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: http://theatreideas.blogspot.com/2009/02/its-not-about-you.html
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.