Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's Not About You

I'm a fan of Daniel H. Pink. I think his book A Whole New Mind was inspiring and fascinating, and created a vocabulary that could be used in discussions from education to business to the arts.

Later, I was invited to listen in on a webcast with Pink about his latest book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need, a book done in Manga comic book style that gives six principles for young people trying to find their way in the post-college world of work. As someone who teaches said young people, my curiosity was piqued, so I grabbed a copy when it came into our university library.

It is Rule Number 3 that I'd like to discuss tonight, because it applies to our previous discussion about how to garner legislative support for increased arts funding. But I also would propose that it is a rule, if embraced by the arts community, that would change the face of the arts in significant ways and raise them in the esteem of their fellow citizens. It might even lead to a New Renaissance. Rule #3 is: It's Not About You.

Our hero, Johnny Bunko, is stuck in a boring job he took because he followed his father's advice to major in something secure in college rather than following what he was most passionate about. One night, wallowing in despair as he works an all-nighter, he cracks open a pair of chopsticks which releases a savvy and sarcastic genie named Diana who says she is here to teach him how not to screw up his life. The first two principles -- "There is no plan" and "Focus on strengths, not weaknesses," have led our hero to make a mess of things by arrogantly focusing so much on his own "special genius" that he is about to screw up a big opportunity. Diana bursts on the scene to set him straight. The dialogue in the comic reads as follows:
Diana: It's not about you.
Johnny: But last week you said...
Diana: Read my lips, numb-nuts! It's not about you. It's about your customer, it's about your client. Use your strengths, yes, but remember... You're here to serve -- not to self-actualize...
Johnny: So I don't matter at all?
Diana: Of course you matter, but the most succesful people improve their own lives by impriving others' lives. They help their customer solve its problem. They give their client something it didn't know it was missing. That's where they focus their energy, talent, and brainpower.
Johnny: Outward, not inward.
Diana: Exactly...Sp pull your head out of your...ego.
Artists are not admired in our culture. Oh, sure, if you're a celebrity, you get oohed and aahed over, and even allowed to comment on political issues every once in a while if you'll help a politican draw a crowd, but for the most part the average Joe thinks artists are self-absorbed, arrogant con men who try to pass off incomprehensible nonsense as profound works of art. They don't buy the idea, so common in discussions about the nonsensical question "What is art?," that it's art if the artist says its art. They don't know why they should work at a job while artists spend all their time daydreaming and farting around.

Now, you know that that image isn't true, and I know that that image isn't true, but the reason that they don't know is two-fold: 1) they don't know any artists, because artists huddle together in what amounts to spiritually gated communities populated only by other artists, and 2) because whenever artists are asked why public money ought to be used to support art, artists talk only about themselves -- about their self-expression, their oh-so-personal vision, the purity of their integrity. And then they offer a few kumbaya generalities about how the arts are "good for" everybody everywhere and ask for a check. Once they get the check, they use it to create art that thumbs its nose at those who gave the money in the first place. It's a performance that wears thin real quickly, and after about three decades our elected leaders decided, in the 1990s, to stop taking it anymore. We've been trying to recover ever since.

It's not about you. That doesn't mean "You're here to take orders." Rather, it means you are a conduit, a limen like a doorway between the imaginative realm and the concrete realm. Artists are like shamans or mediums who, through long training and painful experience, have learned to open themselves to the ineffable and are able to part the curtain that separates the unseen from the day-to-day.

Over time, life develops through repeated exposure a film that dulls experience. It is like a scrim slowly falls between us and those things in life that we see on a daily basis. Artists raise that scrim, so that we see it once again in all its vividness. That's what Shklovsky meant when he said that art "helps us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." That is an amazing gift, a wonderful thing to be able to do. But it is something that is done for others. As an artist, you must experience that stones stoniness yourself, but you must also be focused on transferring that experience to others. Otherwise, you become the same as somebody who is on a really cool LSD trip in the middle of a roomful of stone cold sober people; we don't really care about all the revelations you've found in your thumbprint -- unless you figure out a way to communicate it.

For much of art history, artists considered themselves to be craftsmen doing a job; many didn't sign their work. They knew it wasn't about them. Artistically, as Pink writes, they "give their client something it didn't know it was missing." They give a gift. Which brings us back to Lewis Hyde again, and the difference between a gift economy and a transaction economy. One of the many subtitles Hyde seems to have used for different editions of this book is "How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World." The artist is the conduit, the vessel for the creative spirit. The artist is a midwife that brings into existence a new life.

I am a teacher, and one of the hardest things for a teacher to realize is that it's not about me. It's not about my brilliance, it's not about my insight, it's not about my rhetorical skills or my ability to create really scary tests. It's about the student, and what the student learns to care about. Once I learned that lesson, teaching became much, much harder because I had to pay attention to what my students were saying, thinking, observing. I had to interact, not just expound. It's not about me.

If artists could adopt this attitude of humbleness and humility before their art and before their audience; if they could give gifts rather than participate in exchange; if they could allow themselves to be transparent to trascendence, as Joseph Campbell was fonding of saying. Well, I suspect that the artist wouldn't be regarded with so much suspicion and disdain, but rather would be embraced by the community.

Everyone loves to receive a gift, and gifts are about the receiver, not the giver.

Tony Gets It

Over at Tony Adams blog, he writes about the way we need to frame the debate about arts funding, and the need to shift the focus from the artist to the public. Hear! Hear! He concludes:

My father hates the government. He will never be supportive of public funding for the arts. If he was to learn that the Piss Christ is not actually representative of most of what is actually being done, he wouldn't tell others not to support the arts. And if there was something nearby for him to see, he's probably actually go.

If there were more artistic events to attend in Cisco, Texas, not only would Patty, my mom, probably go--dragging along my stepfather and step-sister Candace--but she could also probably be swayed to call her congressman to support the arts more.

My stepfather Pat has seen three plays in his life. He liked all three. All three were in Chicago. They live in Texas. If there were plays for them to see that didn't require driving for two hours and paying outrageous ticket prices, they would attend regularly.

We need to shift the debate away from why arts funding matters to arts organizations and artists. We need to talk not about why arts funding matters to artists, but why it matters to Chuck and Lynn, why it matters to Pat and Patty.

And I will append that the best way to make sure there are more artistic events in Cisco Texas is NOT (or at least, not ONLY) to bring in a touring show from Houston, but to support some artists who actually live in Cisco so that Pat and Patty actually KNOW some artists, and thus KNOW that they are people just like them. This is such a simple concept -- why is it so hard to get it through people's heads???

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Common Misconception

Over at The Nonprofiteer, erstwhile kellynfp has "Second (and third) thoughts about public funding of the arts." Apparently, she spent an evening in my old home town of Bloomington IL watching a touring production by the dance company Ailey II when she had an epiphany:

Of course you’re indifferent to public funding for the arts, you dodo; you live in Chicago, where major performers and exhibitions will show up anyway. Public funding for the arts isn’t for Chicago–it’s for Bloomington.

And she remembered growing up in Baltimore, which is not a small town but which waited for months between visits of major dance companies; and she remembered the thrill of seeing those dance companies for the first time. And she realized (0r remembered) that that’s the real point of public funding for the arts: to make available to everyone the thrill of exposure to first-rate art. Everyone: that means people who live in Bloomington, and International Falls, and Arroyo Hondo, even though the free market would not support a stop in any of those places by the latest tour from the Joffrey or the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Met.

As much as I would like to applaud this particular lightbulb, I can't with great enthusiasm, because it is based on a common misconception: that what is needed is arts funding to bring the artists from the Big City to visit, cultural ambassador-like, the poor unwashed citizens of the cultural wasteland. While that's all well and good, and I have attended my share of such touring performances both in Bloomington and in Asheville, I would argue that this is exactly what is NOT needed from arts funding. What is needed is for their to be money available to develop and support artists in communities across America, artists who live in those communities, are committed to those communities, whose work is in dialogue with those communities, and whose artists are part of the fabric of those communities. Don't think the Peace Corp, think Grameen Bank.

Those of us across America are tired of Big City paternalism. All we want is our fair share of the pie.

The Relevance of The Syndicate

In the comments following yesterday's post "Taking the NEA Out of the Stimulus Package," I wrote about how the process of centralization was not simply a "natural progression," but rather developed from the efforts of the Theatrical Syndicate to buy up all the first class theatres in America and provide touring shows from New York. These efforts destroyed resident companies and forced theatre artists to relocate to New York in order to work. In a hilarious response, Isaac wrote: "Good point about the Syndicate, but I have to ask... did they really call themselves the syndicate? That's like Magneto calling his organization THE BROTHERHOOD OF EVIL MUTANTS i mean... how obvious can you be?" *LOL* Yes, Isaac, not only did they call themselves the Theatrical Syndicate, but one of their most prominent members was -- wait for it -- Marc Klaw. If this sounds like a comic book struggle between good and evil, the reality is just as exciting.

My point in bringing this up in relation to the discussion of the arts in the stimulus package (just to get the immediate issue out of the way) was to point out that the current centralized, big city orientation of the arts in America is a historical phenomenon that resulted from a titanic power struggle in the 1890s, and not simply a "natural" development that just sort of "made sense." It represents the Wal-Marting of the theatre, it was managed by rich and powerful people, and it left a lot of scars across the country, both within the theatre and within the audience. While it may seem as if this is old news that has nothing to do with us in 2009, I beg to differ. All we need to do is look at the resentments of Reps. Pence and Kingston to see echoes of the past, the scars of which they themselves wouldn't even be able to identify.

The point I was trying to make about the arts in the stimulus package is not that the NEA funding ought to be removed from the bill, but rather that as artists we need stop seeing opposition to the arts as the sign of narrow-minded cretinism and instead form our arguments with some sort of historical awareness and sociological knowledge and, yes, understanding of opposing viewpoints. We have to learn from our total bungling of the NEA flap of the 1990s, during which artists couldn't marshal much more than sputtered "How dare you question us! We are artistes!"and a few airy generalities in defense of the arts in American society. There is a direct connection between this epic fail and what I described in my post yesterday entitled "Thoughts on Style While Feeling Crummy." Arts education is so focued on teaching how-to subjects that undergraduates and graduates emerge with little knowledge of history or theory, or any understanding or even awareness of the Great Conversation that extends back to Plato and Aristotle, for crying out loud, over the role of the arts in society. Little or no knowledge of how exactly we got to our current situation. We just think it just sort of...happened...because, well, that's what made sense.

If you're like me, the generative myth I was taught about the development of the American Theatre is that it sprang, Athena-like, from the forehead of Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s. That before then, the American theatrical universe was void and their was darkness upon the face of the theatre. And that is a total and ridiculous lie. It is history written by the victor in which the influx of immigrants to New York City represents the flowering of the American theatre, and that is a partial explanation at best. In fact, their was a vibrant artistic tradition in America throughout the 19th century, one that mixed what came to be known as lowbrow and highbrow entertainment in the same evening's entertainment, and one that was owned and operated by artists not producers. There were resident theatre companies, opera companies, and symphony orchestras all across America. I have quoted Bill MiKibben's Deep Economy before, but I think it is worth quoting again: "in 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. "Thousands of tenors," writes Robert Frank [in Luxury Fever], "earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences."

All of this was ruined by the Syndicate. The story is dramatic, and thanks to Wayne S. Turney, Associate Professor of Theatre at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA you can read a description as written by the people who fought the battles: Daniel Frohman (whose brother, Charles, was a member of the Syndicate), Francis Wilson (who fought the Syndicate, and who eventually became the first President of Actors Equity), and Norman Hapgood (a journalist who wrote The Stage in America: 1897 - 1900 which was published in 1901). I encourage you to read the whole thing -- it is really fascinating, and an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to Dr. Turney. I will provide excerpts below that pertain to the discussion at hand.

Daniel Frohman:

One day in 1896 a notable group of theatrical magnates met by chance at a luncheon at the Holland House in New York. They included Charles Frohman, whose offices booked attractions for a chain of Western theaters extending to the coast; A. L. Erlanger and Marc Klaw, who, as Klaw and Erlanger, controlled attractions for practically the entire South; Nixon and Zimmerman, of Philadelphia, who were conducting a group of the leading theaters of that city, and Al Hayman, one of the owners of the Empire Theater.

These men naturally discussed the chaos in the theatrical business. They decided that its only economic hope was in a centralization of booking interests, and they acted immediately on this decision. Within a few weeks they had organized all the theaters they controlled or represented into one national chain, and the open time was placed on file in the offices of Klaw & Erlanger. It now became possible for the manager of a traveling company to book a consecutive tour at the least possible expense. In a word, booking suddenly became standardized.

This was the beginning of the famous Theatrical Syndicate which, in a brief time, dominated the theatrical business of the whole country."

As described by Norman Hapgood:

During the season of 1895-96 it became known that a combination was being formed to control many theatres, consisting of Nixon and Zimmerman of Philadelphia; Klaw and Erlanger, and Hayman and Frohman, both of New York. By February it was announced that thirty-seven first-class theatres were in the hands of the Syndicate. To each of the houses thirty weeks of "attractions" were to be guaranteed. The essence of the system, from that day to this, with constantly increasing scope and power, has been that the theatres take mainly such plays as the Syndicate desires, on the dates which it desires, and receive in return an unbroken succession of companies, with none of the old-time idle weeks. Another inducement to the owners of theatres was the promise of better terms from travelling managers; but the actual outcome of that idea is not so clear. Avoidance of conflicting plays, or of a series of plays too much alike, was also one of the proposed advantages, but this has turned out a difficult object to gain, especially with the necessity of changing all dates to suit big Syndicate successes; and many theatres have the ordinary padding, farce comedies, for weeks at a time.

Francis Wilson:

The drastic action of the Syndicate in compelling actor-managers to submit to its terms or go elsewhere, there being nowhere else to go, did not apply to the rank and file of actors, but only to those who headed or controlled their own companies, the so-called " stars." These " stars," whose talent had won great favor with the public, were the most important attractions in the country, but were outnumbered by the " starless " companies which had been organized, or had come under control of the men forming the newly composed " Syndicate." Managers of theaters in cities and towns outside of New York mostly resented this Syndicate as much as did the " stars," but were forced into affiliation with it by the threat of not being permitted to play the numerous Syndicate attractions, the formation of a powerful opposition, and the fear that the " stars " would ally themselves with the Syndicate. As it well knew, the Syndicate had the out-of-town manager on the hip; for, if forced to play only the Syndicate's comparatively inferior attractions, while it might keep his theater open for a longer period during the season, it would mean great loss of prestige with the public and still greater loss of profit. But, as was cunningly suggested by the Syndicate, if the out-of-town manager joined with it, there would be no theaters in which the " stars " could appear, and the out-of-town manager would soon have not only the Syndicate attractions, but also the" stars " as well. It was as plain as day. The out-of-town manager yielded. The actor-managers were unorganized, had no stomach for organization, and were, therefore, an easy and natural prey."


The situation was a serious one. To my mind, the managers had determined to wipe out of existence the control of any company by an actor, because such control was inimical to their plans. It was evident to me from the beginning that, with the Syndicate in control, the receipts of all companies must satisfy the greed and caprice of that organization, or the companies would be abandoned. They would have no theaters in which to play. It was a foregone conclusion that the kind of play produced would be that which drew the most money, irrespective of its quality or character. There would be but one thought as to that. The receipts were the thing. It was an easy step to the conclusion that the financial returns from the smaller cities and towns throughout the country would ultimately fail to satisfy. Y et when I uttered such a thought, I was declared to be an alarmist. I did not foresee the complete abandonment of the smaller cities and towns, as to dramatic amusement, which has come to pass, except for moving pictures.

Wilson goes on the describe why the actor-manager model is better for the theatre and the producer model that the Syndicate put into place, and that has been in place ever since:

Sure enough, with the coming of the equally commercial Shuberts, there was soon no actor-manager in America, even at the head of his own company, and no matter how large his name might appear . who was not directed and controlled by Syndicate managers. Furthermore, if these jointly opposed, there is not now an actor-manager great or small in America who could follow his profession. How did these managers, this Syndicate, obtain a footing in the theatrical profession which was once, not long since, in possession of the actor and the actor-manager ? How came they in a profession in which they are really unnecessary ? If ever there were such a thing as a fifth wheel to an enterprise, they are it. There are just three essentials to this whole beautiful matter of the drama, no more, . the author, the actor, and the audience. They are of equal importance and hold the same opinion of managers. All the rest can, and should, be hired. It is probably entirely due to the actor's lack of appreciation of his duty to himself and to his profession that managers as we now know them have come into existence. And there they are dominating the situation and quite convinced that they are the sun around which the entertainment, refreshment, and instruction of the world revolves, yet caring nothing for the ethical part of it.

Wilson describes the previous model

In the old days, the actor-manager maintained a "stock" company the year through, or nearly so, in various cities throughout the United States, as, in New York, the Mitchells, Burtons, and Wallacks, the Burtons and the Davenports in Philadelphia, the Conways in Brooklyn, the McVickers in Chicago, the Popes in St. Louis, the Fords and the Albaughs in Washington and Baltimore, etc. To these theaters came as traveling "stars" the Edwin Forrests, the Booths, the Charlotte Cushmans, the Mrs. D. P. Bowers, the Lucille Westerns, the Maggie Mitchells, the Joseph Jeffersons, the W. J. Florences, the Barney Williarnses, the Lottas, etc., who depended on the resident stock company for professional support in their tragedies and comedies.

Finally, as star after star (inclduing Joseph Jefferson, James O'Neill, and Richard Mansfield) caved in and signed with the Syndicate, Wilson (and Mrs. Fiske) were the only resisters. Both were being put out of business by the Syndicate's strong-arm tactices (Wilson published a cartoon portraying the Syndicate as an octopus):

Meanwhile, how was I to extricate myself from the dreadful position in which I found myself, how avoid expatriation ? Was I to sit down and calmly permit the money-changers in the Temple to walk all over me? The matter gave me many an anxious, many an indignant, thought. Then it occurred to me that there was such a thing as fighting the Devil with fire. It was only too evident that independence as to where and with whom one should play was lost to the American player, that henceforth he must appear only where he would be allowed! An extremely bitter, uncoated pill for any well man to swallow, yet there it was, to be taken or rejected as prescribed.

And he describes the end result, which continues to be the situation today:

The Syndicate went on unhindered for years, doing as it pleased, making things easier for itself and more difficult and intolerable for everybody else, actors, dramatists, and other managers outside its ranks. It decided when and where a play should appear, or whether it should appear at all, and even what monetary share it should have in the play. It decided what changes a play should undergo after acceptance, no matter to what well-meant but ignorant maltreatment it was subjected. It decided that a season's engagement should last but a few nights, and were brutally frank about it. It paid what it pleased, when it pleased, and where it pleased, and under conditions and agreements so one-sided, so far as the actor was concerned, as to be laughed out of court when, as occasionally happened, they reached there. Of course it produced and countenanced the type of play that " pulled the dough." With that, all thought, all ambition ended. It was a noble institution!

The words of famous artists and thinkers quoted in Hapgood's book:

William Dean Howells: --"Not merely one industry, but civilization, itself, is concerned, for the morals and education of the public are directly influenced by the stage. Every one who takes a pride in the art of his country must regret a monopoly of the theatre, for that means 'business' and not art."

Thomas Bailey Aldrich: --"The inevitable result of a Theatre Trust would be deterioration in the art of acting and discouragement of dramatic literature. Certainly that is not a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Augustin Daly: --"I do not believe that the best interests of dramatic art nor the highest aims of the theatre will be served if the spirit of competition is chilled, crippled, or destroyed; and the first aim of all such combinations or syndicates must be to absorb opposition and to kill off rivals or rivalry."

Joseph Jefferson: --"When the Trust was formed, I gave my opinion as against it, considering it inimical to the theatrical profession. I think so still."

Richard Mansfield: --"Art must be free. I consider the existence of the Trust or Syndicate a standing menace to art. Its existence is, in my opinion, an outrage and unbearable."

Mrs. Fiske: --"The incompetent men who have seized upon the affairs of the stage in this country have all but killed art, worthy ambition, and decency."

Francis Wilson: --"Dramatic art, in America, is in great danger. A number of speculators have it by the throat, and are gradually but surely squeezing it to death."

James A. Herne: --"The underlying principle of a Theatrical Trust is to subjugate the playwright and the actor. Its effect will be to degrade the art of acting, to lower the standard of the drama, and to nullify the influences of the theatre."

Henry Irving once gave his views in the London Chronicle on this subject: "When I was in America, lately, a deputation of actors assured me that the Syndicate System is the curse of the American stage. Actor-managers, at all events, have made sacrifices for their calling, and protected its interests, and it will be an evil day for those interests when they are left to the mercy of speculation."



Over the past how-many-years, I have been arguing about decentralization, and commenter after commenter have used the "that's just the way it's always been and ever shall be" trope. The lack of historical awareness makes artists unaware that they have a choice, the status quo wasn't inevitable, it does not have to continue, and it is not natural. In the 1890s, there was a struggle, and artists lost to producers, and the country lost to the metropolis. But they fought, and out of that fight came Actors Equity, which to some extent de-Klawed the Syndicate. But the landscape was changed significantly as far as how theatre was done. Resident companies were replaced by tours of entire productions, rotating rep was replaced by long runs.

The financial approach that we consider to be reality -- the belief, for instance, that only metropolises can support the arts -- is based on an ignorance of the historical record. It hasn't been ever thus, and it need not be forever thus, either.

Is it about money? Sure it is. Would more help? Damn straight it would. But if the money is going to flow in the same channels it has always done, then the complaint about Indiana and Georgia has validity. What was important about the WPA during the Depression is that it put artists to work everywhere, not just the big cities in the northeast. If the NEA would make a similar commitment, there might be more support from the Republicans.

I'm not saying Pence and Kingston are arguing from an informed opinion about regional arts. Most likely, they oppose arts spending in general. But until we can frame the debate historically, philosophically, and pragmatically, our arguments will sound like children begging for an increase in their allowance. Artists must be broadly educated, both formally and independently. We must insist on it for the future of the arts.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Stop. Thinking.

Fomr Angela Learns to Act, a blog written by Angela who is, in fact, learning to act in One of the Top Programs in the Nation (and you don't believe her, ask her professors). In "Quotations Volume 19," which collects things her teachers have said in class, she contributes this gem:

Movement Professor: (to Iceman) I'm seeing tension in your temples. [...] I'm guessing it's a habit from thinking.
Acting Professor: (emphatically) Stop. Thinking.
Maybe this was a joke. But I doubt it. Back in the late 1970s, when I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (one of the biggest rip-offs this side of Scientology), one of my acting teachers saw that I was carrying a book of criticism with me. "What are you reading?" she asked imperiously. "Eric Bentley!!! That's about the LAST thing you need." Because that whole thinking thing really gets in the way of your acting. Let's keep our actors in the artistic version of barefoot and pregnant, lest they realize the emperor has no clothes, their director has no vision, and their playwright has no clue.

Anyone pondering whether to attend a school for theatre, when you interview ask the interviewer two questions: 1) What books have you read recently? and 2) What books ought I to read? If he or she stammers and sounds like Sarah Palin -- "read all of them" -- then stand up, shake hands, and head for somewhere else. Bad things are going to happen.

Taking the NEA Out of the Stimulus Package

Over at Parabasis, Isaac quotes two Reps' opposition to the $50M for the NEA in the stimulus package:

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) was typical of the opponents to the stimulus legislation who seized on the arts to discredit the overall package; he told the House chamber, “It included wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs. As I asked on this floor last week, what does $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts have to do with creating jobs in Indiana?” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) was even more emphatic, saying, “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.”

I have highlighted the key sentence. There are TWO theatres in Indiana listed on the TCG website, both in Indianapolis, which is not in Pence's district. Jack Kingston is from Georgia, which has 15 TCG-listed theatres, most in Atlanta, none in his district. Both rightly see this money as likely to go to a few major metropolises, none of which they represent, most of which are probably centered in the Northeast or California. This is an illustration of the connection between artistic centralization and the weak legislative support for the NEA. Until the arts, and artists, decide that the rest of country is a worthwhile place to create art, no amount of huffing and puffing about Republican cretinism will have any effect. Time to wake up and smell the real coffee. This is too big of a country to have a centralized art scene.

Thoughts on Style While Feeling Crummy (Embracing My Inner Paglia)

I am at home with a cold. Forced by my body to stop the quotidian forward motion from prep to class to prep to class and then to grading, I find myself propelled instead toward reflection, bleary and slightly feverish though I am.

The catalyst for this introspection, which will likely take an outward turn, is Camille Paglia. On Saturday, in an almost accidental way, I picked up her 1992 book Sex, Art, and American Culture at the local branch library. As I leafed through its pages, it seemed as if the book would spontaneously combust as a result of the attempt to contain Paglia's intense personality. I happened to open to her almost ritualistic dismemberment of David Halperin and Michel Foucault, and I found myself rubber-necking as if I were passing the scene of a grisly highway accident. I checked the book out, along with a few others, and took it home where the next day my feverish brain fell completely under its spell.

There is a lot Paglia says that I don't agree with -- her aesthetic preferences and mine differ significantly at times, and I suspect that a conversation with her might be more monologue than dialogue -- but I was enthralled by her slash-and-burn prose, and her iconoclastic a-plague-on-both-your-houses independence. I was reminded of Emerson's injuction to "Speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day. " Paglia's style unleashes an entire arsenal.

I like that in a writer. I like the fact that Paglia, who got her graduate degree from Yale's Harold Bloom and whose learning is prodigious, writes that with "most academics, I feel bored and restless. I have to speak very slowly and hold back my energy level." It is her energy level, and her courage, that speaks loudest. I suspect that is why I enjoyed Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto, although I found her aesthetic judgment horrible.. Her writing style was clear Appollonian fire, like the blue flame of a metal cutter. I learned something from her. I like John Taylor Gatto, the anti-education teacher-of-the-year winner whose dissection of the banality of compulsory education is fiery and principled. I like business writer Tom Peters, who wrote in the introduction to his incendiary book Re-Imagine, "I don't expect you'll agree with everything I say here. But I hope that when you disagree, you will disagree angrily. That you will be so pissed off that you will...Do Something. DOING SOMETHING. That's the essential idea, isn't it?" Yes, it is. In 1956, Jimmy Porter sounded the alarum in Look Back in Anger when he demanded "a little human enthusiasm," and condemned the fact that ""Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm." Fifty years later, the torport continues.

Our world, our educational system, and our arts have become Fogelberged. We have traded passion, intensity, and integrity for mushy sensitivity and adolescent pique. We condemn the identification of bullshit as "intolerance" and an insistence on intellectual standards as "insensitive." And it is the worst in academia and the arts, where we are so fearful that we will damage students' and faculty's self-esteem that we applaud any piece of garbage that either produce. Graduates take that expectation of easy acclaim out into the world, where they get all in a huff when some critic says anything even mildly critical of them or one of their chums. Members of the theatrosphere justify their unwillingness to write anything less than adulatory on the basis of self-preservation, as if personal integrity was unimportant and honesty the equivalent of a raodside bomb.

After ten years of trying to toe that line, I've had enough. Theatre is hard, and there is a lot to learn. Failure will be constant, and should not be seen as anything but failure. You learn more from failure than success, but only if you look deeply at the failure and mine it for its treasure. There are thousands of years of theatre history. and theory, and criticism, and they need to be learned before young artists have the right to be taken seriously. And even then, there is more anthropology and psychology and philosophy and comparative religion to be understood before they have anything to say that will be of interest to anyone older than fifteen.

Our theatre is shallow, and it is because young artists emerge from their undergraduate and graduate experiences uneducated, unread, and unchallenged. If they read more than a couple dozen plays over the course of four years -- and I mean read the plays, not the on-line Spark Notes -- it is a rarity. Theory? Forget it. The understanding of Aristotle, Brecht, Schiller, and dozens of others is shallow or non-existent. Theatre students spend their time focused on "doing plays," and none of their time trying to figure out why they ought to be done in the first place, and what they have to say to the world today. They sit bored through any class that isn't a "how to" subject, and the faculty, most of who themselves are the product of how-to education, condone their apathy as an artistic temperament. Bullshit. Boredom is the sign of a shallow approach to experience. I am reminded of the aforementioned John Taylor Gatto, who wrote about his grandfather: "One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else's. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn't know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty not to be trusted." I feel the same way. Most young artists aren't to be trusted with the power that is embedded within the theatre. Neither can their faculty. And neither can their artistic leaders.

If we wanted proof of the mindlessness permeating the contemporary American theatre, we need look no further than the latest edition of American Theatre. In the midst of a massive social and economic crisis, one that not only will affect the arts but also one in which the arts could conceivably play an important role through the telling of a new story about who we are, Teresa Eyring, the titular head of arguably the most important organization on today's theatre scene, took to the bully pulpit, Marilyn Monroe-like, to gurgle a Happy Birthday to Facebook. Could we get a grown-up back in charge, please?

Closer to home, theatre education is a mess. The sacred cow of most theatre departments is production. Everything is fine as long as production after production is cranked out year after year with no purpose beyond simply "doing plays." Most theatre departments are little more than play clubs, like chess club only with more resources and better cleavage. Production is seen as an end in itself, filled with intrinsic good that comes from the mere fact of learning lines and saying them in front of a set under the bored eyes of general education students required to be there for a "cultural event." Across campus, other departments actually contribute new knowledge to their field; not theatre. Somehow, we have decided that a production in and of itself qualifies as "creative activity," and should be taken seriously as "scholarship." What a con job. Theatre departments ought to be the Research and Development arm of the theatre, where a stable budget allows true experiment, complete with hypothesis, experiment, and analysis all reported for the benefit of the field.

Over the years, I have tried to be polite about this, taking a "bless their heart, they can't help it" attitude toward the mediocrity that permeates my chosen profession. But enough is enough. I am embracing my inner Paglia, polishing up my Rand, flexing my Gatto, and grabbing my Peters (har har). Back on January 30th, perhaps in anticipation of today's post, I changed my Facebook status (no doubt a high artistic expression in the eyes of Teresa Eyring) to "Scott is determined not to dumb down what he does." A friend of mine from grad school days wrote, "What the hell is going on? You probably don't want me to write the admin at UNC to tell them to back off academic freedom, but I'd like to hear details." The enemy is us, not the asdmin. It is about lack of rigor, lack of curiosity, lack of engagement. And it is about how four decades of careerist nonsense passing as education has bled our theatre scene white.

Theatre may not be dead, but it sure is dumb. Tony Kushner, about the only contemporary theatre person left with a brain, said it all quite powerfully in 1998 when he published "A Modest Proposal" in American Theatre. The lack of response from the field was deafening. No doubt, Kushner just ought to change his Facebook status.

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 ...