thom_2012_cover1.3cDurango’s Adopted Son Gives Voice to the Downtrodden

Stew Mosberg

Thom Chacon sings in a melodic voice that is as soothing as it is distressing. His poignant lyrics lay somewhere between the despair of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Woody Guthrie’s dust bowl laments, to Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad­ (1995). The songs pay homage to the downtrodden, hardscrabble often overlooked people of a depression era America that still exists today.

There is sadness in his lyrics, stories about hopelessness, yet dreams of a better life. The words are haunting, and hover like a Shakespearean apparition long after the music stops.

Chacon’s delivery on acoustic guitar and harmonica is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s earlier cutting edge poetry, and he readily acknowledges the influence of that legendary musician. He admits too, that the voices and lyrics of Tom Waitts, John Prine, and Willie Nelson have also had an impact. The comparisons end there however, because Chacon is a unique talent, every bit as memorable as those fabled performers.

Chacon spent his early years in Chula Vista and Sacramento, California. He arrived in Durango, Colorado in 2006, which he wholeheartedly adopted, met his wife Bess there, and has been a fly fishing guide for Duranglers outfitters almost since the day he set foot on the shores of the Animas river. Listening to his reason for migrating to the southwest, tells much about the slight-framed, bearded, singer-songwriter.

His first taste of performing publicly came in his hometown of Sacramento in 1992. From that time forward, Chacon knew it would be a major part of his life and ultimately found himself in Los Angeles and the music business and all that it entails; the pace, the promises, the disappointments, the use or be used attitude, and all its disingenuous trappings. Eventually he burned out and became disillusioned enough to seek a place where he could reinvent himself and decided fly fishing in the mountains of Colorado was just the place to do it. Not long after he started the less frenetic life, his producer tracked him down and urged him to get back to song writing and singing. Truth be told, he never stopped. “I always write, but I liked not having to worry if it was good or would sell.”

In addition to possessing a style reminiscent of the previously mentioned entertainers, one of Chacon’s personal favorites is writer-singer-songwriter-actor Kris Kristofferson, yet with all that rich material to draw upon none has been more influential than his own family history.

His second cousin, Bobby Chacon was two-time boxing world featherweight champion; the pugilist’s story gave title to Thom’s first album, “Featherweight Fighter,” which was recorded along with Dylan’s bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Receli. The music on that album speaks of hope and recovery, of glory and fortitude. About the relationship with his cousin, the singer has said, “Bobby taught me no matter how hard it gets, you’ve go to get up off the mat and keeping fighting.”

The ex-champion’s life in and out of the ring is as much a saga of win-lose-draw as it gets.

Legend has it too, that Thom Chacon’s grandfather was a deputy sheriff in Silver City, New Mexico and joined a posse sent to capture Billy the Kid!

Then there is the influence of his siblings; he is the only boy in a family of five girls! Growing up the second youngest, Chacon says his sisters taught him to be sensitive and, “How to pay attention to the details.”

On tour during the past year with the Los Lonely Boys, Chacon recently performed in Durango at Fort Lewis College Concert Hall and continues to tour with them as the opening act. He has also toured internationally, opening for artists such as Jason Mraz, doing shows in Thailand and with rock-star legend Lucky Ali in India. None of his gigs however, have had more power then his 2004 concert at Folsom Prison, made famous by Johnny Cash. Chacon is one of only three musicians to have been granted permission to entertain the inmates. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” he says.

His new album, simply titled “Thom Chacon,” is available in both traditional vinyl (his preference) and CD.  The music retains the storylines he is becoming famous for and bare titles such as, “Juarez, Mexico” and “Big River,” on which he is accompanied by his wife Bess. There are others whose titles are a clear indication of their narratives; “Innocent Man,” “American Dream,” “Ain’t Gonna Take Us Alive,” and “Chasing the Pain;” all 12 tracks evoke imagery of frailties, as well as a strong spirit.

Thom Chacon is a sympathetic voice of reason from whom we can learn much about life’s hard knocks and how to get up off the mat.

 

 

 

Les Ballets Trockaderos kicks off Arts Perspective 10 Year Celebration!

This year we celebrate 10 years in publishing stories about the arts and culture of the Four Corners region.  We kick off our anniversary year with a cover featuring the stunningly talented, all-male ballet troupe – Les Ballets Trockadero of Monte Carlo.  No matter if one knows nothing about ballet or is a dance aficionado, a performance by the Trocks has its own special blend of classical ballet and its unique touch of comedy.

Read there story here

 

Les Ballets Trockadero of Monte Carlo

Some may say, ballet is ballet is ballet… that is, until one has experienced the stunningly talented, all-male ballet troupe – Les Ballets Trockadero of Monte Carlo.  No matter if one knows nothing about ballet or is a dance aficionado, a performance by the Trocks has its own special blend of classical ballet and its unique touch of comedy.

“It’s parody, that is true,” says Charles Leslie, Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall director, “but there is nothing comical about the talent these dancers possess. They are true artistic athletes. The Trocks has been called a phenomenon in the dance world. I’d agree with that. We’re really looking forward to this show.”

Since 1974 the Trocks have been wooing audiences with an impeccable comic approach to ballet, while demonstrating that men can, indeed, dance en pointe without tumbling to the ground. The original concept of the troupe has not changed over the years. Male dancers perform the full range of ballet and modern dance repertoire. Comedy is achieved by incorporating and exaggerating the foibles and accidents of serious dance.

The troupe’s numerous tours around the world have been both popular and critical successes, including 39 countries and 600 cities.  In the USA they have become a regular part of the college and university circuit, in addition to regular dance presentations in 49 states. The Trocks have appeared on a variety of television features and performed on shows hosted by everyone from Shirley MacLaine to the Muppet’s Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Click on image to see performance

“Wonderfully accomplished dancers who serve up their repertoire with a generous slice of ham.”
The Seattle Times

Les Ballets Trockadero of Monte Carlo
Mar 12, 7:30 p.m. | Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College
Tickets are available on-line at www.durangoconcerts.com or by calling (970) 247-7656 or visit the ticket office inside the Welcome Center at 8th St. and Main Ave. in Downtown Durango.

 

Arts Perspective features photographer, Tony Newlin

Arts Perspective’s current issue features photographer, Tony Newlin. Growing up in Northern New Mexico, Tony Newlin developed a passion for the awe-inspiring beauty of nature at an early age. He travels throughout the American West, Alaska, and Africa, capturing the grandeur of stunning landscapes and wildlife. Whether a grizzly is nuzzling his tripod or he’s waiting for the sun to rise over a wintery mountain range, Newlin actively seeks out scenes that are not often captured. His photographs of light glowing in the autumn aspens are shot primarily in Southwest Colorado near Durango and Telluride.

Newlin says, “In today’s digital world, the temptation is strong to ‘improve’ mother nature. Having only recently even purchased a digital camera, I adhere to the principles that have guided my film photography for the past 15 years.” His works are non-enhanced, allowing for the true beauty of wilderness to show through.

His work is on display at Sorrel Sky Gallery in Durango, CO. www.tonynewlin.com

Metaphorically Speaking

by Stew Mosberg

Desert Solitaire, Oil & acrylic on canvas, ,48" x 60" | Bradley Kachnowicz

A fair amount of art, whether verbal, visual or auditory, is straightforward in the portrayal of events, thoughts, or imagery. Such literal interpretations of a theme however, can fall short of engaging the audience.

Artists will often use metaphor, symbolism, and allegory in place of more obvious imagery. Writers incorporate metaphors to help explain an emotion or a situation that might otherwise require dozens of words to define. The work of T.S. Eliot and William Shakespeare, both masters of metaphor, provide numerous examples that speak volumes through the use of verbal triggers and symbolism. Think Shakespeare’s “…Juliet is the sun…” or “All the world is a stage…” or from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Eliot, “…When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table…”

All forms of art can use symbolism to communicate. In art, image replaces language, in literature language conjures imagery. In the visual arts many practitioners rely heavily on the use of symbolism. Throughout history, religious art incorporated ciphers to disguise its message or to avoid depicting a divine being that might offend the faith.

Self-portrait w/ Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird | Frida Kahlo

As recently as the 19th century, artists such as Klimt, Redon, Puvis de Chavannes or Edvard Munch, depended upon allegory and representation to speak to the viewer. The artists Frida Kahlo, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali built careers and reputations on the use of metaphor in their art.

As the study of human psychology evolved in the early 1900s and thereafter, artwork became more personal and interpretive.  Expressionism allowed an artist to explore innermost feelings and unique points of view; abstract or otherwise. Such a private approach often obscured the meaning for the viewer and thus gave rise to critical analysis that was equally personal, often missing the artists’ message entirely.

Allegory in art, particularly in painting, depicts stories that can be a literal interpretation of a myth or of celebrated historical occurrences. It can also be a representation of, or reference to, the artist’s individual perspective on life or singular experience.

One of Durango, CO’s artistic treasures is painter John Grow, the creator of the cover art for this edition of Arts Perspective. Known for his photo-realistic, yet dreamlike work, Grow delves deeply into his and the viewer’s psyche by portraying an entire storyline in his work.

Aspire to the Ground, Oil on canvas, 40" x 32" | John Grow

“My stories,” says the artist, “might be obscure, but the audience catches on that the metaphor is in there somewhere.” Grow puts forth that his paintings benefit from, “The useful combination of humor and seriousness; through the blending of symbolic media, images, and narrative.” He further explains that his conscious use of symbolism, “Tends to have the barbed character of a political cartoon, which has its place in the newspaper, but not in my serious work.”

Referencing Marshall McLuhan’s observation, “The medium is the message,” Grow muses that it would probably be easier to compose a short declarative sentence than to go through the exhaustive process of creating one of his detailed paintings.

He asks, “Why spend eighteen months painting canvases when three syllables (would) cover the idea?” He then answers his own query by saying, “The investment in a demanding medium expresses my respect for the subject’s importance.”

Other artists share Grow’s views and passion for their medium. Bradley Kachnowicz, a painter who mixes Expressionism with realistic imagery, explained his approach thusly, “Nearly all my paintings are metaphors and or are created through the use of symbolic representations. A large part of my work is about generating emotional impact in the immediate and then allowing a message and connection to slowly seep in as the viewer spends more time with a piece. I believe the abstractions and metaphoric symbolism in an artwork are what makes a piece personal to the viewer. Ambiguity opens the door to interpretation, individual interpretation creates resonation.”

Mixed-media artist Elizabeth Somers calculatingly chooses her metaphors and brings together various materials to communicate her observations on social issues. “Within my metaphoric pieces, my intention is based upon wanting the viewer to think; I don’t feel art should be just about beauty. I want my work to become the focus of a dialogue between the (seeing) and the thought; the eyes and the brain of the viewer. Hopefully, (they) will come away thinking about the topic of the piece in a new light.”

Heather Leavitt Martinez is an accomplished printmaker and award-winning photographer. Contemplating her own work and the use of representational imagery, Martinez admits that some of her choices are intentionally obvious, while others are created for the viewer, “To discover and hopefully share (a) perspective.”

The icons used by Martinez are the result of much forethought and what she says are, “Several rounds of distillations.  My thought processes consider these intentions while accessing both sides of the brain, both internally and with the viewer in mind.”

Intending to connect with and also challenge the viewer Martinez quotes the legendary Dian Arbus, one of her favorite photographers; “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Continuing the commentary about her art and the idea of communication through symbolic references, Martinez says, “I don’t want to hide from my viewer, but as (an artist) I’m not interested in creating obviously realistic and representational art. I’m more intrigued with creating a conversation.”

According to Bethany Bachman, her work is more about emotion than conveying a hidden message, but that may be changing. Often covering every square inch of surface with her complex imagery, Bachman says, “For the most part I am finding the more stripped my figures and symbols are the more obscure the message is.”

Sunflower Seeds 2010, Ai Weiwei

On a grander scale, one of dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s most famous projects was created from millions of porcelain sunflower seeds. Filling an entire room at the Tate Modern in London, they collectively create a magnificent and provocative commentary on the human condition. “Each” (seed), reads a Tate release, “is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses.”

Ai enlisted thousands of workers to produce and then hand-paint each pod replica. Ultimately, the astonishing collection of “seeds” raises the fundamental question; what does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Or, for that matter, are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?

And to think all that began with just one seed; metaphorically speaking it shouts out the answers.

Artwalks Bring People Together…enjoying art!

by Denise Leslie

Sorrel Sky Gallery, Durango

The Southwest is heralded across the United States for its vibrant art communities. For tourists and residents alike, the arts bring people together. In an effort to boost community involvement, many towns are hosting regular art walks throughout the year. From Telluride, Salida and Durango, Colorado to Moab, Utah the monthly art walks in the Four Corners region are bringing in new business and attention for the arts.

“Art Walk is a key event that promotes a vibrant arts community in Telluride,” says Kate Jones of Telluride Arts. “It is part of a dynamic set of arts offerings that make Telluride an interesting place to live and visit.”

Telluride has hosted First Thursday Art Walks since 2008. Across the mountains in Salida, the arts community has hosted the First Friday Gallery Tour for 21 years.

“It is always exciting to have a lot of people at once enjoying your art,” says Paulette Brodeur. “Salida is out of the way. The First Friday Gallery Tour funnels a larger group of patrons to our galleries at one time and makes it more festive.”

“(The Telluride) Art Walk is a community wide celebration of the arts,” says Jones. “The event invites people to come into our galleries, see our new exhibits, and meet working artists during a casual, fun, social evening”

Fine art galleries are far too often misunderstood as intimidating or unwelcoming. Art walks can help break down the barrier between the gallery and the potential art lover. They also serve as a way to introduce viewers to new artists, styles, and mediums.

Brodeur Gallery, Salida

“Art walk participants are exposed to this diversity and may develop an appreciation for a type of art to which they may not have been exposed,” says Bret Edge.

Edge opened his photography gallery in Moab last year and began participating in the regular Moab Art Walks soon thereafter.

Durango began its own regular art walk last year. Every first Thursday of the month, downtown galleries host a variety of events – from openings to educational lectures.

“First Thursdays have really helped generate a buzz for the art scene in Durango,” says Shanan Campbell Wells, owner of Sorrel Sky Gallery. “With every art walk, we see more and more new faces. It’s been a wonderful way to introduce our artists to the community.”

Brett Edge Photography

Check your with your local arts organization to find out if there is an art walk in your community.  Here is a list of art walk events in our region:

Telluride ArtWalk
Salida First Friday Gallery Walk
Moab ArtWalk
Durango First Thursdays ArtWalk
Flagstaff First Friday Artwalk
Gunnison First Friday Gallery Walk
Ignacio First Fridays

 

The Notorious Pilot Car of Calaveras County

by David Feela
illustration by Cindy Coleman

A steep Highway 49 weaves snakelike through the dry, tawny hills of the Golden State as it crosses into Calaveras County. I pulled up beside a road worker holding his traffic sign. I had been warned, over five miles back, that road construction was underway, that I should be prepared to stop. There might be delays. I watched the car in front of me accelerate and latch on to the end of a string of travelers being tugged along like a choo-choo train by the flashing lights of a pilot car. The road worker simply shrugged and waved him through.

I was not so lucky. Maybe I too should have barreled through and disregarded any frantic signals, or if I’d had the foresight to roll up my windows, turn on the air conditioning, and play a little music, I could have avoided being flogged by a flagman’s tale.

He and I looked each other over. He was a portly little fellow, nearly as wide as he was tall. He held his sign in one hand, the word Stop facing me instead of oncoming traffic, and the word Slow aimed toward himself. His other hand rested against my door frame, either to keep me inside or more likely to give himself some additional support.

When he spoke he shouted, a habit from working around diesel engines and heavy equipment, but I could only hear birds chirping in the trees, not even the sound of another vehicle idling behind me. We were alone. He started his commentary with a question he never intended me to answer.

“Ya goin’ along like the rest of them I suppose ta Angels Camp, aren’t ya? Well, it’s goin’ ta be more than a little deelay cause that pilot car driver has a queer way about doin’ his job. If it were me, well, I’da stablished a rootine that coulda tole drivers and flaggers like me zackly how long wheez gotta be out here in the sun bleeding sweat. But he’s a funny sort, ordered me ta stand right here, but this spot gotta be near ten miles away from where just one dozer is scrapin’ up a shoulder. Don’t seem right ya need twenty miles a clearance — that’s ten on each side — ta keep one piece a equipment from gettin’ in traffic’s way. I betcha he’s gettin’ paid by the mile and not just the hour like the rest a us.

One time once we was doin’ some resurfacing on 101, he took darn near a haft hour ta cover a three mile section of gravel, draggin’ must ta been a hundred cars that had been waitin’ fer him ta get back from the other side. Jonesy said betcha he keeps a girl, meets her along the way fer some retoolin’, if ya know what I mean, and makes everyone sit still till he gets ready ta go again. Ya see, nobody knows what’s goin’ on tween here and there. They just know ta go when a guy tells ‘em ta, and ta stop when somebody else says stop. This walkie-talkie fer instance, tells me when ta let ya go. It’ll just squawk and ya know, sometimes I think it’s him, the pilot car driver, on the other end, not the feller standing like me twenty miles from here.

Anyways, ‘nother time we — the guy on the other end — got ta talkin’ one day afta work, and we thought maybe if we follered the pilot car once, we’d see what the driver was up ta, but it was kinder risky, leavin’ folks in their vehicles with no one to tell them to stay put. So Greeley, that was his name before he got fired — course, that would still be his name come ta think — puts his scooter in the back a his truck under a tarp and when the pilot car driver takes off with his next string a vehicles, he unloads the scooter and starts ‘er up, sticks his sign in the dirt with his bright vest tied ta it like a scarecrow. But no sooner than he catches up with the caravan the whole bunch stops and he can’t see up ta the front a the line ta see why, so he gets nervous and turns round and scoots on back ta his post only ta find the wind has knocked down his makeshift signal and released a string of vehicles that shoulda been waitin’, all coming straight fer him. Well, he turns round agin and sorta takes over, waving them along as a kinda pilot scooter, figurin’ when he gets them caught up ta the first bunch, he can go back with no one the wiser. But every time he goes back, there’s another bunch creepin’ up the road. It’s sorta like the them Bible fishes and loaves except by now the supervisor is showed up at my end, hot mad and wonderin’ what’s goin’ on. So I squawk Greeley on the walkie-talkie and tell him ta watch out but I don’t hear nothin’ cept static.

I guess Greeley finally couldn’t take it no more, he just left his truck and rode his scooter on down the mountain all the way home. The supervisor hadta mail him his notice of dismissal. The wife showed up outta nowhere a couple days later and picked up the truck. Didn’t explain nothin’ ta no one.

That’s why I just stand here and do my job, figurin’ that pilot car got it in fer me, cause he knows I know somethin’ ain’t right. Too bad Greeley got all the blame but least it didn’t stick ta me.

Look it that ball a dust there, comin’ up the road. Either a dust devil or the pilot car. You just wait here and I’ll get my walkie-talkie from that there stump. Tell ya how much longer yer goin’ ta be. Could ya holt this sign a minute?”

 

When he leaned his post against my car and shuffled off toward the side of the road, I shouted after him, “You say, I should just follow that dust trail?”

My automatic window soundlessly slid closed and I accelerated in the direction of the whirling dervish, just in case the pilot car wasn’t able to rescue me for another half hour.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Feela is a poet, free-lance writer, writing instructor, and book collector.  His work has appeared in regional and national publications, including the High Country News‘ “Writers on the Range,” Mountain Gazette, Small Farmer’s Journal, Utne Reader, Arts Perspective magazine and in the newspaper as a “Colorado Voice” for The Denver Post.  For 11 years he served as a contributing editor and columnist for the former Inside/Outside Southwest and currently writes monthly columns for The Four Corners Free Press and The Durango Telegraph. A poetry chapbook, “Thought Experiments” (Maverick Press), won the Southwest Poet Series. His first full length poetry book, “The Home Atlas”, appeared in 2009.  His new collection of essays, “How Delicate These Arches: Footnotes from the Four Corners” — released late 2011 through Raven’s Eye Press -- was selected as a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in the category of Creative Nonfiction.

Editor’s Note – Summer 2013

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

I often get asked, “How do you plan the editorial for the magazine?” My response is actually pretty simple, “If there is a story about an artist that inspires me, my hope is that it will touch or enlighten you (the reader) as well. “  As of this issue, we no longer follow a ‘theme’.  Now, our content will be based on arts and culture and the stories that make us laugh, smile, think and even cock our head to the side with a smirk. We have such amazing talent in our region that is exciting to explore and I am excited about our new direction.

We have actually taken a few months off to reflect and reposition the magazine and restructure the business after an extremely challenging year.  I came to this decision after encountering numerous events amidst the chaos of my own life – both good and bad.  Hence the meaning and purpose of this month’s quote above.

Since our fall issue I have had the joy of welcoming my third grandson, the sadness of losing a man I called “dad” these last 30 years, the excitement of our youngest choosing to live in a foreign country and some health concerns of my own.  While these experiences allowed me a few months away from magazine production, it has also given me a renewed passion to look at what’s really important in my life. I’ve spent more time with my family in Indiana, Texas, Oregon, Canada and now, Germany. I feel a new energy about priorities and how I will approach life when craziness happens – or actually, when life causes us to adapt to it. I truly believe that I do “have chaos within” and I have given a new life to my “dancing star” – Arts Perspective magazine.

Aspire to the Ground

In our summer issue our cover represents the art of Durango artist John Grow. His piece, “Aspire to the Ground” is one of my favorites is shown here and within Stew Mosberg’s story, “Metaphorically Speaking,” which reveals the hidden messages that guide and inspire an artist.  The profile of artist Sarah Bryant shows how challenges in life can also be an inspiration. Our short story by Mary Helen Klare, “The Bell of San Miguel” tells the tale of how a special bell brought a small village together.

I’d like to invite you to write to us as we begin to feature a – “Letters to the Editor” section in future issues. We want to know what you think of our little “dancing star”. Pick up our issue today or better yet subscribe and have it sent directly to your doorstep!

Thank you for supporting our magazine over these last 9 years and we look forward to celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2014!

Sincerely,

Denise Leslie

Durango artist, John Grow featured on Summer Cover

Summer issue features Durango artist, John Grow! John portrays nontraditional subjects with classic realism. The award winning scholar and filmmaker has won eight Best of Show Awards for his     symbolic/whimsical paintings of people. Other subjects include archaeological reconstructions, historic Colorado railroads, and contemporary small town life. John Grow studied Art at Northwestern University. His studio has been in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado since 1978. More of his work can be found at johngrowart.com

Arts Perspective magazine, a free newsprint quarterly, offers a venue for all of the arts reflecting the diversity of arts in Colorado and west of the Rocky Mountains.  To see more of this issue, pick up a hardcopy at newsstands, galleries, theatres, tourism offices, chamber of commerce, hotels, coffee shops, libraries and various locations in the area of our distribution or subscribe and have it delivered right to your door!

FEAR THE ART

By Stew Mosberg

Tyrannical regimes are infamous for suppression of civil and human rights. Dictatorships scrupulously control the populace and keep a tight grip on power through coercion and the removal of liberty, mainly the ability of its people to opine or express disagreement with the government or its leaders. Freedom of thought and the freedom to ruminate, cogitate and form one’s own ideas is the fundamental platform of a democracy and therefore feared by despotic governments.

Art, in all its forms, is a vehicle of communication that not only gives voice to the artist, but also is often a call to arms or a cry for help for a society.

In a world of text messaging, flash mobs and social networks, words and images sent aloft can reach millions of people in seconds and — as seen with the “Arab Spring” — can change the world. Repressive rulers know this and do their best to shut it down. China is notorious for limiting Internet access and in some cases, forbids its people from sending messages; most notable amongst them is world-renowned artist and activist, Ai Weiwei.

Arrested last year, Weiwei was whisked away by authorities and held for 81 days without his whereabouts or “crime” disclosed to his family or the public. Eventually released, placed under house arrest and finally accused of tax evasion (a purported fabrication), he was fined $2.4 million. The Chinese government rejected Weiwei’s appeal in July 2012 and it was reported that he was prevented by police from attending the hearing. Although Weiwei’s art isn’t always politically motivated, much of it is based on social ills; yet it was his words that irked the government the most.

The outspoken Weiwei embraced the social network, which allowed him to reach around the globe with his message of expressing his anger at abuses of power. His detention followed a clamp down by the Chinese government meant to curtail a call by activists for an “Arab Spring” style protest. Those in power also sought to squelch the growing unrest in Tibet over China’s harsh policy.

Acknowledging his earliest attempts at blogging, Weiwei said, “My first blog post was one sentence, something like: ’To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason.’” It doesn’t get any more basic than that.

In ancient Greece, one of the most artistic civilizations in history, Plato cautioned the state to control art for the good of the society as a whole. “Otherwise,” he warned, “art threatens the stability of the state.”

In the NKVD’s Dungeon, Getman

Followers of Karl Marx were so certain of the influence art had on the masses that they, too, considered art an appropriate subject for state control. In one such incident from the Soviet Union in 1946, artist Nikolai Getman was imprisoned in a Siberian Gulag. His crime? He was with several fellow artists when one drew a caricature of Stalin. An informant told authorities and the entire group was arrested for “anti-Soviet behavior.” As a result, Getman spent eight years in a forced labor camp.

In America, the intent of our first amendment has been muddled over the past several decades. Obscenity laws have been established, in large part, because of special interest groups, and now encompass any art form that meets with their disapproval.

In 1988, photographer Andres Serrano received angry reproach for his photograph titled “Piss Christ,” which depicted a plastic crucifix floating in a jar of urine. Bombarded by church leaders and religious groups, many senators sent protests to the NEA, insisting that the agency cease underwriting “vulgar” art. Yet, it is unlikely the senators even saw Serrano’s work before caving to their special interest constituencies. Religious radicals in France took a hammer to the work and destroyed the photograph in 2011.

A fundamental element in any discussion of censorship is that regardless of your point of view about Serrano’s concept, what is considered obscene by some is not so by others. Both points of view are valid and each deserves the right to be voiced and not censured.

Another outcry occurred in 1989 over the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, who had received NEA support for his work depicting naked children, homosexuality and sadomasochism.

Later that same year, the Helms Amendment, drafted by Senator Jesse Helms, (R-N.C.), was adopted thus giving the NEA the “freedom” to define obscenity and even stifle alternative artistic visions. To enforce the amendment, the NEA established an obscenity pledge, absurdly requiring artists to promise they would not use government money to create works of an obscene nature. Astonished by the legislative vagaries, many museum directors resigned in protest and a number of well-known artists returned their NEA grants.

A few years later, the legislation was challenged in court, resulting in the NEA abolishing the obscenity pledge and replacing it with a “decency clause,” which required award recipients to ensure that their works met certain standards of decency.

Artists through the centuries have turned to art making in times of war, conflict, oppression and trauma. From

Felix in Exile, Kentridge

Francisco Goya’s horrific portrayal about the Disasters of War to South Africa’s William Kentridge’s probing imagery of his conflicted identity as a white man and artist during Apartheid, resistance art has been a way of showing opposition to power holders. The term resistance art was coined to define art opposing the Nazi party — the same gang of thugs who declared expressionistic and avant-garde art as decadent.

The Soviets confiscated impressionistic and contemporary artwork for the same reasons. Many countries today like Iran, Burma and Syria continue the practice of outlawing certain artistic expression or anti-government imagery.

As unimaginable as it seems, North Korea has banned virtually all art forms. Dissident painter Song Byeok stated recently that there are no (independent) artists in North Korea.     “There just can’t be. There cannot be,” he said. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since (they’re) born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

Following his attempt to cross the Chinese border to find food, Song was imprisoned and tortured by the North Korean government. He eventually escaped the country and now uses his art to condemn the regime he was once forced to exalt through propaganda posters and murals.

While living in North Korea, Song never created anti-government artwork because, he says, “The independence of thought necessary to create unofficial art simply doesn’t exist in the state. The fact is that I would never even think about it. That is why I wouldn’t ever think about the risks.”

There is a glimmer of hope for artists who live in such an Orwellian world. The World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression will be held in Oslo in October. Artists who have received death threats, experienced imprisonment, abduction or censorship because of their artistic work will be given a global voice at the conference. The website (http://artsfreedom.org) is the first of its kind and intends to set a new standard for documenting censorship of artistic freedom of expression.

For artists living and working in less oppressive nations, it is safer, if not easier, to create freely. It’s an advantage not to be taken for granted — one that should be cherished and appreciated by us all.