Wednesday, July 30, 2008

John Stoehr on Whining and the Arts

Over at Flyover, John Stoehr posts provocatively about the baby boomer generation as a "generation of whiners," and how this plays out in the arts. As a boomer myself (born 1958), I have to admit there is some truth in what he says, although unlike many of my cohort I am not pessimistic. That said, I'll ask a question: is the current discussion about a living wage for artists a generational thing? I think Mike Daisey is not a boomer, nor are most of my readers. When I read about the Millennial Generation, for instance, I often see described a desire for a balance between work life and private life, a focus on local action, and a desire to lead a rich, full life. And perhaps the current way of doing things doesn't support these values.

Stoehr goes on to describe the Boomer attitude thusly:

Why compromise when happiness — and many other things, I would argue, like the American Dream itself — is your right? This attitude as applied to the arts: People should care about the arts, boomers say. They should give money to arts organizations. If they don’t, boomers say, then they’re stupid. If they don’t, then artists are victims.

Now, this is an attitude that I think extends beyond the Boomer Generation to just about every artist today. There is a tendency to blame the general public if they don't care about the arts, to say they are stupid, and to figure out some way to deal with that stupidity. True?

What Stoehr seems to be saying is that the younger generation is more optimistic, more willing to compromise in order to get things done.

I'll pull an Isaac here: what do you think?
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Mac said...

I'd need to see a few examples before I would feel informed enough to comment. "Just about every artist today" is an awful lot of artists. Can we collectively find links to, say, four artist citing audience stupidity as an explanation for a lack of interest in the arts? That would help me to better understand the phenomenon we're talking about here.

Speaking from an anecdotal standpoint, I have never in my entire life had anyone tell me that low attendance at plays was due to mass stupidity. I hear many other explanations: the medium is no longer relevant, longer work hours and technological changes favor entertainment that can be enjoyed in the home, too many old plays being produced, too many new plays being produced, etc. All worth mulling over, definitely. But I've never had anyone attribute the decline in the interest in theater to people being stupid. If anyone has a link to such an argument, I'd certainly be interested in reading it.

I have a friend who is a poet, and we've had some interesting conversations about it. As he explained it to me, poets simply never believe that the art form they love will ever be popular again, and they write their poems knowing full well that they will only reach a small circle of enthusiasts. They do it because they love writing and reading poems.

By contrast, many theater artists still nurse hopes that they will be able to reverse the trend and keep theater a popular, mainstream art form. Certainly I hope that this will be the case, and I write my plays accordingly. But it may not be the case. And unfortunately you can't blame the culture for shifting its interests as times change.

RVCBard said...

I have a friend who is a poet...As he explained it to me, poets simply never believe that the art form they love will ever be popular again, and they write their poems knowing full well that they will only reach a small circle of enthusiasts. They do it because they love writing and reading poems.

This is me and playwriting. I'm the ultimate amateur.

Strangely enough, I find it liberating. I feel free to play around with the "rules" of drama and theater a lot more than if I really thought I'd get famous or make money doing it.

Laura said...

All I can do is think through the people of my own acquaintance, and I don't know that I would make the same assessment about pessimism in the generations. Sure, if you ask a bunch of people whether they're happy with their lives, you may get some pessimistic answers. But if, say, I proposed some fantastic artistic endeavor to all of the people I know, I actually think it would break down like this:

The Greatest Generation: "Seems like a waste of time because it won't make any money."

Baby Boomers: "Well, I'm really too busy to work on that myself, but I wish you good luck! Here's some money!"

Generation X: "We can try, but we need to keep this to ourselves because nobody ever understands us."

Generation Y/Millennials: "THAT SOUNDS AWESOME! LET'S DO IT! And can we make it environmentally friendly?"

I'm 30, so I straddle the last two groups, depending on who is doing the categorization. Mostly a distrustful Gen Xer who is starting to think those bright young kids might be onto something.

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- I guess I was thinking about some of the conversations that have taken place over on Don Hall's blog, for instance, or whenever we start talking about theatre outside the metropolis. But as a Boomer, I don't have time to find four links, but it seems like a good idea -- here's some money.

RVCBard -- There is great freedom in not needing to make money from your art. Back in the first two decades of the 20th century, the movement known as the Little Theatre Movement spread serious experimental theatre throughout the nation, and really made the most important contributions to the development of American theatre. The Provincetown Players, for instance, we part of this movement.

laura -- *LOL* I love the characterizations. And I totally agree, especially about the Gen yers/Millenials, who are definitely get 'er done types. I had my eyes opened at a community dialogue I was leading between African-Americans and Jewish people about the issues informing "Driving Miss Daisy." At one point, a young woman stood up and very charmingly told the assembled elders that while she sincerely appreciated all the pain and scars they had as a result of past attitudes, the fact is that her generation doesn't pay much attention to race and she doesn't think reinflicting all those old wounds on the young is particularly helpful. At first, I thought: harrumpf -- naive whippersnapper! But the more I thought about it, and the more I looked at the polls about Obama, the more I realized that she may have something there in a general sense. It isn't that there aren't racist kids -- all the stuff about the nooses illustrates that -- but it may not be as much of an issue as we usually think. My generation has become obsessed with wounds and complaints, to the point where we have created entire curricula devoted to shame-based ideology. In the art world, we're the ones who cooked up the "theatre is good for you like castor oil" approach to selling season tickets to rep companies. I think I'd rather work with those under-30s than my own generation any day of the week -- which is good, because I am a college prof and that's my job!

RVCBard said...

Generation Y/Millennials: "THAT SOUNDS AWESOME! LET'S DO IT! And can we make it environmentally friendly?"

Me to a T.

Laura said...

"Theatre is good for you like castor oil."

That's a great point. Kids are force-fed very specific, preapproved portions of theatre cooked only in the most Kosher of theatrical kitchens. See Charlie's comment on my blog over here yesterday. But it just doesn't always apply, and it sends them running elsewhere. I mean, my first reaction to your Driving Miss Daisy story was: "Well, I mean no disrespect, because it's a great movie, but it's OLD. Why is it still relevant for discussion?" Which is exactly what it sounds like this lady and you went on to address. Food for thought... now be sure to get that check in the mail to Mac so he can get trucking on those links.

Rex Winsome said...

Mac- I don't know if i've said it distinctly on the internet, but i've said it, and other people i've talked to have said it with more intention than i.

The Dark Knight is DUMB. Millions of people are watching that repeatedly and treating it like the greatest thing in the fucking universe. Meanwhile, anything that challenges or requires the veiwer to think or engage with it is ignored or avoided.

Those are undeniable facts that directly support the claim that most people are dumb, or at least they want their entertainment to be dumb (which ain't much difference if you ask me).

The trick to running a good theatre company is to find the small minority of people who value intelligence enough that they want to think when they go out and convincing them that you've got something worth seeing and thinking about.

Scott Walters said...

I'll say this: if you think most people are dumb, then it is probably a good idea to found your theatre on the basis of a small audience, because there just aren't that many people in the world who like to pay to be insulted by theatre artists.

The fact is that the general public is NOT dumb, nor do they want their entertainment dumb. I haven;t seen "Dark Knight," but from what I have read about it, it sounds as if it is archetypal, and I would venture to say that THAT is what audiences are seeking. Not bleak obscurity told in a way that lacks a compelling narrative, but a good story told with excitement that has archetypal power. And until the theatre world recognizes that, we will continue to have a "small minority" audience.

Rex Winsome said...

Scott, that's absurd.

The Dark Knight is a Batman movie. Batman is an archetype, but this fifteen millionth revisitation to Batman cannot be archetypical. Also, the film fails utterly in dealing with the major themes of the batman archetype, it spoon feeds the audience with Batman's moral ambiguity, and frames that moral ambiguity entirely in fantasyland, and batman struggles with it so much that his girlfriends character becomes a completely redundant waste of screen time. Anything compelling in the narrative is absolutely lost on anyone but the incredibly thick audience members.

We as theatre producers have to acknowledge the fact that our competition is beating us because they're getting money from dumb people, and using it to make more people dumb.

Scott Walters said...

Archetypes are archetypes, no matter how many time they are revisited. In fact, the revisiting is what makes it an archetype. It is the underlying myth of good vs evil that is as strong in "Paradise Lost" as Batman. While we can argue about how artistically effective "Dark Knight" is, it doesn't change the fact that it is archetypal.

And no, I refuse to accept your disdain for the general populace. It is that attitude that has made theatre artists more and more irrelevant.

Rex Winsome said...

i'm sorry, but when seeking explainations for why Batman succeeds, and talking to everyone who saw it and loved it, the only satisfying explaination is: "i checked my brain and the door and watched the explosions, ignoring the fact that as a peice of art or a philosophical discussion, the film failed miserably."

We are living in a society that values, shills out oodles of cash for and unappologetically eats up dumb entertainment. Ask Batman fans. There's the occasional comic book junkie who'll say that Chris Nolan's batman is hyper philosophical and intelligent, but when you compare the sophistication of Nolan's Batman to Frank Miller's you'll see that Miller make's the moral ambiguity of his batman relevant to society, his batman is truely obsessed, not constantly appologizing for and willing to abandon an obsession that doesn't actually manifest on the screen. Miller's joker indicts the wealthy, Nolan's embraces madness for it's own sake. Nolan's joker functions as a stand-in for the republican party's version of osama bin ladin like Miller's never would. It's a dumb peice of shit movie and people love it because they love being pandered to. And The Dark Knight is so much less dumb than half of what else comes out of hollywood and makes millions.

People want dumb entertainment. You can try and ignore that fact to avoid offending people, i guess that's an answer to the problem, but i'd rather find the tiny group of people who want intelligent entertainment and serve them, at least i can talk honestly with them.

Rex Winsome said...

Karl Miller's post you linked to above deals with this same subject.