Monday, February 09, 2009

Taking the NEA Out of the Stimulus Package

Over at Parabasis, Isaac quotes two Reps' opposition to the $50M for the NEA in the stimulus package:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) was typical of the opponents to the stimulus legislation who seized on the arts to discredit the overall package; he told the House chamber, “It included wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs. As I asked on this floor last week, what does $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts have to do with creating jobs in Indiana?” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) was even more emphatic, saying, “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.”

I have highlighted the key sentence. There are TWO theatres in Indiana listed on the TCG website, both in Indianapolis, which is not in Pence's district. Jack Kingston is from Georgia, which has 15 TCG-listed theatres, most in Atlanta, none in his district. Both rightly see this money as likely to go to a few major metropolises, none of which they represent, most of which are probably centered in the Northeast or California. This is an illustration of the connection between artistic centralization and the weak legislative support for the NEA. Until the arts, and artists, decide that the rest of country is a worthwhile place to create art, no amount of huffing and puffing about Republican cretinism will have any effect. Time to wake up and smell the real coffee. This is too big of a country to have a centralized art scene.


isaac butler said...

so in the short term... what, exactly do you favor? There is no way there will be a decentralized arts scene in this country without a lot more arts funding period. Arts companies in less-centralized locales will need more state funding to stay alive because there are fewer sources of revenue, less audience members, fewer foundations, fewer industries to provide financial support etc. The centralization of arts in this country didn't come about because a shady cabal wanted to fuck over rural america, it happened because cities- and actually a short list of cities-- were good environments receptive to a high density of artists. There are cities with larger populations than DC, for example, with far fewer theaters and far fewer artists working, it's a combination of money, constant influx of new people via the government, a concrete need for entertainment options etc.

I doubt that you meant this post to support Pence and Kingston, so if the above paragraph implies that I thought that, I'm pretty sure that's not where you're coming from. I'm just wondering what you think should be done in the short term.

Scott Walters said...

In the short term, there needs to be oversight just like we want oversight for Wall Street bankers. It cannot be yet another instance of the rich getting richer, which is how the arts are currently organized. As far as your description of the benign process of centralizing the arts, it ignores American theatre history. The fact is that throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, the theatre was distributed across the US. What changed everything was the Syndicate, a group of rapacious New York producers who bought up theatres across the country and permitted only their own NY-based productions from appearing in them. Think of it as the Wal-Merting of the American theatre, with small, local companies who used to perform their own repertory as well as with visiting stars being put out of business by the Syndicate's combination companies. Combine that with artists like Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street denigrated non-mteropolitan communities as narrow-minded yokels and the process is not quite as natural as you would have it. Your desire to focus on arts funding in the stimulus package without acknowledging the long-term historical resentments tries to decontextualize the opinions of Pence and Kingston. The argument you quote about janitors and the like only is applicable if you actually have a theatre in your town. Money going to Lincoln Center puts nobody to work in Indiana, and to fail to acknowledge that fact in a stimulus bill misses the point.

isaac butler said...

BTW: Good point about the Syndicate, but I have to ask... did they really call themselves the syndicate? That's like Magneto calling his organization THE BROTHERHOOD OF EVIL MUTANTS i mean... how obvious can you be? Although I will note your history lesson doesn't take into account the last fifty years of theatrical activity in the US in the (especially post-vaudeville) era. I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying we're looking at different components of the same picture. I wasn't even really talking about NYC, I was talking about urban areas that tend to get arts funding all over the country... Washington, D.C.... San Francisco... etc.And also simply let me observe I wasn't only talking about theatre.

Seriously tho... Let me make two points... first off, your post and subsequent comment assume good faith on the part of people who are not good faith actors. They're simply trying to demagogue a bill so they can vote it down. The Republican Stimulus package is made up entirely of tax cuts. That's not, BTW, an exaggeration, it's actually only made up of tax cuts. Their version of a stim. bill is massive redistribution of wealth to the richest Americans. The congressional republicans actions have been so extreme that business leaders and Republican governors are starting to turn against them.

My second issue is this... there is no one component of the stimulus bill that will create economic activity everywhere. Some of it will work in some places, some of it will work in others. THis is a large, diverse country with large, diverse needs. (I believe that to be true w/r/t the arts as well, btw, which is why I've been a proponent of increased state-level arts funding with some portion of it coming from the federal gov't). I'm okay with a huge portion of that money not being spent in New York City or in any other city come to think of it. What's the matter with $50 million (less than 1% of the total bill) going to an industry that largely exists in urban areas? I think having the expectation that an elected representative from Indiana would understand that not all of the money is going to directly benefit his district in Indiana isn't unreasonable.

I totally support the broader point you're making here-- that the arts need to be present in more people's lives to be important to enough people to actually fight for. But absent more funding that's very unlikely to happen. It was Ford Foundation money with some Government coordination and support that created the regional theatre movement, after all, it didn't just come because a bunch of people got resentful of Sinclair Lewis and decided to do something about it.

RLewis said...

Scott, you should like this one:

and b/t/w, I think if you could make your case without bashing ny, chi, or la, then this would not be true:
commenter after commenter have used the "that's just the way it's always been and ever shall be" trope.
Who in the theater doesn't want theater to be everywhere in the world all the time? But usually you were not capable of making your case without putting other cities down. Here's to a new era of Theater Ideas.

Scott Walters said...

RLewis -- What is usually perceived as putting down other cities is mostly being unwilling to mouth the party line concerning their centrality. This continues to be the case. If ideas that would benefit the theatre won't be heard unless obeisance is paid, then so be it.

RLewis said...

Well, I have no idea what the "party line" is or who the "party" is, so I'll let you have your strawman. I'm just saying that I hope we all see that an Obama approach is the winning one, not your past Bush approach. Do you really think there are artists in big cities who do not want art happening all across the country? Seriously.

Scott Walters said...

I think there are artists who want art happening across the country as long as it doesn't take any money away from them, and as long as those other places don't start thinking they are as good as the art in the big cities.

Dumor1220 said...

Sorry to be a little late with my comment.- I don't see why we can't still have a centralized art scene. I agree with the country being too big for us to create one, which represents all of America.
However, if art funding came from the state government, rather then federal, then each state could have it's own centralized art scenes.

I'm from baltimore, so my experience with art scenes’ is a bit limited to only Maryland art districts, but from what I have witness, the art here has been expanding in all types of mediums. Theater as defiantly taking some advancing steps with the various theaters that have been doing very new shows that are not all economically "safe” or "appealing". I guess in this resection, art has found a way to become popular again. I also believe that The Wire may have been beneficial as well.

Scott Walters said...

Dumor -- Because the arts should be a part of everyone's possibilities. It shouldn't just be something that is in rich suburbs, or large metropolises. If you are born in a rural area, or a poor area, you should have art available that connects in some way to your experience. It shouldn't be something that always reflects one lifestyle, one geography, one gender, one social class, etc. And it is not only having an opportunity to SEE art, but an opportunity to CREATE art yourself that is important.