Leonard Jacobs has written a lengthy rebuttal on the Clyde Fitch Report of my comments concerning Michael Kaiser's post on HuffPo "Where Are the Arts Important?", and Tom Loughlin has weighed on his blog "A Poor Player" in with a post entitled "Theatrical Wealth." (These literature reviews are getting longer and longer lately. I suspect it would be helpful for you to read these posts before continuing, if you can do so, but I will do my best to provide a fair representation of the arguments presented by others.)
First of all, I'd like to thank Leonard for taking the time to seriously discuss the issues I raised, and for presenting my ideas fairly -- that is not always something that happens in the blogging community, which often sets arguments a-spinning as a way of attacking an argument without having to provide actual thoughts of one's own. I also thank Leonard for referring to me as an "articulate blogger." I take that as high praise from someone who makes a living as a writer. He also predicts, quite accurately, that I will "attempt to refute [his] argument at every turn." Welcome to the refutation.
The title of his post makes his first argument: "Michael Kaiser ÷ Scott Walters ≤ U.S. Senate." What he means is that, if there are too many differing viewpoints being expressed, "noise and instability" is the result, which is an "open invitation for our common enemies to strike." This argument sounds an awful lot like the arguments used to condemn dissent in the run-up to the Iraq War (I guess the NEA is the artistic World Trade Center), but the analogy Jacobs explicitly makes is the grid-locked U.S. Senate, where nothing is able to get done because everybody is pushing their own ego-driven agenda ala our good friens Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman. He concludes with an Obama-like "can gridlock yield to compromise? Can cacophonies harmonize into the collective good?"
My answer would be "of course it can," but agreement without discussion of the issues is simply rubber-stamping the status quo. As Tom Loughlin points out, this is an issue of fairness and justice, two terms that used to be the foundation of our democratic society, but which in this age of easy cynicism have often been dismissed as naive. So call me naive. The point that Tom Loughlin makes is central: what we currently have is a system that has concentrated artistic wealth in the hands of a very small portion of the community. In the case of arts that are not able to be distributed on a mass basis, as is the case with live performances, such centralization privileges certain populations and excludes large segments of society that are equally deserving of artistic experience and participation. This situation is not fair, not just, and directly results in arts funding being seen as yet another pork barrel. I am not surprised that Jacobs, who lives within the theatrical version of the beltway, thinks that this issue is a "canard" that was "dismissed long ago," but I can assure him the issue is alive and well west of the Hudson -- and rightly so.
In fact, Jacobs defends the status quo by pointing out that states like South Carolina and Texas, through their Republican governors, don't really want government money anyway. I would remind him, however, that it was a Senator from New York, Alphonse D'Amato, who was one of the leaders of anti-NEA forces during the 1990s. Following Jacobs' logic, that would be an indication that government money should have shifted to more supportive places -- say, to Rhode Island, where Claiborne Pell played such an important role in supporting the arts. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Because it is irrelevant.
Continuing his defense of centralized, urbanized arts funding, Jacobs trots out a canard of his own: "How many studies does the arts community need," Jacobs asks, "regarding the impossibility of making a living as an artist in, say, Dayton or Missoula or Little Rock or Providence or Portland, as evidence for why planeloads of artists still head to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago each year?" I suppose there are several ways to approach this question. For instance, a look at the annual report of the Actors Equity Association shows that just under 50% of its membership didn't work at all in the 2008-2009 season, that during any particular week a little more than 86% were unemployed, and the median annual earnings was less than $7700 -- which is hardly "making a living," in my book. I might also suggest that Jacobs not make this assertion about the impossibility of making a living to, say, Michael Fields at Dell Arte in Blue Lake CA (pop 1135) or Dudley Cocke at Appalshop in Whitesburg KY (pop 1600).
But the real thing that the arts community needs to learn from all those studies, it seems to me, is that what doesn't work is the current system that depends on artist-specialists creating products built with a lot of resources and sold at high prices to passive, middle-class spectators who sit in large, expensive pieces of real estate -- and it doesn't take more than a glance at a theatre's balance sheet to see how much unearned income is required to keep the H. M. S. Arts Status Quo afloat. Regardless, none of these statistics justifies anyone whistling their way to Nylachi in the hopes of "making a living." That's a myth that needs to be retired altogether.
Referring to my supposed "anti-New York bias," Jacobs asks why my argument is "always “either/or” — either New York or the rest of the nation? Why is it never “and” — New York and the rest of the nation? Why is it better to be a divider and not a uniter?" I must admit, this puzzles me, since my conclusion that "If you want a democratic society to support the arts, distribute the money democratically" says nothing about taking all the money away from NY and handing it out to everybody else. What I am saying is that giving most of the money to NYC and a handful of other urban areas is not the same thing as distributing the money democratically.
Jacobs and Kaiser are both relying on an artistic verison of trickle-down economics, in which money given to the wealthiest will eventually trickle down to those who are poorer. It is an idea that has been conclusively disproven in econmics (as our increasingly appalling income gap in the US demonstrates), and it doesn't work in the arts either. The fact is that Las Vegas' slogan reflects the current artistic status quo: what happens in Nylachi, stays in Nylachi, Leontyne Price's visit to Rochester notwithstanding.
What I am calling for is an admission from the likes of Kaiser and Jacobs, and frankly the rest of the artistic community, that the current system privileges certain areas, describes it as inevitable when it is not, then reifies that privilege by focusing additional funding within those areas. So, for instance, the Mellon Foundation's theatre program chooses a handful of metropolitan areas within which to concentrate its funding, including predictably New York, and within those areas devotes most of its money to "leading" arts institutions, i.e., the corporate rich, who use it to make bigger, brighter, shinier products for the privileged few. This privilege is then brazenly presented as based on "merit" (rather than financial privilege) and artistic "enlightenment" (in opposition to the great unwashed in the "flyover" part of the country). Further, defying all logic, the concentration of money is dismissed as having no connection with the concentration of artists in these places: Jacobs trots out the old canard (I love using that word) that nobody "forced" artists "at artistic or physical gunpoint, to abandon their hometowns," which of course ignores the collective power of ideology (communicated constantly, but most nakedly by Frank Sinatra in his signature song "New York, New York") and economic coercion through the aforementioned financial concentration. And then Kaiser tours the country telling everyone how the arts are so important because their local talent got an opportunity to perform in New York. It is narrow parochialism masquerading as open-minded generosity. The wealthy seeking a cheerful handout from the poor.
So if Jacobs thinks we should all unite behind an idea, I suggest it be behind the idea of the broadening and deepening the importance of the arts by supporting participation and creation throughout this country. To put it in slogan form: artistic democracy, not plutocracy.