Spoleto artists peer beyond the headlines 

The Year of Living Uncertainly

Every year, Spoleto offers us a glimpse into the future. How? As Ezra Pound once noted, "artists are the antennae of the age," and the works artists offer us can be leading indicators of trends still forming. As Spoleto gets underway, one of my goals is to provide a larger context for what we are about to experience together during the festival, to sketch the outlines of that future glimpse Spoleto artists give us. I went hunting for some initial clues.

Flip through the Spoleto Festival catalog, and scan the show titles. They could be today's headlines: "A Crack in Everything," "Making Up The Truth," "The Animals and Children Took to the Streets."

Now dive a little more deeply and read a paragraph or two.

"LEO," we're told, "explores a world where gravity has woozily shifted and undertakes a logic-defying adventure." Mike Daisey, in his Teching in India, takes us on "an unforgettable journey across a brilliant and unpredictable land." Motoi Yamamoto's Return to the Sea conveys "something both ineffable and endless." Feng Yi Ting is a true account of "a plot that changes the course of history." And The Radio Show captures "the uncertainty of urban life."

I like that last quote particularly, because we're getting to know uncertainty rather well these days.

In the 19th century, romantic poet William Wordsworth fretted that "the world is too much with us." That doesn't sound like what our Spoleto artists are telling us. Too much with us? What about a world that seems to have leaped far out ahead of us, left us in the lurch and nosing around a new terra incognita where only a few minutes ago we saw only our front yards? Honestly, if cartographers suddenly went back to printing "Here There Be Dragons" at the edges of our world maps, would anybody kick up a fuss?

What we know, what we see every day, is that we are living on one of those so-called "hinges of history." It's our lot. And if that hinge is a creaky one (as the noise around us keeps insisting), the artists of Spoleto might be asking us to remember that this is also a call to adventure. We are strangers in a strange land, as the Book of Exodus put it. We may as well outfit ourselves with dandy pith helmets and spyglasses and pack a picnic lunch. Why not? We can join in the spirit of Noël Coward's characters in Hay Fever, those "bohemian eccentrics" who "alternately infuriate and astound" everybody around them.

To be considered eccentric today, all you need is to stay alert, watchful. You'll be resisting the short-sightedness of those who insist the future is dim. I'm not with that crowd.

For some time now, cosmologists have been close to completing the chronology of the first noise, the Big Bang. These scientists have nearly all the cosmic bleats in a row: the world as we know it, traced back to infancy, even the womb. The moment when nothing suddenly became something.

Today, the risk we run is in selective hearing. We may miss the bang of a starting gun that marks a fresh beginning. When there is great uncertainty, that bang is easily lost among all the whimpers. Pity, really. We may actually be hinging on something entirely new. We cannot see that far ahead. But it's happened before. And perhaps we need to keep all our sensors alive to that possibility.

In his new opera, Philip Glass "explores the visionary dreams and prosaic nightmares" of Johannes Kepler, a mathematician, astronomer, and leading light in the 17th-century scientific revolution. In his own uncertain times, Kepler, visionary and dreamer, helped usher in a revolution in the way the world was understood. As a critic, I believe what Pound believes: that in less explicit ways, artists can also move our collective understanding forward. So I'll continue nosing about this year's Spoleto, looking for themes, piecing together motifs, and trying to make sense of it all. You can follow along with me on the Spoleto Buzz Blog here.


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