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.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.
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.
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.