Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Michael Kaiser: Tone Deaf

In his Huffington Post article two days ago entitled "Where Are the Arts Important?", Michael Kaiser does his damndest to counter "the claims of too many politicians that the arts are the province of the elite in big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles" and the argument "that investing in the arts only affects a very small, very rich, and very concentrated segment of our population." He goes on to admit (because how could he not) that "many of our largest arts organizations are in large Northeastern cities and that these arts groups have raised their ticket prices so high as to make them unaffordable for many," but nevertheless, "the arts play a vital role in virtually every community across the nation. It is not simply rich New Yorkers who care about music or dance or theater. People of all backgrounds and income levels are involved with the arts across the United States."

So far, so good. Nothing particularly insightful here, nor surprising. The representatives of those large arts orgainzations in large Northeastern cities regularly like to assert the universal interest in the arts whenever they are promoting their own agenda, which usually involves Hoovering up more than their fair share of the arts funding pool. But after tossing out this ringing generality, he feels compelled to provide reasons why this love of the arts is true.
  • Over 7000 people have been coming out to listen to him speak on his 38-stop "Arts in Crisis" tour (and buying the "Arts in Crisis" souvenir T-shirts, no doubt). There were 400 in Kalamazoo, MI alone and 750 in Kansas City! (Maybe we ought to do a little math here. If Kalamazoo and Kansas City provided 1,150 attendees, that means the other 36 stops provided 5850, or an average of 162 people each).
  • And then, and more importantly, there are all those famous people who, you know, came from other places! Why opera singer Leontyne Price came from Laurel MS, and ballet dancer Ethan Stiefel came from northern Wisconsin where his dad was (gasp) a prison warden! Twyla Tharp came from Portland IN and Terence McNally came from Corpus Christie TX. Why, he concludes breathlessly, "the list goes on and on!"
Please, please stop. I'm getting all goose bumply. Imagine: famous people weren't all born and raised in New York and Los Angeles, which is just living proof that "the arts affect every region of this nation."

But hold on a second. Kaiser is mentioning Leontyne Price because she didn't stay in the south, but traveled north to become the first African-American prima donna for the Metropolitan Opera in...New York. Ethan Stiefel was the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre in...New York. Twyla Tharp began with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and also worked with the American Ballet Theatre in...New York. Terrence McNally moved to...New York in 1956 where he became known for his productions on and off Broadway in...New York.

These are not artists who stayed in their community, or even in the states or regions where they were from. They are artists who were extracted from their communities in the same way that coal is extracted from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia and transported elsewhere for consumption. And what Kaiser wants us to do is applaud all the warmth that that coal is bringing to New York while the originating communities shiver.

In a political context, this is referred to as "exploitation colonialism," "the policy of conquering distant lands to exploit its natural and human resources." It is an extractive industry, removing resources (in this case, talent) for export to other areas to serve the elite power structure. If Kaiser was hoping to persuade those damned politicians who believe "arts only affects a very small, very rich, and very concentrated segment of our population" with this argument, I guarantee it will have exactly the opposite effect.

Do not expect the pillaged to praise the pillagers for the beauty of their riches. If you want a democratic society to support the arts, distribute the money democratically. George Hunka sent me a link to his blog, which includes a clip from the British TV show Yes, Prime Minister. The parallel between Kaiser (or for that matter, Adrian Ellis) and the unctuous head of the National Theatre trying to blackmail the PM into a larger share of the arts funding pie because, well, it's the National Theatre, is just too clear. And the PM's suggestion for how to deal with the situation reveals the underlying power play of a centralized arts economy.

If we want the arts to be valued nationally, then we need to decentralize and deurbanize, and we need to stop the arts equivalent of mountaintop removal.

UPDATE: So I posted a link to this post on the HuffingtonPost site. It is a moderated site. According to my tracking software, someone from visited at 11:21. Four hours later, there remains a single comment on Kaiser's post -- mine is not it. Which leads to the question: does HuffingtonPost only allow people to agree with Michael Kaiser? I'll keep you updated about the comment...

UPDATE 2: Apparently, they don't like links at HuffPost. I pasted in a couple paragraphs, and it was immediately approved.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

THIS is one of the best posts I've read by far about the arts in anyplace that's not NYC or London.

if we want to save the arts, we need to focus on our own local communities, instead of flocking to the Big Apple!

anyway I've been reading that many artists, writers and musicians are fleeing NYC because NYC is just so ridiculously expensive and rather settling somewhere more affordable like Minneapolis or St. Louis...

George Hunka said...

Well, that's no doubt true about the Yes, Prime Minister clip. But it may go a little deeper than that. Part of the conflict results from the socially utilitarian concept of the arts and that it serves some kind of fundamental cultural and social purpose -- an instrumental purpose not unlike that of medicine or defense. Hence the comic references to "kidney machines."

The arts, however, if they try to defend their right to government money on that basis, will always fail to win the argument. Do the arts play a utilitarian role in a culture similar to that of medicine and other public goods? The question remains (even now, over two decades after the show was written) an issue of necessary and unnecessary subsidy. Should the state's (or, for that matter, the local government's) $10,000 serve to fund a production of any play (whether it's Shakespeare's King Lear or Young Jean Lee's Lear) while a young child is dying in a hospital of renal failure because there aren't enough dialysis machines to go around?

The question is faced by both centralized and local governments and funding bodies. And, in a distressed economy, the kidney machines will always win, and perhaps they should.