Monday, February 15, 2010

Response to Isaac re: CRADLE

In response to my post yesterday, Isaac stepped forward (with some trepidation, I got the feeling) and asked a couple good questions. Rather then bury my response, I thought it deserved a full post. Here is what Isaac wrote:
Here's a question that I have for you, because several people have raised it in conversations with me about CRADLE and theatreideas and I wanted to get your thoughts on it.

One thing that happens in urban environments (beyond their sucking up all the arts subsidy money) is that minorities and underprivileged people of various kinds tend to cluster in them, whether they be gay, people of color or poor. I honestly believe this is one of the reasons (not the only, i agree that urbanist prejudice probably plays a part, along with our willing denial of class dynamics) why funders wanting to encourage diversity in the arts target cities... you can get a lot of bang for your buck in them.

I was talking to someone about CRADLE and they said, "i think it's an interesting idea, but I'm reluctant to support it because if Scott is successful, money that could be going to racially diverse communities will be rerouted to largely white areas". I've heard similar arguments ("you know, I left SMALL TOWN X because I was gay, I'm not interested in bringing the arts back to that home" etc.) I'm interested in what you say to people who raise these objections.

Obviously, one thing to talk about is that it's not like cities are free of discrimination. But I'm more interested in an answer that lays out the positive rather than talks about the negatives of urban environments.
My initial response to the anonymous questioners was bafflement: really? You recognized that people in rural areas are getting systemically shafted by the arts funding models and priorities, but you're going to continue to support this injustice because your side is benefiting? When wealthy people do this, it is called cronyism, and it is something we liberals get all fluffed about. So the comment seemed sort of selfish and unethical, frankly.

My second response: wasn't one of the oft-recurring themes of the Outrageous Fortune conversation how the audiences in the institutional theatre was mostly white, wealthy senior citizens, followed by a report on the Broadway audience that was even whiter? To what extent is arts funding really benefiting racially diverse communities now?

My third response (I'm getting to feel like Cyrano in his Act I sword fight): the Hispanic population, to take just a single example, is the fastest growing segment of rural and small communities. Immigrants from foreign countries such as Cambodia are also starting to swell the rural population. Poverty is more prominent in rural areas than in cities. As far as bang for your buck, there is just as much needing help in rural and small town America as in urban areas, and the arts might actually play a vital role.

My fourth response: nobody is going to force you at gunpoint to go back home if you don't want to. I'm from Racine WI, and I have no interest in going back. This is about opportunity, not force. However, I find it odd that the commenter is so adamant about not being forced to go back home, while not acknowledging that by centralizing employment opportunities in New York, others are being forced to move there or forgo those opportunities. If all casting was being done out of small towns, how would you feel about it? Yeah, that's how others feel about having to go to MYC or some other metropolitan area.

My fifth response: there was this kid in my junior high school named Lupe Rodriguez -- I suspect you can guess from the name that he was Hispanic -- he beat me up because I said something that bothered him. Your desire to "punish" rural and small communities by withholding support for the arts because you were gay and didn't feel supported would be similar to my not supporting money for Latino/a arts because Lupe punched me. Our individual scars are dwarfed by larger social inequities. As I have said many times in other contexts, it's not about you.

My sixth response: if all you want to do is do plays for your friends and people who are like you, then OK, I guess. I happen to think that participation in the arts increases empathy, creates community, bridges difference, and helps dissolve barriers of all kinds. So preaching to the choir, to my mind, is not as valuable as preaching it where it could have admirable benefits. This is one of the issues I have with Richard Florida's work, which seems to encourage people to segregate themselves into gated intellectual communities where everybody is just like them. I don't find this very healthy in a democracy. In fact, I think it encourages extremism of all stripes. (See Bill Bishop's fascinating and alarming book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart to learn more about this.)

I doubt that these reasons will be very convincing to those with whom Isaac is conversing, but at root I consider this an issue of socio-economic justice, and I expect anyone with any sense of fairness to recognize this claim, and to not put their own personal preferences and individual privileges ahead of it. Fairness is a universal claim.

Bill Ivey, in his book Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, has laid out a cultural bill of rights that reads as follows:
  • The right to our heritage—to explore music, literature, drama, painting, and dance that define both our nation's collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
  • The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life—through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.
  • The right to an artistic life—to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
  • The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America's democratic values and ideals.
  • The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the ages.
  • The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.
I agree with Ivey's bill of rights. In our current arts climate, these cultural rights are being withheld from our rural and small towns, and those elements that I have italicized are particularly lacking everywhere. By centralizing funding in large institutions in urban areas, we are actively depriving large segments of our population of access to arts that are by, for, and about them.

Unfortunately, seeing funding as a zero-sum game is probably correct -- the pool of arts money is not going to suddenly expand to include enough to fund many other groups. However, if money is to be reallocated to support other priorities, it should be taken from the large, wealthy institutions, rather than be turned into a competition for the scraps and crumbs dropped from the table of the wealthy institutions .

Historically, the upper classes have benefited by creating a battle between different groups within the working class. During the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th century, when African-Americans migrated from the rural south to the urban centers of the north, corporate leaders used it as a way to lower wages as African-Americans and recent European immigrants battled for the same jobs. We must not allow ourselves to follow this pattern in the arts, one in which the poor battle each other rather than recognize that we are promoting the same values: to provide arts access to underserved populations. We must join forces to demand a more equitable distribution of the public and foundation monies. The rich cannot continue to get richer.

Why I Hammer Landesman and Kaiser

Every once in a while, I write an outraged post about something that someone like Rocco Landesman or Michael Kaiser has said, and inevitably I will receive a well-meaning comment that will suggest that my attacks are divisive. A recent example was Leonard Jacobs' response to my comments on a recent Michael Kaiser HuffPo commentary, which I responded to here. Jacobs lays out the argument succinctly, asking "why is Walters’ argument 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?" What concerns Jacobs is that all the competing values and ideas creates "noise and instability" which is an "open invitation for common enemies to strike."

So why do I hammer on Landesman and Kaiser -- especially when the work of CRADLE is being done on the NEA's dime, so to speak? Am I biting the hand that feeds me? Shouldn't I be grateful? Indeed I am grateful, but I am assuming that the fact that the NEA saw fit to support my work indicates it values what I am trying to do, and at root, CRADLE is designed to counter the dominant ideology that privileges certain parts of the country and organizations of a certain size. The goal is not to denigrate or undermine those privileged organizations, but rather to call into a question the idea that they are the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle to which all artists and arts organizations should aspire, and the place to which the lion's share of fundraising should go.

CRADLE is not only about creating and supporting arts organizations in small and rural communities, but also about promoting such organizations as equally valuable to the artistic landscape of the US, and equally viable as a career path for artists. So when Landesman, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is quoted as saying, "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” I feel it requires a response from me.

People like Landesman and Kaiser are thought leaders for the industry. They have bully platforms from which to speak. Kaiser, as head of the Kennedy Center, one of those privileged institutions located in the nation's capitol, writes for the Huffington Post, one of the most important on-line sources of political and cultural information. Landesman, as head of the NEA, has access to mainstream media such as Newsweek magazine, or the Associated Press. So what they say is distributed throughout the nation, and usually remains unquestioned. The Newsweek writer, Jeremy McCarter, provides a knowing wink to Landesman's refusal to acknowledge that his Peoria comments were insulting. In fact, McCarter paints them as "heterodox," implying that to hold such ideas was an indication of independence, a "principled" stand against political PC, uttered by a man known for his admirable outspokenness. While liberal thinkers scoff at the powder-puff questions Fox News throws at Sarah Palin, nobody questions whether McCarter, who previously was a theatre critic for New York Magazine and the New York Sun, might be doing the same thing for Landesman. The Nylachi bias is so deeply ingrained that, unless you are attuned to it, it goes by without notice. It is what French critic Roland Barthes called a "doxa," an "it-goes-without saying."

One way I have found effective for revealing doxa is to translate the statement into a context that we are sensitive to in our society. Let's try that with Landesman's Peoria statement:
  • "I don't know if there's a theatre for African-Americans, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman."
  • "I don't know if there's a theatre for women, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman."
Nobody would allow such statements to pass without comment, and I would predict that the focus of such commentary would be on Landesman's definition of "good." For Landesman and Kaiser, "good" is synonymous with "well-known," "well-funded,"and as a result "metropolitan." Fame, fortune, urban. This is the recent ideology of America.

Italian Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci called this "cultural hegemony,"which is described on Wikipedia as the idea "that a culturally-diverse society can be ruled or dominated by one of its social classes. It is the dominance of one social group over another, i.e. the ruling class over all other classes. The ideas of the ruling class come to be seen as the norm; they are seen as universal ideologies, perceived to benefit everyone whilst only really benefiting the ruling class." The use of the word "good" masks the underlying power structure supporting the term. In this case, the ruling class has the traditional background: Landesman is a Yale grad, Kaiser hails from MIT's Sloan School of Management.

What Landesman means by "good" is focused solely on the product. The production of August: Osage County or Krapp's Last Tape is "good" because it pulls together well-known artists to create a well-funded product that demonstrates, not surprisingly (although not always), aesthetic virtuosity. The acting is "good," the setting and costumes are "good," the play is "good."

This single-minded focus on the product is what Karl Marx called "commodity festishism." Again, I will refer to Wikipedia's description: "Marx argued that commodity fetishism tends to subordinate social relations among people to relationships between humans and objects: for example, the relationship between producer and consumer is obscured. The producer can only see his relationship with the object he produces, being unaware of the people who will ultimately use that object." [ital and bold mine]

Building on Marx, I propose that the definition of "good" should not solely focus on the art object itself, a focus which privileges money and fame and makes a fetish out of virtuosity. Instead, "good" should be defined as reflecting the "relationship between producer and consumer" that is mediated by the art object. In other words, what makes something good is the effect that an artist (producer) has through his or her work (object) on the audience (consumer). Imagine a triangle with "artist," "production," and "audience" at the three corners: "good" lives in the middle of the triangle.

The effect of this is to level the playing field by making value contingent on something outside the work of art: the effect on the public. So the San Francisco Actor's Workshop 1957 production of Waiting for Godot played in front of the inmates of San Quentin was "good" because the artists, the work of art, and the audience connected -- the experience had value whether or not the art object itself was as well-known (SF Actor's Workshop was relatively unknown) and well-funded (and it didn't have much money) as, say, the production done at Lincoln Center directed by Mike Nichols, starring Steve Martin, Robin Williams, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Irwin and designed by Jennifer Tipton and Tony Walton. Using Landesman's definition of "good," the Lincoln Center production was "better" than the San Quentin production; using mine, the San Quentin production knocks the ball out of the park.

It might be argued that the effect of a work of art on an audience is impossible to measure. Perhaps so. But is it really any harder to measure than the "quality" of a work of art itself? Have we really ever successfully defined what that means? What it means in practice is that somebody with status says "I liked it," and then proceeds to reify their preference by placing it "inside" the work of art. (See Chapter 2 of John Carey's book What Good Are the Arts? for a thorough analysis of how this process works.) So "good" becomes defined as "what important people like." And we find ourselves back to the ruling class.

Others would argue that a relational definition of "good" would change from performance to performance. True, which would be fitting for an art form that changes night to night, right? And others still would argue that the work of art might appeal to someone in the audience -- isn't that enough? Indeed it is, although on the continuum of goodness, it would place the work near the lower end. But that's rank commercialism, another might object, the merely popular! To some extent, yes -- in the sense that in order for something to be "good" it needs to affect more people. But there are things that are popular that don't have an effect on the audience, as anybody who has left a blockbuster movie disappointed can attest.

The point is that the current definition of "good" reflects an ideology that privileges money and fame (and locale is part of this equation -- the intersection of money and fame, if you will). It is not "objective," it is ideologically charged, and defined by the ruling class. And it is an ideology that I reject as inappropriate for the democratic (little "d"), anti-elitist ideals upon which our country is based.

Royalists historically have tried to sneak aristocracy in through the back door by embracing the arts, which is why many of the Founding Fathers were suspicious of things artistic. While we tend to think the anti-art prejudice is Puritan, which creates a distant scapegoat that we can all bash, the fact is that the anti-art prejudice is rooted deep within our democratic ideals, ideals informed by the experiences that men like John Adams had in France seeing how the rich used the arts to display their superiority. America managed to avoid this elitism until the late 19th century, when people of wealth and privilege split the arts into high art and low art as a way of becoming an aristocracy. (See Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America for an excellent description of how this process occurred.)

I'm not saying there is a conspiracy, but rather that we are taking for granted ideas that need to be examined. And the only way to examine them is to make them visible.

That's what I do.