NYT Battles Free Beacon Over Whether Hippies Running Around In Fields With Sheep Is Art

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Thomas Phippen Associate Editor
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The New York Times is coming to the defense of a taxpayer-funded, wordless modern dance project which features sheep, dancers and dogs dubbed “Doggie Hamlet.”

“But Is It Art? In the Case of ‘Doggie Hamlet,’ Yes,” Times dance critic Gia Kourla writes in response to a December Washington Free Beacon story revealing the conceptual art piece received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Doggie Hamlet involves several actors joining in a field to scare sheep and walk around wearing sheepskins,” the Free Beacon reported. A performance of Doggie Hamlet in September featured “no lines from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only an older man and woman yelling at a sheep dog and a confused herd of sheep,” the Free Beacon reported.

A 2014 video sketch of the Doggie Hamlet concept reported by the Free Beacon shows a young man and a woman dancing together in a field, with sheep. The boy spins, falls, and rolls in the grass as dozens of sheep are herded before him.

Kourla argues that despite the seeming absurdity of the three-minute teaser video, the final project will be very artistic. “I can’t defend this strangely chopped together video,” Kourla wrote for the Sunday newspaper. “Art is subjective to be sure, but judging a three-minute promo without context does no one any favors.”

The artist who created and choreographed the contemporary art piece, Ann Carlson, is “no joke,” Kourla writes. Carlson is a “multidisciplinary artist whose work poignantly explores social issues through the lens of performance,” Kourla says, who “unearths what’s wise in absurdity and shows how something that might appear banal can suddenly become luminous.”

Carlson herself knows that her project is tough to grasp. “People are, like: ‘What is this? You’re working with dogs?’ And they laugh,” Carlson told the Times.

The 70-minute performance is inspired by Oprah book-club favorite “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” which is structured like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, about a mute boy who learns sign language to communicate with people, and gestures to communicate with his dog.

Carlson has performed Doggie Hamlet several times around the country, and will perform it at Dartmouth College this summer. The Dartmouth event is sponsored in part by a $30,000 grant from the NEA. The Times article reveals that the Doggie Hamlet also received $45,000 from an organization founded by the NEA.

Kourla reports that the performance “brings together people from seemingly disparate groups. Farmers, artists and, to her surprise, knitters have been in attendance.”

Carlson has been on a “media blackout” since President Donald Trump’s election, but was surprised to hear from Kourla that her pastoral performance work had been criticized. “It’s such an innocuous, sweet work in a way, I felt at first like, really?” Carlson told the Times.

Kourla’s defense of the Doggie Hamlet artist gets to the heart of the issue behind federal art funding. For Kourla, creating artwork the perennial problem with federally funded modern dance and performance art projects is that “It is too easy to make fun of them.”

Trump has proposed pulling funding from the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, something conservatives have wanted to do since the 1980s.

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