Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Is theater (or any art) a luxury?

Some of you may have seen a petition floating around for a new cabinet position - Secretary of the Arts. According to Rolling Stone, Quincy Jones has been lobbying for just that. The (relatively uninformative) petition was created by two musicians, and it has gathered over 16,000 signatures so far.

I also recently attended something called the Schmooze Festival, a festival of Jews working in the arts, as part of my preparation for the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas. There, I talked to a woman who was part of a lobbying group working on a bailout for theater. They are asking for $1 billion. She thought it was too little: if you consider that theater is a $60 billion + industry, and that we are losing, on average 10% of our workforce (these aren't numbers I've checked), $6 would be more in line with what we need.

What do I think we'll get? Bupkes. No bailout, no Secretary. Nada. Niente. Nicht.

Why is that? The arts in general, and theater in particular, is considered a luxury. You can live, theoretically, on bread alone. As long as there's enough money flowing around to bake the bread or pay the baker to do it for you.

I remember, in college (Johns Hopkins), I came in to see my academic advisor and she noticed how many theater classes I had. "Someone's getting away with something, isn't he?" she asked. I was sort of shocked. But she felt that they were just easy grades, not the necessary learning I had come to a prestigious college to absorb.

Is art a necessity? I consider myself a true believer in the power and importance of art. But in the teeth of the current financial crisis, can I make the argument that art is more than a luxury? When faced with the collapse of world banking, what is the health of a few theaters?

Well, let me consider the question from a purely financial point of view. There is a myth that artists are not very good with money. This myth comes from the fact that, for the most part, artists don't have money. If they were good with money, the money would just flow to them, like water to the ocean, I believe the thinking goes.

The fact is that most of the artists I know (and of course my crowd is mostly working in tiny, under financed theaters) do amazing things with amazingly little. All over the city there are incredible creations made with almost no budget. And not only that - the artists are the ones who invade the decrepit neighborhoods, find ways to build it, and then are eventually displaced by the crowd that wants to be part of the new, hip neighborhood. Every small theater generates more for each dollar than almost any other industry, and they generate money for the surrounding businesses in a way almost nothing else does. If they had the resources to pay people, really pay people for their work - the results would be amazing. Much more employment then any public works project.

Of course, the reason that other countries have a Secretary of Culture (as so many do), is not just about money. It is about the belief that art feeds society and that any society needs that art in order to progress. It also is a way of creating international goodwill. A traveling theater company is a representative of the country it comes from, and good art creates an appreciation for that country.

Of course, we export art all the time. Our films, television, and music fill the world. It is entertaining art, but since it is all driven by capital, it does not have international goodwill on its agenda - and in fact often creates the opposite. Hollywood blockbusters definitely give a skewed impression of our country.

But here's the thing about artists - they will continue on, without funding, without support, just out of the need to create. And if artists are driven by their own inner angels and demons, why give them money to do what they're doing already? Is that financially sound? Does that help our country in the way that saving a bank or building a road does?

Yes, many will labor in obscurity here, because there are no resources to bring them to light. But as I write this on the eve of Obama's inauguration, hearing all the problems we face - war, health care, economic collapse - should this even be on Obama's agenda? Does it address our main problems?

It does. It addresses all of them, in its own way. Give money to artists, and you will get so much back - including a lot more money.

But we can also live without it. It is not food. It is not shelter.

So is it a luxury, or a necessity? For those who are not artists, what would happen in a world without art? And if the world will never be without art, because artists themselves cannot help but create, is there any point in worrying about it or helping them? Practically speaking, I mean.

I want there to be. I feel there truly should be. I do feel the financial argument is strong. But even if Obama believed it, the pragmatist in him probably says that this is not a fight worth fighting right now. Giving money to the so-called intellectual elite is not the way towards bipartisanship. So I understand why he may shy away from any action.

And yet...will I blame him, if he does nothing to help the arts?

A little. Yes.


Lindsay Price said...

It's so true - artists do because they have to. If Broadway disappears, theatre will still happen.

What is so frustrating, is how companies (in my general, layman's view of these things) want creative thinkers and problem solvers. How else do individuals find their creativity than through exposure to the arts?

Kasheri said...

"Someone's getting away with something, isn't he?"

OMG, could that phrasing be any more obnoxiously patronizing? Ugh! Such a thing tarnishes the institution for you as an alum and for me as former staff. Thpt!!

Theater of Ideas said...

Yes, I found the comment quite stunning. I don't think I was even angry at the time, just sort of shocked. Of course, I am quoting it years later, so it must have made some impact...