What’s Art Got To Do With It? YAJI Day Three

A woman answers her phone in an art gallery and tells her partner she’ll meet him just a few minutes. She moves on to the next object, a brown square, punctuated with a strip of green at the base and 15 uneven gray dots, all smushed onto the canvas. She likes it, she tells the viewer beside her. 

But before she can get much farther in the conversation, the subject interrupts her. The piece is more complex than she thinks it is. And it’s just going to get weirder.  

But is that really art? Does art have to be conceptual and weird to live up to its name? And if so, what is the world that our characters are living in? 

That discussion kicked off days three of our new Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), a new eight-week program from The Arts Council of Greater New Haven, with eight student-reporters from Cooperative Arts & Humanities or Co-Op High School (Co-Op). 

This week marks the beginning of the program, with a five-day intensive during New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) spring break. To read more about YAJI click here; to read more about days one and two, click here

Earlier this week, students worked on the fundamentals of reporting: contract negotiations, the meaning of on and off the record, pitch formation, and why reporting on “art” is made broad and expansive by the addition of culture. With former Huffington Post Director of International Partnerships  Sumorwuo Zaza, the New Haven Independent’s Markeshia Ricks, and Connecticut Public’s Diane Orson, students brainstormed a few early pitches, getting a strong reminder on the power of an open mind by the end of day two. 

Charne with students Wednesday morning. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Charne with students Wednesday morning. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

On day three, students added big tools to those toolboxes—theater criticism, dramaturgy, close looking and visual analysis, round pitches. Based out of the Yale School of Drama on Wednesday, the group met dramaturg Madeleine Charne, exploring how Elinor Fuchs’ dramaturgical guide “Visit to a Small Planet” can extend to arts journalism and particularly reviewing theater.  

For instance, a review of the Portlandia sketch “Art Project,” which parodies (or does it?) the open-endedness of contemporary art, and current vogue for creative placemaking. Watching a circle of students around her, Charne extended her arm, following Fuchs’ advice to “mold the play into a medium-sized ball,” hold it out at a distance, and squint.  

“Are we in a smooth world or a rough world?” Charne asked, eyes focused on the invisible ball in her hand. “Is this our world or a different world?” 

Soon, they were asking the same questions, reading from Suzan Lori Parks’ “The Executioner’s Daughter,” a short work from her 365 Days 365 Plays project in which worlds surreal and not collide. They mapped out the “planet” Parks created with her play: one where women could be punished for a "dishonorable profession," but that profession was never defined. Where one could get hot dogs off the street, but still die with a blow from an axe. 

Each dramatic decision, Charne suggested to the group, had deep consequences. Did they want to see contemporary or historical costumes? Was the setting in the dank basement of a jail, or a well-lit room? Did one character pound angrily on the walls plotting an escape, or suffer in silence?

“All those things can make a huge difference,” she said.


So too with the afternoon’s activity: close looking across the street, at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG). Joining curator Jessica Sack, students spent two hours criss-crossing time and space, hopping from German interwar art to Indonesian figurines, and then contemporary work by New Havener Titus Kaphar

Huddled around George Grosz’ Drinnen Und Drausen (1926), they guided Sack through what they were seeing as the painting unfolded around them: very poor and very rich side by side, surrounded only by a barrier that might be a wall or a column. From the right, a hoggish aristocrat, cigar in mouth, looks out, a cluster of pinch-faced and bloated socialites laughing in the background. 

At the left, a haggard World War I amputee right out of one of Grosz’s Expressionist woodcuts hocks cigarettes on the street. Past him, a prostitute walks by in a fur coat, a suitor on her arm. Her butt cheeks undulate beneath what few clothes she has. 

“It’s been 20 minutes?!” said student Naama Gorham when Sack brought the time to her attention. “It felt more like two.”

Gorham and her fellow YaJI-ers weren’t quite finished for the day. YUAG’s close looking exercises also included 20 minutes of “blind description,” in which students describe an object to a partner who is sketching it. In one group, Naama Gorham pushed her white pencil hard into black construction paper, coming up with a sort of rendering of a pineapple. 

They also spent time with Kaphar’s 2016 Shadows of Liberty, a painting of George Washington that incorporates names from his slave ledger, rewrites them on ripped pieces of gilded fabric, and nails them over Washington's mouth. From the back of the group, Mellody Massaquoi noted the horse's spindly lower legs, splashed with black and carrying the weight of a hulking, fatigued white body. Could it be a metaphor for America's centuries of slavery and indentured servitude, in which white hegemony was reinforced by laboring Black bodies?   

To read more about that work soon, hold tight for a student pitch that came out of the session.

What we're reading/listening to/suggesting after today:

• More information about Suzan-Lori Parks' cycle of sketches 365 Days/365 Plays, through the New York Times 
• The schedule for the Carlotta Festival of New Plays
• The schedule for Kiss, a play about a double date in Damascus, Syria that goes up on April 27th and runs through May 19th at the Yale Rep. 
•An article on YUAG's "teen program" at artspaper.org
• Details about the New Haven Chamber Orchestra and its upcoming concert on Saturday, May 12th, at 2 p.m.