By Isaac Butler
By Isaac Butler
As if the collaborationist Vichy government weren't a big enough stain on France's history, now they've gone and given Roman Polanski's "The Ghostwriter" the equivalent of four Oscars, a movie where the kindest thing you can say about it is that it is slightly better than The Ninth Gate.
By Isaac Butler
Tom Loughlin thinks the sky is falling. He also apparently thinks that the protests in Wisconsin have already failed, even though polls show that a majority of Americans oppose Scott Walker's attempt to Union Bust Wisconsin now and several Republican governors are trying to shelve their attempts at union busting in light of the protests, including most prominently Mitch Daniels in Indiana.
But that's not what gets me about Tom's post. It's his contention that unlike India (?) we have no culture in America because everything's too corporate and because our theatre has lost touch with "the average people of this country" (unlike Shakespeare and Moliere).
There's a lot that... weird about this. First off, Shakepseare's company was the Early Modern equivalent of a for profit corporation, so it's odd that his work is part of the antidote to the corporate mindset. Also, Moliere was the kind of man of the people who was godfather to two of the children of the reigning French monarch. which is how it happened that major rules of the day were bent for him, allowing his corpse to be buried in consecrated ground despite his earlier excommunication. Also, I'm unclear as to what an "average person" is or what's meant by that.
But, whatever... posts that heavily quote Network aren't generally going to have a lot of nuance (although I love that movie!). The real problem is the contention that America has "no culture to speak of in this country, and we have never bothered to create one."
This idea strikes me as, well, deeply wrong. We may not have created one culture in America, but that doesn't bother me very much. After all, they don't have one culture in India either. It's not all Saag Paneer and Bollywood, ya know? What we have is a vibrant variety of different cultures sharing space and influencing each other along with a mass media cultural output sector that is... you know... the dominant creator and distributor of culture in the world.
To give just a couple of examples... I know that Tom cares greatly about local cultures creating work for the people in those areas, and it's an idea I support. Now that I've moved to Minneapolis, one thing that I have noticed here is that there's an entire poetic and literary tradition dedicated to the concerns of the midwest, to working class people and farmers and every day life.Very little of this manifests itself in theatre, but it does manifest itself all over the place in literature (which, last time I checked, is part of culture) some put out by nonprofit publishing houses (as many of the major non-profit publishers are based in the midwest) some by for profit publishing houses. The midwest literary culture is one of many micro cultures that contributes overall to this big umbrella we call American Culture.
Similarly, urban African American culture has been one of the dominant cultural forces in the world for the better part of a century. This is rather remarkable when you consider how few people in the world are actually African Americans living in american cities. Ditto ze Jews, who amongst other things basically gave us 20th Century American Theater, helping to invent the musical, writing many of the major plays of the last century, and bringing method acting to the states.
It troubles me that theatre isn't more a part of our mass culture. And it troubles me that so much of the culture is mediated by large corporations. In that, Tom and I have similar worries. But the idea that we've already lost, that the world is over, that we make nothing good or meaningful as a culture anymore (and furthermore, maybe we never did) is just hooey. That we also don't have an agreed upon monoculture in this country is to me our great strength.
Lastly, I'll just point out that the film Network (one of my favorites) which Tom quotes regularly throughout the post and serves as a kind of rallying cry for his apocalyptic pessimism was distributed by MGM in partnership with its parent company United Artists, which was itself owned by the Transamerica Corporation, an insurance holding company.
by 99 Seats
Sorry to be radio silent of late. I've been juggling a couple of different projects, all at the same time, like this one coming up on Tuesday and this one that kicks off on March 7th (you can read more about that here). Plus the usual scrapping and fighting, jivin' and survivin' that comes with the territory. By next week, I should be back to more regular posting of nonsense for y'all. In the meantime, though, here are some quick hits:
- I think most folks have read Josh Conkel's great piece, but this follow-up and this back-and-forth with Tommy Smith and Young Jean Lee is really worth reading, too. It's a great view on the whole situation (via).
- I didn't weigh in on the whole Intiman thing because, like Isaac, I don't live in Seattle and don't really have a dog in the fight. Others, of course, do. I do want to say this, as briefly as I can: I think there's an interesting corollary going in the theatre to the financial crisis and the banks, where the big institutions seem to consider themselves Too Big To Fail, and the relationship to the community at large is pretty much the same. In good times, the theatre's investment is in itself, really, growing staff and building buildings, while keeping the artists and tickets at the same level (or even increasing ticket prices and finding new ways not to pay artists), but in bad times, those same artists and that same community is expected to shovel money at that institution...so it can go right back to doing what it was doing before. As they say, we privatize successes and socialize losses. How's that working out for everyone else?
- A somewhat related point and I honestly don't mean to be a jerk about this, but I think it's worth saying, out loud: as we're all still grappling with the aftershocks of Rocco's Big Speech, there's something I noticed that sticks in my craw a little bit. Back in the big battle over dynamic pricing and ticket pricing in general, a whole lot of people were very happy to use economic reasoning and terms to justify theatres charging a lot for tickets and to say that, if there was a market for it, there was no harm in charging exorbitant amounts of money and to even go so far as to say that ticket prices were the best method for raising money. "Theatres should operate as businesses," was the mantra and all of us on the other side were wild-eyed, woolly-headed whacked-out artists who didn't know the first thing about economics. A lot of that same set of people (and in some cases, the exact same people) were the first to say that using economic terms to discuss closing theatres or cutting administrative staff was wrong and that theatres aren't businesses and shouldn't be held to the same standards. So...well, classify that under things that make you go hmm.
- Oh, and I'm not watching the Oscars on Sunday. Could care less. You?
Okay, back to the grindstone. Keep on keepin' on.
By Isaac Butler
One of the grounds on which I was most disappointed in the first two years of Obama's Presidency was gay rights. I was not alone in this, of course... remember shutting off the GAY-TEE-EMm to the Democratic party?
So it's just fairness to note how impressive Obama's been on gay issues since the shellacking of November. Not only are we seeing the end of DADT, but today, Obama announced that federal lawyers would no longer defend DOMA in court and would instead side with plantifs against the bill. This is a great move, and although it begs the question of "why'd it take you so long?" given that the President has publicly said he's uncomfortable with gays being able to marry and prefers civil unions... this is a pretty damn big move.
By Isaac Butler
Createquity's awesome Ian David Moss has generously posted his entire article for 20UNDER40 over at his site. Co-written with Daniel Reid, it's a vital look at several issues near and dear to Parabasis writers and readers hearts. In it, they examine what some of the implications and drawback are to the enormous number of art and artists produced by this country and what this means (or should mean) for the funding community. It's called "Audiences at the Gate" and I'd say it's your non-Wisconsin, non-Middle Easy/North Africa reading of the day. Here's the abstract:
Spurred on by major technological advances, the number of aspiring professional artists in the United States has reached unprecedented levels and will only continue to grow. The arts’ current system of philanthropic support is woefully underequipped to evaluate this explosion of content and nurture its most promising elements—but we believe that the solution to the crisis is sitting right in front of us. Philanthropic institutions, in their efforts to provide stewardship to a thriving arts community, have largely overlooked perhaps the single most valuable resource at their disposal: audience members.
We contend that by harnessing the talents of the arts’ most knowledgeable, committed, and ethical citizens and distributing funds according to the principles of what we have termed guided crowdsourcing, grantmaking institutions can increase public investment in and engagement with the arts, increase the diversity and vibrancy of art accessible to consumers, and ensure a more meritocratic distribution of resources. We envision an online platform by which a foundation may crowdsource philanthropic decisions across a wide-ranging network of aficionados, aspiring critics, artists, and curious minds, bolstering its capacity to give fair consideration to the full range of artistic talent available and ensure that the most promising voices are heard.
Point your browsers here to RTW (awesome) T!
By Isaac Butler
On Wednesday, I'm teaching Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Researching the play (and August Wilson) has been quite a trip. One thing that I noticed about the scholarship surrounding the play is how little attention is, in general, focused on Rutherford Selig, the white "People Finder" who has commercial doings with Seth, Bynum and Herald Loomis in the play.
I have limited time tomorrow (roughly an hour) and a lot of ground to cover, and I think it'd be kind of ridiculous to focus much time on Selig in my one chance to talk about the play. Not only would it be kind of bizarre to have a white person teaching Wilson and focus heavily on the play's sole white character, but also I've honestly got enough on my hands covering the "Four Bs," discussing the Great Migration and talking about Herald Loomis' journey into becoming The Shiny Man.
So I thought I'd throw this conundrum out on the blog. It seems to me that Selig is a major problem/question/issue that any director of Joe Turner's has to solve. Selig's relationship with the rest of the character's in the play is entirely cordial, friendly, even. Particularly with Seth and Bertha (who amongst other things, give Selig food and welcome him into their home) there's no indication of any tension whatsoever to be found in the dialogue. In fact Bynum, the Wilsonian Old Mystic Character for Joe Turner's, quite likes Selig and has nothing but warm faith in his abilities.
And yet... Selig repeatedly refers to the African Americans surrounding him as "nigras" to their faces and in one speech relates that his expertise in finding people came from his father being a fugitive slave hunter and his grandfather being a slave trader working the middle passage. The reaction to this monologue is... at least on stage... nothing. Loomis simply responds "Find her. Martha Loomis, Find her for me." It's an odd moment, particularly considering that Selig delivers this speech as a way of explaining his job qualifications.
In the Bart Sher production, this monologue was delivered by Arliss Howard as a moment of brokenness, the character as haunted by his family's past involvement with the slave trade as Loomis is by his. It's an interesting take, one that worked fairly well, and one that has basically zero textual support. But this is because the text gives you no real anchor for what is going on with Selig and the characters around him.
One academic essay I read that focused briefly on Selig had all sorts of extratextual interpretation into the relationships in the play--that Selig doesn't cheat Seth because Seth is an important customer, that Bertha feeds Selig because she's afraid of him etc-- all of which are certainly historically accurate but, again, have no support in the text. Unlike in Ma Rainey's where the various black characters discuss the white characters at length when they're not around, Selig is never talked about in any terms other than whether or not he's good at being a people finder.
What are we to make of this character and his relationships with the other characters in the play? Does his work as a people smuggler in Gem of the Ocean (written almost twenty years later) complicate any of this? If you were directing or acting in the play, how would you solve the problem of Selig?
By Isaac Butler
Because race (and racism) are both historically influenced and culturally constructed, there's a pretty good chance that an American satire about the limits of white liberal tolerance isn't actually going to have all that much to say to British audiences. In fact, there's a pretty good chance that the main pleasures it affords are going to voyeuristic in nature ("now we get to see Yanks fail at this stuff.") I don't know what, exactly, a British production with a British cast of an American play set in a very American neighborhood that is itself an important geographical location in one of the more important American plays of the 20th century is going to say about America or Britain or race. I sincerely doubt that Andrew Haydon is properly equipped as a viewer to view this production and declare that American dramatic attempts to confront and think through racism aren't as sophisticated as some heavy handed German reggietheater featuring a white woman in a Gorilla suit as Othello.
For example, Haydon wonders why such (in his opinion) rigorous interrogative gestures aren't done on American and British stages and thinks it is because we don't really want to confront these issues. But I actually think in this case it is more that if you did a production of Othello in America with a white woman playing the lead character in a gorilla suit, there is no way that that would be interpreted by audiences here as anything other than monstrous, offensive and racist.
This has nothing to do with artistic intent and everything to do with history. Those images have a particular history here, and they're not to be deployed lightly in a nation with our legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and minstrelsy. The only equivalent I could think of for Germany is if they did a production of Merchant with a shiksa playing Shylock and literally grinding up the bones of a goyishe kid to make matsoh or something.
That's not to say that American dramatic stages do a great job of confronting the issue of race. I think the record on this one is mixed-to-negative, owing in large part to the lack of diversity in programming and in the gatekeepers that determine what that programming will be. However, I don't think Haydon is really in a position to say anything about American theater based on a British production of an American play that has had to pass through a whole different set of gatekeepers (British this time) to be produced in London.
By Isaac Butler
One of the surprising (and pleasant) things that's happened in between writing Part II and now is that both Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias have responded to this series. They both raise really interesting points that I'm going to try to address here. I'm concerned about this conversation going off in like ten thousand directions now, but we'll see.
Before we begin, though, I just want to say that in reading through Kevin and Matt's comments, I see that there is a widespread misunderstanding about how the NEA works (and what it has achieved). You see a lot of "name one great work of art between 1965 and 2000 that the NEA is responsible for," when historically very little of the NEA's money has gone to fund individual artists or projects (and now they are forbidden to do so by law) and you see a lot of mention of "government bureaucrats," &c. So, although this post is already topping out at over 2K words long, let me just stat real quick with...
HOW THE NEA WORKS
(1) NEA grants are administered through partnerships with other organizations, many of whom are state arts agencies. In his post, Matt asks why we need federal arts subsidies. One of the reasons is so that we can have local, city and state arts councils to begin with. 40% of the NEA's money goes into that pot. I'm sure there could be more efficient ways to do this, but it's worth saying that it's not that we face an either/or choice when it comes to federalism and arts funding.
(2) NEA grants are largely given out in the form of matching funds and challenge grants. This is important for two reasons. First off, it means that the organization that receives the grant has to have community support (or is attractive to the market, if you want to think about it that way). Second, it also means that you get a lot of arts funding bang for your NEA buck because it multiplies on itself and snowballs.
(3) The grants given out by the NEA are not decided upon by a bunch of General Schedule 10 functionaries better suited to an Eastern European satire of Soviet bureaucracy. Rather, grants go through two stages where they are evaluated by people in the arts (not government employees) for merit and one final stage where they are decided upon by the NEA Chair, who is a government employee, but tends to either be an artist or come from a life of experience in the arts. In particular, round II involves the National Council On The Arts. You can read all about them here. The only government employees on the council are the non-voting members of Congress.
It's easy to get spooked out by the specter of the government determining what art you should like. This view is an inaccurate picture of the NEA. The NEA is our way as a society of pooling resources (in the form of taxes) in order to support the arts (for reasons I'll get into below) and entrusting that money with a group of experts with decades of experience in the field.
GOVERNMENT ARTS SUBSIDY WORKS
It's also worth saying that the NEA/nonprofit system of subsidies has been wildly successful over the past few decades, while in terms of per capita spending having far less money than its counterparts in other countries. It helped build and sustain both the regional theater movement and the orchestra movement in the United State. It gave the seed money to start the American Film Institute, the Vietnam Memorial design competition, the Sundance Institute and the Spoleto Festival.
If you want to be truly impressed by what the NEA has done, go ahead and load up this PDF and jump to page 171. There you'll find a series of essays, one about every major American art form the NEA has impacted.
One of the NEA's key functions historically has been creating and giving seed money for these kinds of projects. Many of them have gone on to be quite successful, some of them haven't, some of them aren't in business anymore. Having the government be that first major funding risk-taker is important for getting these projects off the ground. I personally worry a little less about current projects running aground without the NEA than I do about tomorrow's project that never reaches its audience because there isn't that first bold yes.
In the interest of complete honesty, yes there are areas where capacity building has been too successful. I am not sure we need 1800 symphony orchestras in this country, and there are many areas where the supply of a particular form of art outstrips the need for that art. But this is not an argument against government arts subsidies (in either the NEA or tax break form). Rather, this is an argument for taking honest stock of where we are and figuring out what areas (both in terms of geography and genre) could use more focus on demand and what could use more capacity. Luckily, it appears that the Chairman of the NEA wants to do exactly that.
ARTS JOBS ARE JOBS, ARTS MONEY IS MONEY
Taking those aforementioned 1800 orchestras for a moment, in their 2003-2004 season, they provided work for 76,000 musicians. As one op-ed writer put it, arts jobs are jobs. Government arts subsidies helps create jobs for people, just as arts events (largely, but not entirely put on by nonprofits) bring all sorts of money into communities ($103 billion annually!) when people go to participate in the arts.
For example, in San Francisco (a city I happen to have the numbers on), the non-profit Arts and Culture sector accounts for $1.03 Billion in expenditures. Around $460 million of that is generated by arts organizations themselves, while $570 million of it comes from audiences.
The non-profit arts/culture industry in San Francisco employs 27,837 full time employees, generating a total household income of $548 million. (UPDATE: This figure above needs to be clarified, if you see comment below from Marissa. This sentence should read: "the San Francisco arts community contributes to the creation and support of the equivalent of 27,837 full-time jobs, generating $548 million in household income and delivering $93.1 million in local and state government revenue." which comes from an article on this issue in the San Francisco Examiner.)
Nationally, arts patrons spend about $27.79 per person per arts event they attend, not including transportation, lodging and the price of the event itself. Non-local attendees spend twice as much as local ones ($40.19 to $19.53). Arts Orgs around the nation generate $166 billion dollars in spending, $103 billion of which is from the audiences not the arts orgs. (Much of this information is available at the Americans for the Arts website, if anyone is interested in digging deeper).
Even if you disagree with everything I'm about to say, I think it's worth pausing here and thinking about these numbers. We're talking about government money being spent fairly efficiently in partnership with private money to create large numbers of jobs and lots of economic activity. Even if you don't really care about the kinds of projects it funds or why, we should care about the money it generates and the jobs it creates.
ART, ENTERTAINMENT AND THE COMMUNITY
Now, I want to discuss Kevin's post in response to mine for a moment, because it demonstrates a clear difference in the way he and I view the arts. Kevin espouses what's loosely labeled the "arts and entertainment" view of art:
Now, I, Kevin Drum, happen to like classical music but not jazz. I like film but don't really get much of a kick out of theater. I love novels but have never developed an appreciation of poetry. Etc. etc. If it turned out that my tastes were broadly shared, would that mean there's a market breakdown in jazz, theater, and poetry?... If serious modern composers produce music that the public has to be bribed to listen to (usually with a post-intermission performance of a popular old warhorse), does that mean there's a breakdown in the market for serious modern music? Or does it mean that serious modern composers ought to rethink the kind of music they write? How do you know?... I view the decline of live theater with equanimity because I think that modern film, video, and multimedia performances are better than live theater on virtually every level. Obviously Isaac disagrees, and that's fine. The question is, why should the federal government adjudicate our disagreement?
Basically, by this view, art and its various mediums and subgenres is a category of entertainment, just like any category of entertainment. By this point of view, most of us in the arts are essentially laboring in the creation of luxury goods and asking the federal government to help us by giving us enough money that we can price our luxury goods cheap enough to get people to buy them.
I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for this worldview. A lot of people I know agree with it. And I think we artists bear an enormous amount of responsibility for this worldview through our lack of community engagement and sense of entitlement, through our reducing of everything we do to marketing language and our using of the language and logic of the market to pervert our principles.
This is why 99 and I get so pissed at what we see as the betrayals of the foundational ideas of the non-profit system because ultimately, those betrayals are contributing to a world in which art is simply something made for and by upper middle class people who have conned the government into giving them a handout to do it. Guy is right that part of answering the concerns of natural allies like Kevin should involve reform on our part.
I don't think the federal government is adjudicating our disagreement, actually. In order to do that, it would need to keep Kevin from seeing movies while allowing me to see theatre. Instead, it's taking a broad view of what our culture needs in terms of the arts and providing it at very, very low cost to us ($164 million! less than the cost of Avatar!) while creating and sustaining jobs and bringing huge amounts of economic activity to communities all over the country.
This is because (if I may get ephemeral for a moment here) the arts aren't just about entertainment. A society's cultural output is the way it speaks with itself and the broader world, with history and to the future. Given the high barriers of access to and the very small number of stories tellable by more market driven art forms like film and television, having other channels where voices can participate in that conversation is vital. Investing as a society in something ephermal, non-rational, something that can't be easily commodified is important to our humanity.
Additionally, different art forms work in different ways, communicate through different means and have different effects. I love the movies. I love going to them and seeing them and being swept away by them. But they are a fundamentally different experience from going to see a live show in which social engagement and the use of one's imagination are paramount. And both of these could be more different from photography, and photography is something entirely different from painting, or jazz. More kinds of voices means a more complex conversation, a deeper song for us to sing.
Finally, arts have an impact on communities that goes beyond both economics and individual enjoyment. We have a vision in this country that "the arts" is a big gala at the Met where everyone's wearing scarves and they all look exactly the same. And while the Met is of course part of the arts, the arts are also The Bronx Academy Of Arts and Dance, a queer-friendly performance and visual arts space in the South Bronx. It's the Guthrie here in Minneapolis, yes, but it's also Pillsbury House, a community center run by the theater it encloses.
Ultimately, I don't think the arts are about the individual benefit of my being able to see theater and not pay an arm and a leg for it, or of there still being new jazz music composed. The entertainment/consumer view of art is certainly part of the picture, but the larger one, the more vital to our society and therefore more worth funding is the way arts help make communities unique, inspire civic pride, reach underserved populations and create community wide participation. Eliminating government funding for the arts makes all of this harder to achieve.
PS: Guy Yedwab has been blogging up a storm on this issue. Tons of good thoughts to be found there.
By Isaac Butler
Whoo boy am I swamped with work today. 99 may have some posts up, but I probably won't. WHich is too bad, because I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation about government funding for the arts, particularly now that Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias have both weighed in.
It also seems I owe Matt an apology. I misinterpreted his post and accidentally lumped him in with what he calls the "list of philistines." As the Times is fond of saying... We Regret The Error!
By Isaac Butler
So, in Part I I mentioned that for my next post I'd try to unpack some of Drum's assumptions about direct funding for the arts. I know this is a bit slow and a bt thoroughgoing, but I think in these types of conversations, we tend to talk past each other, so I want to better understand someone's POV before responding to it. Alright, here goes.
As for direct federal subsidies to the arts, I agree with Jon Chait that there really isn't much of a market breakdown here: the current market for art, broadcasting, and entertainment seems pretty robust to me without government help. The United States isn't the Florence of the Medicis, after all.
So what's going on here? What does Drum mean when he says "market breakdown"?
This gets back to what I was saying yesterday. There are certain things that we believe are a public good that the market does not do a very good job of supporting effectively. When that happens, we use the levers of government to subsidize them. So Drum's not saying that art isn't important which is the common argument that we end up arguing against. What he's saying is that the market is doing a good enough job of supporting the arts and therefore, government intervention is not needed. And furthermore, arts patronage is a distortion of what the government should do (hence the Medicis crack.)
I think it is within these arguments that the clearest counter-arguments are available. First off, Drum is simply wrong about the historical background of government arts support, which goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, who subsidized ticket prices for poor attendees of the City Dionysia. Our own public support for the arts goes back to the WPA not the NEA, and several other nations' arts patronage goes back further than that.
Now, there's a counter to the historical argument, which goes along with the Rocco kerfuffle of a few weeks ago, namely that the WPA and then the NEA (with some help from some private foundations like the folks at Ford) did a really good job of creating a burgeoning arts scene, massively increasing both supply and quality of the American arts all over the country and now that that mission is accomplished... maybe we don't need them anymore.
This leads us to Drum's point about a market breakdown. In order to support his point about a market breadown, he lumps together broadcasting, "art" (by which I believe he means studio/visual arts) and entertainment. These, he believes, are doing okay, and therefore don't need government support.
What he leaves out are things like Jazz, "Classical" Music, Theatre, Dance etc. In other words, it may in fact be true that some art forms are supported well by the market. But others are not theatre, the one I happen to know the best, is suffering an insane level of market breakdown. It is simply too expensive to make (most) theater to be able to price it accurately. Even now, thanks to lack of support, it is still overpriced in most major markets.
Furthermore, it's worth saying that (at least in theatre) we are still suffering the aftershocks of the government not making good on its promises in the 1960s. The regional theater system was seeded by the Ford foundation on the promise that it would be watered by aggressive NEA funding. The NEA was supposed to sustain it. It never did. We've been spinning plates ever since. There's a reason why theatre always seems to be in crisis. It was built and designed on certain assumptions that turned out not to be true.
Drum does not appear to be saying that he thinks the arts are only worthwhile if the market will support them. he's saying he thinks that market does support them. If we believe that art is important to society and meaningful and valuable regardless of its capacity to make money or work within a market framework, than at least those art forms that are not well supported by the market are deserving of government support. Furthermore--in terms of artistic quality-- it's important to have a counterweight to the market because it is not necessarily true that what people want to buy is the same as what is artistically valuable.
Also, it's harder to separate out these threads than one would like. The robust film and tv markets, for example, are partially buttressed by having playwrights work on writing staffs, many of whom came up through NEA supported theaters. And film and television work is highly subsidized on the local level through all kinds of tax breaks and incentives used by cities and states used to lure shoots to their areas. Just because you can't see the government support, doesn't mean it isn't there.
Up Next: A Final Post Suggesting What a Response To Drum Might Look Like
by 99 Seats
Needless to say, there was something of a disconnect.
I don't generally watch awards shows, and I most especially don't watch the Grammys. They have a long, long track record of awarding mediocre, Top 40 artists in blatant pursuit of record sales and ignoring great artists...until they sell out or are over the hill. I mean, A Taste of Honey over Elvis Costello AND The Cars? Milli Vanilli over The Indigo Girls? That was about the point that I checked out.
But this year, something got in the Grammy voter water: not only did Arcade Fire win, but Justin Bieber lost. To a jazz bassist and vocalist. What the hell? Are these awards suddenly relevant now? Do I have to pay attention? Jeez.
Of course, the backlash has been kind of amazing. I mean, people are standing up for a bajillionaire white kid with a dopey haircut and a hot girlfriend. Can we just stop and acknowledge that? Everybody's sweetheart lost. On national television. To a chick with a 'Fro.
In a way, though, for me (because it's all about me) the bigger shock is...no one knows who Arcade Fire is? Really? People I know haven't been shutting up about this band for years. They had songs in commericals and movie trailers. They headline festivals. At this point, honestly, I don't think there's a household in Brooklyn that doesn't have an Arcade Fire album in it. I don't think I ever thought of them as indie or underground. But then again, what's underground depends on where you're standing.
In theatre circles, we often advocate for change, for the new, for a shifting in priorities and get very, very frustrated when we don't get it. But here is a good example of one of the forces that keeps change at bay. The Grammy voters thought they were making a bold, exciting, different choice...and are getting a lot of flak for it from people who didn't see it coming and don't particularly like it. And did they win a lot of respect from the people who knew and liked Arcade Fire? Probably not. But only time will tell.
Changing what you do is hard and it comes at a cost and a risk. How you handle that...that's what makes your organization. Let's see what happens next year to the Grammys: more indies...or Justin Bieber all the time?
By Isaac Butler
So, having thought about this post yesterday about trying to convince center-left policy wonks that supporting the arts is worthwhile, I realized how tough a challenge it really is. Where do you even start? I mean, Kevin Drum isn't even raising the really ethically thorny stuff like "why shouldn't I give that money to stop AIDS in Africa" or whatever.
Here on Parabasis, over a couple of posts, I'm going to try to come up with an answer for the Drum/Yglesias/Chait axis of people who are ambivalent-to-negative about arts funding but also possibly persuadable.
It seems to me the best place to start are with the assumptions underlying Drum's argument. Drum is arguing that, in order to help balance the budget (etc) we should eliminate both federal subsidies for the arts and tax deductions for charitable contributions. I want to take both of these separately.
First let's do the big one... eliminating all tax breaks for charitable contributions. Drum writes "an awful lot of charitable contributions seem to me like "charity" only in the most technical sense, and I don't especially see why you should get a tax break for, say, contributing money to your own church or giving money to your alma mater for a new basketball arena to be named after you. Besides, I suspect that if this tax break were done away with, we'd reach a new equilibrium fairly quickly in which charitable donations weren't affected very much."
Here, Drum is claiming several things:
(1) Many things designated as charities aren't really charities.
(2) Eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions would not have much of an adverse affect on charitable giving.
The first one I agree with. But-- and I think this is important-- without an agreed upon working definition of what a charity is, there's no way to say whether arts organizations fit under the title or not. This is why Guy Yedwab lays down some ideas here about how to make arts orgs more like what he thinks of as charities. But not knowing Drum's definition, I can't really speak to this portion of his argument.
To me, arts organizations are called "charities" when most of them aren't. And I agree with Guy that more of them should be. But it seems to me that we call them charities simply because that's a big umbrella word in our tax code. What we really mean is that there are some things which we have decided as a society provide a civic good and arenot feasible if left exposed to the bitter winds of the market without any kind of protection (think about trains and public transportation here as a rather concrete and obvious example).
We provide the arts two kinds of protection: hidden subsidies in terms of the non-profit status and explicit subsidies in terms of the government funding. That is because for the last five decades or so, there's been a rough consensus that art is an important part of a healthy society and that it can't thrive (particularly aesthetically) without some help. There's plenty of historical precedence for this, but we'll get to that later.
The second assumption in Drum's argument is that funding for current charitable organizations would not be substantially altered. It would instead reach some kind of "new equilibrium." I'm not 100% sure what Drum means by this. It sounds to me like he means, essentially, the market would correctly decide which organizations are truly charitable and give them donations, with the other less deserving organizations (like, say, Harvard) falling off. I'm not sure. I'd need to ask him.
Because if it is in fact that case that Drum believes that doing away with the charitable contributions deduction would lead to less money going to "charities" like Harvard's basketball team and more money going to charities like your local food bank, I'd like to hear how that's going to happen. It strikes me as a fairly unsupportable conclusion that doing away with the charitable contributions deduction will lead to people donating their money in some kind of better way. But then again, I'm not sure what the new equilibrium is that Drum's predicting here, and I don't want to put words in his mouth.
As to the impact of doing away with the deduction... I know there are quite a few people from the arts advocacy and funding sector who read this blog, so I have to ask: are there studies out there that can tell us whether Drum is right? Has anyone reliable gamed out what the potential impact of doing away with charitable deductions would be? Because I think this is the kind of scenario where data is really going to drive the argument.
Third, it's worth saying that here, Drum is summing up all charitable donations as either donating to your church or donating to your alma mater to have a basketball team named after you. It's a fun little rhetorical flourish, but it's also wildly inaccurate. Charitable organizations do everything from feeding hungry families to providing medical care to people affected by war. I think Guy's point about perhaps refining and strengthening the requirements to be a charity stand.
Next post: Looking at the assumptions about direct funding to the arts.
by 99 Seats
Seriously. Nearly every word, concept, and sentence in this op-ed from Scott Turow, et al. is totally wrong, not just on the facts, but on the merits. Okay, he's right about some things: Shakespeare did operate out of a theatre called the Globe. And Shakespeare wrote plays.
But Shakespeare wrote plays based on other sources, other sources, that, if modern copyright standards were in place, he never would have been able to write. He cribbed, copied, altered, and, well, pretty much downright plagiarized nearly every single play he wrote. And then, when the plays were done, he had no further control or power over them. If some country theatre had a folio, they could put on the play. Or rewrite it more to their liking. Shakespeare had no protection for his intellectual property and clearly didn't care. Because he wrote 36 plays.
Turow, Aiken and Shapiro note that copyright protection has been around for a couple of centuries, and ignore the millenia before when it didn't exist and artists still created, inventors still invented, history still progressed and some people even still made money off of art and invention. They pointedly ignore the Restoration, after the Interregnum and well, everything that doesn't fit into their narrow view of artistic creation and artistic enterprise.
Changing copyright law isn't just about making it easier to pirate music or movies or, yes, even Scott Turow's latest courtroom thriller, but also about opening up artistic avenues that are closed to artists because corporate copyrights have been made permanent and corporate holdings are forever expanding. Artists are actually under greater constraints now than at any other time in history.
And I love that his reasoning is that, back in the day, because of the "paywall" for theatre, playwrights were able to make a living wage. Yep, that's proof that the system is working. How's that workign out now? And no other playwright ever made any money off their work? It's just nonsensical.
The whole thing is gobbledy-gook, smoke, mirrors and b.s. The Times should, once again, be ashamed of the things it publishes.
By Isaac Butler
As you may know, threats of Republicans destroying the NEA and the Corporation for Public have once again reared their ugly heads. I'm surprised that anyone's surprised by this. The Republicans are extremely conservative and have an extremely conservative base to pander to. John Boehner won't even publicly chastise the birthers. It's a pretty obvious move. They try this every few years. Our job when dealing with people like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor is not to try to convince them of the value of arts subsidy. That is never going to happen. Instead, we need to defeat them when they try to.
Because of this, the thing that worries me most is the lack of support for arts subsidies in Democratic policy circles. Recently, subsidizing the arts has come up on a few lefty wonk blogs, with the authors all pretty much weighing in on the side of getting rid of it, both in terms of the NEA and in terms of limiting tax deductions for contributing to the arts. This is far worse-- and far scarier-- than what someone like Michelle Bachman thinks about it.
So here's the challenge. Mother Jones blogger (and widely respected left-of-center policy wonk) Kevin Drum falls into the camp I'm talking about. He says he's "open to being persuaded" but at the same time:
For what it's worth, I'd actually be happy to get rid of both the tax deduction for charitable contributions and federal subsidies for the arts. On the former, an awful lot of charitable contributions seem to me like "charity" only in the most technical sense, and I don't especially see why you should get a tax break for, say, contributing money to your own church or giving money to your alma mater for a new basketball arena to be named after you. Besides, I suspect that if this tax break were done away with, we'd reach a new equilibrium fairly quickly in which charitable donations weren't affected very much.
As for direct federal subsidies to the arts, I agree with Jon Chait that there really isn't much of a market breakdown here: the current market for art, broadcasting, and entertainment seems pretty robust to me without government help. The United States isn't the Florence of the Medicis, after all. I'm going to annoy my sister for repeating this, but direct spending on the arts is mostly a subsidy to the upper middle class and CPB funding is mainly a way for the upper middle class to avoid the indignity of having to listen to ads. I'm not sure that's a group that really needs this special treatment. The money could be better spent elsewhere.
So tell me, dear reader, how would you convince him that supporting the arts is something he should care about without condescending to him or getting self-righteous about it? If you were having coffee with Kevin Drum and he said why should I support supporting the arts... what would you say?
UPDATE: Just to drive home why I think this conversation is more important than forwarding a e-mail petition that reads like it could've been written at any point since about 1982... President Obama is proposing cutting the NEA's budget next year. True, he's pretty much just scaling it back to the levels before he took office, but still. It's $21 million dollars. That's one third of a Spider-Man! (In all seriousness, that's around a 12% budget cut. Yikes!)
UPDATE II: Finally, someone takes a crack at answering the questions above. Point your browsers over to CultureFuture to read his take on this.
By Isaac Butler
As you may have heard, the Intiman in Seattle is in serious financial straits. The news first broke awhile ago on Paul Mullin's blog awhile ago (which you should read if you do not already). Back then, it seemed that the Intiman's finances were in chaos due to mismanagement by its outgoing managing directing. Now, we learn that (having conducted some kind of review) the Intiman is in very serious trouble.
Intiman apparently needs to raise a couple of million dollars in 2011 to remain "a viable company," and to remain open, they need $500K by the end of March and another $500K by the end of September. They blame everything on a managing director who was there for less than two years. Like Mike Daisey, I find that nearly impossible to believe.
On Facebook this morning, I've noticed a bit of debate brewing amongst Seattleites as to whether or not Intiman is actually worth saving,with the aforementioned Mullin claiming that they are not for various reasons I know he'll be articulating soon over at his blog.
Here at Parabasis, both 99Seats and i are of the opinion that a theater closing is not in and of itself a tragedy, that perhaps some of the larger nonprofits that have outlived their usefulness need to go if a given area's theater scene is really going to flourish. That being said, certainly there are theaters worth saving. I don't know enough about Seattle to weigh in on whether or not Intiman is one of them.
So let me ask, Parabasites! Should we be giving money to Intiman right now? Should we if we're not in Seattle? If you think Intiman shouldn't get your hard-earned bucks, what changes would they need to agree to to get you to donate? If you think they're worth saving, what do they provide that someone else couldn't do better?
By Isaac Butler
This one's from Balloon Juice frontpager Mistermix:
We used to have a simple social bargain in this country: government jobs were for people who would accept a slightly lower-than-market salary in return for job security and good (but not great) benefits. Since that bargain was struck, healthcare costs exploded, and corporations stopped providing pensions. What once looked like decent, middle-class benefits now look like “Cadillac” plans.
Any reasonable person looking at this state of affairs would conclude that the standing of the middle class has declined in the past few years. The functional, reasonable response would be to work to restore affordable middle class retirement and healthcare benefits. Instead, Republicans want to draw horns and a tail on government employees because they’re the last group who are getting what everyone in the middle class used to take for granted. It’s a simple case of scapegoating and indirection and, as usual, it’s working quite well.
This comes in the face of Wisconsin's governor promising to strip Government employees of all of their collective bargaining rights while threatening to use the National Guard to coerce them into agreeing. I wonder how many of those principled libertarians we keep hearing about will weigh in on this infringement of worker rights?