The Importance of Merging Margins

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.20.10

In the current Broadway play Red, Mark Rothko shouts at his assistant for never having read such writers as Nietzsche. It’s both an attack on the younger man’s perceived lack of cultural literacy and a provocative way for the older artist to mentor. All the while, classical music is playing in the background in a kind of surround-sound tutoring. The audience comes to discover something about the assistant’s own musical preferences when he plays a Chet Baker record while the master is out wheeling and dealing in the art world. We also learn that the assistant’s artistic taste runs more toward Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns than toward the high modernism of his self-aggrandizing guru. I’m impressed by the variety of culture represented in that studio.

When I was about that young man’s age, say twenty-eight, I was in the throes of an art movement here in New York City. It was 1983, and the group became known as Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. Reagan was president and he was funding “freedom fighters” to undermine the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region. We congregated in the loft of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero.

(Note: At the risk of sounding too much like the pontificating Rothko of Red: they are crucial to that moment and beyond. So if, dear reader, you don’t know who either of these artists are, then please Google—or better yet, check out Golub’s prints at the Drawing Center; Spero’s The Torture of Women is in book form.)

The significance of that particular social concern has faded. But what has remained for me is the sense of camaraderie, learning a bit about grassroots-style organizing (in this case of artists), and the experience of hanging out with artists from other media. I was not only meeting with visual artists, I was going to see their work in galleries and even on the street. The same was true of theater, film, dance, and music. It was a heady education in the art scene of the day. (City context: imagine a pre-gentrified Soho.)

Urban Photography. Photo by Janrito Karamazov on flickr.

The point I wish to make is that it is not enough for writers to read—and read widely. In a display of support, writers need to support one another. (It needn’t be expensive with public libraries and Poets House.) And we should also fan out to experience other art forms. I know this can be daunting, but with some artfulness there are ways around great expense. I also know it’s difficult to discover what dance performance to see if one is not acquainted with the dance world. But in the case of city dwellers, the main venues are a place to start. And in the summer there are free (or nearly free) outdoor events. There are Web sites for events (see the Poetry Society of America). But maybe, if we writers seek out other arts, those artists and performers will make their way into our “margins” as well.

Or perhaps we just need to organize ourselves into, say, Artists Against Offshore Drilling.

topics: Columnists / Featured Columns