This conversation reminds me of the time six years ago when Wallace Foundation and RAND released Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. After providing us with a terrifically erudite accounting of arts benefits, the authors' lead recommendation in the last chapter was to "develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits." And I wondered, whose job is it to create this new language? (Frankly, I'd hoped RAND might make some suggestions...) I imagined a room somewhere in the sub-basement of the NEA where wordsmiths were earnestly hammering away at new framing language that will, once and for all, tickle the funnybone of policymakers and convince them that the arts really matter.The answer to Brown's "who" question, of course, is us. Bloggers, artists, educators, citizens, anybody who recognizes that the creative life of this country has been stolen by corporations (including non-profit corporations) and sold back to us as high-dollar products produced by underpaid and overpaid specialists. As Obama said back when he was a candidate, "We are the people we've been waiting for." But it requires that we become educated in our field.
Back in June 2008, I wrote a post about what I had learned attending the National Performing Arts Convention, where a discussion (on ArtsJournal.com) of the WolfBrown report was centerstage. Among artists, at least artists who blog (and by the way, when you're done pointing us to female bloggers, Isaac, would you find out where the blogs by actors are?), the report was virtually ignored, or dismissed. Here is what I wrote:
But what I have learned here at NPAC is that those who wield power in the theatre -- the administrators, the board members, the foundation staff -- do read these studies, do recognize the value of the data and the ideas, and do put them into action -- and that is how they maintain their power. They think more broadly about the art form. The result of lack of knowledge is a diminished power for artists, who give over control of their art to those who will take the time to study, to learn, to think. Mike Daisey, who brilliantly performed How Theatre Failed America here in front of the assembled administrators, rightly condemns the low status of actors on the regional theatre scene, but there is also truth to the idea that their status is low because they have given away their power by not being knowledgeable about broader issues than the latest theatre gossip, and not being willing to educate themselves on the issues and speak their mind together to demand change. They fear repercussions, yes, but they also avoid engaging anything but the most insular issues.We're all busy, yes, and these reports often aren't page-turners. But like Outrageous Fortune, or better yet like Gates of Opportunity, the more we know the better understanding we have of the actual situation (and not just our own little corner of the world), and the more we know the better decisions we can make. Do we have time? Clay Shirky says we do, and he's right:
We in higher education must do something to change this know-nothing orientation. Instead of giving semester-long classes in auditioning, we need to empower our actors to take control of their art form, develop entrepreneurial skills, understand the context of their art form within the larger culture and economy, and become powerful, engaged artists who will not allow themselves to be manipulated and exploited.
The only way that things change is if artist become empowered, and they only become empowered if their are educated. Paulo Friere's classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed should become required reading for all theatre people so that they can understand what is at stake in developing their critical consciousness.
We are at a turning point in our culture. As Shirky says, in the 19th century it was gin, and the 20th century is was the sit-com, but we are starting to rouse from our binge and want to participate. We can wait for others to change things for us, or we can dig in and do so ourselves.
Bill Ivey, again as part of the Expressive Life discussion, provides a good reason why we need to take control of this discussion:
Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it's all "high-fives;" the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis. All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants. The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams. But I'm not, just not, a conspiracy theorist...I don't think you have to be a conspiracy theorist to see a lot of truth in what Ivey is saying. We have allowed ourselves to be distracted from the real conversations, and while we've slept, others have made decisions that have a great impact on us. Now we look at the figures and see that arts participation is at the lowest level in years. Are we going to change course, or are we going to ask the band to play just a little bit louder?