Monday, March 02, 2009

La Times and the NEA -- Kill Me Now

Joshua Conkel drew my attention to this post on the Huffington Post by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who apparently was asked, along with other "artists/cultural figures," by the L. A. Times "what they might do if they ran the N.E.A." The list of respondents: Bill T. Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Noah Wyle, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Frank Gehry, Tom Hayden, Tim Robbins, Tim Miller, Rachel Dratch, Neil Patrick Harris, Neil LaBute, Kurt Andersen, Kate Burton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (?), Judy Fiskin, John Patrick Shanley, John Baldessari, Joel Wachs, Joel Stein, Eve Ensler, Edward Albee, Debbie Allen, Ann Coulter (WTF?), Bill Maher (abolish it), Bill Pullman (interesting viewpoint), Harvey Weinstein, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Rachel Maddow. No doubt Teresa Eyring will chime in in American Theatre next month suggesting more money for Facebook.

If you want to understand why the artistic life of this country is so superficial and unoriginal, I invite you to read the "contributions" of these assembled mental midgets. Let me summarize the lot: 1) more money; 2) more arts in schools; 3) more money; 4) money to individuals; 5) more money; 6) the WPA lives; 7) more money.

There were a few faintly interesting and vaguely original ideas from Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, and Tim Miller. But for the most part, this should be seen as deeply embarrassing by the artistic community, who should hope that this isn't passed on to the Obama team (are you listening, oh great Obama-teamer Isaac?). Unfortunately, most of the artistic community shares this deep-as-a-kids'-plastic-pool philosophy, as any regular reading of the theatrosphere would reveal. This was an opportunity for artists to actually show themselves as worthy of funding, and instead we got Neil Patrick Harris burbling, "So long as they keep funding public television and radio, I'm good. I grew up learning lots from "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" -- everything from the alphabet and numbers to sharing and a sense of humor, and I still listen to NPR daily. Ira Glass? "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"? Great good times. Über-important. I can't imagine our world without them." For Chrissake. "Uber-important"???

Could we get some grownups to speak, please?


joshcon80 said...

Ha ha ha ha! I suspected this would be your response. As for me, I'm not sure how to feel about it. It's a big and complicated issue that will take me a while to wrap my brain around. My first impression was, "we still have an NEA?"

That said, can somebody please write a play about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ann Coulter running the NEA?


RVCBard said...

So, would you like to be shot, stabbed, hanged, drowned, or poisoned?

Scott Walters said...

Ahem. Wait a minute. I didn't mean... *bang bang*

quin browne said...

cough it up for theater companies, who struggle to bring theater to all, and do it on a shoestring...

isaac butler said...

As usual, your remarkable ability to cherry pick information that suits your prejudices knows no bounds. Here's Rachel Maddow in the same article:

"If I ran the NEA, I’d double down on this part of the NEA’s mission: “to bring the arts to all Americans.” If our artists are going to be badasses, we need to tap all our potential pools of artistic talent, we need to cultivate a national expectation of artistic literacy, and artists need jobs doing and teaching art. My NEA would fund arts education in every juvie, jail and prison in the country — creating those art jobs, probably slashing recidivism, making our big dumb prison system slightly less pointless, and maybe someday paying off down the road in the form of the next American international art star."

That sounds a lot like something I'd read here, if you hadn't given up entirely on offering positive suggestions instead of lashing out at people.

BTW: There's nothing shallow about people thinking the NEA needs a bigger budget. To accomplish its goals, it needs a bigger budget. It's an underfunded agency. If you want it to accomplish the things you want it to do, or that anyone else wants it to do, it needs more money.

Scott Walters said...

Well, Isaac, thank you for your enlightening remarks. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Rachel Maddow is a journalist, not an artist. In fact, the non-artists had a tendency to have a bit more content than the artists, even if they followed well-worn paths. As someone who himself teaches theatre in prisons, I give Maddow credit for her awareness of the need for art in prisons -- that was probably the most creative idea of the group. Also, if you were willing to give credit where credit it due, I believe I noted interesting comments from Tim Miller, Tim Robbins, and Bill Pullman. But when several of the artists sound like Ann Coulter, you've got a problem. Even an extended response by Baitz centers around tea parties and giving gifts to the Obama children. That's not change we can live with.

Yes, Isaac, I have been cranky of late. The level of discourse is disheartening. This was another example of the superficiality of the art scene (or at least the art scene as defined by the star-centric LA Times).

Sure, the NEA needs more money. I have argued that here before, showing how the pathetic increase it received last year that everyone was crowing about returned it to the level of the first year of the Reagan presidency -- and that didn't account for inflation.

But that is not a vision. That is not an answer to the question "what would you do if you ran the NEA?" That is not even something that the head of the NEA controls. The problem is that when artists are asked to envision a national arts policy, they blurt out "more money" as if their knee had been tapped with a rubber hammer. Once they've gotten that out of their system, then they will parrot the Obama line about education, which suddenly has become popular -- as long as artists don't actually have to do it.

No, I stand by my assessment. However, I am intending to write my own answer to that question as soon as I get a few spare minutes. I hope you will take the opportunity to rip it to shreds. Have at it.

isaac butler said...

Actually, I bet I'll like whatever you end up coming to with the "if your ran the NEA" question. I find when Theatre Ideas is focused on Ideas its quite enlightening, challenging and interesting (regardless of whether I agree or disagree with what's written).

I've always maintained, and I believe I've said so on my blog that artists need to understand politics and they need to understand business. Every artist needs to be an arts advocate in a serous, informed way. Its how I became an arts advocate, actually, in trying to understand the social context of my own work.

Scott Walters said...

I appreciate the appreciation, Isaac. But obviously I find your confining of "ideas" to "positive ideas" limiting. I think that inveighing against what is wrong as important as promoting what is right. Had more journalists shared my orientation, perhaps the run-up to the Iraq War might not have been so smooth for Bush and his cronies.

I happen to believe that the Good Ship Status Quo is sinking fast, and whistling a happy tune isn't what is needed. I'm trying to interrupt the orchestra so we can start taking some serious action.