Johnson City, TN -- What do art, bluegrass, anarchy, language, beauty, politics, punk rock, gender and aesthetics have in common? The answer is one person, Dr. Crispin Sartwell. The son, grandson and great-grandson of newspaper editors, Sartwell is an American philosopher, educator, music critic and editor and/or author of 10 books on topics as disparate as Political Aesthetics, Six Names of Beauty, Obscenity, Anarchy and Reality and African-American Autobiography and White Identity. The visiting associate professor of art and art history at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., is also an avid blogger, at eyeofthestorm.com. He refers to himself as “a giterdone redneck” and is careful to note, that in addition to all of these interests and monikers, “I’m an anarchist.”
Wednesday, September 26, and Thursday, September 27, Sartwell shared his wide-ranging perspectives on art and bluegrass, respectively, in two lectures: “Holding on for Dear Life: The Value of Realism in Art” and “Constriction and Creativity: Tradition and Innovation in Bluegrass Music.” Both lectures, co-sponsored by Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and the Department of Art & Design.
The art lecture Wednesday, Sartwell says, will focus on realistic pictures, such as landscapes and still lifes, particularly Dutch 17th-century art. “I think we've lost our sense of what is valuable about pictures like that, which are central to the history of art,” he says. “We look at a realistic still life and wonder why great artists have worked so hard to achieve effects that we can achieve with our cell phones. What I end up arguing is that art that carefully depicts the real world is a kind of 'pantheist prayer’: a way of cherishing the world outside of our own tiny consciousnesses.”
By looking at “hippie grass” such as the group Muleskinner and “newgrass” or progressive bluegrass, Sartwell chose to address and affirm the constrictions or limits of the form of music. “I'm trying to develop a way of understanding how bluegrass changes and how it doesn't, or what forces drive both its inherent conservatism and the innovations that have occurred,” says the music critic. “Another way into this is the question of why some things count as bluegrass at certain moments: what are the criteria and where do they come from? So 'newgrass' or what I'm calling hippie grass are examples in which the form was tested, and in which it changed and also rebounded toward a more traditional form.
“I think that this shows us something about change more generally in the arts - particularly traditional arts ... I argue in the lecture that the restrictions actually are incredibly fertile creatively, both in departures from and in returns to the basic strictures.”
Conversely, he says, the lack of restriction in his own pursuits -- to one or two areas of expertise or study – has resulted in a fertile journalistic and academic life. “I will never know as much about Hegel or neo-classical architecture or country music as someone who spends many years thinking about little else,” Sartwell says. “But maybe my strength is taking some of the results of specialized scholarship in different areas and trying to generate connections or an overall account. That's the form of my most recent book Political Aesthetics, for example.
“Really I'm just a kind of an enthusiast. Perhaps I don't have the attention span to be more specialized. I'm just always running off to some new question, style or even discipline.”
“That kind of inquiring mind, as well as his expanse of interests, is what made Sartwell the right choice for this pairing of lectures this fall,” says Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis. For information about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/cas/arts/ or www.Facebook.com/ETSU.MBMSOTA.