Monday, February 15, 2010

Response to Isaac re: CRADLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thomas Garvey said...

I'm interested in this discussion, but I don't think you've really answered Isaac's question, which might be construed as something like "Even though your target communities are geographically and economically separate from cultural centers like New York, they are still racially and culturally linked to the power structure there, so your project would simply mean funneling money to outposts of the same cultural matrix. What about the other cultures and races, however, that exist in major urban areas? Why is economic and geographic diversity more important than racial and cultural diversity?"

Unknown said...

I find myself playing devil's advocate on this , Scott:

“If all casting was being done out of small towns, how would you feel about it? Yeah, that's how others feel about having to go to MYC or some other metropolitan area.”

It’s not really about how those others feel. It’s about being able to access the best possible talent pool. As you say in your fifth response “It’s not about you.”

I find your second response disingenuous. Broadway is privately funded. The extent that public funding comes into play is found in the “farm system” of regional theaters where Broadway shows are often developed. However, these developmental productions are most often subsidized by 6 figure donations to the theater, which also gets a piece of the action on future productions. In other words, there might be less art out there in the hinterlands (under the current system) without Broadway.

“The right to an artistic life—to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.”

The knowledge and skills to play and write music come from within. Pick up an instrument, sit down with it for a couple hours every day for months/years on end, and you’ll be skilled. No rights required.

“The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America's democratic values and ideals.”

This is a joke, right? It sounds like Bush. Do we get a waterboard and a war with that art? We’re an plutocratic empire run by a duopoly political party.

“The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the ages.”

I don’t get this one. Does he want a museum in every town? Or does he need a travel agent?

Unknown said...

I just googled Bill Ivey. This is the guy who took away funds for the publication of a children's book because he disagrees with the politics of the revolutionary author. He'd be a real good protector of our rights, artistic or otherwise.

Scott Walters said...

You know, Uke, relying on a 3 sentence bio on Wikipedia for your information on Ivey is pretty lame.

Now, about your first comment: the concept "talent pool" is actually a synonym for "waste" -- it means having enough people who are unemployed to allow you to have a half dozen people to choose from. A system that is based on wasting the talents of people is sick.

The reference to Broadway was thrown in -- the main argument was that the regional theatre audience is mostly white, middle-class, and older. As far as Broadway providing "6-figure donations to the theater" of origin for a production... well, first of all, it isn't a donation; if we waited for a Broadway producer to make a donation to a regional theatre, we'd grow old and die. It is built into the contract. Broadway producers use the regionals to do the R & D, and if the show fails, the regional eats the loss; if it succeeds, it gets a cut of the Broadway income. So the profit system uses the non-profit to hedge against failure.

Yes, we have a right to pick up an instrument. It helps to have somebody who knows how to play it available to help us. These rights, by the way, may or may not exist right now. However, what we have today is a system that encourages people to be consumers, not participants. That's what that is about.

If you read Ivey's book, you will see that he is talking about cultural exchange: the idea that America CURRENTLY is represented to the world through its blockbuster movies, which gives a pretty violent, materialist view of who we are. Now, if you believe that it who we are, then OK.

The last one, that you don't get, is about preserving and providing public access to the great works. Museums? Sure. And other things as well.

You know, Uke, sometimes I don't get you. In the first half of your post, you defend the Broadway capitalist system, and in the latter half you sound like an anarchist. Or are you a (Goucho) Marxist: whatever it is, I'm against it?

Scott Walters said...

Thomas -- In answer to your question: geographic diversity isn't more important than racial diversity, but is is AS important. I don't happen to believe that diversity should be confined to race -- or sexual orientation, or gender. I think there are class issues, and geographical issues that deserve some attention.

Unknown said...

Scott, I did begin my post by saying I was playing the devil's advocate.

Okay, donation was the wrong word. I think enhancement is the term that's used. My point is that these regional theaters, whatever the make-up of their audiences, are out there across America and they originate work for Broadway, or they regurgitate it. They're not just in NYLACHI.

I believe music education programs are important at the local level. I also know that music teachers at the high school level can be disastrous for young people aspiring to be more musically. I've seen this first hand. And in the end, all the teaching in the world won't replace sitting and practicing. I play several instruments and can read and write music. I learned on my own because I wanted to.

You're right -- I opted for Wikipedia. Okay. So Bill Ivey was a front man for the corporate music industry, and then went to Washington to be part of the Bubba and Evita show. Now he's got all the answers for an indie scene? I don't think so. Read his book? Nah.

And btw, violence and materialism sum up American policy pretty well.

So, you're against whatever I'm for. I'll keep that in mind.

Scott Walters said...

What's weird is that I THOUGHT we were both for the same things!

Unknown said...

Scott, you're a theorist. You'd like to reform the current system, I think.

I'm a playwright and a musician. I'd like to see more productions of my plays and musicals.

Here's what I'm for:

Health care for everybody that's at least as good as the health benefits I have.

An end to corporate domination of the political system.

An end to the current over-riding economic philosophy, which states "Burn it and well will profit." ("It" can be coal, oil or an entire nation.)

An end to degradation of water and air for profit.

Small d small s democratic socialism with a green edge.

Food and housing for everyone.

An end to all oppression and prejudice.

An end to the hemp prohibition.

Peace on earth.

As far as theater goes: I've made my own way for pretty much all my adult life. However the theater system shakes out (if it changes much at all in my lifetime), I'll keep on writing and striving for production. And yes, I'd love to see at least one of my shows on Broadway and the West End. I'd also like to see my (currently theoretical) street theater extravaganzas realized.

So, as my kids say, whatever.

Unknown said...

That should be "Burn it and we will profit."

Thomas Garvey said...

Okay, I hear you. But isn't that kind of an "a priori" argument? I mean if someone says, no, racial diversity is more important than geographical diversity, is the response simply "No, it's not"?

Adamflo84 said...

A question being missed isn't just where is the theatre being done, but FROM where is the theatre being done. Are people's stories being told. Rich, poor, rural, urban, sexy, ugly, young, old.
Granted who is funding is a HUGE deal. But I am more interested in what stories being told not just where.
I mean I was pumped and disappointed at the same time by In The Heights, but come on since West Side Story it's been pretty dark for cool Latinos on the Great White Way. Good stories on any stage is what theatre is about, right???
Again maybe being young, Latino, from small town, living in St. Louis disqualifies me...

Nick said...


Your argument is not substantially different from Jesse Helms’ argument in the early ‘90’s. Your and Jesse’s main point is that the East Coast elite is earmarking too much taxpayer NEA money. And the claim that grants are based on quality is a ruse by that same art elite.

So seeing that truly democratic art would reflect the tastes of the average taxpayer, much like the marketplace does, why do we need the NEA at all?

Anonymous said...

Sure Adam, "Are people's stories being told."? ...but from what I'm seein' laitey in the theatre, yu'd be thinkin' 80% of the world was Irish, wouldn't ye, me boy? (Mebbe ut's the cute accent... or is it a dialect, now?):)

Scott Walters said...

silent_nic: Is this guilt through association? Jesse Helms used a populist argument to attack the NEA as an elitist institution, true -- which does not mean that it ISN'T, just because somebody you don't like said it.

The marketplace only reflects the tastes of the average consumer at the consumption end, not the production end. The NEA and other funders provides support at the front end. Big difference.

Thomas: Indeed it is. And then each person has to create an argument that is supported by the values most important to the culture. Mine is that, in a democracy, the arts cannot be a centralized aristocracy; that in a democratic state as large as the US, geography is an issue of access and of content.

Adamflo84: Indeed, that is a very, very important aspect of the argument. When storytelling is centralized in a particular place, and stories are created by a particular class with common levels of education, the range of stories told becomes narrow. When those stories are universalized, they wash out the stories of particular places.

Nick said...

Jesse Helms won that cultural war. The NEA has been trying to shed its elite status since, beginning with Jane Alexander with her art in the communities survey in the '90's. Your argument is another retread of Jesse's populist argument. You make my point.

isaac butler said...

Hey Scott,
Just wanted to say thank you for posting this, sorry I haven't responded, I'm in the midst of a business trip. Hope to have something to write about it later this week either here or on Parabasis!

Scott Walters said...

Silent-nic: A quiz. MATCHING (no Googling). Who said the following:

A. Barack Obama B. John McCain
C. The American Medical Association
D. George W. Bush

1. I believe every American should have access to quality, affordable health care

2. We believe that all Americans should have access to affordable, high quality health care services.

3. Every American should have access to quality and affordable coverage of their choice

4. We must have quality, affordable health care for every American

Extra credit: True or False: Each of them meant the same thing.

Answer Key: 1. D; 2. C; 3. B; 4. A. Extra credit: False.

Your argument that, because what I am resembling resembles what Jesse Helms said would be similar to answering "True" on the extra credit question.

Helms argued that the NEA was elitist because the peer review panels were made up of a small group of elite liberals whose opinions did not represent the moral values of much of the nation.

I argue that the patterns of arts funding in this nation is elitist because the lion's share of funding goes to a small number of urban areas and major institutions.

We both argue that the granting of money is unfair, and not reflective of the nation as a whole. There the parallel stops.

Jesse Helms AND NY Senator Alphonse D'Amato (let's not forget the Northerners in this equation) did, in fact, win the culture wars. Why? Because their arguments were more accessible and less self-serving than the arists, most of whom focused on repeating ad nauseum how important the arts are...because we said so.

Their culture wars was about content; mine is about fairness and democracy.

Scott Walters said...

Correction: "Your argument that, because what I am SAYING resembles what Jesse Helms said would be similar to answering "True" on the extra credit question."

Nick said...

Scott and Jesse Helms would both argue that the NEA is elitist because the peer review panels is made up of a small group of elite liberals whose opinions do not represent the aesthetic values of much of the nation.

Scott and Jesse Helms would both argue that the patterns of arts funding in this nation is elitist because the lion's share of funding goes to a small number of urban areas and major institutions.

Both would feel “Piss Christ” does represent what most communities in the country would recognize as art.

Since the culture wars all the heads of the NEA have had to dodge this elitist charge. Rocco just recently realized he couldn’t comment on the “quality” of art in Peoria. He’ll edit such comments before hand from now on.

To be democratic and fair, we do not need a federal agency to collect and redistribute taxes for art. So again, Scott why do we need the NEA? Can’t the city of Peoria itself decide on the art it wants to publicly support?

Scott Walters said...

*LOL* Good luck with that argument. You'll need proof to make it stick.

How many times do I have to answer the same question: the NEA provides money at the front end. Could it give it to the Peoria Arts Council to distribute? Sure. Federal money demands a federal agency for oversight.

Nick said...

You are avoiding the question. Why have the NEA at all?

You say grant at the front end? The front end of what? How do you determine what would be potentially valuable? The Peoria Arts Council or the Jesse Helms Arts Council or Scott’s Cradle Council? What’s the criteria for granting? If it’s quality, you run into charges of being elite. If it’s geography, then you are not distributing fairly by population. By what criteria does the NEA take money from the Peoria taxpayers and redistribute it to the front end of Scott’s Cradle Council instead of at the front end of a Peoria Arts Council?

Do you give an artist of half Honduran, half Afro-Cuban background like Andres Serrano a grant to take studio photographs of KKK members in their hoods and robes? Or to create Piss Christ? I think not. I think you do the safe Goodie Two Shoes granting that the NEA has been doing for last two decades.

Your argument is the same squeaky wheel of elitism that Jesse Helms amplified years ago. That wheel needs to be continually greased to keep the NEA from getting defunded.

Scott Walters said...

The NEA provides federal money gathered from everyone in the US and used in a focused way to provide funding for the creation of arts across the US.

The criteria for granting is quality, but quality defined to mean more than just "we hired some famous people, have a lot of money for designs, and own a big building." The word quality needs to be unpacked, made explicit. To my mind, quality is about the power of the interaction between the work of art and the audience.

Of course, as now, this requires a level of prediction, but it also shifts the criteria in a significant way: instead of talking about the work of art alone, the grantwriter must address in specific terms the nature of its audience and how the proposed project will interact with the members of the audience.

Do I give money to Andres Serrano? I don't know. Who is his audience? What value does Piss Christ add to the community? Short answer: no, because I agree with the current law that doesn't give grants to individual artists.

Government money is about leading for the good of society. It isn't about artists, but about society. Artists continually think that arts funding is about them. It's not. Read the legislation. Read the justification for the arts to be qualified as a charity for the receipt of tax deductible donations. The public good is the focus. So the criteria for giving money would be whether it makes a positive contribution to the public good.

Nick said...

We have quality back in conversation for determining the value of art. (Hopefully your lottery “thought experiment” has been deep shelved.) That’s a positive baby step.

You would give the money to the institution not the individual. Yeah, that’s safe thing, and it will best serve the interests of the state. Plato proposed as much for his Republic as well as the notion that individual artists are suspect.

"Government money is about leading for the good of society."

Really? So in the USA that essentially means the military. Again, Scott and Jesse and Plato are on the same page.

Scott Walters said...

The lottery suggestion was for individual institutions. Note the new definition of quality.

As far as your anti-government opinions -- well, they're reductive and not in the least thoughtful. You can keep playing "who's on first -- Jesse Helms" with me all day, but you're not really making any rational argument, you're just repeating a lie over and over in the hope that it will stick. Hitler did that. Therefore, according to your logic, you and Hitler believe the same thing. Wilcome to Nic Logic.

Nick said...

You add "audience" into the pot, but you are still dodging the basic question.

Why is the audience served by the Cradle Arts Council a more qualified or valued audience than the audience served by the Peoria Arts Council or the Nylachi Arts Council? But more importantly, why do we need a federal agency to determine that?

I am not anti-government. But I am against something being designated the Official Art of the state.

Scott Walters said...

It isn't MORE qualified or valued -- it is AS qualified or valued. I'm talking about fairness.

Point of clarity: are you arguing that there shouldn't be an NEA at all? I'm asking because I don't want to misunderstand what I am being asked.

Nick said...

“It isn't MORE qualified or valued -- it is AS qualified or valued.”

Exactly. Except the NEA grant will fund only one of the applicants. So you effectively tax the many to support that one.

And you have dodged the question once again.

I believe beauty and truth are the only true qualifiers for art.

Fair and democratic is not synonymous with quality in art, but it is that exact populist sentiment that the NEA has serviced over the last 20 years.

Scott Walters said...

After reading "What Is Art Good For?" by John Carey, I see "beauty and truth" as ideologically informed and more reflective of power relations than any particular identifiable universal values. I am not a Kantian -- I don't believe art is useless. I believe art exists to "make things special," as Ellen Dissanayake says, and I believe it serves the function of communicating values, a sense of place, and community.

Yes, when the resource is finite -- as NEA funding is all too -- then one must make choices. I happen to believe that, at this point in time, the emphasis ought to be on decentralization and diversity. Sometime down the road, the priority might change.

One of the problems with government funding of the arts, in my opinion, is that there seems to be a commitment to continue to fund the same institutions with big checks year after year. In farming, you move the chicken tractor from place to place, so that the chicken droppings fertilize your entire field. If you leave it one place too long, the chickens eat all the grass and the manure burns out the roots. I think that arts funding is the same. Institutions ought to become adults and go out on their own at a certain point and make their way in the world.

And if I keep "dodging" the question, then perhaps you need to make the question clearer.

Scott Walters said...

But if you are accusing me of being a populist, I embrace the label proudly.

Nick said...

I was raised as a farmer's son, so I am down with your chicken shit parable. But a couple contradictions or ironies need to be noted here.

You support decentralization and diversity, however, you also support giving NEA money to the institutions and not directly to the individual artists.

And populism can be used to facilitate a career within the Ivory Tower. It's much easier and safer to talk a good game, than to play one. I say this to convict myself as much as you. Manifestos are easier written than enacted and lived.

Scott Walters said...

I don't know -- manifestoes are pretty difficult to write. It requires that you think beyond the status quo and imagine how things might be different. And it is important to imagine the future prior to making it happen. Creativity is imagination realized. Without Marx and Engle's Communist Manfesto, the Russian Revolution doesn't happen.

Also, you are assuming that I am only talking, not playing. My goals are to create a new system, not just a new individual theatre. That means administration, organization, and promotion of ideas.

I support funding institutions over individual artists because I am committed to long-term relationships within a community. Individuals move around from place to place, institutions put down roots. I fund individuals THROUGH institutions.

George Hunka said...

It takes no great stretch of mental muscle to suggest that if we are to have an NEA -- if there continues to be the political, cultural and bureaucratic wherewithal to support such a thing -- then both individual artists and groups might be funded, through separate selection panels which would have differing aesthetic and cultural criteria. And that whatever the criteria, it must remain shielded from any appearance of influence by any political party (hence the controversy regarding Yosi Sargent's participation in that recent NEA conference call). I imagine this would be necessary too on the local level.

What intrigues me is the ideology (since we're on the question) that fires Scott's writing a few comments up:

"Do I give money to Andres Serrano? I don't know. Who is his audience? What value does Piss Christ add to the community? Short answer: no, because I agree with the current law that doesn't give grants to individual artists. ...
Government money is about leading for the good of society. It isn't about artists, but about society. ... The public good is the focus. So the criteria for giving money would be whether it makes a positive contribution to the public good."

The definition of that "public good" is perhaps the most difficult, for what about theatre or any art is necessarily "good" for the public? Or is this really a meaningless phraseology? Nick's "good," Scott's "good," mine -- they will not mesh, I guarantee it. Empty claims to art as the lifeblood of a civilized community, etc., or whatever you say, need to be qualified and quantified with specific examples. Otherwise we're just talking to make ourselves look good, to make friends and enemies, and perhaps to be named to panels which make just these decisions.

Does anybody mind if I bring up an actual play (you know, one of those things that are performed in theatres once in a while -- I understand there even have been structures erected for this purpose)? Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution deals directly with the questions of government subsidy for art, what kind of "public good" is served in its production and exhibition, and the role of the individual artist in making this art. I warn you both: It's a cynical play which does not provide an answer. I really recommend it, especially to Scott.

RLewis said...

Speaking of NEA funding, hasn't it been about a year now since CRADLE got granted a bite of the public pie? I'm sure that a final report is required. Any chance that it will be posted, so we can see how well our taxes were spent and when the groundbreaking will be for the new non-nylachi theater that it created?

Scott Walters said...

RLewis -- I will ignore the obvious snark and instead say that when the project is ended, there will be several documents produced that will be posted to the CRADLE website, which will go live soon. There was nothing in the grant about starting a theatre.

Scott Walters said...

P.S. The money was not distributed until July -- the project is for more than a year.

Nick said...

Likely none of the tens of thousands of worker-militants who died during the Russian Revolution read a single word Marx wrote. Less than 10% of those workers had even finished the four years of school that were available at the time. More likely it was simple slogans that united workers under the Bolshevik leadership.

Likewise, the words of the Declaration of Independence are without consequence minus the John Hancock signatures that enacted them. The founders were signing their own death warrant should the revolution fail. Jefferson’s wrote a beautiful essay but revolution was accomplished with much simpler and direct language and ideas. “No taxation without representation.” “Give me liberty, or give me death.” “Live free or die.”

The first backlash from the NEA Four scandal was the elimination of grants to individuals. The bureaucracy within the agency did this because they were chicken shit, afraid of being defunded and losing their livelihood. That was obvious to all at the time although the NEA spin would be same as what you offer: “I support funding institutions over individual artists because I am committed to long-term relationships within a community. Individuals move around from place to place, institutions put down roots. I fund individuals THROUGH institutions.”

There is no better way to support diversity and decentralization than through grants to individuals. To return to your chicken shit analogy and extend it. The NEA has become one big stinking pile of chicken shit bureaucracy for the exact reason you give. Although you seem able to discern between large and small rural institutions, between big and little piles of chicken shit, my sense of smell is obviously not as discerning as yours. Institution by definition means that the entity is an established part of the structure.

Outside these institutionalized chicken coops, free-range artists will naturally fertilize the artistic landscape. They will also naturally migrate and flock together. Guitar pickers head to Nashville. Theatre artists head to Nylachi and other large urban areas. Government grants will not influence much if any the nature of this migration and flocking. Those studiously practicing their art form desire the interaction and company of challenging peers doing the same. These engaged peers become their first audience. The history of the art form is transformed and passed on primarily through this first audience and its interactive critique of what is or is not "beauty and truth."

isaac butler said...

Hey Nic,

Really quick point..."The bureaucracy within the agency " did not eliminate grants to individual artists, congress did. The NEA is prohibit by law, not cowardice, from awarding grants to individual artists. The NEA can't change that. There's been indication that they want it to (Obama's arts policy, for example, is for it). But anyway... Congress. Similarly, the NEA does not claim that it doesn't award individual grants because it prefers to support institutions. It flat-out says on its website: "The National Endowment for the Arts is prohibited by Congress to fund individual artists except in literature and folk arts. "

Scott Walters said...

Nic, You know as well as I do that without Marx there is no Lenin, Trotsky, or Lunacharsky' without Lenin, Trotsky, and Lunacharsky, the Russian Revolution is nothing but a bunch of peasants milling around grumbling about the czar. It takes ideas to make slogans, and it takes thinkers to make ideas. Without the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock et al are signing a blank sheet of paper. There has never been a revolution that wasn't informed by an idea and a leader who could put that idea into powerful words.

You are correct that the first backlash in the NEA Four scandal was the elimination of grants to individual artists. Going back to my chicken shit analogy, if you give chicken feed to chickens widely scattered across the county, the benefits of their manure is minimal -- it requires concentration to benefit the soil. And yes, an institution is part of the power structure, and can become lazy or corrupt accordingly. So can individual artists -- how many bullshit "paintings" did Warhol sign and sell for big money once he had become famous and needed cash?

As far as "naturally flocking together," chickens will flock where there is food -- putting all the food in one place in the country is not "natural," it is coercive. As far as needing the company of peers, some of the greatest artists in history lived in small places -- what they had was a small number of peers, a collababorative circle, to use Farrell's term, and that doesn't require a metropolis.

Scott Walters said...

George -- Actually, there is a great deal of data supporting the arts effect on community strengthening. Artists don't read it much, but it is there just the same. The answer to your question about who defines "public good" is whoever has the money. The government will define it one way, a foundation might define it another. It doesn't need to be a universal statement of "public good," and it can be contingent and change with the times. The point is public money is given to things that are for the public good, not as handouts to "worthy" individuals.

As far as the Howard Barker play, I have absolutely no interest in discussing plays on the blog. This blog is about systems. My answer to the Barker question is: who, specifically, is his audience and what does his play have to contribute to their lives? As I've said above, quality is interactive -- if you want to discuss a specific play, then it has to be discussed in terms of a specific audience.

Nick said...

Isaac--In 1990 the NEA peer panels awarded grants to four artist performances artists. These grants were subsequently vetoed by then NEA chairman John Frohnmayer. That was not because of some Congressional law. That was because the boss clown of the NEA caved in to political pressure. As attacks from fiscal and social conservatives continued, with Jesse Helms, Dana Rohrbacher, Newt Gingrich, and other of the right-wing bringing sundry bills and amendments before Congress to defund the NEA, Frohnmayer and the rest of the agency began “playing-to-Congress” However, Frohnmayer flip-flopped more than once. In a seemingly liberal flip, late in 1991 he reinstated grants to two of the solo performance artists who were suing the endowment over their grant cancellations. Two months later he was forced to resign due to right wing pressure. By the time Jane Alexander was appointed chair by Clinton in 1992 the whole of the agency had lost its nerve. They all knew that many members of Congress believed that eliminating individual artists' grants would somehow eliminate controversy. Under Alexander grant procedures were reformed and the endowment began emphasizing the goals of education and expanded access, shifting the NEA mission to support more traditional and acceptable art, especially art for schoolchildren. The more risky individual grants were being completely eliminated. For instance, Andres Serrano, whose "Piss Christ" had sparked the culture war back in 1989, was recommended for an individual artists' grant in 1994 but was denied funds by a National Council vote. When asked directly about it, Alexander conceded that the denial of the grant might have been influenced by the conservative political climate. So by 1995 when Congress actually passed the law eliminating individual grants (and cut the NEA budget by 40%), the spineless agency had already effectively done same thing on their own. So yes, “The National Endowment for the Arts is prohibited by Congress to fund individual artists.” That law came right after they were already prohibited by the agency's own cowardice. If I sound bitter here, it’s because I am. We had a grant pulled from a project we were working on during this time. The NEA has lost all the credibility they once had as an arbitrator for our national art. It’s now subject to whatever political wind is blowing.

Scott-- For a self-proclaimed populist you certainly express a serious disregard for the ordinary workers and farmers who gave their lives to accomplish these revolutions. The elite often survive the wars of history they wage.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- You and Isaac are talking two different parts of history: yours, ancient; his, contemporary. If you want to fight for a reinstatement of grants to individual artists, then maybe you ought to stop talking about it and do something, since you seem so committed to action over talk. If you prefer to surf that theatrosphere grumbling about 20-year-old events, then you enter the ranks of cranks.

Populists had leaders too. Any large group of people -- ANY large group of people -- needs leaders.

George Hunka said...

What you say is true, Scott, but a government organization like the NEA is a special case: unlike that of a private entity like a foundation or an individual donor, its definition of the "public good" is backed by the imprimatur of the state and all of its mechanisms -- the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and, yes, the determination of who should receive taxpayer dollars for the work they create. As Nick suggests above, the very determination that only collectives and not individuals should receive this funding is itself an ideological position that favors the community over the artist (with whom you seem to have little patience).

Now, to ask what kind of work will have this imprimatur is an honest question and requires a transparency of motive. After all, the determination of funding here is not to "worthy" individuals, as you have it, but "worthy" groups. That "worth," whether it's of an artist or a collective, must be determined. It's not enough to say that it's about a "system," because that system produces an end product -- in this case, performance before an audience. The military-industrial-media complex is a system too, and we can see what this system produces.

Audiences are self-selected: those who attend performances are in search of an aesthetic experience. For What She Knew, people were invited and then accepted or declined the invitation as they saw fit according to a number of factors (convenience, interest in the work, personal connection with the artists, whathaveyou). What they might have gotten is a different matter altogether. For Isaac, the offering is an attempt to bridge difference, as he puts it in this post; for you, something else. But these aims and goals are ideologically driven. As are mine, I'm sure. But it does speak to the kind of criteria used to determine the worthiness of government funding of a specific group or project.

I would have thought that a potential audience member for Scenes from an Execution would be you, Scott: theatre is an art form to which you've devoted your life and career, this is a play by a significant contemporary dramatist, and more, a play that addresses the very issues in which you claim an interest. It provides "ideas." Which is part of the name of this blog, after all.

Scott Walters said...

George - Of course it is ideological -- anything that involves choosing one thing over another involves ideology, i.e. values that permeate the selection of one thing over another. I have no trouble with that idea, and agree with the idea that it needs to be transparent. That's why I object to weasel words like "quality" and "excellence," which are used as if they have meaning all by themselves without bothering to be defined.

Indeed audiences are self-selected, but arts organizations can play a much more active role than simply putting up posters and newspaper ads and crossing their fingers. I'm not interested in the transactional approach: selling a product to anyone who wants to come. I want it to be much more intentional than that.

Scenes from an Execution might, indeed, be of interest to me. I am a very small audience. If this production was done to address more people like me (if such an audience existed) then we have a good situation. On the other hand, I can think of a lot of people who don't give a damn about the ideas of arts funding. If I had a theatre on a university campus, that play might be a damn good selection; in a farming community...not so much.

At the moment, I have a lot of things I need to spend my time on -- reading Howard Barker is not one of them.

Nick said...

Scott said: “Populists had leaders too. Any large group of people -- ANY large group of people -- needs leaders.”

You mean like the American president is called “the leader of the free world.”

In 1970 I was an 18 year-old high school dropout. So I had no college deferment and was too young or too chicken shit or too stupid to go on my own to Canada. I became an American soldier instead. So much dumb meat suitable for nothing but war, much like the uneducated revolutionary Russian serfs and American farmers you mocked.

Do you really deny my assertion that it is the elite and privileged class who survive the wars they wage?

Now back to the real wars, the culture wars. The NEA Four is not ancient history.

Compared to mass media, American Idol and such, the audience for challenging, difficult art work is miniscule. You can say elite if you wish. The ‘90’s culture wars were a prolonged public argument over restricting content in funded art. Artists and arts supporters are doomed to lose such an argument. There will always be many more people annoyed, confused, or uncaring about their work than those who appreciate it. The NEA Four didn't receive the support of the mainstream art world and the whole of artistic society that had been centered near the endowment decided to cave in. For the avant-garde artists in America this was the equivalent to divorce proceedings. The expressed wish when the endowment was established in the early '60s was that one day it might find and fund "the American Shakespeare." The NEA's slogan then was "A great nation deserves great art." In the divorce settlement the agency kept their Great Nation, but the artists took their Great Art home with them. They kept the recycled Shakespeare to tour safely to school classrooms. The "American Shakespeare" got on the bus with the rest of the artists headed out of town.

Even if the NEA brings back grants for individual artists, they will be sure that the new breed of applicants will consist solely of lap dogs (preferably without any teeth) capable of surviving any political climate as they have learned to do so well.

George-- I'm more than sufficiently intrigued. Amazon confirmed that my Howard Barker: Collected Plays, Vol. 1 is shipped. Looking forward to our conversations.

George Hunka said...

Same here, Nick.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- As you probably know from our previous discussions, I don't share your or George's belief in the centrality of the avant garde. If we were looking for the next Shakespeare, he or she wasn't going to be found among the avant garde. Shakespeare was concerned about the audience, because his stomach depended on it; the modernist avant garde, which George loves so much, scorns the public. A little Karen Finley goes a long, long way. I think avant garde artists, misinterpreting Viktor Schlovsky's theory of defamiliarization, have made a fetish out of "difficulty," which is defined as "obscurity" and "narrative arbitrariness." Again, this is not the place to look for sympathy to that aesthetic. The reason the arts establishment "caved" about the NEA Four is that it was so disconnected from the public, so incestuous and insular, that it had no persuasive argument to defend the work. We got caught with out purpose down, and frankly little has changed since then.

Compared to American Idol, the audience for anything is miniscule. So what? The competition for theatre is not mass media.

Leaders -- no, I mean people who can point a direction and provide a purpose. I did not mock the serfs, I pointed to the reality that human action requires purpose and organization. I believe in Antonio Gramsci's organic intellectual.

Enjoy the Barker.

Nick said...


Feels like we’re near the end here. Thanks for the discussion.

You are much more narrow-minded in your views of theatre and art than I am. It seems to me you have divided theatre into two categories: one represents “I” and the other represents “We.” The avant garde, Nylachi, elitist, all belongs on the “I” side. Community, democratic, populist, rural all belong on the “we” side.

I have worked and produced under the aesthetic you propose in your Cradle project. I have done the same with the avant garde and experimental performance. I appreciate both aesthetics and the contribution that the theatre workers in each make to the “public good.” I don’t find the same clear division in art between “I” and “We” that you find.

Thomas Garvey said...

You know, Scott, I'm not sure I agree with you, but you've certainly made your case. The trouble is that your opponents are so personally invested in their own rationales that they'll never allow themselves to see yours. What you're really trying to debate with these folks is their respective career decisions, or even personality decisions. And those usually aren't up for debate.

Troll Watcher said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thomas Garvey said...

Yeah, I know, Troll Watcher - the truth hurts.

Scott Walters said...

Thomas -- Actually, while the conversations often devolve into that, what I am trying to do is argue that there are other, valid career paths that ought to be respected Just because YOU made a certain decision doesn't mean that it is the ONLY decision. The original questions from Isaac actually were thinly veiled attacks on the validity of community-based arts in small and rural communities. What usually happens is that somebody who has made certain decisions in their life sees that my ideas are actually getting some traction, and so they come in and make stereotypical comments to reify the status quo. It is a tactic I've seen so often.

Nic -- I think that artists should have a belief about art's purpose. If you have a belief that runs counter to the status quo, you are often labeled as divisive. I am not suggesting that people who have other beliefs about the purpose of theatre not be funded or respected; what I am saying is that my beliefs are valid and consistent. Do I appreciate other aestehtics? Absolutely. Am I promoting them? No. I am promoting the values I have indicated.

Nick said...

“Do I appreciate other aestehtics? Absolutely.”

Okay, if you say so.

And I am sure the “modernist avant garde” and Karen Finley appreciate your appreciation for their aesthetics.

Thomas Garvey said...

You may be interested in a new book called "The Spirit Level." Its thesis - demonstrated, apparently, through scores of graphs and studies - is that income inequality, rather than racism or sexism or any other -ism, is the cause of most social ills. Perhaps your view is something like a similar take on "arts funding inequality"? It's quite suggestive to me that many of your opponents seem to be upper-class. Could their identity politics be a kind of unconscious camouflage for their economic politics?

Scott Walters said...

Nic -- For God's sake, I TEACH the modernist avant garde. Some of those plays are absolutely brilliant, when the formal experimentation heightens the sense of story. But when it obfuscates ("Spurt of Blood," anyone?) then I don't find it worthwhile. One doesn't have to be a true believer.

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 ...