Sunday, September 13, 2009


Chris Ashworth and I have gone a few rounds in the past, and he's responded to this post with this. I know this is a bit of a well-trod subject, but it's always worth talking about, I think. Because it gets at the heart of a lot of what's going on here.

To quote his closing:
A necessary act is an inevitable one. You will eat today because you must eat today. You will sleep tonight because you must sleep tonight. Necessary means inescapable, and inescapable means the universe is imposing itself on you.

But art! Oh, but precious, unnecessary art! It is escapable, and that is was makes it so special. If you sing today, it is not because you had to sing. If you dance today, you did not have to dance. You have the power to impose on the universe. You may do the unnecessary.
Needless to say, but it's always worth saying anyway, I disagree with his argument pretty passionately. And, yes, I'm an artist and trying to make a living and all of that, so it's not a purely philosophical point for me. My career depends on me convincing people that producing my plays is a necessary act (and a profitable one) and my eating generally depends on my career (okay, yeah, I have a day job for that, but in some perfect world, right?). So I acknowledge that.

Still...I believe passionately that art is a necessary thing for humanity. Not a nice thing to have, not a luxury, not a fringe benefit, but something hard-wired into our brains, bodies and souls (if you believe in such things). It may very well be the thing that actually makes us human (though, in my deepest, darkest, hippiest heart, I also believe there are some pretty amazing artists in the animal world. We just don't have the vocabulary to appreciate their work). This is not a thing of comfort. Art has existed pretty much as long as humanity has existed. That's not something that's unnecessary.

We sing to express things beyond words. We write to communicate what we feel. And when these things are cut off, we fall apart, die, become miserable. Free expression, often in the form of arts, is the first thing a repressive government controls. There's a reason for that. I think we have to honor that history, that place. And even the place the arts hold in American life. It's a weird, odd, not entirely healthy relationship, but they do hold a significant place in American cultural history. At this point, culture is our number one export. We may not like to place the works of Michael Bay or Brittany Spears in the realm of art, but, really, they are. We are, all of us, bathed in the arts from the time we're born. Through song, words, colors, art shapes and fills our lives. I don't think that can really be argued.

Now. Do I think that we, as a community of artists, make this argument well? No. As Chris has noted elsewhere, we too often argue that artists are essential, not art. That's a poor focus problem, a language problem. It's part of the creeping credentialism that is taking over our community. The art, the work should be primary. I do believe that the artist should take a backseat to the work, and that artists need to get out of their (our) cocoons and shells and stop talking to other artists so much. The work will be better for it.

I also don't like the argument that "arts have other benefits." I mean, they do. But the purpose of a Mozart symphony isn't to make you smarter. The purpose of a Shakespeare play isn't to teach you new vocabulary. Their purposes are to make you better people. To put you in someone else's shoes. To show you how someone else sees the world. If there's anything I believe more than anything in this world, it's that the arts are necessary to make people better.

That's where I believe that public funding is so key. Because, in the end, we do provide a service. We provide a service on the same level as libraries. And like the libraries, we should be free for all, open to all. The only way that happens is through public funding. What we have now, in some ways similar to our healthcare system, is kind of the worst of all possible worlds. We have just enough public funding that we have to answer to the politics of a given situation, but not enough to provide comfort. So we have to supplement it with private funding (including foundation support) and that comes with its own set of strings and restrictions. But none of that support, either governmental or private, is enough to keep ticket prices low enough that all can participate. So, in general, only the wealthiest get to enjoy the art, and that, in turn, affects the artists and we wind up with the closed system we have. I believe this is a crisis and it's hidden by the fact that, in terms of dramatic art, there is so much available, few people feel the lack. They can turn on their tv and get their dramatic art jones fulfilled. But there is a difference between live performance and CSI. They do still need us. We just have to make ourselves available to them.

Once we start down the road of "the arts are nice, but unnecessary," we wind up in a place where artists are paid shit, don't have healthcare, job security, the arts are a luxury for the rich and the elites and the people go without and don't miss it. Wait. That sounds pretty familiar. We're all a little unlucky to be living in a Calvinist, puritanical country that has, written into its DNA, a distrust of the artists. And we're even more unlucky that all of that has been exploited by a segment of the cultural elites to increase their stature and personal power (cough, Jesse Helms, cough, Rupert Murdoch, cough). But this is the hand we've been dealt. As has been said many times, don't mourn, organize. Which was my whole point of this, to begin with: theatre artists should be champing at the bit to be dealing with the issues of the day. We should be rushing out to join the frontlines of the fight, no matter what side we're on. And it shouldn't be a matter of "put down the art and organize" but of using our art TO organize, advocate and debate. Theatres should have been planning festivals of plays about healthcare, the way they did about the Iraq War. They should be commissioning plays about the economy. Why let this moment pass us by? For fear of offending our funders? Then we shouldn't complain that it's okay to think we're unnecessary.

Art is necessary. Artists have to make that argument and stand up for that belief. Otherwise, we're chucking ourselves on the dustbin of history.


Christopher Ashworth said...

> [Art] may very well be the thing that actually makes us human.

For the record, I passionately, deeply, hugely agree. Art and culture are, for my money, ultimately the point. Human life at its most human. The reason to be, rather than not to be.

> We sing to express things beyond words.
> We write to communicate what we feel.
> And when these things are cut off, we
> fall apart, die, become miserable.

This is where I can't come along for the ride. Factually speaking, this is simply incorrect. We die when we can't eat, not when we can't sing. If we can't own up to this distinction at the beginning, people have good reason to ignore our subsequent arguments about the value of art.

99 said...

I don't know how you reconcile your two statements: art is "the point...the reason to be" and the distinction that we don't "die...when we can't sing." If art is the reason to be, rather than "not to be," what do you mean about dying? What part of the ride can't you come along for? Are you talking purely physical realities?

And, for the record, I do believe wholeheartedly, that without the ability and capacity for self-expression, in one form or another, a person will wither and die. Or, at the very least, be reduced to an animal state, all instinct and fear, lacking what makes us human. Which would be a form of death.

I think you're drawing a distinction without a difference.

Christopher Ashworth said...

Yes, I'm talking about the physical act of dying. I mean it isn't okay to equate "needs an organ donor" with "needs an artistic outlet". I can believe that art is an apex of human existence without making this patronizing conflation.

99 said...

And see, from where I sit, conflating "needs art" with "needs an organ donor" is kind of patronizing. There are lots of things that fall distinctly short of physically life-extending that we consider worth federal subsidy or support, or part of what makes living worth living and they're not consider less than necessary. Roads, public transportation, and other infrastructure comes to mind. I mean, if physical-life-extending is the baseline, what besides food and shelter make the grade? Technically, education, beside basic rudimentary things, is "unnecessary" in that formulation. And certainly it can be done on an individual family level. No need for a school system, or certainly a secondary education system. I think you can't reduce it to that. If you're going to value education of any kind, then art has value.

Christopher Ashworth said...

> And see, from where I sit, conflating "needs art"
> with "needs an organ donor" is kind of patronizing.

Er, right. Which is why I have a problem with it.

In other words, if the defense of art as "necessary" is "when our singing is cut off, we die", then that's the equivalence you're setting up. That kind of poetic overreach is the kind of thing I'm objecting to, and I think it's the kind of thing that makes conservatives hate liberals.

As you rightly point out, there are other kinds of necessary that are worth considering when crafting government policy. But they all boil down to utilitarian arguments, and the point is that art makes a very weak utilitarian case for itself. Which gives it a weak hand when playing at the public policy table.

And I'm saying that it's beauty and power come in large part from the fact that it's not utilitarian, so it's damn well worth doing, but not by the government. Or at least, not until someone makes a stronger utilitarian case for it. The strongest case I've heard so far, which I am curious about, is the idea that the crucial creative professionals of a thriving modern economy won't come to live and create in neighborhood X without the artists there too. That's intriguing to me. But overall, the utilitarian arguments don't carry a lot of umpph.

Blah. I feel like I'm the bothersome dude that comes over to argue with you. I enjoy reading your blog, even though I only seem to pipe up when I have a bone to pick. Makes me feel kinda gross.

Christopher Ashworth said...

To argue against my own position, here’s a starting point for making the case for the necessity of the arts:


(Apparently Createquity is my new favoritist blog evar.)

I’d heard of Richard Florida’s ideas through a friend, but they are basically new to me. Totally fascinating stuff, and I’m really interested to dig deeper. It’s certainly the most promising premise I’ve heard for why the arts could be necessary in a way worthy of governmental support.

Tony Adams said...

"we too often argue that artists are essential, not art."

I think that's where the problem lies. Art is a necessary thing for humanity. It has been for tens of thousands of years. There is not a single major event in the growth of civilization that I know of that was not either lead or accompanied by works of art.

Hell, if you go back as far back as the Venus de Willendorf it was so important that it must have been one of the few things they carried with them that didn't directly lead to survival.

Most funding arguments aren't really about art or access to art. It's about getting some cash for artists and lots of it for large institutions. And that's why they fall flat.

Most artists and arts orgs do a crap job of showing why they're necessary.

DPS said...

My comment was getting too long, so I posted it instead.

Good stuff, all.