The Playgoer: The Arts vs "Austerity"

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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Arts vs "Austerity"

English playwright David Edgar has a good, long essay in the Guardian on the UK's arts funding crisis and especially the crisis in how to argue for the arts in a time of official, imposed "austerity."  While his persepctive is exclusively Brit-based, analogies are not hard to find here.

He begins with some helpful history of shifting justifications for arts funding over time, reminding us how conservative elitists used to be the arts' best friends:

When it was founded in 1946, the Arts Council could justify its activities in its own terms: it was there to widen access to the arts throughout the country, as well as to maintain and develop national arts institutions in the capital. Behind the latter policy lay a theory of artistic value that you could call patrician: art's purpose as ennobling, its realm the nation, its organisational form the institution, its repertoire the established canon and works aspiring to join it. In this the council was seeking to reverse a rising tide of populism (art's role as entertainment, its realm the marketplace, its form the business, its audience mass), a goal summed up in the founding chairman John Maynard Keynes's ringing declaration: "Death to Hollywood."

Over the following 30 years, this view of the value of the arts came under attack, not from the market place but from artists who were artistically and often politically oppositional. In the theatre in the late 1950s, on the BBC in the early to mid 1960s, and pretty much everywhere from 1968, patrician arts institutions were challenged and in many cases transformed by those who believed the arts weren't there to elevate or divert, but to provoke.

What both the patrician and the provocative shared was a primary concern for the people making the art. During the 80s, in the arts as in so many other spheres of life, Margaret Thatcher sought to shift power from the producer to the consumer, using the market to disempower the provocative (from political theatre groups to the high avant garde) in favour of the populist. This was seen most clearly in the cluster of forms that defined the cultural 80s.[Playgoer note: think mega-musicals.] Popular in form and patrician in content, the heritage industry was cultural Thatcherism, promoting (as the then secretary of state for national heritage, Virginia Bottomley, put it in May 1996) "our country, our cultural heritage and our tourist trade".

In this context, the major justification for government arts funding became its contribution both to that trade and to trade in general, a case based on the mounting evidence of the economic value of the arts to the so-called leisure industries
I think that pretty neatly sums up the polar forces most artists and arts supporters are caught between: some ideal of "excellence" or "artistic integrity" versus the marketplace and popularity/populism.While we don't think of a "heritage industry" per se in America, it is in fact a major component of our tourist industry--especially in New York City.  Broadway (especially The Broadway Musical) is a big part of this city's cultural heritage.  Which is why, for instance, the city had no problem rushing to the economic aid of Broadway producers in the slow months following 9/11. And now Broadway's economic bondage to The Tourism Industry appears to be its main raison d'etre.

But that kind of populism is very different from --and now fiercely competes with--a different kind of populism, a theatre "for the people"--expanding/diversifying the audience, theatre for action, community outreach, etc. This too attracts funding.

The real crisis is in the realm of...well, for lack of a better term, art for art's sake. At least in the theatre. Museums are doing well, true. But the thought that we should encourage and promote live theatre because it just might be an intense, spiritually uplifting experience is a hard sell these days. Especially if we ever dare link that kind of experience to social change, as Edgar incisively observes:
One frequent argument for funding the arts is their role in promoting continuity with the past, community cohesion and a sense of national pride. In fact, of course, British theatre in particular has been subverting such notions ever since the emergence of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Joan Littlewood nearly 60 years ago. It is this provocative mission that sets the arts apart from the other creative industries with which they are too easily lumped (by government and opposition alike). It is not the role of advertisers, architects, antique sellers, computer game manufacturers or fashion designers to challenge the way society is run. But the arts do it all the time. As David Lan puts it, dissent is necessary to democracy, and democratic governments should have an interest in preserving sites in which that dissent can be expressed.
"Support Sites of Dissent!"  Now that's a rallying cry in today's congress. (Maybe if you're pitching a "Tea Party Theatre"? "Birthers' Playhouse"?)

Anyway, I'll leave the rest to Mr. Edgar. Go read him.

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