Wednesday, November 08, 2006

About Theatre During a Time of War

"It is now often said that theatrical entertainment in general is socially justified in this dark time as a means of relaxing the strain of reality, and thus helping us keep sane. This may be true, but if more were not true, if we felt no deeper value in dramatic art than entertainment -- we could hardly have the heart for it now. One faculty, we know, is going to be of vast importance to the half-destroyed world -- indispensble for its rebuilding -- the faculty of creative imagination. That spark of it which has given this group of ours such life and meaning as we have is not so insignificant that we should let it die. The social justification which we feel to be valid now for makers and players of plays is that they shall help to keep alive the world with the light of imagination. Without it the wreck of the world that was cannot be cleared away, and the new world shaped."
-- George Cram "Jig" Cook -- Provincetown Players, 1918

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

If You'd Like to Hear My Voice...

Mirror-Up-To-Nature interviewed me on their podcast about the Broadway.com criticism issue at: http://dumbshow.mirroruptonature.com/uncategorized/episode-12/ Check it out.

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.