Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Not-So-Invisible Hand...of the Government

Starting here, a few folks have been looking at this article about a conference call co-hosted by the NEA and United We Serve, a nationwide service initiative sponsored by the Obama Administration. As you can see, a lot of folks (and some others, too) have chimed in, so I'm a bit late to the party, but I had a couple of cents I wanted to chuck into the pile.

First off, I mainly agree with Isaac (little surprise there). When reading these kinds of things, you have to consider the source and Big Hollywood is what we would call in the literary trade an unreliable narrator. They have an agenda and push it pretty vigorously and these charges are pretty well in-line with this kind of thing.

Like most commenters on this, I agree that if the government was muscling artists who didn't agree with them into producing works of propaganda, that's bad. Yesirree, Bob. Whether done by a Republican or Democrat, it's something we should be absolutely leery of and on guard for. I make no bones about being a huge, old leftie, raised on communist sympathies and socialist leaning thought, and still, it gives me pause. Reading that a second person felt creeped out by it definitely makes it something to keep track of.

I definitely think it shows the Administration giving in to a fairly commonplace assumption: artists are left-leaning. It sounds, from the descriptions, like the folks on the call assumed that they were talking to fellow travelers who wanted to help the Administration achieve its goals. A fairly natural assumption, since it does seem like they intended to reach out to artists who had been involved in the campaign. It's a pretty short leap to think that if you helped elect a president, you agree with his goals. But, apparently, some on the call didn't. Better management there, better messaging, Obama folks.

One other point on the politics of it: as Leonard Jacobs notes, the right is generally fairly hostile to the NEA in general. The ultimate end of this kind of attack is to de-legitimize the NEA, question its management and existence. I'm all for watchdogging, but again, remember the source. There are policy goals here, cloaked in high-minded concern. (There's a term for that.)

But what I find interesting about it, from more purely an arts standpoint, is the high dudgeon outrage of it. The most telling line from Courrielche's original piece, for me, is this:
It sounded, how should I phrase it…unusual, that the NEA would invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under vehement national debate. I decided to call in, and what I heard concerned me.
Emphasis mine. And then this:
So I’d like to start a little debate and ask you, the reader, the same question. Do you think it is the place of the NEA to encourage the art community to address issues currently under legislative consideration?
In a word, yes. To be completely honest, it should absolutely be the place of the NEA to encourage artists to engage in the political dialogue, as artists. One of the things that I hurts artists is our reticence to get involved in politics or policy, as artists, through our art, generally for fear of offending some portion of the paying public. But then we often turn around and complain about how theatre is no longer a part of the conversation.

Let's say the doomsayers are right about the NEA, and, in an Orwellian maneuver, the Obama Administration offers up grants to any artist willing to take on a project about health care reform. Would that make it, automatically, an unworthy subject to be written about? Even, absolute worst comes to worst, in order to qualify for the grant, you HAVE to write or create something supporting the Administration's point-of-view. Again, this is a major issue facing the country, something people are engaged in, sometimes to the point of actual violence. This isn't something you want to weigh in on? Write about? Maybe you don't. So you don't apply for that grant. You forgo your NEA funding...just like I've done my whole career.

But let's take a less than worst case scenario: the NEA is simply giving grants for politically involved, or socially involved work. It doesn't matter the point of view, or the end-product. You can write a play about what an evil, Kenyan-born, communist the President is and get a grant. Again, why wouldn't an artist want to?

There's a foundation with very deep pockets that's probably familiar to most of you reading this blog. They give away a lot of money to a number of theatres and theatre organizations around the country to create plays about science. I was involved with one such theatre for a time. When it came to get submissions, though, we always ran into trouble, because, ultimately, the number of playwrights interested in science is actually smaller than you might think, no matter how small you think it is. I always thought it was a shame. A lot of playwrights seemed to fear that the foundation, with its deep pockets, would disfavor things that put science in a bad light. Which wasn't exactly true. They wanted honest, real and intriguing portrayals of science, and real engagement in the issues of that world. That seemed, well, frankly beyond most playwrights. Getting out of our world, in our art, seems incredibly hard and it seems like it's getting harder. (I'm brewing another post on this, soon to come.)

I admire in a way, the sentiments expressed by Isaac and Jason Grote here, but I think there's a missed opportunity, too. One of the things that the dastardly NEA folks highlighted in their call was the power of art to affect the community around it and the world at large. It's something that we, as artists, love to tout, but not to really engage with. I guess I'm saying, writing a play about healthcare issues, or green issues can be an effective thing and we shouldn't have to choose to either make real world changes or play make-believe in a play.

One of the ways that long-form improv and sketch comedy is lapping more traditional forms of theatre is in the speed of the reaction time. This is the most recent show from the Second Stage in Chicago. This is one of the plays highlighted in the Fringe Encore series. Which seems like it's going to be more relevant to what's going on outside the theatre? If we're going to insist on "art for arts' sake," then we're going to concede large swaths of the public discourse to other mediums and forms.

Yeah, it probably shouldn't come in the form of a conference call with a government official, but the call for engagement should be heard, anyway.

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