New journal looks at arts as Whitman used to do

July 07, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

"I DO NOT doubt but the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world," declared the poet Walt Whitman. "I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed."

For Whitman, "each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty," and "all that a person does or thinks is of consequence." As the writer Susan Sontag has noted, America's greatest poet saw "no contradiction between making art an instrument of identification with the community and aggrandizing the artist as a heroic, romantic, self-expressing ego."

Whitman's delirious embrace of New World inclusiveness and vitality was intended to herald a great American cultural revolution that would obliterate old distinctions of beauty, ugliness, importance and triviality, and replace them with a grand democratic synthesis.

Alas, things didn't turn out quite that way. Still, there is something Whitmanesque about the efforts of local artists, critics, curators and teachers to find in the mundane facts of everyday life in Baltimore the seeds of a new cultural renaissance.

The vehicle for this transformative vision is Links, a new biannual critical journal to be published locally that takes as its purview the broadest possible range of visual arts in Baltimore and the world. The premiere issue is due out at the end of this month.

"There's a confluence of things coming together that has people in the arts community thinking we are poised to make an impression regionally and nationally," says Megan Hamilton, one the journal's founders and a member of its five-person editorial board. "We want this journal to give validation and credibility to an arts community that has been active here for a long time."

The key themes of the new venture are set forth in an impassioned if irreverent lead essay by editorial-board member Peter Walsh, titled "Wild From Seclusion: Art and Locality in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A."

Walsh's piece, a thought-provoking if occasionally verbose polemic dedicated to the proposition that creativity begins close to home, could well serve as the journal's revolutionary manifesto.

"Local art, once the mark of things small-minded and amateur, is increasingly becoming the place where cultural negotiation occurs, [and] the site of resistance to the cultural imperialism that has become one of the unpleasant side effects of electronic media," he writes.

"In the past, big cultural centers have had a parasitic relationship with the fringes and peripheries of the world, their gravitational pull siphoning off those fortunate few who have the skills and resources to leave behind the smaller cities and towns, condemning the 'provinces' to cultural barrenness."

Walsh believes the time has come to "turn this equation on its head, to make apples fall upward, to allow rivers to run backwards, feeding their once-secret sources instead of flowing morbidly into an ocean of homogeneous anonymity, to end the cultural blood-sucking of the art capitals and put the nourishment back in the provinces."

Most of the essay consists of vignettes illustrating the difficult passage of the artist in Baltimore. "Roll your eyes when appropriate," Walsh invites readers. "Embrace those fragments that resonate with meaning or relevance. Proceed at your own risk."

Readers who accept that invitation will encounter Hamilton's essay on photographer Sally Mann, a discussion of Susan McClary's feminist music criticism by composer-critic Robert Haskins, a long note on the cabaret tradition by co-editor Kathy O'Dell and thumbnail sketches of the alternative art scene in Baltimore.

Some topics, like the piece on Mann or Haskins' note on McClary, seem a bit dated. The specific controversies each of these subjects provoked occurred several years ago, and one suspects the essays in Links are reworkings of earlier pieces.

Still, Hamilton's discussion of the issues raised by Mann's work is thoughtful and relevant to today's debate over censorship and obscenity.

As if to underscore the continuing volatility of the issue, two printing firms approached by Link's editors refused to take on the project because several of Mann's controversial pictures of her children were to accompany the article.

"This journal is for people in Baltimore involved in visual arts at a serious level, and also people outside Baltimore -- artists, collectors, arts professionals, writers, students -- interested in what's going on here," says Hamilton. "We're a venue for serious scholarly criticism and analysis, but also about being irreverent."

The initial press run for Links will be 1,000 copies. The journal will sell for about $7 and be distributed through subscription and at local bookstores like Louie's Book Store Cafe and Borders Books & Music. The next issue, planned for publication this winter, will focus on Baltimore's new American Visionary Art Museum.

The editors are determined to fight Baltimore's image of provincialism and what editor Walsh calls the "self-deprecating belief that Baltimore is a blue-collar nowheresville, ugly and dangerous."

Instead, they urge an open-hearted embrace of the city's unique historical and cultural legacy. Walsh at times even succumbs to Whitmanesque passages of poetical delirium: "Like Annius of Viterbo, a renaissance Italian patriot who bestowed upon his beloved city invented histories -- fake, elaborate, glorious -- I woo Baltimore's idiosyncrasies, finding treasures in every rowhouse window, seeing entire worlds in the intricate labors of my friends."

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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