Thursday, January 28, 2010

Things I Disagree With (Adrian Ellis and Martha Bayles)

From the "Expressive Life" conversation at ArtsJournal.com. Adrian Ellis, the Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is very concerned that we not take our eye off the corporate non-profit ball by getting all crazy about people being creative all over the place and stuff, because:
"The institutionalized non profit cultural sector ... is tasked with, as it should be, stewardship of the highest expressions of humanity, with its transmission to the next generation intact if not enhanced, and with ensuring the widest enjoyment and appreciation of these defining achievements by as many people as it can engage - this mandate crosses material, visual, dramatic, literary and musical culture - voice and heritage."
Hoo, boy. Really? "Stewardship"? The "highest expressions of humanity"? "Transmission to the next generation"? And this "mandate" includes, well, everything artistic (as long as they are, you know, the highest expressions). Take my breath away. "Mandate" indeed. Definition of mandate:
1. a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative: The president had a clear mandate to end the war.
2. a command from a superior court or official to a lower one.
3. an authoritative order or command: a royal mandate.

Exactly who provided this "mandate"? Hmmm? All those Upper West Side millionaires? I'm thinking a little reading of John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? might be a good idea right about now.

But Ellis is sort of aware that what he's saying smacks a wee bit of me-first elitism, so he writes:
I feel this has to be said in a way that does not diminish other aspects of expressive life that [Bill Ivey] is rightly high-lighting as neglected. Here's a stab at encapsulating it: the ecology is unbalanced in part because many expressive social interests are under-articulated, and Bill has highlighted them and has suggested an agenda around them. It's an agenda that it is intellectually compelling but it is difficult to see how and by whom it will be pursued. Meanwhile other agendas are over-articulated: a move toward a balanced ecology requires us to address both issues. [ital mine]
Smooth move, that one. These under-articulated empressive social issues should be addressed, but shoot, who's gonna do that? Couldn't be that, maybe, I could do that, because, well, I speak for the over-articulated expressive social interests represented by the "non-profit cultural sector" on the Upper West Side of New York City. So, until somebody actually speaks up for those folks who are not members of my club, I think we should just focus on..well, us...and let those other people take care of themselves.

And I love "under-articulated" and "over-articulated" -- its like it is a problem that could be solved by a speeech therapist. Let's translate:
  • Under-articulated = virtually ignored
  • Over-articulated = sucking up all the air in the room
So here is the translated version:
I feel this has to be said in a way that does not diminish other aspects of expressive life that [Bill Ivey] is rightly high-lighting as neglected. Here's a stab at encapsulating it: the ecology is unbalanced in part because many expressive social interests are virtually ignored, and Bill has highlighted them and has suggested an agenda around them. It's an agenda that it is intellectually compelling but it is difficult to see how and by whom it will be pursued. Meanwhile other agendas are sucking up all the air in the room: a move toward a balanced ecology requires us to address both issues.
Except we can't really address both issues because we don't know who is the spokesperson. Let's see, who might be a spokesperson?
  • Eric Booth
  • Arlene Goldbard
  • Dudley Cocke
  • Wendell Barry
  • Gene Logsdon
  • Ellen Dissanayake
  • Maryo Gard Ewell
  • Patrick Overton
  • LaMoine McLaughlin
Give 'em a call. They don't live on the Upper West Side, but they might be able to fly in for the conversation.

Then, after Ellis is through, Martha Bayles, in a rehashing of Ortega Y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses, steps up and defends "elitism" as a a necessary way to make sure that the masses don't get to uppity. "Resources aren't infinite," she writes, as if somebody thought they were, "and the unspoken goal of every human being's self-expression being appreciatively received by every other human being is absurd." Not quite as absurd as that reframing of the debate. "So," she concludes, "choices must be made, and unless the cultural marketplace is to become even more of a lottery than it is now, those choices must be based on some sort of evaluative judgment." Wait for it: "So elitism -- i.e. cultural authority -- is required if "we" are going to achieve any of the goals presented here." Elitism = cultural authority = making choices = without critics, the deluge.

I'm not certain how Bill Ivey is putting up with this nonsense. That's why I could never be the head of the NEA -- nope, I know you wanted to ask me to step in for Rocco, but don't -- but I just know my head would explode. The thing about these people engaging in the Expressive Lives bloggersation is that they are consultants and arts researchers and they have spent a lot of time figuring out abstruse, high-toned ways to cover up the pure power grab that is their true meaning. I'll take the theatrosphere any day, where Don Hall calls people douche bags and Mac Rogers hits me with a 2 x 4 -- at least I know what the real message is.

2 comments:

L. Nicol Cabe said...

The sad thing to me is that these people manage to use this obstructive language to con these poor, innocent funders into thinking their organizations actually provide some value. If they weren't corporate machines abusing the non-profit loop-hole, I would say they do, but they lose all brownie points for their money-grabbing awfulness.

Scott Walters said...

While I understand and appreciate your disgust, I guess I'm not quite willing to go that far. These are people who are convinced of their mission, and are doing what they can to fulfill it. While to others, such as me, it feels exclusionary and a bit narrow, defending and promoting the arts is a noble activity. I'd just like for them to shift to a wider-angle lens.