Monday, April 27, 2009

Priorities, Part 2

And here's where Scott and I seriously differ. In the comments to this post, at the end of a long back and forth, Scott wrote:

Of course, I disagree. That's the old Romantic idea, which was preceded by a much longer tradition of artist as public servant. It is a tradition that has led to the current artistic impasse, and to the lack of interest in the arts and support for NEA funding. I wrote about it here:

So. I obviously have a ton of respect for Scott and I agree with him on many, many things. But I have to disagree with that comment and with a couple of his comments from that thread. I think there's a priority problem, and that's at the root of the whole discussion. The real question is what is the role of the artist in society. This is a fundamental thing. Here's where Scott and I part.

If you view the artist's role as a public servant, doing a public good, then what Scott says makes sense. The artist become conduit and messenger, serving the needs of the community before his or her artist goals. The artist plays a part in shaping and crafting, but the community's needs are prioritized. In that case, it's not about you, as he says. It's about the community first.

If you view the artist's role as commenter on society, then the priority is on the artist's goals and story. If it offends the community, then it does. If the community doesn't want to hear it, it doesn't have to come. If the artist is really unwelcome, they can go somewhere else. The level of interaction is up to the artist. The artist has something to say and that's where the priority is.

In the comments thread I linked to, Scott implies that these two things aren't in conflict. But, from where I sit, they very much are. I think an artist has to stand at least a little bit apart from the community and society. They need distance in order to see clearly and write what they see, what they hear. But really, they need to prioritize differently.

In a workshop I did a couple of years back, we did this exercise. The facilitators had us make a list of things we liked. We started at 25, then had to cut it down to 15, then 10, then 5, then finally down to one, each time selecting the ones you valued most. Finally, at the end of the day, you had to pick the one thing you valued most. That's the story here. If you're writing a play, you have to choose what's more important: the story or the impact. It's still not about you, but it is about the story you're telling. And that's what you're following.

What people start thinking of as bad theatre, agitprop or whatever, is theatre that sacrifices the story for the needs of the community. It pulls its punches, because something other than truth has taken priority. A good artist, especially in theatre, has to go for the truth.

As a wise man once said, you have to make a choice. I seriously don't think that attitude is what's created this schism between theatres and the community. Mostly because, well, the Romantics were around for some time and theatres thrived. Even during the '60s, the high point of the selfish artist, theatre was still relevant and connected. I don't think the attitude has changed all that much in the last twenty-five years. There are a lot of other factors. Now, as I've said here before, I write this blog from the point of view of a writer. Some of the things I talk about here are really about theatres as organizations. I don't think most artists need to change their attitudes or approaches. It's not the work. It's the organizations.

An artist needs to write freely, write honestly, and call it as he or she sees it. If they want to be closely connected to a community and respond to the community's needs and wants, good for them. If they can balance their artistic needs and goals with the community's needs, double good on them. But it's a choice they make.

Now theatres, I agree, as organizations, need to be much more responsive to the needs of the community. And they find the artists that fit best and bring them into the community. In the story about Arthur Kopit in Scott's original post, Actors Theatre fell down on its job by letting him just go away without a discussion. Now, if Kopit had refused to sit down with their community, then ATL should have re-considered producing his play. I think that's more encumbent on theatres.

How does it all jibe together? Well, I put the weight on the artists. I think we do need more rounded, more complete theatre training. Artists should be able to produce, build theatres, raise money, absolutely. But that may not be what they all want to do or what they're most suited for. There should be room for all of that. But to say that all artists must choose public service...that ain't it.

So, sorry, Scott. You can't sell me on it.


Chris Ashworth said...

> to say that all artists must choose public service...that ain't it.

I feel this is the frustrating false dichotomy of this discussion.

I run a one-man company. My role in that company includes: programmer, support guy, marketer, accountant, manager, and half a dozen other roles.

It's absolutely true that to do any one of those things well I have to pick a single priority. If I sit down to write code, I need to focus on writing code. I turn off my phone, I shut down email, I devote my full creative energy to doing that single task. I try to shut out any other distractions. Which includes scoping the priority even more: to a single problem within the set of all possible programming problems I can solve at that moment.

To say that I have to pick a single top priority as a programmer, and commit to it 100% to do the best possible work, is absolutely true.

But this fact does not lead to the conclusion that I should (or even can) have a single all-consuming priority. Show me such a person and I will show you a completely dysfunctional human being, much less a dysfunctional company. Each role I must fill in the company has, at any given moment, a single priority. And since I am a single person, I have to then pick, at any given moment, the role with the highest priority. Within limits, this does not compromise my work in any individual role. If anything, it keeps my work focused on what is important.

Sticking me into a larger company where my nominal role is only to write code may blur the lines, but it doesn't change the fundamentals: completely walling off the rest of the world in service to "the work" of writing code is not a healthy way to write code. Giving me a more focused role doesn't turn me into a cog in a machine. I'm a creative, unpredictable, contributing member of a team of human beings, and my work will chafe without a larger sense of the context in which it is performed. That friction is the enemy to the whole endeavor.

It's easy to see this when the team is 1 or 2 people, but it makes it no less true when the team is 50 people.

Saying an artist has a responsibility to their community does not mean saying they should be a social worker. It does not mean they must compromise their art. It's a simple observation that the alternative--single minded responsibility to a single role--is unhealthy and almost certainly counterproductive.



99 said...

Chris- Your comments are much appreciated, but I'm not talking about one "all-consuming" priority. What I'm saying is that, when the rubber meets the road, something has to give. So, for me, if I'm writing a play and I think it will offend my community, I can either prioritize my community's feelings and not write that part that offends them or change it so it's less offensive, or I can stick to my guns and know that it might make me a pariah. I can't do both. And in that moment, I make a choice. It feels like, in all of Scott's writing, he's saying that an artist should make the choice that builds community. Which prioritizes building community. I don't think it's healthy (or even really possible) for one person to pursue one goal mindlessly and without compromise. I think, honestly, that is what's wrong with most theatres. You need people involved in the big picture. That's the point of theatres. But for the individual artist, I feel the art has to be prioritized above all other goals. Otherwise the art suffers, and that doesn't do anyone any good.

I do think there's a basic misunderstanding in this conversation: I'm not talking about theatres. I'm not talking about organizations. I'm not talking about administrators. I'm talking about individual artists. I'm saying that for the artist, the priority must be the truth in the art. For everyone else, the priorities can and should be different and shifting. A theatre has a different responsibility than the artists and should be held to a different standard.

Chris Ashworth said...

This is such a delicate conversation to have. I totally see where you're coming from, and part of me agrees with it, but then I see things like this comment and I think, "Somewhere, before we hit the limits of prioritizing art over everything, we hit a place where we're gleeful about offending the audience, and say: fuck 'em cause I wrote a great play." And I think, man, when we hit that place, well, boo-ya for great art, but what good does it do you when you just ran your audience crying out of the building, never to return?

So I guess, I dunno, this is in some ways hard for me to say, but I think that at the end of the day, yeah, Art doesn't always get to be the first priority, even for the artist. Just as a practical fact of life, it just doesn't, because in the limit it ceases to exist without accounting for the other priorities first.

To put it another way, I think the individual artist is fooling themselves if they think they're disconnected from every other individual worker. If "for everyone else" the priorities can and should be a shifting thing, but not for the Special Artist, and if the special artist truly commits to that philosophy, and creates work with no other priority, ever, under any circumstances...that's an equation for a cold, dead, notably-unable-to-do-any-work-of-any-kind sort of person.

If that's the limit of the logic, then somewhere before we hit that limit is the distinction between risking offense and intending offense. I admit it's a slippery distinction. But somehow I think it matters.

99 said...

That's actually a perfect distillation of this argument. I think Scott is precisely wrong. One of the reasons that people are fleeing the theatre is because most plays are LESS engaging, LESS involving. I'm not a LaBute fan, either, and I do draw a distinction between trying to "shock" some mythical reactionary midwesterns and trying to provoke a reaction. I don't think all plays need to obviously lead to warm, uplifting messages or even necessarily constructive ones. It's funny, Scott there is complaining about a work that makes his point: that there should be limits on what an artist can do and say to prove their point. He just finds it distasteful.

I don't think the artist is fooling themselves. And, just to be clear, I'm not putting the artist up on a pedestal here. Some people just plain suck. But I do think the artist has to stand some degree apart in order to write honestly. And it's part of the problem of being an artist, an occupational hazard. When O'Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, it was the eve of the Second World War, the middle of the Depression. O'Neill wrote a painful, dark, and bleak play about hopelessness, the hopelessness he observed and lived with. When it was done, he thought, this is too painful for anyone right now and put it aside. Now, he could have said, "Giving the community hope is more important than telling my truth, so let's slap on a happy ending or make it more uplifting." I don't think the play would have been as good, as strong or lived as long, if he had. The truth, well-told, has a singular power. And it's our duty to tell it. I agree with you about risking vs. intending offense, but I don't agree that there is no place for an intentional offense. Some of the great works of the stage are intentionally offensive. It's part of the conversation.

Chris Ashworth said...

"...if I'm writing a play and I think it will offend my community, I can either prioritize my community's feelings and not write that part that offends them or change it so it's less offensive, or I can stick to my guns and know that it might make me a pariah. I can't do both. And in that moment, I make a choice. It feels like, in all of Scott's writing, he's saying that an artist should make the choice that builds community."

I can't speak for Scott, but my response to this would be:

Sure, you definitely can choose to write the part that offends them. You have no obligation to not offend your community. Hell, hopefully you think offending the community is the choice that builds the community.

The point being that responsibility doesn't force you into being bland. It forces you to be an adult instead of a bully.

99 said...

But that's exactly the point. Why does the idea of building the community have to enter into it at all? I choose to offend because that's what the play needs, the story needs. That's, for me, the highest priority: telling this story honestly and truthfully. It does cut both ways: if I choose to offend over telling the truth, or being honest, the play will ring false. The truth is the higher priority.

Chris Ashworth said...

I don't want to say that "building" community is the particular goal here.

I'm saying that telling the truth to an empty room is pointless.

99 said...

I think audiences are eager to hear what's true and well-told. I think the lack of actual engagement, of pushing the audience, actually connecting with them is what's hurting us (among other things). When you tell a real truth, you're always risking that someone won't come back. But if you do it right, more people will come. You don't build a community by only giving them what they want to hear, either.

Freeman said...

I agree entirely 99, which should come as no shock.

Mare said...

An artistic director manages the house in such a way as to keep the theatre afloat and meet the expectations of the community. And, I’m a writer. My priority is to tell the truth inherent in the story.

No other artist is expected to take on the burden of audience unless they are engaged in commissioned work. Why are playwrights any different? If a theatre and I come together to produce a project of mine, that collaboration is a courtship between community and playwright. Eventually we each move on in search of the next project.

Even if I think I’m writing toward a specific community, I’m not. I have absolutely no control over how the work will be received. I had the good fortune of learning this lesson early in my career. My intention was to raise awareness of a certain dilemma faced by mothers with older children. The piece affected the men in the audience as much, if not more so, than the women. It wasn’t news to the women, but it was a total shock to the men. Different generations were impacted in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I was arrogant.

I told the truth of the family in that play, and I focused on the community of that theatre. The production was successful, but I left feeling like I had betrayed us all.