Friday, May 07, 2004

So on to culture for a change

So last night several playwright bloggers (George Hunka, Mac Rogers, Dan Trujillo and Laura Axelrod, all of whom you can find links to on the side bar) came to see the show as group and we all went out for a wee drinkee afterwards. Let me just say that this lot of playwrights are as intelligent and witty in person as they are in the blogosphere. It reminded me of my days running a BBS in the heady, pre-internet days of Washington D.C. modem culture. Once a year, each BBS would get a mini convention together of regular users. Usually these happened at someone’s house. You’d go have a swim, drink some soda, talk about the on line world, and you’d always meet someone you thought was cool but who turned out to be a gigantic creepwad.

Luckily, there were no creepwads in attendance last night, although there was one woman in the audience who sees 350 shows a year and has a reputation amongst NYC’s theaters of being absolutely crazy-go-nuts. She, however, doesn’t run a playwright blog so I didn’t have to go speak with her afterwards.

Anyway, they all seemed to really enjoy the show, and it meant a lot to me to have them there. Mac Rogers mentioned that other than the lifting up the curtain entries, Parabasis remains basically a political blog. Part of this is because I’ve been so deep into the show that I haven’t really experienced much culturally. I make a few stabs—politics and theater, a night at the Kitchen etc., but mainly I’m talking about politics these days.

Well, that’ll change, people! We’ll have more culture blogging over the next few days, starting right now.

(Okay, this one’s kind of about politics but you know one step at a time, people)

Via Arts Journal I read this story about the denying of arts funding for political art in Melbourne. Although the article is about visual art, somehow the story ended up in the theater section (probably because of its resemblance to the NEA 4).

I wholeheartedly support massive state funding for the arts. As I wrote in the early days of Parabasis, the arts have never existed without some form of subsidy, often a combination of private patronage and government sponsorship. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but many believers in democratic capitalism believe that it is. If art can’t find a way to support itself, they say, than art should get out of the art business. This belies a fundamental misunderstanding of both commerce and history. All industries are supported in some way or another by the government, whether this takes the form in tax payer funded subsidies, tax breaks, “profit guaranteed” contracts with the government, loosening of regulations etc. This is as true in countries that massively support the arts (like in Denmark, where corporations are barely taxed) as it is in countries that don’t (like the United States with its massive corporate welfare program).

Furthermore, the arts are the way that we communicate, not only with each other, but throughout the ages. The Greeks are still responsible for a large part of our understanding of civic life, and that understanding is as encapsulated in the difficult questions of The Orestia as it is in Plato’s Republic, itself as much a work of literature as polemic. William Shakespeare helps us understand what it is to be human in all of its messy beauty, and no person in history has given us a better phraseology with which to attack this complex world. Freud’s understanding of human consciousness was informed by the drama of his day, particularly Arthur Schnitzler. And this isn’t even beginning to tap into the visual arts, music or dance.

All of this is a way of saying that the arts are necessary to humanity. I really, truly believe that. Art will always exist, regardless of whether or not there is money in it, but when artists can make a living doing their art, output and quality often increase (just look at good ole Willy Shakes if you don’t believe me). Making a living doing art is almost impossible without outside aid, and that aid has to come in a combination of private patrons and government sponsorships. The latter often leads to the former, and that is why it is important that governments support art.

This necessary support creates a tricky relationship, however. Artists in this post-enlightenment age are pretty sure they have the right to do whatever the hell they want; at the same time the government (any government) is interested in artists churning out art that supports their worldview. This will always create tension. Macbeth was banned from the English stage by James I, and wasn’t performed again for quite some time. The HUAC meetings destroyed the WPA and the Federal Theater Project. These events will continue to happen throughout history, and negotiating this relationship is part and parcel of the difficult job of being an artist. Sometimes, necessity will demand a cloaking of your art’s subversive qualities, as in Shakespeare’s 12th Night where a basic mistaken-identity-sex-farce hides a dark struggle between Puritanism and Paganism for the souls of the English. It is an unfortunate part of reality that as long as government is paying the bills, the chances of your being able to do whatever you want will narrow dramatically. I’m not saying this is the way it should be, I’m simply saying this is the way it is.

The government in these cases almost always tries to claim that what it is banning isn’t art. In this case (as in many), the Melbourne City Council claims that the art is agit-prop, and the very fact that it is overtly political should disqualify it from public funding. The counter argument is pretty simply and goes something like this (from the article itself):
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"The artistic director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Chris McAuliffe, said: "If local government gets involved in supporting culture, then it's got to be prepared to support culture in all its forms. "If it's getting involved in culture in order to support only certain kinds of expression or only certain kinds of ideology, it might as well admit that it's supporting its own form of social engineering or propaganda."
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Which brings us back to our old adage: art is political, if the politics are invisible, it supports the status quo. This is the thesis that McAuliffe is inherently embracing. The City Council doesn’t want non-political art; they want political art that agrees with them. You can probably guess who I agree with.

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