Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Nobody's Buying

The defense of arts funding rages throughout the blogosphere. Libertarians say the arts should be self-supporting, the artists say if it's valuable it can't support itself. The conservatives attack liberal bias, the liberals attack narrow-mindedness.

My lack of sympathy with the basic tenets of libertarianism, with its naive and ahistorical faith in the benevolence of the free market, makes me unwilling to even mount an attack. It is like talking about music with the tone deaf. The guy who wrote, on Allison Croggon's blog, about being "dragged" by his wife to a production of Metamorphoses, which he attributes to some old "Greek" play (Greek? Greek???) and which disappointed him because it didn't have any nudity in it...well, it is representative, and arguing with a man standing at the intersection of Ignorant Street and Braindead Blvd really isn't worth the candle.

But I can hardly resist expressing my wonder at the defenses for the value of art being mounted by my blogosphere comrades in arts. At the drop of a grant proposal, everybody is willing to wax eloquent about all the beautiful things the arts add to life. A few paragraphs from Allison are emblematic:

Artists have personally experienced what the arts can give: as a means of self awareness; as a profound and continuous pleasure; as one of the human activities that give meaning and dignity to human existence; as a means of creating a sense of community and relationship; as a way of establishing and questioning a national identity; as a way of understanding our place in the world and ourselves as human beings beyond the materialist valuations of the marketplace.

Anyone who has ever loved another human being, who has had a child, who has felt - by looking at a painting, or listening to music, or by walking through a virgin forest or a humble laneway transfigured by moonlight or, like Wordsworth, by standing on a city bridge - in fact, anyone who has been touched by beauty in one of its myriad manifestations - knows that there are many things in life that are too complex and too profound to be valued simply in terms of money. Art is one of those things.

All this discussion of "continuous pleasure" and "meaning and dignity" and "creating a sense of community and relationship" and "beauty in one of its myriad manifestations" -- well, it just chokes me up. The thing that impresses me about these paragraphs, and the many, many others just like it that are mouthed in defense of arts funding, is that the feelings expressed are so...balanced. In the midst of this Hallmark card image of the arts, there is a little gesture toward "questioning a national identity" (balanced, of course, by "establishing" that identity), but only a small gesture, and there is talk of "understanding ourselves as human beings," which sounds beautifully soul-enhancing. But the fact is that, when the rubber meets the road and the actors meet the stage, the people of the blogosphere don't give a damn about beauty and meaning and pleasure and dignity, and if you mention the word "responsibility" in terms of something like the creation of "a sense of community and relationship" they turn absolutely blue in the face and start raising images of Joseph McCarthy -- no, what they care about getting up people's noses, about sneering at just about any values at all. The true value of a work of art is readily established by measuring the degree to which it tweeks the noses of...well, of just about everybody except the artists themselves.

Over at "A Poor Player," Tom wonders about the lack of right wing art, and the relentlessly liberal slant of the arts in general. Well, I suppose one might point to the art that IS supporting itself and say that is right wing art. I stopped watching 24, for instance, when I found myself pulling FOR Jack to eject the ACLU lawyer who was there to prevent the CIA from torturing someone. Most Hollywood films are decidely right wing, especially in the action film genre. Music? Check out the rightward slant of country western, for instance, or the classical music genre entirely with its reliance on music by long-dead white males.

But both the left wing art and the right wing art stands on the same ground: scorn for the audience. The left wing artists think the audience is filled with non-thinking, insensitive, narrow-minded oafs, and they want to attack them; the right wing artists think the audience is filled with non-thinking, insensitive, narrow-minded oafs, and they want to pander to them. Rarely is there a healthy respect for one's fellow man, a sense of being a part of a community in the midst of facing the mysteries of life and living. The left wing artists put self-expression ahead of responsibility to a community, and the right wing artists put profit ahead of responsibility to community. They are brothers under the skin.

If the non-profit arts wants funding to continue, they need to take a little more seriously its role as part of a community; if the profit-making arts wants to avoid censorship and regulation, they need to take a little more seriously its role as part of a community.

And artists need to quit cynically trotting out this sentimental view of the value of the arts when their behavior contradicts the image. Nobody is buying it anymore.


George Hunka said...

This is exactly the same sort of arts bashing (or, at the very least, artist-bashing) that Ben Ellis discussed the other day.

Because you offer no support for your broad statements, Scott--"When the rubber meets the road and the actors meet the stage, the people of the blogosphere don't give a damn about beauty and meaning and pleasure and dignity"; "Left wing artists think the audience is filled with non-thinking, insensitive, narrow-minded oafs, and they want to attack them"; "Rarely is there a healthy respect for one's fellow man, a sense of being a part of a community in the midst of facing the mysteries of life and living"--well, all one can say is the work of the artists I cite (anyway) speaks for itself, as does Alison's own work and criticism. I'm content to let our readerships decide whose arguments are more valid.

Except to say this, which I feel is necessary in the face of such tone-deaf rhetoric (a quality not limited to libertarians, apparently) and clear antagonism to and disrespect for artists themselves, there's scarcely anything here that deserves response.

Benoit said...

I thought that the point of making art is to express yourself. Regarding funding, I might be starting my career but I do believe it's possible to get funds if you have a good project and that money will be coming from different source. Those funds don't have any political conotation. I never seen any right wing art nor left wing art, just people. Left, right, I don't buy all of this. There is only one way, and that's to go forward.

Scott Walters said...

Interesting, George -- and yet, you responded. Thanks for sharing. And forgive me for disagreeing with you.

Scott Walters said...

No, Benoit, the idea that art is about expressing yourself is a recent innovation coming primarily through Romantic era (see M. H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp). Other alternatives might be: to make sense of the world, to create beauty, to strengthen empathy, to make something special, the create a sense of community, to help people to see the world more vividly, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the idea that art is about "expressing yourself" is, well, crap. Of course self expression is part of the game, but those who think it's the whole of it - a rather American idea, if I may say so - miss the point. Especially the aspect of formal imagination.

As for your post, Scott: tell me, who are these artists who despise everybody? I have never met one, and I've met a lot of artists in my life. Difficult, grumpy people, some of them, but they leave such contempt to those more petty. Romeo Castelluci - the avant garde Italian director accused of such things by those with no patience for his work - is one of the humblest and nicest and most open people one could meet. His work is offered generously: you can like it or hate it (people do both) but that's not up to him. What's up to him is making what he makes to the best of his ability.

Maybe what you can't accept is that people like Castelluci consider that they are making something, well, beautiful. Just as Francis Bacon did, and every serious artist I know. Hallmark cards just sentimentalise and commercialise the much more complex experiences that artists attempt to express. Personally, I think they offer the reverse of beauty. And it's about time that word was wrested back from those who abuse it, so that it does not bebcome vulnerable to the sneers of those whom beauty embarrasses. As Rilke said, its message is simple: "You must change your life".

Anonymous said...

And PS Scott: you tell me where I diss beauty, dignity, pleasure, meaning. All my reviews are all about these things.

George Hunka said...

And I told you why I responded, Scott--because such unsupported bashing is frankly unacceptable and does deserve response, not the tacit acceptance of its validity that silence would afford. No number of sarcastic "Forgive me"s or "Thanks for sharing"s detract from this; it's mere knee-jerk, insincere hurt.

Really, unless you're psychic somehow, you shouldn't second-guess my motives in responding to you except to offer a sincere questioning of your own position. The question still remains: how do you support your own theses, citing specific examples? Certainly as a university professor you're familiar with the necessity for this.

Scott Walters said...

George -- A blog post is not a scholarly article, and I am not under obligation to provide detailed citations for everything I write on a personal blog anymore than you are. When I want to submit my ideas for peer review, I will send them to "Theatre Journal." Until that time, I will write as I prefer to write, and thank you to keep your huffing and puffing on your own blog.

For historical evidence, however, I refer you and Allsion to Oxford English professor and London Times book review editor John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Publishers Weekly summarizes the book on the Amazon.com site thusly: "This scathing critique argues that modernist literature and art arose as a reaction against popular culture and the mass reading public created by late 19th-century educational reforms. Oxford Enlgish professor Carey shows how intellectuals like D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Knut Hamsun, George Gissing and Wyndham Lewis scorned "the masses" as vulgar and trivial while exalting the artist as a natural aristocrat and transmitter of timeless values. T. S. Eliot predicted that the spread of education would lead to barbarism. Charles Baudelaire condemned photography as a distraction for the "vile multitude," while other intellectuals expressed contempt for newspapers and popular entertainments. H. G. Wells proposed measures to restrict parenthood as a means to curb the "black and brown races" whom he considered inferior to whites. Carey's razor-sharp analysis is an antidote to snobbery and class prejudice in all forms." Library Journal, also quoted at Amazon, reviews as follows: "Carey (English, Oxford Univ.) contends that the modernist literature of some prominent English authors writing from the 1880s through 1939 was a hostile reaction to the newly educated mass reading public and its popular culture. These writings were in styles designed to exclude semiliterate readers and buttress the self-esteem of literary intellectuals as part of a natural aristocracy. After World War II, confronted by television and other popular media, intellectuals were driven to create other literary modes to shield high culture from the reach of the majority. Separate chapters on George Gissing, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Wyndham Lewis reinforce Carey's general thesis. Published last year in England, this is a closely reasoned and stimulating discussion." Read the quotations in the first chapter of this book -- it will curl your hair, and make you question whether the Modernist movement was really as liberatory as it is painted. Intellectual snobbery and hostility toward "the masses" has long been at the center of much "avant garde" writing, in the theatre and elsewhere, and I see very little evidence that the current theatrical "avant garde" isn't following in Modernism's footsteps, at least in regards to its relationship with the larger audience.

When you are finished with this book, I refer to you the same author's What Good Are the Arts? for a second dose.

George Hunka said...

Well, I (and Allsion, as you have her name; at least it's not the similarly incorrect "Allison"; you get the names of others right, can't you have the same respect for hers? or is proofreading as out-of-place on the blogosphere as relevant citation?) can't respond to books (or second-hand reports of books) that I haven't read, Scott. I'm responding to what you've written, which I assume is based on what you've read in the blogosphere, as well as those authors to which you refer. Since you're taking the blogosphere to task for this, it surely isn't asking too much to provide an example or two from the target you seem to have in your sights.

Or perhaps it is. In which case, who's huffing and puffing here?

Anonymous said...

I was wondering who you were referring to now, Scott. Not artists who were writing 100 years ago (much as I admire Yeats, I'm glad I'm not him. Ditto Ezra. Ditto Eliot.) Pound was a Fascist, for godsake. Baudelaire thought women shouldn't read. But let's look a little more recently: can you say this about Harold Pinter? Kamau Brathwaite? Pablo Neruda? Sarah Kane? Les Murray (author of The Vernacular Republic, which ought to tell you something)? Ariane Mnouchkine? Peter Brook? I don't think so.

Things have changed somewhat since 1920.

And in any case, you were attacking, in particular, the blogosphere, and, in particular, me, for "cynically" invoking values when funding is in question that I do not hold in my other writing. That's pretty fucking insulting, frankly.

Scott, I say this entirely seriously: show me where, in all the thousands of words I have spent on talking about art, I have argued against beauty, dignity, meaning, or pleasure. Show me where I have said that audiences consist of oafs or where I have expressed contempt for audiences. It is an opinion utterly inconsistent with everything I think that theatre is, but still, show me what I said that led you to claim this. If you can't tell me where I've said these things, you owe me a huge apology.

Scott Walters said...

Alison (sorry for the mispelling -- my hand has been slapped with a ruler by Headmaster Hunka) and George -- I am really, really tired of the constant demands for apologies. There are many, including George, who have yet to apologize for the thuggish way they behaved months ago. Apparently, you feel anyone who disagrees with your opionions should be required to read through everything you have written and provide a written report. I don't have time for this nonsense.

But please don't try to pretend that things have changed since the 1920s, and artists have suddenly come to a peaceful and kind relationship with the general populace. I'm certain that Pinter has expressed as much disdain for the general public as any of the authors written about by Carey. And Kane. I agree that Mnouchkine and Brook are audience-friendly. As is Augusto Boal and many others.

But taking it to the level of individuals distorts the argument. The Modernist hostility toward the audience is a well-known phenomenon, and comes out in many ways, including the eye-rolling scorn of many members of the blogosphere for the audience reviewers at Broadway.com, for instance.

Alison, I thought what you wrote was beautiful, and I did not accuse you of being hypocritical. What I was referring to was the number of bloggers who linked to and quoted with admiration those lines, when most of the time they have nothing but scorn for the lowly common man.

Now I would appreciate it if you both went back to your blogs and quit hassling me.

Scott Walters said...

Alright, you want an example? Here's one from George's latest post on lyricism:

"The need to assign some kind of ultimate meaning and significance to poetry and lyricism is the need of a materialistic, utilitarian society to find a reason to spend any time with poetry and lyricism at all. So long as it can serve some kind of self-help function like giving courage, we've got a use for it. But if it doesn't do that–worse, if it just makes us recognize our dire predicament as human beings, refusing to offer hope or courage or operate as some kind of emotional expectorant–then it's disposable."

This is a sneer at the members of our society who, like Garrison Keillor, look to poetry for courage -- or hope, or love, or any other reason beyond the appreciation of a poem, in true New Criticism fashion, as an end in itself. It is possible to disagree with an attitude without typifying it with words like "materialistic" and "utilitarian."

George Hunka said...

Sorry, Scott. I'm going back to my blog and quit hassling you, as you asked. Feel free to mischaracterize and trivialize my arguments as you wish.

Scott Walters said...

Thank you -- and feel free to keep doing the same to me.

Anonymous said...

In case you forgot, Scott: You wrote:

At the drop of a grant proposal, everybody is willing to wax eloquent about all the beautiful things the arts add to life. A few paragraphs from Allison are emblematic:

Then you proceed to quote me extensively and comment on what I wrote, claiming that I only believe these things when the money is on the line.

That seems pretty directly personal to me. (And then you accuse others of thuggish behaviour??) And if you don't want to be asked to apologise, don't say offensive and personal things that can't be supported.

I guess you couldn't find any examples when I challenged you to find them. But are you prepared to apologise? No! You just say that's not what you meant! But see above.

As for saying claiming that citing examples distorts the argument: well. If you want contempt for the masses, try reading that worthy conservative and protector of Higher Things, Matthew Arnold. What about modernists like Apollinaire and Eluard? You can't claim that Modernism is only made out of snobby elitists, or that revolutionaries routinely showed contempt for the "ordinary" man. It's all rather more complicated than that: modernism was an extremely diverse phenomenon. It included women as well, btw.

And Keilor's conception of poetry is, as George says, much closer to self-help books than poetry itself (I remember that first anthology). George said it was patronising its audience. Surely that shows a little respect for readers rather than otherwise?

YS said...

American Dad this past week says a lot about what much of the public thinks of theater:


regardless of whether it is true, I think the spoof tells us how the how the public sees what American theater has to offer.

David said...

You know, I have this love-hate relationship with the theatre blogosphere: on the one hand it can be a fantastic place for us to exchange thoughts, ideas, and talk about serious questions that we face everyday in this field of work. On the other hand, it veers into insult and petty bickering at the flip of a coin. Accusing Scott of some ulterior motives because he misspelled Alison's name? Give me a break. Can I tell you how many playwrights with blogs misuse "there," "they're" and "their"? But I don't hold it against them, or bring it up in a public forum as an indication of their unfitness take part in the conversation. (Except maybe I just did...arrrrgh!)

Seriously, though, amidst all the pulling of hair and throwing of spidwads in the comments on this post, I think a very interesting discussion was missed: the idea of conservative and progressive theatre. This is something I've been thinking a lot about in the past year, and so I'll share a bit.

I think that an important distinction needs to be made between conservative/progressive form and conservative/progressive politics. The two are separate things, and can be mixed together (conservative form + progressive politics, and vice versa.)

To be conservative is to seek to conserve something that has come before. To be progressive is to seek out the new. There is, in fact an overabundance of conservative theatre, when looking at form at least. Any time we present Ibsen in period clothes on a period set with period furniture and molding, talking like people talk, that is (formally) conservative theatre. Naturalism is conservative.

Avant garde theatre is, by definition, progressive in form. (I should clarify that not all theatre that labels itself avant garde is actually progressive in form -- but let's say that the Platonic ideal of avant garde theatre would be necessarily progressive in form.) It break with convention and tries to chart new territory. However, there is no reason why a piece that is progressive in form couldn't have a politically conservative point of view.

There may be practical reasons why this so rarely happens, however -- namely, that potential audience members who would agree with the politics of the piece would be turned off by the experimental form of presentation or style. This could be because a conservative worldview tends to affect not only political choices, but also preferences in artistic style -- you want to see theatre that is presented in the manner that you expect. It could also be because the progressive form is so strongly tied to progressive politics, so conservative audience members incorrectly assume that any show that espouses an avant garde style will necessarily also be espousing leftist politics.

The more interesting question to me is, why can't this experimental, multimedia, pupet-cum-dance-theatre piece (with conservative politics) draw in a progressive (in politics and taste) audience? After all, liberals are the ones who typically espouse an interest in a wide variety of world-views, including those which are foreign to them. Wouldn't that include seeing a politically conservative show, especially if the progressive form of it was right up your alley?

I think that the answer to this question might have to do with church.

Conservatives (I'm going to grossly overgeneralize for a moment here) go to church (or temple, or mosque) at least in part to have their beliefs and world-view reaffirmed. This, however, is by no means a need that is limited to conservatives -- we all have this need, in varying degrees, and in different areas. When it comes to politics, especially in recent years, political conservatives have found affirmation of their beliefs, and guidance for their political choices, at the pulpit. I think that many political progressives (the theatre-going ones, at least) look for a similar sense of affirmation of group-belonging when they go to see political theatre (or political art in general.)

I spent a lot of time being frustrated about the situation of liberal artists presenting liberal shows to a liberal audience that agrees with everything they said before they walk into the theatre. I thought that this "preaching to the converted" was pointless -- art should change things, open peoples' minds to new possibilities or ideas, etc etc. Or at least political art should be doing something like that.

But I think that this brand of political art serves a very real purpose, and it is the same purpose served by going to church -- to spend time with a group of like-minded individuals, being reminded of what you believe, and the rightness of those beliefs. It's not about exploring new ideas, it's about taking comfort in the familiarity of old ones. "Preaching to the converted"-style political theatre is, in fact, formally conservative, even when (as is typical) espousing left-wing politics.

Personally, I don't find that type of political theatre very interesting, but it definitely serves an important purpose to the audience it serves. However, it's not going to be changing any minds, because it's not trying to do so.


David said...

P.S. Like a fool, I just noticed that this post is from nearly a month ago. Teach me to not check the dates in my RSS feed...