Monday, November 24, 2008

Sound familiar?

From Dudley Cocke's essay "Art in a Democracy," published in 2002. Cocke is the Artistic Director of nationally-known community--based Roadside Theatre in Whitesburg KY:

"Beginning with the Reagan administration through the Clinton presidency, federal leadership tolerated relentless attacks on the leading agencies supporting cultural pluralism in the not-for-profit sector — beginning with their own National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. (With some irony, we now recall that those attacks were led by our own homegrown religious fundamentalists.) One effect of the attacks has been to elevate the U.S. commercial arts at the expense of the not-for-profit arts.

The distinction between the two sectors is significant because, devoid of its not-for-profit competition, the impact of U.S. commercial culture in this moment of globalization has become overwhelming. Imagine how the U.S. looks to hundreds of millions of people around the world whose only sources of information about us are television, Hollywood movies and pop music. Equally troubling, at home this commercial preference has corrupted our own not-for-profit sector’s core values.

For example, the standard production model in the not-for-profit theater is now the assembly line: the various "parts" (mostly people in the case of the performing arts) are brought from various locales to a central location (the theater) where they are assembled in a three- or four-week period into a final product. The play’s director interprets the production blueprint; the resident artistic director provides quality control. The product is then sold to arts consumers until market demand flags, at which time the production disassembles itself in a process akin to implosion. No wonder the not-for-profit theater refers to itself in aggregate as the theater industry, and no wonder that the commercial and not-for-profit resident theater audiences are essentially the same when measured by income: overwhelmingly the wealthiest 15 percent of the people (according to the League of American Theaters and Producers). As a rule, both the commercial and the not-for-profit arts sectors have come to value efficiency over participation, mobility over attachment to place, and short-term gain over sustainability."

Yes, it does sound an awful lot like what Mike Daisey has been saying. Of course, Cocke said it in Kentucky and Daisey said it in New York, so Cocke was ignored and Daisey was hailed as a provocateur.

And then there is this:

"The nation’s diversity is its renewable source of energy, lighting the beacon of freedom that the rest of the world strains to see. It is now clearly in our national interest for the Bush administration to end cultural isolationism and replace it with a policy that secures the role of the not-for-profit arts in international exchange — and links that exchange to a domestic arts policy that values our own national diversity. In this way, we can create the framework for the arts at home and abroad to develop common goals."

Why yes, that does sound an awful lot like part of the Obama arts policy!

Cocke was way ahead of his time. And/or the theatre was way behind its time.

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3 comments:

Mike said...

"Yes, it does sound an awful lot like what Mike Daisey has been saying. Of course, Cocke said it in Kentucky and Daisey said it in New York, so Cocke was ignored and Daisey was hailed as a provocateur."

I don't think it's as cut and dried as that, Scott.

What would be more accurate would be to say that Cocke said it in an essay that was published online in 2002 in what would appear to be a fairly low-traffic site, and I said it repeatedly in the actual theater itself, performing it in a number of high-profile venues that are directly implicated by the message.

You won't get any argument with me about the dominance of NYC in the theatrical world, and all the provincialism that goes with it, but it's not as if we disseminated the idea in remotely the same ways.

All that said, I'm delighted you brought this to my attention--thanks for unearthing it.

md

Scott Walters said...

Mike -- I'm afraid I came across dismissive of your work, which as you know is not in the least bit the case, and I consider it groundbreaking. And there is no doubt that sometimes the time is right for an idea to be heard, and that certain modes of distribution can have a larger impact than others. But I also think that a lot of the decentralization that, for instance, made this past presidential campaign so important, has not made it to the theatre. We still are focused on NY-centered mainstream media. One could easily argue that Obama's success had its roots in the Daily Kos and The Huffington Post rather than the mainstream media, but for the theatre we are still taking our cues from the NY Times. For all our talk about the importance of the avant garde, the theatre world is still pretty conservative, still tapped into the need for recognition from the establishment. And that fact is what allows us to overlook truly avant garde artists ands thinkers like Cocke. I would be content to shrug about this if the theatre were healthy and diverse, but it isn't. We desperately need a wide array of voices and viewpoints. If we in the blogging community could expand our attention to take in a wider variety -- if we could seek out and promote the ideas being published in places other than American Theatre and the NY Times -- if we would make an effort to read bloggers like Arlene Goldbard, like communityarts.net, even academic essays -- then the theatre might become more enriched with diversity. But the theatrosphere continues to be an echo chamber obsessed with the latest Christopher Isherwood of Bill Brantley puffery with little effort expended to seek out what is truly original. Ultimately, that will keep the theatre from attaining its greatest potential.

Mike said...

No, you don't seem dismissive at all. But I do think what's here doesn't have as much to do with NYC vs Kentucky as your original post made it sound--it's much more about delivery systems for the ideas.