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October 26, 2007

A few days ago I was lucky enough to spend some time in the company of Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a very formidable spoken word artist and arts activist. He's the artistic director of Youth Speaks, among other things. Like myself, Joseph had been drafted by The Hewlett Foundation to talk about his work with regards to expanding audiences as part of a seminar for philanthropists at Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

Joseph began his talk with a short performance. His body became a draping vine and then a snarling creature from the deep as he intoned rhythmic, honeysuckle phrases that seemed both sensual and vicious at once. After a minute or two he stopped and asked the audience, "what was that? Dance? Theatre? Poetry? Hip-hop?" An astute philanthropist sitting in front of me eventually said, "none of the above." The man was exactly right. Joseph's work simply defies categorization.

Joseph and I had touched upon this topic briefly in conversation before the Hewlett people arrived. Listening to his presentation made me see very clearly how exasperating it must be for artists who don't easily fit into the regular boxes of "dance," "music," "drama," "sculpture" etc. in terms of reaching out to audiences, getting funding and gaining media exposure. It's hard enough for an artist who can easily be labeled to achieve these things. For artists whose work straddles many different genres and disciplines, it's much harder.

Joseph got me thinking in particular about how frequently arts journalists fail to capture the essence of this kind of multi-modal work -- if they're bold enough to get to write about it in the first place and are lucky enough to work with an editor who possesses a broad view. When you've been covering a particular beat for a long time, whether it's classical music, standup comedy, architecture or sound art, you're used to using a particular vocabulary. But if an artwork demands the journalist to step outside his or her normal vocabulary zone or mode of articulation, he or she often feels lost. I sometimes find this to be the case when I write about dance or music, which I do on occasion. I'm so used to writing about drama -- I do this every week -- that I find that I'm occasionally stumped for words when it comes to writing about an artform about which I know less. The feeling is amplified when you enter the territory of art work that straddles many different disciplines and genres.

What's needed here is education. Arts writers need to be immersed in all the arts if they're to write about them convincingly so that when it comes to writing about work that defies categorization, they can draw on different pools of knowledge and experience to help the artwork under discussion come alive for readers. By education, I mean going to see a lot of work across all art forms especially multi-modal work, engaging with the artists themselves to find out how they describe what they do, discussing ideas with anyone who's game for a conversation and, of course, reading a ton of books.

Categories are so arbitrary anyway. It's part of an arts journalist's job, I believe, to break down these artificial barriers.


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