This past Friday, Gallatin, in honor of her 40th anniversary (Does Gallatin have a gender? Feel free to problematize in the comments) hosted a symposium featuring twelve graduates of the school (both BA and MA) who are currently working in the arts.
The panelists included lauded filmmakers, writers, musicians, performers, dancers, theatre artists, critics, scholars, and Cody Horn. Yes, you read that right. Cody Horn, the strong-jawed model-turned-actress who gave the undisputed best performance since Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice as “Brooke,” Channing Tatum’s love interest in Stephen Soderberg’s masterpiece (and NYU Local’s Official Pick For Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume Design at this year’s Academy Awards) in Magic Mike. Horn graduated from Gallatin in 2011 with a concentration in “Humans and Earth,” though she was already pursuing her career while in school.
Horn’s inclusion might have seemed a bit odd in a sea of, shall we say, slightly more traditionally “academic” folks. Horn was sandwiched between Simon Fortin (MA ’05), a classical performer and scholar of Jacobean drama, and Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg (BA ’87), a photographer who made her mark capturing the Israel-Palestinian Peace Accord on the White House Lawn in 1993. While Horn was hardly the primary thrust or focus of the panel, it was a little hard (because we are a disgusting celebrity obsessed culture and blah blah blah) not to play “one of these things is not like the other” during the nearly two-hour, mostly naval-gazing discussion.
As expected, the discussion opened with panelists being asked how their time at Gallatin has effected their work in the arts. Most reported a frustration with the sometimes strict divide between “artist” and “scholar,” and thanked the school profusely for not giving in to such phony constructions.
“When I was at drama school, the worst thing you could be called was an ‘intellectual,'” Fortin said. Other participants included choreographer Ellen Cornfield (MA ’00), writer and Ph.D. candidate Thulani Davis (MA ’08), documentary filmmaker Jamie Johnson (BA ’03), musician Rosalie Kaplan (BA ’08), filmmaker Francesca Mirabella (BA ’06), theater director Nicole A. Watson (MA ’08), and painter, sculptor, filmmaker, writer, producer, photographer and actor Andrew Levitas (BA ’03). With the most diverse résumé of the group, Levitas wryly commented that his experience in Gallatin gave him license to “not give a shit,” ergo his inability to be defined by any singular medium. Levitas has a feature film (Lullaby) as well as a children’s book both set to be released in the coming year, and the symposium was followed by the opening of his new art exhibition “Andrew Levitas: A Brief Survey 2002-2012”
The panelists’ comments received formal response from journalist Manuela Cerri Goren (BA ’00), who did an admirable job of attempting to contextualize and shape the conversation.
Certainly, the intellect of all twelve artists shone through (even Ms. Horn, who gave us a friendly reminder that the event was taking place on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor even though “We’re all intellectuals and none of us are talking about it”). The panelists (mercifully) pivoted from beaming about Gallatin just long enough to allow extended discourse on race, class and politics in America.
The event’s general lack of specificity was frustrating– the panel was simply too large and too diverse (i.e, a 20-minute diatribe about race and politics was juxtaposed with Cody Horn saying “What I learned at Gallatin is what art is.”) When the panelists were asked about what social issues their experiences with Gallatin and subsequent years spent living in New York have made them aware of, musician Rosalie Kaplan (BA ’08) said, “The biggest social issue it’s made me aware of is how hard it is to be an artist in New York.”
Kaplan had, in fact, quit her day job (as a personal assistant) that very day, and planned to move forward, at the age of 26, by supporting herself through her music. A grand accomplishment for sure, especially in a country that does provide abysmal support for its artists. But to say that this is the most serious social issue? Were the symposium more concretely about social change in the arts, perhaps the statement could have been picked apart more thoroughly. Unfortunately, the soundbite was drowned out by all of the event’s moving parts.
Luckily, the affair was moderated by the inestimable André De Shields. De Shields (MA ’91) originated the titular role in The Wiz on Broadway, and has also appeared in The Full Monty, and Ain’t Misbehavin‘ Whatever difficulties the evening did experience were helped immensely by De Shields powerful gifts of pontification, delivering gems of genius such as
“We live more authentically on the stage, or before the camera, or in the bathroom shower, than we do in what we call “Life”… we always think of “The Abyss” as a blind, dark, bottomless chasm, but “The Abyss” is ourselves, and that’s how we achieve truth and authenticity as an actor. We have to go inside it and release that… You’ve got to move out of your comfort zone, you’ve got to leave that which is familiar. André Gide says, “In order to achieve new horizons one must lose sight of the shore for a very, very very long time.” An actor must think of himself as Christopher Columbus, who leaves the European shore, does not know exactly where he’s going, and spends three months on this dark, inhospitable ocean, but perseveres.”
There’s no succinct way to talk about the very large questions that were posed at last Friday’s event, and in that way it was much like every single Gallatin inderdisciplinary seminar you’ve ever taken. There were the long-talkers, the aloof boys with bedroom eyes and stringy hair, the girls with big sweaters, the hurt artisans and, of course, that one girl who’s just trying to make it as an actress, and is definitely not here to make friends.
Photos by George Brooks.