Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Arts Funding

I know it is de rigueur to bemoan the lack of public funding for the arts. But when I read something like this by Roadside Theatre artistic director Dudley Cocke, I find myself questioning:

If the not-for-profit arts value being relevant to society at large, then it follows that this audience must reflect society. Generally, the not-for-profit arts is presently comfortable with an elite audience. As I have previously mentioned, with most (80 percent) of its audience drawn from the top 15 percent of the income scale, the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise.

How can we defend subsidizing the top 15% of society? But, you say, we aren't -- we're subsidizing artists. Really? With the elimination of individual grants, only arts institutions are being subsidized. So what the funding does is keep ticket prices "affordable" -- i.e., make sure that the wealthy don't have to pay the real price for what the creation of art costs. If they did, regional theatre ticket prices would, no doubt, look more like Broadway.

But we want to keep ticket prices low so that theatregoers on the lower end of the ticket scale can come, right? Except we only want them to come on our terms. We want to "educate" our audience to appreciate the upper-middle class, college educated aesthetic values that we, as artists, value and that our upper-middle class, college educated patrons appreciate. The result, as John McGrath writes in
A Good Night Out, is "to enshrine certain specific values and qualities of a play above others." He goes on:
For example, mystery - or mysteriousness as it so often becomes. How often has this 'all-pervading air of 'mystery' been praised by critic and academic alike, from Yeat's Purgatory down through Beckett to our own cut-price product, Harold Pinter? Mystery, the ingredient that leavens the loaf - or should I say makes the dough rise? But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have hap­pened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin.

And not only the critical dustbin, but those audiences are banished from our theatres -- at least until they are "educated" enough to "appreciate" the art that is "good for them." As artists, we believe that what matters most is what matters most to us. To think otherwise would be to "compromise," a artistic fate worse than death, apparently. One dare not suggest that the purpose of art is to actually communicate something, and that communication is different in different communities. Let's just keep those upper-middle-class white folks happy -- they're nice and polite, and if they get bored they know enough to pretend not to be.

No, theatre is definitely an upper class art, and that orientation is reflected not only in ticket prices, but in form and content. Given that, how can I support arts funding while also being against massive tax cuts for the rich? No, until I see some evidence that theatre people give a damn about people in the lower 85% of the populace, I will cock an eyebrow at the NEA champions.


Praxis Theatre said...

Hi Scott,

Great post.

Not sure about this particular funding issue in the U.S., but it seems quite natural that middle, to upper-middle class, post-secondary-educated theatre artists (by definition, perhaps, the "cultural elite") are speaking directly to a similarly defined audience, and potentially excluding another.

Maybe the challenge is to empower theatre artists from different communities, impoverished, gay African-Americans, for example, so that they can speak to audiences and communities in a voice that resonates with a similarly defined audience.

This is not to argue that theatre can't transcend social, economic, ethno-cultural boundaries - i believe much of it can - but to broaden the terms of the solution. Nor, for that matter, am I making assumptions, I hope, about the state of support in the U.S. for impoverished, gay, African-American theatre artists. But it seems odd that we should fault theatre artists of a particular background for not being able to speak in some kind of universally accessible language.

As for theatre being an upper class art. It hasn't always been this way. Wasn't Shakespeare for "the masses", as were the performance rituals of First Nations cultures . . .



Anonymous said...

I think you are right. I am from Costa RIca and I think we both share the same situations.

YS said...

Hi Scott,

I couldn't help but think of the theatre of Tyler Perry.

I believe Roger Ebert said that he never received, in his entire career, the amount of correspondence his negative review of the first Tyler Perry movie elicted.

I can't imagine one of the major Regional theatres putting on, say, a Madea-type play, which shows people from a community dealing with the types of family problems that are at the same time universal and unique to their community.

But at what point can critical assessment start to suffer from this fractioning of theatrical audiences?

Popular doesn't equal good though, Right?

Scott Walters said...

Nor does unpopular equal good. Good equals good. And where does good reside? In the work itself? In the audience perception? In the interaction between the two? There is an old joke about teaching: two kids are walking down the road. One says, "What did you do this summer?" "I spent the summer teaching my dog to talk." "Wow! I can't wait to have a conversation with your dog!" "I said I was teaching him to talk -- I didn't say he learned."

Same here. Does the following make any sense for theatre, an art form that exists, unlike say film or literature, in the present?: "I was doing good theatre, but the audience didn't appreciate it." I would say this is a nonsensical statement as it applies to theatre -- not to theatre LITERATURE, which can exist until a future audience appreciates it -- but for theatre, a performance that fails to communicate...disappears.

And what is "critical assessment"? The institutionalized values of the dominant elite. Critical assessment is as ideological as anything else.

And Ian is right: an elitist theatre was not ever thus. We made it that way, especially starting with Modernism; and it is we who keep it that way.

YS said...

Ian, you are right.

Aristophanes was a rock star of his day, but he was writing, unlike the tragedians, very, very specifically for the audience that would have their butts in the seats that night.

In the notes to my edition of Clouds it says that it is rumored that during the applause for the mask Socrates wears, Socrates himself stood up to show the audience how well the mask-maker had executed the caricature.

Aristophanes would probably laugh to think that his plays would still be read today. And they actually aren't performed that much, outside of Lysistrata.

Another thing of interest that goes right to Scott's point: Aristophanes, though conservative, was a profane and obscene writer. He was vulgar but he was popularized and supported in a forum that had the full financial and political backing of the government and the commonwealth.

Scott Walters said...

But Aristophanes' local connection is crucial. It is the link that is missing in so much theatre today, which is created for a generic "audience." Somehow, perhaps as a result of film and television, we have been operating under the illusion that theatre is a mass medium, and that you can write for The World. As a result, we have lost the connection between audience and stage that historically made theatre so powerful.

Malachy Walsh said...

Great - no, FANTASTIC - post.

It made me think about how much I'm focused on the theatre that's practiced in the large and/or influential houses in NY and regions. Indeed, these place have largely middle class and upper middle class audiences.

And yet, I see plenty of other voices being showcased in these venues - Dael Orlandersmith at MTC, Culture Clash at Berkeley Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse, Betty Shamieh and Cassandra Medley at the Magic, Tracey Scott Wilson and Suzanne Lori Parks and many many others at The Public.

And I'm not even really trying here.

Granted, these voices are not the same as Tyler Perry's, but they don't reflect the Irish and Jewish suburban world I grew up in outside of Chicago either.

I don't know. I guess what I'm poking around here - aside from your assessment that "good" is subjective - is that it might be better to think in terms of psychographics rather than race, income and class. Though these categories are quite important influences on anyone's psychographic make-up, in the theatre audiences I believe there's something else that's keeping people going.

I wonder, if anything, if the audiences that attend the work regularly at these institutions are curious about voices outside of their immediate community.

I'd also think their educations and early experiences with theatre is something else that keeps them returning.

What do you think?

Finally, while I agree that perhaps some write/make theatre as if it were a mass medium, I don't think that's necessarily a mistake since that's where the world first encounters and understands story. That's in everyone's head.

One trick to helping theatre survive is to make what's unique to the medium of theatre (liveness) appealing.

Praxis Theatre said...

Wonderful comments, all.

Is there any danger here in conflating the aritist and the marketer?

Let's pretend they are separate entities for a moment. So, let's assume that an artist is a person who makes some kind of aesthetic decision, which they then present to an audience of some kind.

The marketer, so this model goes, is a separate entity. Their job is to take this art, which was developed outside of strict marketing parameters, and broaden its appeal, make it sellable.

I don't think anyone believes in this strict division, but strange that it's often how art is taught at the university level: as a pure discipline unencumbered by marketing realities (that was my experience, anyway).

The problem is that when this pure (theatre) artist hits "the real world" they can be ludicrously unprepared for the gamut of compromises required to "make it" as an artist. And we wonder why so much of it is missing its mark.

Anyway, we're talking about true community voice, who's speaking for and to which community. Perhaps part of the problem is that many artists are caught in a confusing battle of interests, one that asks them to speak as representatives OF some perceived community, and another that asks them to speak TO some perceived community. Either way, preconceived notions of the community come before individual expression; sounds like postmodernism to me.


Scott Walters said...

I think the Cinderella Dream of "making it" is a red herring that has very little relation to creating art that is worth much. It turns art from a gift into a commodity, and the artist into a...well, a marketer. I think the artist should be focused on being a part of a community, and making that community better in some way. That requires that the artist actually become a part of a community, and not stand outside it in some artistic ghetto where he speaks only to other artists. It also requires that the artist unlatch his focus from that elite 15% and actually listen to (and not just talk to) the rest of the world.

Malachy Walsh said...

Sure. "Making it" is a red herring for almost any career in the arts. And artists - in this case theatre artists - should always be making work that's for someone - a community.

However, other artists are/can be part of that community.

And I'm not sure that today there's more work "missing the mark" (the definition of which says more about the class and background of the speaker than it does about the work to which it refers) than at any other time in the past.

I also have to ask: How can art be a gift unless you're rich and can afford to give it away? I don't get it.

Finally, I wonder about the attitude toward "marketing" since the role of "marketing" is to help an audience/community find the work it might like. Sometimes it even helps create community in a psychographic sense. (Are you suggesting an artist makes something for a community and then the community knows magically when to show up on an appointed day and time to see it?)

Praxis Theatre said...

Generally, my feeling is that smaller, independent artists need to be thinking more about marketing, while more established artists and mainstream production houses need to find better ways of keeping their art and marketing separate. Double standard? Maybe.

Production names are a good example: Too many independent theatre artists are unwilling to compromise on the names of their productions. So you get big, over-complicated, or excessively vague titles that instantly alienate 99% of potential patrons without telling us anything about the show. It seems like a Marketing 101 mistake, but one that smaller theatre companies make all the time.

Not to say you can't have a complicated or expressionistic title, it's just an example of a simple marketing-art compromise that can make a huge difference in the turnout to your show.

As for more mainstream theatre, I’ve seen a few too many watered-down shows at Toronto’s big theatres in the past couple of years. It makes me sad that all that senior talent and those resources can’t come up with a show that's half as interesting as a no-budget independent production. With their choices of productions and the creative decisions that happen in those productions, it seems like they’re pandering directly to that elite 15% we’re talking about (certainly looking around the audience supports that assumption). And the work suffers from the pandering.

Maybe that’s the problem: the independent artists have very few resouces but they can pretty much do what they want, and thusly are probably speaking to a decent cross-section of the population, while mainstream theatre has all the resouces in the world but is stuck speaking to the same old 15% "elite" no matter where you go.

I think I basically agree with the above two comments. Hopefully, I'm not veering too far off track.

John Branch said...

Two thoughts:

1. I notice we're talking about the audience, about what the audience is. Who's talking to the audience, or with it? A little more of that and this issue might look different.

2. Last week I met a student at the Juilliard School for the Arts, and also by chance the president of that school. He teaches a course that the student is taking this semester, on the arts in society. Can't tell you more than that, but apparently not all the arts training in America focuses on art and forgets its context.

MattJ said...

just wanted to let you know that you have my name listed on your blogroll as "Natt Johnson"

but of course it's "Matt Johnston"