Today is the first day of the Chicago Humanities Festival and last day of Chicago Ideas Week. Not that it matters anymore when one annual celebration of creativity ends and another begins. Somewhere, every day of the year, morning, brunch and night, there seems to be an arts panel, arts seminar, book talk, onstage discussion between a moderator and artist, onstage discussion between a moderator and several artists, onstage discussion between an artist and artist, or discourse on the state of something artistic happening.
Not that I'm complaining: I am an arts panel junkie. Last week in Manhattan, I attended the New Yorker Festival (for the 12th year in a row); the night before it started, I went to a book event featuring Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon at the 92nd Street Y, which has one of the country's oldest arts-in-conversation series. I sincerely believe in the live arts discussion. It is an unsung, unappreciated form of entertainment, and though it is fall, high season for the arts panel, I hope the proliferation of the form means it is having a renaissance. There have been talks in Chicago bookstores that gripped me in ways actual artwork never could.
And yet, there is a problem, an inevitable, soul-killing moment when many arts panels turn ugly.
I can say it in six words:
"Now we have time for questions."
When I asked Mary Kate Barley-Jenkins, director of programming at the Humanities Festival, about those times when Humanities events have gone south, she paused, then said: "I am having trouble pulling up those events because I try to purge events that didn't go well from my head, to be honest with you." Then she paused again and added: "But there is this lovely gentleman out there who sings all of his questions (to panelists). He goes to a lot of our events and he sings his questions. He means no harm, but he send things off the rails."
When I was at the New Yorker Festival, at an event with shoe designer Christian Louboutin, a woman grabbed the microphone during the Q-and-A portion and asked the designer if he would ever forgo his trademark red-lacquered sole to produce a pink-lacquered sole in recognition of breast cancer awareness. The question wasn't necessarily rude or unspeakable, but it wasn't really about the designer, who seemed to recognize this and replied, bluntly, no, he would not dilute his brand. The woman then asked the question several different ways, and what had been a charming, light discussion became airless and ground to a halt.
It somewhat reminded me of the guy I occasionally see at panels in Chicago who comes to the microphone (shirt unbuttoned to the waist) and, regardless of the subject, asks a question about Israelis or Palestinians.
Of course, there are gasbag artists who derail panels long before we get to the Q-and-A, windbags who hog time, remain vague. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with the Q-and-A format: It's a town hall, a reminder of the value of immediacy in a passive-aggressive age, and arguably part of the social contract between artist and audience. On the other hand, the Q-and-A has become de rigueur, chaotic and is occasionally met with no questions at all: A fascinating, breezy talk becomes a cocktail party where someone's loud and proud flatulence leaves the rest of the room to gaze at the floor in uncomfortable silence and wait for a draft.
The moderator makes a difference.
A bad moderator — too polite to interrupt, too preoccupied to let conversation wander, too long-winded — can be worse than a panel-killing idiot. Comedian Andy Borowitz is a good moderator, smart, generous and with an invaluable quality: He is not timid about reining things in or steering conversation away from Crazy Town. Never mind that his talks with fellow funny people at the New Yorker Festival have a knack for pulling the human being out of performers who generally hide behind a bulletproof irony (Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman), he has a gently chiding ability to make fun of the audience and its questions without humiliating. At the Silverman event, he told the woman asking the last question that she had the responsibility of asking a question so smart it summarized the entire talk — which is the kind of icebreaker that eases the tension.
"I always say that questions must be in the form of a question and should not be masquerading in the form of a comment or be thrown out there to demonstrate the commentator's expertise," Borowitz told me. "I don't know what it's like in Chicago, but in New York, regardless of what I say (before a Q-and-A), it's someone's time to shine. They have to talk about that commercial from '92 they saw Sarah Silverman in. It is a huge problem in New York, where narcissism is much more common on the surface."
Andy, we can be very tedious.
When I told Barley-Jenkins that characterizing Singing Question Man as lovely and harmless was appeasing an insidious, creeping contagion, she said, OK, sure, there are questions she is tired of: "There is the question that is not a question, the question not related to what the presenter is talking about, the question that comes from having read the description of the event and knowing your question in advance but not listening to the event and asking anyway, the question from the superfan, who I appreciate because they have love for the person on stage, but they just want to talk about their love and awe and just don't help."
Oh, let's not forget: The disconnected ramble/question about the artist's "process," the halfhearted request for the secret to success doing whatever the artist does, the boilerplate request for boilerplate advice, the request for an agent's name, the question about what author in history they would like to have dinner with, the long abrasive complaint that masquerades as an argument for an unrelated issue, the nervous soliloquy where the person is vaguely attempting to apply for an internship with the artist, like now.
Barley-Jenkins told me that the Humanities Festival — which starts today in Evanston, moves to Hyde Park next Sunday, then begins in earnest Nov. 1 — spends a lot of time working with moderators and stage managers and thinking about ways that arts panels can be tuned up. In fact, because of inane questions like the ones I've listed here, you will notice more index cards at the Humanities Festival this year. Instead of a line at a microphone, the festival will be encouraging audience members to write down their questions in the hope of speeding things up, discouraging the ranters and whittling down the irrelevant and redundant.
I don't know how I feel about this.
Index cards are not a new idea, and since many arts panels and book talks cost money, wanting a smooth production is understandable. Yet, at the risk of contradicting myself, any alternative to an open microphone does threaten the drama of an artist confronting an audience. Part of me enjoys the unpredictable performance art of the Q-and-A.
And let's not forget, as Donna Seaman, a Chicago critic who has moderated tons of panels at the Harold Washington Library (and often contributes to the Tribune), reminded me: A Q-and-A doesn't mean lousy questions. "Sometimes an audience is thrilling. Last year I was talking to Salman Rushdie (at Harold Washington), and this young girl stood and asked him if he could travel in time where would he go. It was silly but gutsy to ask a guy like Rushdie that, but because he's a natural storyteller, he went along with it. And truth is, I would have never thought to even ask Salman Rushdie about time travel."
Incidentally, on Tuesday I'm leading a conversation with "Sopranos" creator David Chase at the Chicago International Film Festival. I don't say this as a plug, but a plea: State your questions in the form of a question. Thank you.