Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Prostitution, Art, and Other Absurdities

I'd like to say there is an interesting conversation going on at Angry White Guy between Don Hall and Adam Thurman, but I can't. I could say there is an energetic argument, full of sound and fury, but...well, you know the rest of the quotation. And the fault lies with Don, I'm afraid. Now, my inner Camille Paglia loves Don's melodramatic style. It's clear, it's strong, and it is a lively read. But my inner Descarte rebels. If I have my crap detector turned on at even the lowest setting, it starts going off almost instantaneously.

Let's start with Don't analogy: theatre is like a brothel. This one, which bookends his "theatre is like poker" analogy of several months back, is something we've been dealing with since St. Augustine turned against the theatre a little over 1600 years ago, taking the Catholic Church (and later the Protestant Church) with him down the anti-theatrical road. Don does a great job rehashing that argument:

"Prostitutes sell themselves - their bodies and their submission - to the person who will pay them to perform. Theater artists put themselves on display and display themselves - their bodes, ideals, ideas, and submission - for cash. Not that difficult to grasp."

At the risk of pedantry, let me just point out that this isn't true. Prostitutes do not sell their bodies, they rent their bodies. It's a limited-time offer. One might argue that selling your body and submission wouldn't be prostitution, but rather marriage, which is another institution entirely. It is the temporary nature of the transaction that has always landed prostitutes in hot water. So let's get our definitions straight.
With that out of the way, the fact is that anyone who is a wage laborer -- which is pretty much most of us -- rents their bodies and their submission in exchange for money. Not just artists, but cab drivers, longshoremen, college professors, and even lowly NPR employees. One might argue that prostitutes pretend that they like you and want to do what you want to do...but that's what we do as employees, too. Nope, it's just hard to get the definition of prostitution that Don offers to reduce down to something that pertains only to whores and artists. Unless the issue is that whole "display" thing, which was a big part of it for medieval and Puritan anti-theatrical writers, as well as some Islamic justification for certain rules about dress for women. So if Don's issue is "display of the body," would that leave off, say, radio drama? Or what about film, which is really the display of shadows of bodies who did something in the past? Or what about, say, the performers in Beckett's Play, who are disembodied except for their heads? Man, this is getting harder and harder.
The discussion continues:

Adam: "The idea that art is so damn fragile that if it gets near anything that smells "business related" it will lose it's luster is a product of childish and immature thinking."
Don: It's as old as the Bible, brother. Money corrupts the process. It ain't the art that is fragile. It's the artist.

This is the 1 Timothy 6:10 argument. Let's take a look at that Biblical passage upon which Don is basing his economic theory: "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." Hmmmm. So it isn't money that "corrupts," but rather the love of money, coveting, "to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others," in other words the excessive and wrongful hankering after money, which has caused some people to abandon their faith and, as a result, suffer pain. In Don's usage, read for "faith" the word "art," and maybe we're on to something. The artist is fragile, so saith Don -- he or she is easily tempted away from straight-and-narrow pathway of art by the love of money. When they sell their ideals for money, then they have sold their souls, strayed from their faith, and are cruisin' for a bruisin'. So preachest Reverend Hall.
But the Biblical injunction is against excessiveness. Like most classical philosophy, it is all about moderation in all things. One suspects that excessiveness has led a lot of people, artists or otherwise, down the forbidden pathway. For instance, excessive love of sex might just as easily lead one astray, or the excessive love of alcohol or drugs, or gambling, or...Facebook! Does Don recommend that artists equally avoid all these things (no! not Facebook!)? Or does he see, say, having sex with one's wife or husband as something that condemns the artist to corruption? Perdition on my soul, what are we to do?
The point is that it is the love of money, not money itself, that is the root of all evil. It is an overvaluing of money, placing it above all other things, that corrupts. It is arguable whether artists are "fragile" in this regard, or more fragile than anyone else who makes a living and puts food on the table. I doubt that most of us are making deep moral compromises in order to pay the rent, but maybe Don lives in a different world than I do and they ask him to do horrible stuff at NPR. When I look at the people who are doing theatre that some of us might find less than exemplary, I suspect that most of them have not, in fact, sold their soul, but rather either have a preference for that kind of theatre (yes, that IS possible), or have no preference about what they do as long as it is theatre. We all make choices, and Don's belief that all temptations should be removed lest artists stray smacks of paternalism bordering on puritanism. Artistic Amish-ness (Amish-itude?). I'd say we don't need anyone to protect our artistic soul for us. Some saint, quoted I believe in Herbert Blau's The Impossible Theatre, says something to the effect that she prays better when her stomach isn't empty. I suspect artists feel the same, and the the cost of doing so is not soul destroying.
Frankly, this discussion of Art versus Money, especially framed in simplistic terms like prostitution and instant corruption, creates a lot of heat and not much light. It takes a complex question about the relation of money and values and turns it into an all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil melodrama. Yes, some Big Institutions put Money ahead of Art; some Little Guys do the same. Money is not an economic Tar Baby that, once touched, leads directly to destruction. It is a complicated tool for living in this world that requires the development of deeply held principles to manage the balance, not the spartan rejection of all things monetary in the interest of some artistic virginity, pure as the driven snow. Don proposes an economic chastity belt. The choice is not between artistic Madonna or Whore, an opposition that has proven itself as absurd when it comes to women as it would in relation to art.
What needs to happen -- and this is why I am a strong proponent of arts education that intellectual content and not just how-to skill development -- is that young artists need to be explicitly and repeatedly required to develop a thorough philosophy of what they will and won't do for their art -- an artistic creed, if you will -- that can serve as a touchstone for later decisions that touch on artistic and economic integrity. That way, they can make thoughtful decisions in the moment, because they will have thought through what they stand for.
But I've always been in favor of education over abstinence.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd go with "Amishitude".

Anonymous said...

I should have just let you respond to Don. Your response beats mine.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the tip, Jay.

Adam, I couldn't have written what I wrote without your having addressed it first.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jeebus.

Get a room, already. Response forthcoming.

Anonymous said...

Arguments with all heat and no light give me such a headache. Particularly arguments seem to have no end. I quite like your response Scott, but fear future endlessness given that Don seems to have rolled up his sleeves for a forthcoming response. Why is the last word so important?

I am not a fragile artist. And I'm very proud to make a living as an creative artist. I sit in a house that plays built. Plays! Plays for youth no less. I agree that it's the love of money that sends people (not artists) down the wrong path. I'm not clear why artists are separated out.

But I'm sure I'll be told I'm wrong. No matter.

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