Friday, February 12, 2010

More Landesman BS

So there is an article about Rocco Landesman in Newsweek (h/t Teresa Eyring on Twitter), which includes some discussion of the Peoria bash he made when he first came to office that few in the theatrosphere really even noticed, so well did it fit with their view of the arts world. So did Landesman, who made a trip to Peoria as the kickoff for his "Art Works" tour, where he acknowledged the important role that places like Peoria play in the arts ecosphere, comparing it to the relationship between minor league baseball teams and the majors. I am wondering whether his "Art Works" tour ever crosses Michael Kaiser's "Arts in Crisis" tour? Maybe they could get together and sing more completely tone deaf, arrogant, elitist songs together. Lest we think that Landesman might have actually learned something from this early controversy, we are treated to this parsing of the situation:

"The general feeling about the Peoria thing was 'Whoops!' " he told me last fall. "Not my feeling at all. I'm sorry, but there's nothing I'd retract in what I was saying." Last month he said he "loves" the people in Peoria, but he still wouldn't take back a word."
Jeremy McCarter, the Newsweek correspondent writing ths story, seems to find this idiocy oh-so-charming: "When the 62-year-old Landesman says heterodox things like this," he write, "he breaks into a little grin: the more heterodox the sentiment, the bigger the grin. But this isn't stubbornness or a wicked streak talking. Landesman is asserting a principle here, one that marks the first real change of his tenure."

And that principle is to break out the old ax handle term "excellence," long undefined (I guess, like porn, you just know it when you see it), mostly reflective of budget, and highly urbanized. But hey, it's a principle, right? McCarter explains:

"Throughout its 45-year history, the NEA has tried to strike a balance between fostering artistic excellence and broadening access to underserved communities. Landesman's predecessor, Gioia, emphasized access, boasting of sending grants to all 435 congressional districts—a policy that, not coincidentally, pleased the 435 members of the House. Landesman, for his part, makes a more spirited case for excellence."
Actually, this is a self-serving description. Gioia didn't emphasize "access," he emphasized the fact that the NEA is supposed to be a national endowment, and that there was artistic activity taking place all over the country, not just in big city institutions that have been around long enough to Hoover up most of the arts funding. Recognizing he might be sounding a bit too Nylachi (notice the three cities he mentions -- I'm not going to claim that he's been reading Theatre Ideas, but I do have a grant from the that will probably not be renewed because I'm not in Nylachi), he mouths, "Now art is not just in the big cities. It's everywhere—it's all around the country, and we support it where we find it. We're not limited to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles," he says." Wherever we find it, and find that it is created in wealthy institutions by mainstream artists preferably imported from Nylachi... "But I do believe this notion of putting a grant in every single county and congressional district because it's a county and congressional district, even when there's no valid recipients, when there are no arts organizations to speak of, is crazy."

Valid recipients. Are you catching this? Are you seeing the way the language of "excellence," of "validity," is used to mask the real ideas, which are "privileged" and "urban"? But he's willing to throw a bone: "Landesman acknowledges that this is "to some degree a shift in the NEA viewpoint." He knows that it might make life difficult on Capitol Hill, even though the new focus doesn't mean that the agency is going to abandon swaths of the country. The NEA's arts-education programs, for instance, will continue to reach communities everywhere. "

And like Lou Costello thrown over to third base, we are passed over to Michael Kaiser, who will tell us that money spent on arts education is well-spent because it will inspire some kids like Leontyne Price to leave home for NYC and make her hometown proud by singing everywhere except her hometown.

I discovered this article a few moments after having read this inspirational blog post by Suzanne Lainson at Brands plus Music (h/t Don Hall and Cal Pritner). I would recommend that Landesman read it, and read it carefully, and then look up and see the bus bearing down on the arts. His attitudes are old fashioned, elitist, and ultimately dangerous to the health of the arts. And this is the man that I was advised I should give a chance after the Peoria quotation.

I'm going to mash together pictures of Michael Kaiser and Rocco Landesman and use them as emblems of just what CRADLE is fighting against.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Trickle-Down Artistry: On Leonard Jacobs and Michael Kaiser

Leonard Jacobs has written a lengthy rebuttal on the Clyde Fitch Report of my comments concerning Michael Kaiser's post on HuffPo "Where Are the Arts Important?", and Tom Loughlin has weighed on his blog "A Poor Player" in with a post entitled "Theatrical Wealth." (These literature reviews are getting longer and longer lately. I suspect it would be helpful for you to read these posts before continuing, if you can do so, but I will do my best to provide a fair representation of the arguments presented by others.)

First of all, I'd like to thank Leonard for taking the time to seriously discuss the issues I raised, and for presenting my ideas fairly -- that is not always something that happens in the blogging community, which often sets arguments a-spinning as a way of attacking an argument without having to provide actual thoughts of one's own. I also thank Leonard for referring to me as an "articulate blogger." I take that as high praise from someone who makes a living as a writer. He also predicts, quite accurately, that I will "attempt to refute [his] argument at every turn." Welcome to the refutation.

The title of his post makes his first argument: "Michael Kaiser ÷ Scott Walters ≤ U.S. Senate." What he means is that, if there are too many differing viewpoints being expressed, "noise and instability" is the result, which is an "open invitation for our common enemies to strike." This argument sounds an awful lot like the arguments used to condemn dissent in the run-up to the Iraq War (I guess the NEA is the artistic World Trade Center), but the analogy Jacobs explicitly makes is the grid-locked U.S. Senate, where nothing is able to get done because everybody is pushing their own ego-driven agenda ala our good friens Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman. He concludes with an Obama-like "can gridlock yield to compromise? Can cacophonies harmonize into the collective good?"

My answer would be "of course it can," but agreement without discussion of the issues is simply rubber-stamping the status quo. As Tom Loughlin points out, this is an issue of fairness and justice, two terms that used to be the foundation of our democratic society, but which in this age of easy cynicism have often been dismissed as naive. So call me naive. The point that Tom Loughlin makes is central: what we currently have is a system that has concentrated artistic wealth in the hands of a very small portion of the community. In the case of arts that are not able to be distributed on a mass basis, as is the case with live performances, such centralization privileges certain populations and excludes large segments of society that are equally deserving of artistic experience and participation. This situation is not fair, not just, and directly results in arts funding being seen as yet another pork barrel. I am not surprised that Jacobs, who lives within the theatrical version of the beltway, thinks that this issue is a "canard" that was "dismissed long ago," but I can assure him the issue is alive and well west of the Hudson -- and rightly so.

In fact, Jacobs defends the status quo by pointing out that states like South Carolina and Texas, through their Republican governors, don't really want government money anyway. I would remind him, however, that it was a Senator from New York, Alphonse D'Amato, who was one of the leaders of anti-NEA forces during the 1990s. Following Jacobs' logic, that would be an indication that government money should have shifted to more supportive places -- say, to Rhode Island, where Claiborne Pell played such an important role in supporting the arts. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Because it is irrelevant.

Continuing his defense of centralized, urbanized arts funding, Jacobs trots out a canard of his own: "How many studies does the arts community need," Jacobs asks, "regarding the impossibility of making a living as an artist in, say, Dayton or Missoula or Little Rock or Providence or Portland, as evidence for why planeloads of artists still head to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago each year?" I suppose there are several ways to approach this question. For instance, a look at the annual report of the Actors Equity Association shows that just under 50% of its membership didn't work at all in the 2008-2009 season, that during any particular week a little more than 86% were unemployed, and the median annual earnings was less than $7700 -- which is hardly "making a living," in my book. I might also suggest that Jacobs not make this assertion about the impossibility of making a living to, say, Michael Fields at Dell Arte in Blue Lake CA (pop 1135) or Dudley Cocke at Appalshop in Whitesburg KY (pop 1600).

But the real thing that the arts community needs to learn from all those studies, it seems to me, is that what doesn't work is the current system that depends on artist-specialists creating products built with a lot of resources and sold at high prices to passive, middle-class spectators who sit in large, expensive pieces of real estate -- and it doesn't take more than a glance at a theatre's balance sheet to see how much unearned income is required to keep the H. M. S. Arts Status Quo afloat. Regardless, none of these statistics justifies anyone whistling their way to Nylachi in the hopes of "making a living." That's a myth that needs to be retired altogether.

Referring to my supposed "anti-New York bias," Jacobs asks why my argument is "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?" I must admit, this puzzles me, since my conclusion that "If you want a democratic society to support the arts, distribute the money democratically" says nothing about taking all the money away from NY and handing it out to everybody else. What I am saying is that giving most of the money to NYC and a handful of other urban areas is not the same thing as distributing the money democratically.

Jacobs and Kaiser are both relying on an artistic verison of trickle-down economics, in which money given to the wealthiest will eventually trickle down to those who are poorer. It is an idea that has been conclusively disproven in econmics (as our increasingly appalling income gap in the US demonstrates), and it doesn't work in the arts either. The fact is that Las Vegas' slogan reflects the current artistic status quo: what happens in Nylachi, stays in Nylachi, Leontyne Price's visit to Rochester notwithstanding.

What I am calling for is an admission from the likes of Kaiser and Jacobs, and frankly the rest of the artistic community, that the current system privileges certain areas, describes it as inevitable when it is not, then reifies that privilege by focusing additional funding within those areas. So, for instance, the Mellon Foundation's theatre program chooses a handful of metropolitan areas within which to concentrate its funding, including predictably New York, and within those areas devotes most of its money to "leading" arts institutions, i.e., the corporate rich, who use it to make bigger, brighter, shinier products for the privileged few. This privilege is then brazenly presented as based on "merit" (rather than financial privilege) and artistic "enlightenment" (in opposition to the great unwashed in the "flyover" part of the country). Further, defying all logic, the concentration of money is dismissed as having no connection with the concentration of artists in these places: Jacobs trots out the old canard (I love using that word) that nobody "forced" artists "at artistic or physical gunpoint, to abandon their hometowns," which of course ignores the collective power of ideology (communicated constantly, but most nakedly by Frank Sinatra in his signature song "New York, New York") and economic coercion through the aforementioned financial concentration. And then Kaiser tours the country telling everyone how the arts are so important because their local talent got an opportunity to perform in New York. It is narrow parochialism masquerading as open-minded generosity. The wealthy seeking a cheerful handout from the poor.

So if Jacobs thinks we should all unite behind an idea, I suggest it be behind the idea of the broadening and deepening the importance of the arts by supporting participation and creation throughout this country. To put it in slogan form: artistic democracy, not plutocracy.

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 ...