Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Keep It Simple -- Carry Your Share of the Load

Over at Theatreforte, Brant, who first ventured into the Mike Daisey / American Theatre Magazine discussion with a series of questions, has gone further with another interesting post in response to several comments. One of those comments came from George Hunka:

The first point [Mike Daisey makes] that is somewhat worrisome is a certain exceptionalism that attaches to theatre artists in contrast to other artists in the US and elsewhere. I doubt that Mike means to slight artists in other fields like painting, sculpture, dance, music or poetry, but it might be said that the same pressures seem to apply to them. Any of these are time-intensive disciplines when it comes to the study and practice of one's art. Are we also to guarantee working salaries and health insurance for them, simply on the say-so that they're artists?

I think it is possible to set up a system that supports artists without getting into the question of policy-making regarding which artists are going to be supported. I don't think Daisey is proposing a complete overhaul of the regional theatre movement, but rather a re-commitment to its original values and intents. For instance, if regional theatres committed to some form of ensemble structure that would provide more than a one-and-done contract for artists, it would help a great deal. This requires little more than a rearrangement of priorities. An even simpler improvement that would leave artists better off would be if Actor's Equity, SAG, and AFTRA joined forces, so that weeks of work in any of those unions contributed toward the minimum number needed for health insurance. Obviously, most actors currently piece together theatre, film, television, and commercials, yet these are disconnected as far as health insurance is concerned. I'm certain there are other solutions -- Daisey proposes, for instance, fundraising for the creation of "endowed chairs" for performers, much like endowed chairs in academia -- that can make substantive contributions to providing a more humane and stable life for theatre artists.

I also would draw a distinction between the performing arts and the non-performing arts -- the business models are much different, and they each require different efforts. While all artists should band together in order to insist on greater respect for artists in general, I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution is possible. That said, I was talking to my nephew-in-law over the Fourth; he is an orchestra conductor, and he told me that the same problems exist with symphonies as are in the theatre. So those art forms that share a common business model might benefit from banding together. That said, Mike Daisey's piece is about a subject that he knows best, and is a work of art, not an academic study. If it were an academic study, most artists wouldn't read it because they'd think it was "too boring." Daisey has dramatized a situation, which is serving as the starting point for a discussion. It is unreasonable to think that he would provide the solutions as well. Each and every one of us, artists, administrators, and academics alike, need to shoulder our share of the responsibility for provoking change.

The best way to make sure that the status quo is maintained is to make the issue so complicated, the scope so wide, and the solutions so abstract that nothing can happen. We must resist the attempt to make this focused discussion flatulently philosophical. This is about ethics, and about economics.
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Paul Rekk said...

You know, Scott, there's so much that I want to respond to in this post, and every last one of my responses would fall under the heading 'flatulently philosophical'. Of course, I don't know that I can see an discussion of ethics that isn't.

I'm not going to bring up any of those responses because it's clearly not the direction you want in the conversation, but thought someone should raise the 'with us or against us' red flag. 'Cause you're starting to veer in that direction.

And against you is the name of the game, I need proper time to prepare.

*smiley face*

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- Well, what I am trying to avoid is going where George was leading us, which is a discussion of "who gets to say who is an artist and who deserves to be supported." That is an unanswerable question that takes us far afield from the gritty practicality of the issue raised by Daisey. While I personally support Daisey's position, my gut response is that I'm not much interested in reforming the regional theatre institutions, but rather creating something different. But staying within the realm of Daisey's definitions, I think the answers need to focus on changes that lead to practical change. That's all I meant.

Paul Rekk said...

A'ight, in that case I'll just touch upon a couple of things.

Honestly, I do want Daisey to come up with some solutions. They don't have to be the right ones, but the "I asked the questions, you provide the answers" approach doesn't have nearly the same effect when the asker is also looking to benefit from the answers. Then it's just letting the audience do your own work. Maybe if these were groundbreaking questions, I see it a little more leniently, but just because Daisey talks louder than those who have come before him doesn't let him off the hook.

"So, Mr. Hotshot Paul Rekk, where are your answers?"

Honestly, I don't agree with any of this. I don't think we need answers. Not everybody should win; much of the best art is born of hardship. You gotta really mean it if you keep beating your head against the wall despite the fact that no money is coming out. Turn Artist into something financially stable and I sincerely believe you will see a dip in quality.

I know that you view mine as a romanticized view of the outsider artist and it's all wish-wash, but cream that rises to the top is even sweeter if it has to force its way up. And it's even sweeter still if I'm forced to seek it out.

The bottom line, which is nothing new, is that I just don't get it. It's fully summed up in this quote from Daisey's response to Theatreforte: "What is important is that currently all the dominant models run on the blood of the artists, and so long as they run this way we are all implicated in its failures."

It seems to me that if the arts don't run on the blood of the artists, we're running on the wrong fuel. Of course the reference is to the business side of the industry, but in that sense, the only concern I find is not making sure I get paid, but making sure someone else doesn't get paid by exploiting me. And that threat is only seriously leveled at those who are also trying to make sure that they get paid.

I take what I can when I can take it. But I do this because what I make is bigger than who I am and, by association, what I need.

Which doesn't help you at all, I realize. And maybe it's not something you want in this conversation. But the more this comes up, the more solidified it is for me, and for some reason, it seems very, very important that it gets said by someone.

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- One of the cool things about comment moderation is if I don't want something in the conversation, I don't approve it! ;-) Anyway, there your comment is, so let's go with it.

When all is said and done, I don't agree that there is a connection between financial hardship and quality. In fact, many of our greatest artists have also had comfortable incomes from inheritances or other sources. What I see when I see a situation where financial hardship is required is an excellent way to keep the less affluent classes out of the mix. If one person (say, Richard Foreman, who is a trust fund artist) can devote all of his attention to making art, whereas someone else must work 40 hrs a week and THEN try to find the time and mental energy to create, it isn't a level playing field. Foreman has a big advantage.

If I thought all that assured that the cream rose to the top, then maybe I'd be OK with it. But it doesn't mean that at all. It means that the person in the right place at the right time and who has the right connections and the money to go to the right schools rises to the top, which is quite a different thing.

Furthermore, I think the richness of the arts are diminished when artists are not able to partake of important parts of the human experience, such as having a family or a life in the community. As it now stands, the demands of the art form makes it pretty difficult to do. The fact is that the theatre game is set up best for single people without a stable relationship who can fly from place to place and live "lightly." While I have nothing against that lifestyle, I also don't think it ought to be the only one available for artists. In other words, like everyone else in this country, artists ought to have freedom of choice -- a choice of profession should not essentially force all the rest of your choices.

One other thing: the way artists are paid is not only a reflection of how society regards their work, but how we ourselves value it as well. Why should people buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?

Paul Rekk said...

Great response, and one that I don't have all the answers to.

I will admit that you've got me on the wanting a family front. It's not a concern I'm currently faced with, which makes it one that I often gloss over. This is something I could potentially support a solution for.

As far as money goes, what I was referring to was more a system ensuring that artists are financially stable because they are and so that they can continue to be artists. I consider inheritances and trust funds in the same vein as taking what I can when I can take it. It's when funding comes in for the sole purpose of creating art that I think (some, mind you) people get lazy.

I do have an opposing view of the milk/cow stance, though. I would and do (when I have the final decision) give both the milk and the cow away for free, and am inspired when others do the same. Art and Commerce combine to cause the sorts of problems that we are now dealing with. You prefer to try and solve those, I prefer to separate the two as much as possible. I value my work to the point that I feel it is more important to ensure that it is experienced by as many people as possible than to ensure that as many people as possible pay for it.

You can either give something away because it's worthless or because it's tremendously important. I pick the latter.

And thanks, Scott, for humoring this conversation. I know that you don't find it all that terribly helpful to your cause. I should probably just bring it over to my blog, but you know, since I'm here and all...

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- I find it incredibly helpful, because sometimes it gives me new insights, and sometimes it helps me clarify my arguments.

You are arguing for a Lewis Hyde The Gift-like economy of the arts, and that is a very powerful argument to me, as is the importance of making art available to everybody no matter how much money they have -- giving it away for free deals with that. And I have not totally convinced myself of the idea that artists should spend all their time making art -- it can be very, very valuable to be part of the general experience of working life that most people have. So I am still working this through.

That said, when a monk took a vow of poverty, part of the deal was that the community would commit to providing for his basic needs. If we are going to do the same in the arts, society probably needs to step up as well.

You have brought up good points, and I'll probably head back to Lewis Hyde, which I have never successfully finihed...