Aspen Ideas Fest: An arts reporter’s notebook

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Two virtual reality films played throughout the week at Ideas Fest: "Valen's Reef" and "Mars 2030."
Aspen Institute/Courtesy photo |

In a panel titled “Do We Need to Rescue the Humanities?” Thursday morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, author and critic Leon Wieseltier made an impassioned argument for a liberal arts education as a base for citizenship and a good for humanity as a whole, saying that empathy and morality rely on the kind of imaginative skills developed through reading, writing and studying the arts.

“The arts are a foundation for empathic ethical action,” he said.

Throughout this year’s Ideas Fest, the role of the arts in society and their power as a vehicle of change and empowerment were hot topic.

These are some highlights:

0 0 There wasn’t a dry eye in the house for the screening of the documentary “Gleason” during the Spotlight Health portion of the festival last week. The film, which wowed at Sundance and opens in theaters July 29, follows the story of New Orleans Saints special-teamer Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 shortly after retiring from football.

It’s a powerful, personal piece of filmmaking that strings together video blogs Gleason began making after his diagnosis for his future child (his wife, Michel, gave birth to a son less than a year after his diagnosis). We see his condition deteriorate, see the strain on Michel and see him struggle emotionally. But along with that personal story, we see Gleason fight to improve the eye-tracking technology that allows people with ALS to speak and we see him battle in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation restoring Medicaid and Medicare funding for such devices, and see his Team Gleason foundation is helping people with ALS live fuller lives.

“It’s my belief that most of the things ALS takes from you, technology can give back,” he says in the film.

In a post-screening discussion, Michel and Gleason’s caretaker-turned-foundation-director Blair Casey, talked about their experience with Gleason and about the work they’re now doing to make communication technology accessible and affordable for ALS patients.

I was living in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina, and I was in the Superdome the 2006 night that Gleason blocked a punt in the opening minutes of the first game there after Katrina nearly destroyed it, which became a much-needed source of pride and hope for the beaten-down city just over a year after the storm. It made Gleason a civic hero. A statue outside the stadium now honors Gleason and that moment’s importance to the city. But Gleason’s path since his diagnosis — as captured in this incredible film — is far more important and remarkable than anything he did on a football field.

0 0 Poet Donte Clark emerged from the audience Monday at the Ideas Fest’s Young Adult Forum, making his way to the stage while reciting a piece that brought the crowd of some 250 under-21 Ideas Festers to their feet. In an afternoon that included big names talking about big ideas for young people, it was poetry that had them hooting and hollering — quite a feat for this talented wordsmith from Richmond, California, and subject of the documentary “Romeo is Bleeding,” which played Sunday night at the festival.

0 0 Long live Norman Lear! The name of the ageless TV producer of classic series like “Good Times, “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family” was evoked often during discussions about diversity, representation and identity in pop culture throughout the week. In a panel featuring “Fresh Off the Boat” producer Melvin Marr, Black List founder Franklin Leonard and PBS CEO Paula Kerger, Lear was praised as a trailblazer for the new crop of filmmakers bringing black and brown stories to the small screen again (Lear himself, at 93, is remaking “One Day at a Time” for Netflix with a Hispanic cast).

Mar argued that networks don’t necessarily need diversity executives and initiatives to get shows like his — the first network show about an Asian-American family in two decades — onto the air. If they’re simply judged on how funny they are, and how well they work as shows, not by the color of their characters, television will grow more diverse.

Leonard, whose organization annually identifies the best unproduced screenplays and has discovered memorable ones such as “Juno,” “The Revenant” and “The King’s Speech,” weighed in on the #OscarsSo White controversy and argued that he’s found Hollywood is not set up to make movies and TV out from fresh or diverse voices.

“The system that Hollywood has established over decades to be a meritocracy is a lie,” he said. “It is a system that was designed to keep certain people in and certain people out, and it has to do with gender and class and race and a number of things. But if you’re really looking for a meritocracy, you may have to make a little bit more effort.”

0 0 Anna Deveare Smith performed an hourlong version of her one-woman play, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” to a rapt audience at the Aspen District Theatre on Tuesday. Using scant costumes and some bracing video clips of police brutality and riots, but mostly just using her voice, her posture and her mannerisms, the playwright-actress embodied a range of people she’s met while studying the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” across the U.S. In her verbal portraits, she jumped from being an elderly woman to a young child in prison to a parent, a judge, to James Baldwin, to a teacher, a young man arrested for rioting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray to the mayor of Stockton, California.

Her still-in-progress play is a vital piece of theater that will no doubt help shape the historic “new civil rights movement” that Smith sees taking hold in America right now. In a post-performance panel, “Orange is the New Black” author Piper Kerman, justice reform advocate Marcus Bullock, Juvenile Law Center Director Marsha Levick and former Tucson police Chief Taz Villasenor talked about the role the arts will play in that movement and challenged the Ideas Fest audience to either join it or look back in regret.

0 0 “Art is not nice,” Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden said Wednesday in a discussion about art’s role in city identity and cultural preservation. “It is completely necessary.”

And New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu sketched out how his Office of Cultural Economy actually quantified the massive economic impact that culture and the arts can have on his city, proving that necessity to those who would cut arts funding.

Landrieu also acknowledged how when the arts are successful in reviving neighborhoods that it often leads to gentrification and involuntary displacement of locals and artists. It’s a good problem to have, he argued.

“I would rather have to deal with the issue of, ‘How are you going to deal with coming into an area?’” he said. ”When people are moving out, the question is, ‘What are you going to do about blight?’”

0 0 Macarthur “genius” grant recipient, artist and 2013 Aspen Award for Art winner Teresita Fernandez said she tends to turn down invitations to give museum tours to Latino and minority youth groups. Such programs tend to be part of diversity programs that bring children to museums where she can’t point to a single piece of artwork made by artists from their communities.

“There is an invisibility of people of color in the museum itself,” she said Thursday morning in a panel on diversity in museums.