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Modern-Day Canaries

Kurt Vonnegut has an interesting theory about the role of artists in today’s society. This is the “Canary-in-the-Coal-Mine” theory. Years ago, so the theory holds, coal miners used to take canaries down into the mines with them. As long as the canaries were chirping away the miners knew everything was all right. But if a gas leak occurred, the canaries would shortly stop singing. And if conditions got bad enough, the canaries would keel over, indicating that it was time for the miners to evacuate. Artists, Vonnegut maintains, serve the same purpose in society that the canaries performed in the coal mines. With their more highly developed sensitivity they can alert the rest of society to disturbances before it gets too late.

Recent events in Orange County lead me to wonder about the health of our artist community.

When the city of Newport Beach removed the paintings of a local artist, Rosa Williamson, after her paintings had been defaced, most people paid little attention. Aside from the issues of censorship and discrimination, the actions on behalf of City Hall reveal a particularly disturbing treatment of artists in our coastal culture.

At a time when our local colleges and universities are actively recruiting the best talent available in the fields of medicine, business and scientific research, it is curious that there should be such a disdain for talented artists.

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While it does not cost the city anything, such a noncommissioned invitation costs the artist hundreds of hours in the execution process plus hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on materials--in advance. In return, the only reward for the artist is, hopefully, some recognition and exposure to the art patrons of the community.

If Orange County has any interest in attracting the best people in the field of the visual arts, it should stop and analyze the condition of the artists living and breathing within the county. We just might find that they have stopped singing.

THOMAS HART

Costa Mesa

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