!
Oh, and his Oscar is on stage with him. Very cool.
Not one encore, but two.
Great show. Amazing songs by an amazing song-writer, poet, recording artist, voice of our time.
Then a couple of nights later, at the Lensic, it's the kick off event of the New Mexico Jazz Festical, and Ms. Dee Dee Bridgewater, channeling Billie Holiday.
She's the un-Dylan.
Flirts with the audience. Gets propositioned by a guy in the audience! Appears to take him up on it! Flirts with the band, a brilliant quartet that can flat-out play jazz.
She sings beautifully, dances, shimmies, shakes, works it. She talks about her loves, her life, puts on a great show.
She's not Lady Day, but she does a great Lady Day. Even stops the let's-all-have-fun vibe long enough to do a deeply moving version of "Strange Fruit."
And then there's the Santa Fe Opera.
Two operas, in fact: Griselda and The Last Savage.
It's not cheap to go to the Santa Fe Opera, but it is a fun experience.
There's tail-gating before the opera in the parking lot; a fun talk before the opera to explain and describe the background of that night's performance; a beautiful setting; a terrific opera house.
And then there are Griselda and The Last Savage.
In talking about Griselda before the performance, director Peter Sellars called it "weird" Said he didn't understand one of the characters at all; said he'd but out a number of arias and substituted one that isn't in the opera; said he'd tried 30 or more different endings, and still wasn't sure about the ending we'd see that night.
Not a good sign: when the director says he doesn't understand his own characters, edits the opera, and doesn't like his own ending.
And indeed, it was a terrible opera.
All operas may be strange--this one was unintelligible. And given what a questionable opera it was to put it, you can credit Sellars for at least trying.
He was given a lemon to work with--and while he didn't produce lemonade, at least he produced a sliced lemon.
Then there was The Last Savage.
It's supposed to be a comedy. The director did everything with it except provide a laugh track.
There were three spit takes; one spoof of King Kong; one spoof of Chicago; a set and costumes that were pure TV sit-come.
More a Broadway show than an opera.
Which raises the question: Who do you hold responsible when art fails?
If Bob Dylan puts on a bad show, it's Bob Dylan's show and his responsibility.
If Dee Dee Bridgewater can't deliver Billie Holiday, it's on her (shiny, bald, beautiful) head.
But Griselda and The Last Savage?
Who do we hold accountable for something as big and complex and complicated as a bad opera?
The singers tried mightily to sing, act, emote, connect.
The orchestra played with great skill; the conductor tried to present a masterful combination.
The director, set creator, costume creator, arguably, tried to come up with smart, interesting interpretations.
But these were two terrible operas.
So is it the artistic director? Someone we never see, never interact with, never encounter? Who doesn't explain in the program his choices, the story behind, not the opera itself, but why he picked these operas for us to experience?
He is, in the jargon of our time, the curator.
But is curation an art? Or a job?
And how do you evaluate a curator? How do you review a curator?
How do you walk out on a curator?
Questions after a week of art.
A week that showed, once again, that life is short, and art is long.
And in the case of the Santa Fe Opera, the art right now is very, very, very long.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tyrants and Revolutions

In a distant land sits an aging, angry, voracious tyrant.
His grip over his people is powerful. Based on random acts of violence, unmeetable expectations, and unquestioning loyalty. Everyone is afraid of him. Everyone seeks to please him. He has money, power, reach, the ability to reward or ruin whomever he pleases.
And then one day, it all changes.
One day the people rise up, demonstrate, assert their power--and the despot's world is changed forever.
No, I'm not talking about Hosni Mubarak. Or Moammar Gaddhafi.
I'm talking about Rupert Murdoch.
It has taken this emerging hacking scandal in England to reveal the inner operations and cultural underpinnings of his empire.
But in some way, we already knew that. We knew about his politics, his appetite for power, his insatiable drive for control.
What was less clear was how willing, first, elected officials and police authorities were to subjugate themselves to Murdoch and his minions, and, second, how easily the rest of us convinced ourselves that, since this was the way things were, this must be the way things are meant to be.
In other words, to accept a horrific version of journalism and media as the new norm.
If it weren't for this scandal, for Murdoch's over-reaching (or under-reaching) of his abominable standards of ethical journalism, we'd all still be wearing status-quo colored glasses.
And, to be honest, less has actually changed than we might wish. But like Arab Spring, this uprising offers us a little crack through which some day light might filter, and a set of questions worth asking.
Why does it take so much obvious intolerable abuse to get us to voice our collective outrage at the status quo?
Where else can we look, emboldened by this example, to see other version, other models of large scale social-self-hypnosis? Where else are we convincing ourselves that everything's ok, just because it is what we've become benumbed into accepting?
Where should we be lending our voices, our energy, our dollars to try to right large-scale social wrongs (and I would put today's over-whelming media consolidation into the category of a very large-scale social wrong)?
And if what we are witnessing is the global practice of a huge convergence of money, power, politics, and opinion-making, then what can we do to fight back?
Can we launch a Media Spring? A Journalism Spring?
Is it time for social uprising that mirrors the twitter and facebook revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East?
Are there more aging tyrants who need to be toppled?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Is Education Reform Like A Fad Diet?

Americans are getting fatter and our public schools are failing.
It's a toss up as to which will get us first, obesity or stupidity.
To make matters worse, our approach to dealing with both national crises is the same.
Take obesity.
We all know what it takes to lose weight. Eat healthier foods, eat smaller portions, and get more exercise. It is a time-tested program that works. It may be the only program that works.
But every year Americans spend millions of dollars on fad diets, diet books, videos, and programs. We buy the fad diet book, then buy the products pushed by the author of the fad diet book, then buy the sequel written by the author of the fad diet book.
The predictable result: obesity is spreading across America like a plague.
What about the crisis in public education?
Here we're more inventive than with obesity.
We pass a federal law that mandates testing. The idea is, if teachers, principals and students know that they'll be tested, everyone's performance will improve.
(It's like saying, if you have to weigh in every day, you'll feel compelled to lose weight.)
Except those creative educators in Atlanta found a better way. They cheated.
An investigation into Atlanta's remarkable improvement in test scores found that cheating was rampant, involving 44 schools and at least 178 teachers.
And the head cheater was the superintendent, Beverly Hall, who, by the way, was America's 2009 Superintendent of the Year.
Memo to obese people: When you get off the scale, just lie about what it said. You'll still be overweight, just like our school kids will still be unable to read, write, and do math. But the numbers will look better.
Here in my home town of Santa Fe, we know a little something about cheating.
At the last school board election, three new reform-minded candidates were elected, forming a new majority on the 5-person board, as close to a referendum on the public schools as you could get.
To thumb their noses, the outgoing school board members, as their last official act, gave the superintendent a contract extension, basing their action on a report that the administration produced detailing areas of improvement by Santa Fe students.
Turns out, upon closer inspection, that a data analyst in the administration cooked the books. She said she was tired of only hearing bad news, so she came up with some numbers that made the district look better. The truth, however, is that Santa Fe public schools are something like third worst in the state, and the state is about dead last in the nation.
When in doubt, fudge the numbers.
Then there's the strange case of the hard reality of education reform, in general.
In a terrific piece in the NY Times Sunday magazine, Paul Tough, who wrote the book on the Harlem education project, took reformers to task for the same kind of phony baloney with numbers.
He came to the defense of Diane Ravitch, who had criticized reformers for over-promising and under-performing.
One example: the highly touted Bruce Randolph School in Denver. The real numbers for the school show just how hard it is to make real progress in educational reform: Tough points out that the average ACT score at the school last year was 14, the second lowest of any high school in Denver; in tests given middle schoolers, the school place at the first percentile in reading and writing (in other words 99% of Colorado schools did better), and in the fifth percentile in math.
The reformers' response: unfair comparison! Our students are starting way behind and have farther to go.
Memo to obese people: it's unfair to compare you to healthy, fit people! You are starting way behind and have farther to go!
The truth is, when it comes to obesity we know what to do.
When it comes to education we also know what to do.
As Diane Ravitch wrote in a letter to the NY Times on July 10, "Good schools are no mystery. They have a dedicated principal, a stable staff with a mix of veterans and young teachers, and a strong curriculum that includes not only basic skills but the arts, history, civics, science, world languages, literature and physical education. And they engage parents and community leaders to support their goals."
In other words, eat better food, smaller portions, and get more exercise.
We know what we need to do to lose weight and to improve education.
The truth is, both are hard. They take time. They take dedication. They don't admit to fads, silver bullets, or overnight moon-shot programs. Snake oil salesmen have a field day in both categories, making ridiculous promises, muddying the debate, scooping up tons of money, and never delivering results.
In Rules of Thumb I wrote that change is a math formula.
It happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.
Today, in obesity and education, the cost of the status quo is exorbitant.
So far, we've tried to lie, cheat, and fake our way out of it.
Isn't it time to try the hard, honest, patient path, the one we know yields real results?
Otherwise, it says here we'll die fat and stupid. And that's s sad combination.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb