Friday, September 19, 2008

Axelrod: Artists and American Identity

Another thought-provoking post by Laura Axelrod, this one on "Our American Identity." Declaring that "we have lost sight of who we are to each other," Laura asks all of us, artists and otherwise, to relinquish the tendency toward demonization and caricature in favor of seeking out the similarities we share as human beings. She concludes, "it is vital that artists and writers step in to act as witnesses. We have the unique ability to remind people of their humanity. We don't need to be spokespeople for them. Instead, we can inspire people to lead themselves." I like Laura's choice of verbs: "remind," "witness," and "inspire." She presents a more humanist view of the function of an artist, the purpose of art that reminds me of the vision Jill Dolan describes in her marvelous book Utopia in Performance.
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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Local Art

Laura at Trainling Spouse Blues writes a report from the field called "Act Locally." Check it out. As far as my own commentary: this is the power of being part of a community, a locally-known citizen with people who know you informally. Unlike the imported artists, you have a built in following. It takes a lot of advertising to make up for the lack of that connection. Suddenly, the production is not a commodity, it is a relationship.
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Ayn Rand: The Arts and Metaphysical Value Judgments

I'd like to start this post with a simple statement of fact, one that raises many issues for me. The statement:

Recently, I have been reading Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. 

The first issue it raises for me (and I suspect for many people reading this post) is reading Ayn Rand at all. What I know of Rand's philosophy, with its focus on a ferocious libertarian belief in capitalism and egotism, threatens to create air bubbles in my bloodstream. So on the level of broad philosophical orientation, Rand and I are not in agreement.

The second issue is one of style. When Rand moves from the description of general abstractions to specific illustrations, I find her style to be abrasive and arrogant. This is magnified by the fact that I often don't agree with her evaluations, so her slash-and-burn literary style is particularly irritating. I suspect I wouldn't have liked Rand in real life -- or at least, I wouldn't have liked her philosophical persona in real life.

For many people, this would be enough to prevent them from having picked up The Romantic Manfiesto in the first place, and if they did pick it up in error, it would be enough to make them peremptorily dismiss its ideas as unworthy of consideration. This is a particularly American phenomenon, the rejection or acceptance of a person's ideas based on their personal style -- in politics, it shows up in people voting for Bush over Gore in 2000 in response to the question "who would you most like to have a beer with?" In the blogosphere, it shows up in those people who refuse to consider certain ideas because the blogger's style of writing offends them in some way. To me, this emphasis on personal style to the exclusion of substance is a mistake, one that I fight in reading Rand.

At the level of substance, however, there is much to recommend in this particular book by Rand. She lays out a purpose to the arts that is both resonant and powerful, and that provides the reader with the tools to consider works of art and their meaning. While I don't think it worthwhile to lay her manifesto out in great detail, there are certain aspects of it that pertain to some of the questions currently being discussed throughout the 'sphere.

Rand carefully builds her arguments one block at a time. Man (and yes, she uses the male pronoun throughout to reflect all humankind -- she's writing this in the 1960s, and it seems to reflect her own personal preference for so-called "masculine" characteristics) experiences the world through his senses -- and the individual things he perceives are "percepts": sensory perceptions. In order to survive, however, man must generalize, and he does so by linking at least two percepts into a "concept" -- an abstraction that creates a class of things, of percepts. So the perception of a couple tall things with dry a cylinder base and a spreading canopy of green things becomes the concept "tree." Language itself converts percepts into concepts. Then multiple concepts are joined to create larger concepts -- say, "vegetation," which includes trees, bushes, plants, etc. And so on. The top of the heap of abstraction is philosophy, which is built on very important abstract concepts.

So our experience of life is first perceptual, then conceptual.

The problem is that as the concepts become more and more complex and multi-faceted, they become harder to experience efficiently and powerfully. This is where art comes in. "Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness," she writes, "and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." In other words, art puts flesh and bones back on the abstractions, so that they can be experienced through senses again. Thus, "Art is a concretization of metaphysics" ("the science that deals with the fundamental nature of reality"). Art is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

Art reflects an artists metaphysics and epistemology -- what he is and where he is, in other words "what is his nature (including his means of cognition) and the nature of the universe in which he acts." These abstract questions she makes more concrete through a series of questions that form the basis of metaphysics and epistomology:

"Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them -- or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determines his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?"

"These," she continues, are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics.. And although metaphysics as such is not a mormative science, the answer to this category of questions assume, in man's mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all his moral values."

An artist's subject matter and style reflects these metaphysical value judgments. His choice of subject matter reflects those things he thinks are important, those things that are important enough to receive his focus. The artist's style reflects how he sees these subjects. So, to reiterate: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."

It seemed to me that Rand is answering the question asked in the title of a recent post by Isaac: "How Do We Put Our Values in Our Art?" The answer: we can't NOT put our values in our art. It is reflected in the subject matter and the style we choose. When, for instance, Neil Labute writes a play, we see his answers to the metaphysical questions writ large: "Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?" Answer: evil. This orientation, which is also shared by most Judeo-Christian religions, especially those with a Puritan streak, is reflected in the way his characters interact and are motivated. And it is an orientation that is shared by many, many Modernist writers of the 20th century.

Even a play that is seen as "escapist" reflects such value judgments, as the playwright creates world in which his characters operate. The Lion King, for instance, has a very clear metaphysics: man (or lions) has the "power to choose his goals and to achieve them," the universe is intelligible (the circle of life), and it is populated with men who are basically good (and who can defeat those who are not). It is a heroic worldview, rather than a defeatist one. There are those who will reject that worldview as being "naive" or "a lie," and that is because they have answered those metaphysical questions differently.

Looked at in this way, every work of art, and every artist's approach to his career, says something about the world in which we live. If, as an artist, you see yourself as a "helpless plaything of forces beyond your control" (e.g., the market, the unions, American society), then you may be more likely to see others as controlling your fate and abrogate your power to choose goals and achieve them to an "unintelligible and unknowable" universe where the randomness of luck is the most powerful force (ala Don Hall's blackjack game). Other metaphysical value judgments may lead you in other directions. If you believe in a deterministic universe where everything is set and cannot be changed, then a suggestion that rejecting the status quo will be nonsensical to you. If you "sell your soul" in order to "succeed," then that also reflects certain beliefs about the universe (and, on a local level, the society that reflects that universe).

Can there be works of art that I would value aesthetically, but reject metaphysically? Absolutely. Does that mean those works shouldn't have been created? Not in the least. But at the same time, aesthetic success doesn't negate metaphysical questions. Simply because a work of art is "good," is "aesthetically effective," is "beautiful" doesn't mean it can't be rejected metaphysically. In fact, aesthetically powerful works that are morally repugnant are the locus point for some of our most violent controversies regarding censorship. One of the reasons Jesse Helms reacted so strongly against the Mapplethorpe photos (although he certainly wouldn't have recognized this consciously) is that images he found morally repugnant were presented in a way that was incredibly beautiful aesthetically. That was Mapplethorpe's most powerful rebellion: to make beautiful images of practices that were regarded as objectionable. Same with Piss Christ: it wouldn't have been half as objectionable if it wasn't so damned aesthetically pleasing.

For me, despite Rand's style, and despite some of her value judgments regarding specific works of art, I find Rand's basic understanding of the role of the arts persuasive, especially since it helps me understand some of the reasons why I am a proponent of a certain kind of art, a certain orientation regarding purpose, a certain understanding of the role and responsibilities of the artist in our society.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Preach It, Laura

I'm going to link without (much) comment to Laura Axelrod's "Where We Stand," counting the minutes until the second installment. While I might quibble with the emphasis on the artist as rebel (I'd say it is just one of many possible functions that would be valuable in our society), the overall message is so strong it gives me goose bumps.
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Actors: What Do You Think of This?

This is a page from a recent book on managing your career as an actor. My question is normative, not descriptive; not "Is this the way it is," but "Is this the way it oughta be?" And if you answer "no" to that question, to quote "psssst. Do something."
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Money and Art

Over at Gasp, Laura Axelrod draws our attention as artists to the current economic crisis. "It will affect you and your work," she writes. "Something with this kind of impact will change our culture. It will alter the way society sees itself and the world." Isaac followed with a post entitled, "Money, the Arts, Etc" and Matt Freeman discussed "Laura Axelrod on Money and the Arts." [Update: another contribution from Adam Thurman at Mission Paradox.]

I think Laura is right, and we do need to talk about this. On an immediate level, any slump in the economy that negatively affects the stock market will affect foundation endowments, which means grants will be smaller and harder to come by. If the economy suffers, people have less disposable income, or are less free in disposing of it, which will impact ticket sales. When people are suffering in our society for economic reasons, money gets shifted in that direction and away from the arts, which are considered "extras." If tax collections decline because there is less money in the economy, then school budgets decline as well, and arts education suffers.

The fact is that the arts live on the fat of the economy.

But Laura wants us to deal with this on the personal level, not just the macro level. "I'm not saying that we should come up with a public policy position on the matter. I'm talking about dealing with this problem both in our work and in our lives."

So much of our conversation tends to be about money and how it impacts our artistic choices and opportunities. It seems to me that there are several possibilities every time we create a production:

1. Lose money
2. Break even
3. Make a little money
4. Make a lot of money

The first option might have the most artistic freedom: if you are planning to lose money, and you can afford to lose money, then you don't have to compromise in any way. For this option to be effective, it helps if you have an independent source of income, which has been the case for many theatrical pioneers. Stanislavki, for instance, was the scion of a fairly wealthy family (although he had to run the family business as well as the Moscow Art Theatre during the early years). However, if you don't have an independent income, then losing money is something you can only do for a certain amount of time before you wear out.

Breaking even is often the goal of small, independent theatres. If they break even, these theatres feel they've done well. When the balance sheet is tallied, the definition of breaking even usually doesn't include the value of the time put into the project, which is contributed by the artists. In this case, breaking even means paying for the space, the materials, the advertising and publicity. In other words, having ticket prices pay for all the non-theatre stuff. Like the previous option, breaking even works best if you have a financial situation that allows you to catch some rest between shows, or at least not do the break even shows in addition to a demanding day job. Like losing money, breaking even has a shelf life -- at a certain age, the contributions of time becomes more expensive, as your contribution begins to impact your family and social life and involvement in other activities.

Making a little money is cause for celebration. You're in the black, those who contribute their time get a little reward for their efforts and so are a bit more likely to continue to contribute their time , this allowing the process to continue. If you are really lucky, you start making enough money to allow a few people to reduce their day job hours or devote their time to the theatre full time. Often, the first person to get freed up is the one who handles the administrative aspects of the theatre, because nobody else wants to do that job, and there is a perception that a focus on these parts of the theatre will pay dividends in the form of increased attendance or increased fundraising. Hope rises in this situation -- a breakthrough seems possible if only the right show can get the right review. If that doesn't occur, then this version has a shelf-life, too, especially since those who continue to donate their time start to resent those who are getting paid.

Finally, there is making a lot of money. This is the jackpot moment that catapults a young theatre to the forefront. Usually, overnight sensations have been building through the previous three stages for many years. Once this happens, a different set of pressures arise, as artists often become fearful that the success won't last, and begin creating work that seems sure to continue the trajectory.

All four of these outcomes are based on looking at art as a commodity, as something that is created and packaged to be sold within the marketplace. Once conceived of in this way, all of the traditional commodity aspects come along with it: branding, increasing customer base, competition from other brands, etc. Since many theatres exist within large cities, expenses are high, competition for the attention of the public is fierce, and alternatives are many.

My question is whether there is a way to disconnect from the commodity economy. Is there a way to make the arts less a product? Is there a way to move the arts into another type of economy? For instance, while still based in a money economy, a church doesn't really sell a product, but rather something else -- an experience? A shared identity? An extended family? [Etch-a-Sketch erase*] In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken talks about a workshop that took place at a large agricultural chemical manufacturing plant, where the attendees, all employees of the company, were intoruced to the "spaceship Earth" model and then put into groups and given a goodly amount of time to create a spaceship that was enclosed, needed to be self-sufficient, and had to last for 100 years. One of the interesting things is that the employees created a model that took along actual artists rather than a stock of DVDs and CDs, because for a 100-year self-contained trip they wanted people who could contribute new stuff that pertained to their journey. How might we get our artistic contributions looked as in this way?

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that the arts in the current capitalist economy cannot support themselves. Since then, our response has been to seek contributions to make up the difference, but such contributions ebb and flow according to the strength of the economy and to the focus of our society. In many ways, we have come to rely on the kindness of strangers, an approach that has worked for us about as effectively as it worked for Blanche DuBois.

So the questions that Laura leads me to is how to disconnect from the global economy as much as possible, and build on a more solid footing. There are economists and social thinkers who have written about things like barter, local economies, local currency, collectives and co-ops, intentional communities, and a wide variety of alternative economic approaches. Given how ineffective the current artistic economy has been, I wonder whether we might want to experiment with these alternatives. After all, it's not as if the status quo is working for most of us.bu

* I have decided that I like the image from my childhood of how you could create some image on the Etch-a-Sketch, and then erase it and start over.]
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Small Town People and Politics

Here is where the <100K Project, and the Big City media's (including theatre's) tendency to sneer at small town life intersects with politics. From Daily Kos: "Small Town Values."
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Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...