Saturday, January 02, 2010

David Byrne on Arts Funding

This blog post by Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne, entitled "Art Funding or Arts Funding," is scary in many ways, and I suppose it is very possible to make a case against what Byrne has to say. And of course, as a musician who made his fortune in the public forum, Byrne has a particular viewpoint that informs his words. As a former Associate Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and a theatre professor who teaches theatre history almost every semester, I can also muster up quite a few arguments myself.

And yet...

If I am consistent in my focus on individual creativity -- on "bringing the arts back to life" -- then as Byrne says, the emphasis needs to shift from dead guys to the living.


Sabina E. said...

the UK does a great job giving money to playwrights, artists, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, etc while the record for American funding for the arts is dismal and laughable. I was fortunate enough to have funding from the Arts Council of England to make my play happen.

London's theatre scene has witnessed a huge boom, while the theatre scene in NYC haven't changed much. We've seen big Broadway musicals-- mostly revivals or rip-offs from movies. Where is all the attention for new plays by emerging playwrights?

I'm tired of reading and watching plays by dead white guys. No more! I want to see new plays by people of color, women, and new playwrights.

George Hunka said...

But whoever said that the arts were dead (the inevitable assumption behind the idea that they must be brought "back to life")? I thought there was an enormous amount of artistic activity going on.

I responded on another blog to Byrne's essay with this:

"Speaking anecdotally [for what that's worth], I grew up during an era when arts education in schools was part of the standard curriculum, but I can't say that anything I learned in school stayed with me. The support of my parents was far more important than the support of the schoolroom. When I read and watched 'The Homecoming,' 'The Threepenny Opera,' 'Gospel at Colonus' and 'Waiting for Godot,' my father read them and watched them with me, and encouraged my own surveys into the art. And though there are lots of CDs and DVDs of those dead guys, they lack the one prerequisite of live performance: liveness, the presence of performer and spectator in the same room. No matter how big the screen and how numerous the audience gathered in the screening room, the power of a word spoken or sung in a live context isn't reproducible digitally.

"There's a palpable difference between seeing 'Tristan und Isolde' on the opera stage or 'Ohio Impromptu' on the theatre stage and seeing a videotaped version of the same performances. You feel the music and the language in your flesh and bones, rather than as a two-dimensional reproduction. That makes all the difference in the world."

There's also an odd reverse snobbery in Byrne's essay:
"There are some classical musical works that I can groove with -- but, for example, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven I never could get, and I don't feel any the worse for it. There’s plenty left to love and enjoy. This whole rant, I guess, derives a little from the fact that I resent the implication, and sometime-feeling, that I'm less of a musician and even a person for not appreciating those works. It's not true!

"Ditto with visual art and literature -- some of the classics I love deeply, but like many people, there are many Great Works of Literature that lie unfinished on my shelves, and thank God for that, as I was probably doing something more interesting instead… maybe reading something more inspiring, or even trying to write something myself."

Which is all fine, but are we now supposed to follow Byrne's tastes (and cater to his apparent inferiority complex) in deciding what to value?

Byrne also brings up the use of private funds to produce LA Opera's Ring cycle and other works. But Byrne doesn't go far enough. The Ring cycle will cost $32M to produce in Los Angeles. So long as we're on the West Coast, what about James Cameron's Avatar, which cost (according to IMDB) a quarter-billion dollars? If Eli Broad should put his money into arts education, why not Twentieth-Century Fox? Sure, we wouldn't have Avatar, but Byrne is suggesting that we don't need the Ring cycle either, not if we have all those shoddy YouTube videos of old performances.

Cultural critic Jakob Burckhardt, writing about a hundred years before cultural critic David Byrne, had thoughts on the matter too. "Everyone must reread the books that have been a thousand times ransacked, for to every reader and to every century and even to every individual's different stage of life they present a particular countenance," he said. "The image which the art and poetry of the past awakens changes totally, ceaselessly. Sophocles could make an impression on those who are just now born radically different from his impression on us. Far from being a misfortune, this is only a consequence of an interchange that is steadily alive" -- and not, apparently, in need of being brought "back to life." But Burckhardt might have been one of those guys who thought that Beethoven might speak to us now. Or even Wagner, for that matter.

99 said...

Well, I don't think that David Byrne would reject the idea that the money spent making Avatar would be better spent on arts education, but it's worth noting that, fundamentally, Avatar is a business venture. Millions of dollars go into the creation, distribution and marketing of lots of products. The Ring Cycle isn't; it's ostensibly a public work, art for the enjoyment of the masses. There's a different standard.

For myself, I think it's an apt comparison, in a way, though. Byrne's argument is about public funding, not private. In fact, his whole point is that relatively small portions of society enjoy works of art like The Ring, mainly through lack of access and education. If the government wants to support art, it would be better to put its money in art education and let the portion of society that enjoys The Ring and other forms of classical music on that scale, pay for it. 20th Century Fox is basically making the same gamble: it's hoping that the portion of the population that wants to see Avatar will cover the cost of making it. They do receive some federal subsidies, mainly in the form of tax breaks, but they're making a bet. When an opera company produces a $32 million, 17-hour long opera, it's making a bet, but with a significant portion of "house" money. That's not to say they can't lose big, but it changes the bet.

Byrne is asking us what, as a society, do we value more. Currently, we're putting our money into institutions who mainly produce the works of dead white guys and telling ourselves that we value "the arts." He's suggesting that, if we value "the arts" and not the works of the old dead white guys, we could spend our money differently.

George Hunka said...

Those same opera houses, though, also produce works by living composers, not all of whom are white. (Not to mention that even opera houses have a bottom line, and that theatre especially has always trodden on the thin line between l'art-pour-l'art and commerce. While Avatar might be a business venture, James Cameron and others might consider it a work of art as well.)

I'm not attacking Byrne for suggesting more public funding for arts education: it's a no-brainer, especially if you're an artist. But if we're talking about money for elementary and secondary schools, we have to ask exactly what it is that we're asking arts education to do. A science education or an education in history, math or foreign languages isn't there to encourage a career in any of these fields, or to "make science" or "make history": it is to create an educated, well-rounded populace capable of debating the affairs of the day: to vote for their leaders with intelligence and to participate in the democratic arena. There's also the question of what exactly will be defined as "the arts" -- there's also the propagandistic possibilities inherent in public school funding. (Before you say this is an unlikely outcome, remember that there's plenty of public money that goes to public schools that promote creationism on the same level as evolution. If that's doesn't have ideological and propagandistic consequences, I don't know what does.)

99 said...

I don't quite get the disconnect there: the arts, in my opinion, are part of what makes an educated, well-rounded populace and focusing more education in arts and, more specifically, in art-making (more classes, workshops, performance/presentation opportunities, more resources for the arts) would be very worthy and important goal, in and of itself. It's a big picture kind of thing: if we want the arts to thrive, we need to teach more people about the arts.

I don't want to wade into the sticky wicket about whether or not the artist's idea of what constitutes a "work of art" means that it's free of commercial consideration.

Thomas Garvey said...

God, Byrne is SO full of shit. (No wonder he can't make a hit anymore!) So the choice is - let me get this straight - between Wagner and little kids? Is that really it? Do the kids have big eyes and bunny rabbits, too, Dave?

Scott Walters said...

Well, Thomas, I think just about any opinion sounds stupid when reduced to that level. What Byrne is saying is what many, many people have said over the past century: the focus needs to be on the living artist, and also on the next generation. There is something obscene about a $32M production of a Wagnerian opera, especially one that will also charge high dollars to be paid by rich afficianados. We live in a democracy, not a feudal aristocracy. Money spent from public coffers needs to be accountable. Also, kids don't need to have big eyes and bunny rabbits to be deserving of arts education just like all the kids in rich suburban districts are used to. Everything involves CHOICE, and that means examining the values behind those choices.

By the way, if being full of shit is what kept people from creating hits, then there would be a lot less music than there is.

George Hunka said...

Well, actually, tickets for the Los Angeles Opera's Gotterdammerung begin at $20.00, then progress to $40.00, $50.00 and up ... the same as tickets for Dreamgirls at the (non-profit) Mark Taper Forum. I don't know how much production costs are for Dreamgirls, but Gotterdammerung may be a better deal.

Need it be one or the other? Is an arts education that leaves out an experience of the history of those arts truly valid? "Obscenity" is a harsh word. Perhaps these older works do not speak to us. But if that's the case, why assume that the new ones will?

isaac butler said...

Well, I think part of the difference here is that Byrne is arguing about what we should do with the current level of arts funding vs. what we could do if we raised more money, which is what you're leaning towards in your latest comment, George.

Given that California has one of the lowest-funded arts councils in the country, I'd be all for them dedicating all of it to arts education with the explicit goal of increasing participation on either the artist or audience side or both.

On a tangential point that Byrne doesn't make... The arts in america face a supply problem in some places, a demand problem in others and in even other places, both (where the supply is so low the demand question can't even be asked yet). There are different solutions for these problems. Scott's CRADLE idea is largely targeted at the last of these three. It would be kind of futile for him to try the same thing in, say, Minneapolis. Or even Richmond, VA, which has the beginnings of a theater scene but needs more demand for it.

Somewhere like LA, where the supply isn't the issue, could use some more demand-side funding and one of the ways to do that is to increase arts education.

I disagree with some of what Byrne talks about here... the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not only a source of intimidation to starting artists, its also an endless source of inspiration etc. But I think if we're talking about the current government arts funding dollars in Los Angeles specifically, he's pretty right on.

Ian Thal said...

It's one thing to argue that the balance between support for the classics and support for new works is out of whack, but there's a huge problem in that Byrne is essentially arguing that all new works should be minimally challenging works of pop (and to be clear, Byrne may be quirky, eccentric, and "alternative" but he's never been challenging.)

It's bad enough that Byrne proposes a false dichotomy between classics and new work, but to then conflate classics with challenging and new work with pop is laughable. (I'm sure that everyone in this discussion can cite challenging new work as well as pop that has earned its way into the canon) I speculate that this is maybe a function of the baby-boomer art school/music scene milieu of the early 1970s where technique was may have been seen as something inauthentic and allusions to the canon may have been considered pretentious-- so he's reacting against prog-rock, arena-rock, et cetera.

This is quite different from musicians (and artists) who come from a more post-modern bent and somehow don't have a problem having a love not only of the classics, but also of pop and folk, and are comfortable both with "the challenging" and grooves that make the body move.

(Notice of course, that jazz doesn't enter his essay since it is both "challenging" and wasn't primarily created by "dead white males" and so doesn't fit into his schema.)

isaac butler said...


Your statement that David Byrne, " may be quirky, eccentric, and "alternative" but he's never been challenging" is just flat out wrong. FEAR OF MUSIC and MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS were downright revolutionary in their time and remain somewhat challenging listens as rock albums today. Listen to "Animals" or "Drugs" or "Mea Culpa", for some good examples. Or the B-side of REMAIN IN LIGHT for that matter. or hell, even in MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, Byrne and co. managed to reconfigure black influences into white music in a way that wasn't being done anywhere else.

Ian Thal said...


I actually have one of those albums close enough that I can read the spine of the case from where I sit and type. Byrne and the Talking Heads are interesting, and quirky, but they're still making pop, and one really doesn't need to know more than the conventions of pop to grasp what they're doing.

What they did was made well crafted dance music for geeks, nerds, and other social outcasts. The music is fun but just quirky and ironic enough to drive the "popular kids" away, but it's not the sort of listening challenge that Captain Beefheart or some of the Velvet Underground provides.

I'm not really sure how you typify the "reconfigure[ing of] black influences into white music" as something unique to them: it seems to me that this had been going on in 20th century pop-music since the swing era-- they just were more explicitly doing this than most "new wave" bands of the late '70s and early '80s.

I love good pop-art: I just don't want a culture where pop is the only sort of "new works" being promoted, and that seems to be what Byrne is advocating: a monoculture in his own image.

99 said...

I gotta say: outside of his personal dislike for Beethoven, I don't see any advocacy in Byrne's piece for anything other than creation of new work and education more focused on creation as opposed to enjoyment. He's not saying, "Everyone should be composing pop ditties just like mine." He's saying, "Everyone should be composing." His own work is kind of irrelevant to the whole discussion. He's basically making the Edifice Complex argument: we're investing too much in new buildings and filling them up with the same old crap. If you want to discount his entire argument on the basis of "well, his own music isn't great," fine. I personally wouldn't care if Britney Spears made this argument.

Ian Thal said...

Actually, I like his music just fine.

I even like the idea that everyone should be encouraged to create at some point, just to see if they like it, or to understand what's involved in the process.

I just read him as privileging pop and having a disdain for anything that isn't pop. My issue with his argument is that he's promoting the opposition of new work against classics, and defining new work in terms of pop. I would be just as annoyed if Tjinder Singh, one of my favorite pop-music makers, made the same argument (though I guess he wouldn't since he lives in the U.K.) Sometimes I do want to listen to the Talking Heads, but sometimes I want to listen to Sonny Sharrock.

99 said...

I just don't see him doing much defining. He's not saying that Beethoven or Wagner aren't real music or worthy of listening to; he's questioning the level of support for already produced and finished works. Just because he's a pop musician and he's making this argument, I don't think that's saying we need more pop music. He's saying that we need to support creation rather than presentation, as a society.

Thomas Garvey said...

Speaking as someone who was listening to "Remain in Light" and "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" in my dorm room back in 1981, I'm amused to be lectured on them by someone who probably wasn't even born then. I'm also tickled by the note from someone who says (sans irony) that public work is merely intended for the enjoyment of the masses. Thanks, Caligula.

I wonder how many Ring Cycles are currently extant in America? I think San Francisco is opening one in 2011 (perhaps the impetus for the LA version), and Seattle pulled theirs out of storage last summer. Chicago did a version maybe five years ago. Boston hasn't seen one in at least 15 years; the one planned in D.C. two or three years ago fell apart due to financing; probably the only one on the East Coast is in New York (the Met retired their old version last season, and is working on a new one).

So the Ring isn't like Shakespeare; it's rare. Because it's very expensive. But it's also the apex of opera, widely considered the form's greatest imaginative and technical challenge. You may feel that having two or three versions on the West Coast counts as overkill; I don't, not particularly.

Nor do I feel that David Byrne has any genuine argument here at all; in fact, intellectually his article is bizarre. We could save money by no longer publishing "The Great Gatsby," or keeping the Metroplitan Museum open, and throw that money toward arts education, too - but wouldn't that be equally crazy? Of course it would. We can educate our children AND have grand opera (which is quite popular, btw) - there is no opposition between those two values, and there's no reason to allow ourselves to be tricked into believing we have to choose between them.

Ian Thal said...

I know I act terribly immature but I was definitely around for the Talking Heads, though due to my youth, I didn't discover them until 1983's Speaking in Tongues.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, using the "I'm older than you so I know a lot more" doesn't work so well, especially where your main writer (me) is coming up on 52. Also, in our youth culture, age is no longer recognized as equating with wisdom -- much to the detriment of the culture, IMO.

Anyway, yes, Wagner's Ring Cycle is a biggie. Whether you think we need multiple productions or not is irrelevant to the argument, which is about priorities in public funding. And while you may believe that there is a bottomless bank account from which money for operas and new plays and arts education can be endlessly drawn, my experience is that it is a zero sum game: if it's going to the Ring, it ain't going somewhere else.

More to the point, go argue with David Byrne -- I made an argument here ABOUT David Byrne, and I expect you to engage with ME, dman you Thomas!

Anonymous said...

Regarding what is "new," Picasso once said that “there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.” Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner often if not generally remain more new than everything produced in our own era, and Schoenberg said essentially the same thing in his essay on "new music." Whatever is produced in our time isn't inherently superior, more important, interesting, timely, or let alone new, which is not to argue that it shouldn't receive support, but that the idea that what is made in our own era is inherently "new" is entirely specious.

As for the whole dead white guy thing, that trope really has to be buried. It's the academy and the general public refuse to bury or complicate. Everyone from Russians to Italians to the Dutch to the French to the English to the Spanish to the Germans can all be considered "white" so it's an extreme homogenization of a diverse array of cultures and nations.

Ian Thal said...

Picasso trumps Byrne!

Thank you, Anonymous. You are absolutely correct that DWEM is a tired trope: it served a purpose for a while, but we need a method of calling for a more diverse canon and a opportunities for more new work and more diverse work without being so divisive and invoking identity politics and resentment-- especially, as you point out, when skin color and gender are not the only measure of difference.

Thomas Garvey said...

Uh, Scott - were you the one lecturing on "Remain in Light"? I don't think so. As for the "priorities in public funding" argument - yeah, I think new productions of classics, even very expensive classics, have a valid claim on public funding. It's not an unusual argument. And no, I don't think this kind of funding is a "zero sum game." Right now the Boston MFA is about to open a $500 million new wing that it really doesn't have the art to fill. How did that get paid for? I dunno, but I'd rather those rich people had thrown 6% of that total toward a new production of "The Ring"! Or maybe bought a few violins for black kids, sure.

Anonymous said...

Diversity is certainly a vital necessity, the heterogeneous over the homogeneous, and avoiding the invocation of identity politics is certainly in part key. As Adorno put it, to confuse the objective form of a work of art with the person who created it is the act of a philistine. Quite some time before the structuralists, Rimbaud spoke of the death of the author is his own way when saying "I is another," which of course has many resonances but there's a parallel here. Let's forgo the subject and deal with the work.

And let's remember that most of the "elect" in the canon, what's considered "classic" or "great," weren't always respected, let alone continuously so. To give one instructive example through speaking of literature, Melville was forgotten throughout most of his lifetime, vilified in fact after the publication of PIERRE, and so forgotten that his name was misspelled in obituaries. It wasn't until after his death that he received canonic status. Thus the so-called classics were generally rather marginalized if not outright exiles. The criticism of Melville's work was so vicious he stopped writing for nearly 30 years. The larger historical context of artist's reception is typically not kept in mind.

When speaking of "new" however, I think what most people are actually referring to is the "current" and that's quite different. A distinction that would be valuable to sustain. What is current and contemporary, what is made now, isn't inherently new.

Scott Walters said...

I'm good with everything except the Barthes/Rimbaud "death of the author" thing. I sincerely believe that the work comes through a lens, a lens that was shaped by experience and reflects place, time, and personality. Diversity is about people in their interactions with the work: people as in the author and the audience.

Anonymous said...

There is surely something significant in the fact that the personalities of the most universally human of all poets--Homer and Shakespeare--should be so completely lost in their work.

Poets who are able, as Keats said of himself--and they are the greatest of all--so to lose their identity in the thing they are contemplating that they cease to possess the contours of personal character, do they not, for that very cause, become the clearest-sounding reeds, the most transparent mediums, for our universal humanity?

In other words, is not the obscurity of Homer's and Shakespeare's personality the inevitable result of the quality of their particular greatness?

John Cowper Powys

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 ...