February 22, 2011
Not enough excellent art? O rly?
This opinion piece (What Is Wrong With the Arts?) from the Huffington Post made the rounds of Facebook last week among my theater friends, mostly garnering at least some degree of agreement with the thesis that, contrary to much common knowledge about what’s hurting our arts culture, the arts are suffering the most because there’s not enough really good art being made.
But I wasn’t on the side of the author (Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser) until fairly deep into his article; in fact, I started out fairly upset at what he seemed to be charging, when he says that “the arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created,” and goes on to list a large handful of iconic choreographers, conductors and composers of the 1950’s and ’60’s, and that “the classical arts have simply not kept up” with the kind of creativity and innovation going into television, movies, and rock music.
(Though I may be inclined to agree with him about rock music, given the intelligence and loveliness of some of the rock music I’ve heard in the past couple years.)
Young artists today just aren’t up to it, he seems to be saying.
And I don’t believe him, because I see astonishing art almost every day. There’s almost not a week of my working life that goes by in which I don’t feel privileged and blessed and astonished to be seeing what I’m seeing.
But by the end of the piece, he’s saying something different, when he writes:
But the institutional nature of our arts ecology, a relatively recent phenomenon, means that groups of people are now more responsible for arts making than the individual. Boards, managers and producing consortia are overly-involved.
And these groups are misbehaving. They are overly-conservative, subject to “group think” and so worried about budgets that they forget that bad art hurts budgets far more than risk-taking does.
Now he’s not indicting artists at all, but producing and funding organizations. He’s confused the creation of art with production on a high level. And isn’t that exactly what he’s complaining about, when he bemoans the substitution of celebrity for excellence, of ever bigger and more expensive spectacle for insight? Isn’t THAT the problem? He’s got artists and what they do confused with institutions and what they do. And he’s right about the behavior of the institutions. It’s not that excellent art isn’t being made, it’s that it isn’t being chosen for support by institutions and canonization the way it was in the decades he’s nostalgic for. But I promise you, it is being made.
It’s just that I’m not going to the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center or Broadway to see it (and that’s a whole ‘nother discussion about the cost of art to working people, including actual artists), but places like La Mama ETC, and Manhattan Theatre Source, and the Fringe Festival (yes, as much as we all love to complain about the Fringe Festival). It’s being done by groups like New York Theater Experiment and Company XIV.
It’s often being done in the low, low budget shadows.
One of the most daring, emotionally riveting and heartstoppingly good pieces of theater I’ve ever seen to this day was called The Warzone is My Bed, and it was done at La Mama with no sets but one wall and a bed. And I have no idea what, if anything, happened to it after the end of its 2007 showcase run.
I think about the projects I’ve worked for which have brought me to both tears and elation, night after night as I sat and ran the cues.
There’s not enough excellent art being chosen for financial support and further production and distribution. That doesn’t mean that no one’s making it. It means no one’s paying attention. Or that the people who are don’t have the financial means to bring it to a wider market. Or that the people with the financial means are making bad judgments about what’s good art. Or that we all lack faith (maybe justifiably, given the box office success of No Strings Attached and Jackass 3D) in the willingness of the wider citizenry to pay for daring, challenging performing arts.
But in any of those cases, if we were to actually, substantially, visibly support the most talented and insightful of individual young artists, I bet we wouldn’t be complaining about not having enough good art.