By Isaac Butler
Metaphorically, that is. Eating your vegetables in the literal sense is probably something you should be doing more of.
But as artists-- and perhaps this is particularly American-- we sometimes get stuck in the equivalent conversation about art. Eat Your Art Because It Is Packed With Vitamins and Minerals!
Laura Miller, in discussing William Deresiewicz A Jane Austen Education brings up the obvious question: if Art is supposedly so good at making us better people and expanding our empathy... why are so many people who are really into art such jerks? This leads her to declare:
So while I thoroughly enjoyed "A Jane Austen Education," I didn't entirely buy it. Its narrative seemed constrained by the very American (and fairly puritanical) notion that culture proves its worth by demonstrating that it leads to self-improvement. This approach, at its worst, can make literature seem like some dull but nutritious foodstuff that must be dutifully chewed and swallowed, however little pleasure it may give. That's not why I read Jane Austen -- it's not even why I read "A Jane Austen Education" -- and I suspect it's not why Deresiewicz reads her, either.
You could substitute Shakespeare in there for Jane Austen and theatre for reading, and this paragraph would still stack fairly well, methinks. And this all ties in to Louis Menand's recent essay in the New Yorker where he contemplates what, exactly, a college education (and specifically one in the humanities) is supposed to be for, anyway.
Both pieces are centered around a question that I don't think we have a good consensus answer on yet anyway: Why study XXXX piece of art? For Menand and Miller, it's reading, specifically. Why are we reading this book in this class? or Why should you read Jane Austen? or What is college actually for?
Unspoken within these pieces is a different question, it seems to me. And this is a question people who want theatre to be more popular, to reach more and different audiences, to appeal to other demographics have to grapple with: Once you take love out of the equation... what are you left with?
Most people I know who teach don't necessarily love teaching, but they do love learning. Not (again) necessarily in an institutional setting. But they still love it. They love reading on whatever subject they teach, discussing it with people, maybe writing (ahem blogging) about it. They love doing informally the things we formalize in the classroom. This may in fact make them (or to be honest, us) not particularly well suited to helping a student who doesn't enjoy any of those things. Because they (we) don't really understand it. Instead, the most often taken tactic is to try to inspire in our students through a kind of performative enthusiasm the same love we have.
When this fails, though, we are left staring at the gaping abyss of why? Not why do we love it, but why, if you don't love it, or if you don't even like it particularly, what value does reading and discussing books critically have? There are all kinds of answers for this question, there's a lot of literature surrounding it. I think most readers of this blog think that the idea of being able to engage with "texts" defined broadly and think critically about how they work, where their meaning comes from is a fairly valuable skill set, but if you want to talk about it more, that's what the comments are for. Or as Menand puts it, that:
"In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing"
So with theatre we have a similar issue, but now we take away the fact that people are required to come. And so we stare again at the abyss of why. The answer to that why should be the mission statements of our companies. The Keen Company thinks you should come to their plays because they are a refuge for sincerity in an irony suffused world. The Civilians think you should see their shows because they are works of investigation into vital questions our nation faces. Instead of these kinds of answers, most institutions have a bunch of identical boilerplate meant to allow the artistic staff to pick whatever the hell they want.