Monday, February 15, 2010

Why I Hammer Landesman and Kaiser

Every once in a while, I write an outraged post about something that someone like Rocco Landesman or Michael Kaiser has said, and inevitably I will receive a well-meaning comment that will suggest that my attacks are divisive. A recent example was Leonard Jacobs' response to my comments on a recent Michael Kaiser HuffPo commentary, which I responded to here. Jacobs lays out the argument succinctly, asking "why is Walters’ argument always “either/or” — either New York or the rest of the nation? Why is it never “and” — New York and the rest of the nation? Why is it better to be a divider and not a uniter?" What concerns Jacobs is that all the competing values and ideas creates "noise and instability" which is an "open invitation for common enemies to strike."

So why do I hammer on Landesman and Kaiser -- especially when the work of CRADLE is being done on the NEA's dime, so to speak? Am I biting the hand that feeds me? Shouldn't I be grateful? Indeed I am grateful, but I am assuming that the fact that the NEA saw fit to support my work indicates it values what I am trying to do, and at root, CRADLE is designed to counter the dominant ideology that privileges certain parts of the country and organizations of a certain size. The goal is not to denigrate or undermine those privileged organizations, but rather to call into a question the idea that they are the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle to which all artists and arts organizations should aspire, and the place to which the lion's share of fundraising should go.

CRADLE is not only about creating and supporting arts organizations in small and rural communities, but also about promoting such organizations as equally valuable to the artistic landscape of the US, and equally viable as a career path for artists. So when Landesman, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is quoted as saying, "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” I feel it requires a response from me.

People like Landesman and Kaiser are thought leaders for the industry. They have bully platforms from which to speak. Kaiser, as head of the Kennedy Center, one of those privileged institutions located in the nation's capitol, writes for the Huffington Post, one of the most important on-line sources of political and cultural information. Landesman, as head of the NEA, has access to mainstream media such as Newsweek magazine, or the Associated Press. So what they say is distributed throughout the nation, and usually remains unquestioned. The Newsweek writer, Jeremy McCarter, provides a knowing wink to Landesman's refusal to acknowledge that his Peoria comments were insulting. In fact, McCarter paints them as "heterodox," implying that to hold such ideas was an indication of independence, a "principled" stand against political PC, uttered by a man known for his admirable outspokenness. While liberal thinkers scoff at the powder-puff questions Fox News throws at Sarah Palin, nobody questions whether McCarter, who previously was a theatre critic for New York Magazine and the New York Sun, might be doing the same thing for Landesman. The Nylachi bias is so deeply ingrained that, unless you are attuned to it, it goes by without notice. It is what French critic Roland Barthes called a "doxa," an "it-goes-without saying."

One way I have found effective for revealing doxa is to translate the statement into a context that we are sensitive to in our society. Let's try that with Landesman's Peoria statement:
  • "I don't know if there's a theatre for African-Americans, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman."
  • "I don't know if there's a theatre for women, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman."
Nobody would allow such statements to pass without comment, and I would predict that the focus of such commentary would be on Landesman's definition of "good." For Landesman and Kaiser, "good" is synonymous with "well-known," "well-funded,"and as a result "metropolitan." Fame, fortune, urban. This is the recent ideology of America.

Italian Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci called this "cultural hegemony,"which is described on Wikipedia as the idea "that a culturally-diverse society can be ruled or dominated by one of its social classes. It is the dominance of one social group over another, i.e. the ruling class over all other classes. The ideas of the ruling class come to be seen as the norm; they are seen as universal ideologies, perceived to benefit everyone whilst only really benefiting the ruling class." The use of the word "good" masks the underlying power structure supporting the term. In this case, the ruling class has the traditional background: Landesman is a Yale grad, Kaiser hails from MIT's Sloan School of Management.

What Landesman means by "good" is focused solely on the product. The production of August: Osage County or Krapp's Last Tape is "good" because it pulls together well-known artists to create a well-funded product that demonstrates, not surprisingly (although not always), aesthetic virtuosity. The acting is "good," the setting and costumes are "good," the play is "good."

This single-minded focus on the product is what Karl Marx called "commodity festishism." Again, I will refer to Wikipedia's description: "Marx argued that commodity fetishism tends to subordinate social relations among people to relationships between humans and objects: for example, the relationship between producer and consumer is obscured. The producer can only see his relationship with the object he produces, being unaware of the people who will ultimately use that object." [ital and bold mine]

Building on Marx, I propose that the definition of "good" should not solely focus on the art object itself, a focus which privileges money and fame and makes a fetish out of virtuosity. Instead, "good" should be defined as reflecting the "relationship between producer and consumer" that is mediated by the art object. In other words, what makes something good is the effect that an artist (producer) has through his or her work (object) on the audience (consumer). Imagine a triangle with "artist," "production," and "audience" at the three corners: "good" lives in the middle of the triangle.

The effect of this is to level the playing field by making value contingent on something outside the work of art: the effect on the public. So the San Francisco Actor's Workshop 1957 production of Waiting for Godot played in front of the inmates of San Quentin was "good" because the artists, the work of art, and the audience connected -- the experience had value whether or not the art object itself was as well-known (SF Actor's Workshop was relatively unknown) and well-funded (and it didn't have much money) as, say, the production done at Lincoln Center directed by Mike Nichols, starring Steve Martin, Robin Williams, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Irwin and designed by Jennifer Tipton and Tony Walton. Using Landesman's definition of "good," the Lincoln Center production was "better" than the San Quentin production; using mine, the San Quentin production knocks the ball out of the park.

It might be argued that the effect of a work of art on an audience is impossible to measure. Perhaps so. But is it really any harder to measure than the "quality" of a work of art itself? Have we really ever successfully defined what that means? What it means in practice is that somebody with status says "I liked it," and then proceeds to reify their preference by placing it "inside" the work of art. (See Chapter 2 of John Carey's book What Good Are the Arts? for a thorough analysis of how this process works.) So "good" becomes defined as "what important people like." And we find ourselves back to the ruling class.

Others would argue that a relational definition of "good" would change from performance to performance. True, which would be fitting for an art form that changes night to night, right? And others still would argue that the work of art might appeal to someone in the audience -- isn't that enough? Indeed it is, although on the continuum of goodness, it would place the work near the lower end. But that's rank commercialism, another might object, the merely popular! To some extent, yes -- in the sense that in order for something to be "good" it needs to affect more people. But there are things that are popular that don't have an effect on the audience, as anybody who has left a blockbuster movie disappointed can attest.

The point is that the current definition of "good" reflects an ideology that privileges money and fame (and locale is part of this equation -- the intersection of money and fame, if you will). It is not "objective," it is ideologically charged, and defined by the ruling class. And it is an ideology that I reject as inappropriate for the democratic (little "d"), anti-elitist ideals upon which our country is based.

Royalists historically have tried to sneak aristocracy in through the back door by embracing the arts, which is why many of the Founding Fathers were suspicious of things artistic. While we tend to think the anti-art prejudice is Puritan, which creates a distant scapegoat that we can all bash, the fact is that the anti-art prejudice is rooted deep within our democratic ideals, ideals informed by the experiences that men like John Adams had in France seeing how the rich used the arts to display their superiority. America managed to avoid this elitism until the late 19th century, when people of wealth and privilege split the arts into high art and low art as a way of becoming an aristocracy. (See Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America for an excellent description of how this process occurred.)

I'm not saying there is a conspiracy, but rather that we are taking for granted ideas that need to be examined. And the only way to examine them is to make them visible.

That's what I do.


isaac butler said...

Hey Scott,

I really like this post, and I always like it when you're open about where you're coming from, I think it adds a lot of value to the conversation. And I would never say "don't bite the hand that feeds you", bite out, my blogging friend!

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.

over to you.

isaac butler said...

just as ps: in case it isn't obvious, you should know by now that i'm a fan of CRADLE Arts, and this is meant in the spirit of being supportive by pointing out something that I hadn't heard addressed yet.

Leonard Jacobs said...

One favor: Say what you want about me, or to me, in response to me. But don't lump me in with your one-size-fits-all NYLACHI construct.

For if you do, then you are indeed being divisive.

Scott Walters said...

Oh, Leonard, you must be kidding. While I don't know where you were born, you were educated at New York University and CUNY, you have written for publications in NYC, and you have a single-minded focus on the arts in NYC. Nylachi is not a "construct," it is an abbreviation for the three major cities providing arts experiences in the US. You live, work, and write about one of them. Therefore, you are part of Nylachi. Now, I will admit that there is a Nylachi mindset, which privileges New York, LA, and Chicago as culturally superior than other parts of the US. But even that makes you part of Nylachi. Nope, I don't think there is any way you won't fall into the Nylachi "construct," no matter how much you dislike it. (If it makes you feel any better, I don't think Pinter appreciated being called an Absurdist, either.)

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