Thursday, September 3, 2015

Marya Morstad - Art & Humanities: A Timely Collaboration

Marya Morstad is the longtime host of the weekly arts interview program, “Art Matters” on KFAI-FM Community Radio. She produced the award-winning documentary, “Art and Spirit Matters: Arts and Religion in the Twin Cities” as well as the program “Art is Patriotic: Artists Respond to the Republican National Convention,” and has produced 80 audio portraits of Minnesota artists for Marya has also worked for Mizna’s Twin Cities Arab Film Festival and for the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

A suggested question for a guest blogger for the Minnesota Humanities Center is: How do you personally define, think about, or relate to the concept of “humanities.” When I researched the humanities, I found many defining concepts: The study of human culture. Self-expression. Significance. Meaning. The disciplines of memory and imagination. The immeasurable. The pursuit of ideas. The heart and soul of the matter. The microcosm of life. Probing what it means to be human. Answering the question: Why are we here?

As the host and producer of the weekly arts talk program, Art Matters on KFAI-FM Community Radio (Wednesdays at 7pm), I curate conversations and engage others in dialogue about arts and culture. In over two decades of producing my program, I estimate that I have conducted over 3,500 radio interviews. I keep asking questions, but I know less about the mysteries of human imagination and creativity than I ever did, although I never tire of this exploration. I recently read that the humanities offer clues, but never a complete answer. I have never defined what I was doing as the work of the humanities, but it is nothing if not that. I respect that it is not easy baring your soul on the stage, or in a memoir, or on the big screen. But that artistic self-disclosure can provide more meaning, insight, empathy, and understanding to the audience, which in turn enriches the cultural fabric of society as a whole.

Several years ago I produced an audio documentary, “Art and Spirit Matters: Art and Religion in the Twin Cities,” an interfaith, cross-cultural look at matters of art and spirit, with topics ranging from Gospel to Goddess worship, Islamic installation art to Jewish Sephardic music and the preservation of the Tibetan sacred and folk arts. Ironically, in some of the cultures of the artists I interviewed, there was no word for “art;” it is not a separate endeavor, but part of everyday life. One of the artists I featured was the poet J. Otis Powell‽ (the interrobang—a punctuation mark combining both a question and an exclamation point—at the end of his name is worthy of an interview on its own). I told him that I appreciated delving deeply into the material and producing a documentary that was not time-sensitive, but more timeless in nature. Ever the prodding mentor and wordsmith, he countered: “Timely!”

I also produced an audio documentary called “Art is Patriotic.” In politically charged times, conversations of art and culture offer a soothing balm and open the path for dialogue. If you talk about politics, it can be polarizing, but if you talk about art and politics, you may be closer to having a meaningful discussion about how policy affects society. In my work for Mizna’s Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, we screened scores of films from 22 different nations ranging from The United Arab Emirates to the Gaza Strip in Palestine to North Africa during the Arab Spring. The humanities manifest in the film arts though the authentic lens of independent filmmakers and allow one to deconstruct and reconstruct images we are fed in the media, by connecting directly with everyday people.

Often, artists can measure the temperature of a society by reflecting back through music, visual art, theater, and other art forms what we are collectively witnessing and experiencing. They can be creative visionaries and truth-tellers, and the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Art and cultural expression can be beautiful, provocative, humanizing, and soulful.

What are the humanities to me? Timeless and Timely!

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