The Ancients and the ModernsJudging from the comments on my post below concerning David Byrne's December 12 blogpost "Art Funding or Arts Funding," there is a lot of people who find the idea of funding arts education and new work over classics objectionable. As seems to be our tendency in today's society, where critical thinking skills seem to have gone the way of the appendix, some people feel as if they are actually saying something important if they "uncover" the motivation someone has for writing an idea, rather than dealing with the idea itself. Hey, conjecture is always easier than actual thought. And so we get this unlikely syllogism:
1. David Byrne is a pop singer.
2. David Byrne is suggesting that public money be used to support arts education and living artists.
3. Therefore, David Byrne wants public money to be used to support only pop music.
First of all, let's just say that $32M for a Wagnerian opera cycle is absurd by itself. But hey, if there are rich people out there who think it is cool, more power to them. But to ask LA county to foot $14M of that cost is really obscene. Nobody deserves that amount of money for a single production. Period.
But Byrne is using that production to illustrate a larger point, one that is getting lost in this rehashing of the 300+ -year Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Here are the critical paragraphs from Byrne's post, as far as I'm concerned:
I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past — in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) — and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring — but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places. Maybe the balance and perspective has to be redressed and restored just a little. (underlining and italics mine)What a radical concept: restore balance and perspective between the past and the present just a little. This isn't Artaud's 1938 "No More Masterpieces" (although I think Artaud had a point), but just a call for balance.
New Plays and DiversityThis goes to the center of our discussion of diversity and new plays. People are convening and blogging about how to get more diversity on our stages, but we are ignoring the single thing that would make the biggest impact: committing to the production of new plays. If every theatre in the country (save those devoted to the work of a single playwright, like Shakespeare festivals) committed to producing more new plays than revivals, the demand for new work would increase exponentially, and I believe so would diversity.
Margo Jones, one of the pioneers of the regional theatre, knew this. In 1951, she wrote in her classic Theatre-in-the-Round:
I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value throughout the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.But what happened to this attitude? It got destroyed by Tyrone Guthrie. In the 1964 book about the founding of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis entitled A New Theatre (the irony of that title still rankles), Guthrie wrote:
Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the violent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are discovered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been unearthed.
Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new playwrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays.
The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.
It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice.....If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic, then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.Think about that for a moment: the only way to know a good play from a bad play is to apply the test of time. Let's just let our grandparents decide what plays are good, because we sure can't. And because the Guthrie theatre made such a splash, attracting nationwide media attention for bringing in Hollywood stars like George Grizzard, Jessica Tandy, and Hume Cronyn to do Shakespeare and Moliere, everyone decided this must be The Way Things Should Be Done. And so we have our current regional theatre season, dominated by classics, with perhaps a single slot devoted to a newish play, preferably one that's been blessed by the NYC critics or won a major award. But an actual new play on the mainstage? Gasp! We'd have to close our doors! And so our contemporary playwrights scramble for crumbs, and eventually decamp for Hollywood where everything they do is new. Imagine if the Shakespeare's company had taken Guthrie's attitude, or Moliere's. There wouldn't BE any classics beyond the Greeks and Romans.
But note that Byrne isn't suggesting that classics aren't valuable. He writes: "Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring." But let's restore some balance. Jones was saying the same thing, so was Clurman when he co-founded the Group Theatre, and so were those who founded the Provincetown Players (although the latter two had less patience with the classics than Jones). But then, a few years later, we let a Brit play on our sense of American cultural inferiority, and we abandoned the development of our own unique artistic identity to become Europe-lite. Shame on us.
The Real Revolution: EmpowermentByrne follows this with what is a far more revolutionary and far-reaching idea:
I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare — to say nothing of opry. In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians — though a few might. It's more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery — which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence.He's not suggesting we make everybody so-called "professional artists," much less pop music icons. What he is saying is that people should be empowered to take creative expression back into their own hands -- to make music, draw, photograph, write or create in any form, and to do it themselves, instead of buying it from some specialist with an MFA. Yes, learning about the classics can be inspirational, but all-too-often the underlying message that is communicated is, as Byrne puts it, "about valuing the classics more than anything you and your pathetic friends can make." This is also, by the way, the underlying message of TV shows like American Idol. For every singer plucked from "obscurity" and hurled into the music stratosphere, the TV audience spends weeks laughing at the ineptitude of just regular folks who think they might just like to sing.
O Fall On Your KneesThe tragedy of this attitude, which is deeply ingrained in contemporary America, is beautifully illustrated by the late Harry Chapin in his heartbreaking song, "Mr. Tanner":
"Music was his life, it was not his livelihood, and it made him feel so happy, and it made him feel so good. He sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole."
We've forgotten the true value of the arts, which is not solely about virtuosity (although virtuosity can be inspiring and has its place), but about making us whole, about allowing us to express the feelings within us, about allowing us to connect to what is beautiful and heartfelt, to what makes us human. When we sing, when we tell a story or write a poem or paint a picture, we allow others to find points of contact with us and with each other. We're reminded of our common humanity, and our sense of being alone is lessened. We share ourselves with each other.
That is what arts education ought to release. That is what deserves more attention.