In Okanogan Country there is a tree called the lodgepole pine. From certain lodgepole pine trees hang compact green cones that are fairly heavy and not at all like traditional pine cones. I used to love playing with these apparent failures, these cones that never turned brown and never dropped seeds like the rest. Years later, I learned that when the forest catches fire and burns to the earth, the fire melts the resin on these cones and the dormant seeds inside take root and grow into trees once again. In this way they outlast every tree in the forest.
On Jan 1st, 2012, I began publishing The Seattle Star. The idea had lain deep in my brain for quite some time, just as the serotinous cone hangs on the lodgepole pine, waiting for its moment. The fire came when Gothamist announced to us they would be putting Seattlest.com, for which I wrote at the time, on “indefinite hiatus.” Jose Amador came to me and said, “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? We’re not done yet.”
Indeed we weren’t. We had been writing together at Seattlest just over a year and, with all due modesty, reviving the lost art of thoughtful theater writing almost completely by ourselves, with the occasional salvo from John E. Allis. But a single year of thoughtful critical writing on performing arts in Seattle could hardly be expected to have turned things around after twenty years of neglect and abuse. I daresay it had been barely sufficient to “stop the bleeding,” as the phrase goes. It had been a great start, however, and I quite agreed with Jose: the project was not done. In fact it had only just begun its first stage; I had always had larger plans. I had a plan to rebuild all the arts in town and that is largely the purpose of The Seattle Star.
Mr. Amador and I began by reviewing performances. Now, reviewing theater and dance events is not, contrary to popular opinion, a worthless vocation of writing ineffective and bad PR for theaters. It is much nobler. It is, above all, an attempt to catalog the present for the future. The true goal is to preserve artists and their reputations from unfair obscurity. In the age of the Internet, a critic must preserve artists and their reputations not only from ignorance and gossip but also against a possibly greater threat: the threat of glut. While pundits often talk about the Internet being the artist’s salvation, the unspoken problem is that it is entirely too easy to get lost in the glut of completely irrelevant and often dismal rubbish that passes for art and art criticism on the Internet. It is essential for us to ensure that artists do not get lost among the pretenders and equally essential to ensure that the artists who have a voice only because of (or largely because of) the Internet are not lost in the web of cacophony.
The first project then: restore criticism to its place as a valid and crucial practice. This is the foundation. Everything else builds upon it, because at its heart criticism is a public dialogue and Seattle needs dialogue.
I have been part of that public dialogue for quite some time. I have been known in Seattle as a theater writer for the past twenty-three years. But I am a filmmaker by vocation and a photographer by profession. Having seen the decay in community in my vocational and professional worlds, I recognize it easily in the rest of the arts. Community in Seattle’s arts has degenerated to lip service and academic argot. Any self-respecting person who loves Seattle can only lament the waste of opportunities to pull it all together and shake his head as it fails once again to make its metamorphosis into a serious town for the arts and the envy of cities around the world.
Such a community cannot exist until it is cooperative. This has not happened. Critics and artists are at each other’s throats constantly. Artists of one discipline remain largely ignorant of artists in other disciplines–that is, when they are not actively laying siege to them as “competitors.” Even within the same discipline many Seattle artists prefer to carp and bitch rather than co-operate or co-exist.
This is silliness. Artists of all stripes should regularly be exploring the arts of their city. Filmmakers should talk to and work with painters. Photographers should talk to and work with dancers; sculptors should talk to and work with theater artists; poets should talk to and work with musicians; writers should talk to and work with architects; comix artists should talk to and work with fashion designers. The livelihood of the city’s arts depends completely upon the artists themselves breaking the boundaries of their own experience. If they will not lead by example, artists cannot reasonably expect the laity to follow. Without a serious community of all artists together, all efforts toward civic greatness will result in yet another incomplete Tower of Babel.
I aim with The Seattle Star to use my pages to help build that community, to use our knowledge and our limited power to bring artists together. So far we have done this quietly, by publishing poetry, drama, radio plays and fiction alongside our essay writing without so much as a hint that anything is unusual. We will continue to do that, but rest assured we will expand this mission visibly over the next year. We at the Star editorial staff have reached out to local playwrights, poets, painters, fiction writers, photographers, graphic designers, comics artists. I shall be publishing their works, alongside writings about their works and others. We are also currently adapting a couple of short stories for radio broadcast and audio podcast as well, and will be working soon on a video podcast that includes works by local filmmakers.
All this talk about community in the arts, though, is simply a reminder that the arts are themselves a piece of a larger community still, the community of Seattle. Certainly I am interested in the arts. But I am more interested in the world around me and especially in Seattle. I believe in politics and economics in the most original sense. No politics, no economics, no art. They are interdependent aspects of the same civic attitude. Stated simply: There are some things that no real citizen can ignore. The corollary is also true: There are some things a citizen is expected to know. While these statements raise discussions of a canon–discussions I know that people are loath to engage–I nevertheless believe them and I publish The Seattle Star on those premises. There are some things we expect you to know. There are some things we believe you cannot afford to ignore. These include certain things in the arts but even more they include civic events, politics, ideas. As we stabilize the running of the Star over its first year, we will be adding more and more cultural, social, political writing.
There is another link in this process I have not yet mentioned and that is the website itself. I believe a new arts journal needs a new design. This design must be a complete rethink of the modern magazine: what it should contain, how it should look, whom it should reach. Inspired deeply by the ideas of Lawrence Lessig and others I believe that Free Culture, as it is sometimes called, is a superior means of spreading ideas and building a community–or in this case, rebuilding one. More importantly, I believe that making the community in some way responsible for their arts and discussions about the arts is essential to any kind of contemporary creative vision. Everything we write or produce will be released to the Creative Commons. Advertising will be restricted to a subtle sponsorship rather than be allowed to destroy the experience of reading. Our readership will be treated as members, both paying and non-paying, who contribute to the success of the journal.
Obviously we have bitten off quite a lot. Such is my nature, I’m afraid. The Seattle Star is more than simply a direct response to the mess that was Seattlest. It is intended to become the premier arts and culture journal for the entire region, a new magazine for a new future. I hold no illusions that this will be easy, immediate or for some even desirable. There have always been many naysayers along the way. Nevertheless I find it exciting. There is great promise. We simply have to deliver on the promise.
The apropos reminder, of course, comes from the French Revolution–Danton, I believe–via George Bernard Shaw: “Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau” (Those who make half-revolutions dig their own graves). We know that this will take time. The fire that opens the seeds of the lodgepole pine cones in Okanogan is unpredictable. So was the inspiration for The Seattle Star. But once open, the seeds do take root and the pines do again grow tall. And so shall we.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net