The Playgoer: Why We Will Never Be Europe

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why We Will Never Be Europe

As I read more and more about what the NEA is funding, I come to a sobering realization of exactly why neither that agency nor any other will ever be able to replicate the great culture ministries and Arts councils of Europe.  While Americans still seem ok with the idea of public money going something that is educational and/or socially useful...they'll never get beyond letting their tax dollars being used for something that is simply great art.

It seems that the real growth areas of arts funding are in "outreach," "arts in education," and small-community activities.  These are all important in themselves and necessary to a vibrant arts culture nationwide, I agree.  But when that becomes the primary activity of our public arts funding, then the definition of "public arts" really changes, doesn't it.

In the US, "public arts" is not associated with the top of the field, the height of professionalism and training--as it is in countries with a "royal academy" or "national theatre."  As with so much in our Social Darwinist economy, public funding is for losers.  Be it housing, transportation, or warehouse cheese, it is only there as pity/charity for those not able to make a buck in the marketplace on their own.  In this country a grant is a "handout," not an award or badge of pride.

So we are told, at least.

So while our larger professional nonprofit theatres still can count on some 10-20% from federal and state is unimaginable that we'll ever see, for instance, the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice with one of our nation's leading actors entirely "brought to you by" the National Endowment for the Arts.

And yet that's exactly how it would happen in another country.  There, the presentation of the best artists doing their best work in the repertoire they're world renown for is (again) a badge of honor, an act of diplomacy, a face to the world.  But if the NEA or even our local NYSCA (New York State) provided 100% (or even 75%) of the sponsorship for, say, a Lincoln Center Theatre production of an undisputed American Classic like Streetcar or Salesman or, better yet, something a commercial producer would never do, like the complete August Wilson cycle.  Just imagine the hollering from the media and politicians about "waste" of public funds.

Instead we have a Time Warner or a Citicorp become the virtual culture ministry and boast sole "sponsorship" of an event or a season.  Or we perform in theaters named American Airlines or after people who would be anonymous (Laura Pels? Peter Norton?) were it not for their superfluous millions.

Why splurge public funds upon artistic efforts that can get private funding on their own?  To free them from patronage.  At their best the European state theaters take advantage of public subsidy to be accountable to no one.  (Hence why so many of their productions piss audiences off.)

At least, that's the theory.  But it's one well worth chasing.


99 said...

Hear, hear.

In a way, all of us artists should be libertarians or Randians or something: the free market is doing what government can't or won't for us.

I think, though, there's another aspect of it: dramatic arts CAN be commercially viable. In fact, most of the dramatic arts that people interact with on a regular basis are commercially viable: film and television. On some level, people do seem to think, "Well, if this was worth something, someone would put money into it."

Matthew said...

The toxic post-war (and I mean World War II) political environment in America is by and large the main reason for the absence, or great dearth of strong public funding for the arts in this country.

Toxic in that a profound reactionary movement gained strength during the post-war years, and that movement grew to oppose any work of art (or cultural voice) that espoused or even hinted at a political view that questioned or criticized the growth of "free-marketism", or capitalism as we so fondly call it.

Any government action that represented an American identity rooted in a widespread collective movement was struck down as representing the opposite of the true "American" virtues: supposed individualism, supposed "freedom" (the right to buy and sell whatever we want-- except if that included sex or drugs), and supposed "liberty"-- the ability to determine our destinies for ourselves (unless what we determined questioned in any way the established hierarchies).

What that reactionary movement strove to achieve, and eventually guaranteed, was that no American government would be permitted to have enough centralized power to resist the influence of "patronage"-- the power of corporate and business money, which truly rules our culture. The voices of those people who might represent the true mosaic of American thought would not be permitted to rise through public support, as such a development would truly threaten the power hierarchy that is designed to advantage the wealthy and the privileged.

Art and artists are to serve only; they are not meant to be masters in their own houses, in a sense.

The unfortunate truth about Europe on the other hand is that the state supported arts are no more representative of their people than the arts in America. The same structural dynamic applies-- artists depend on the patronage of a strong state body, either a royal endowment or national trust, but one that is largely controlled by a similar social hierarchy that is found in America. While the state may have power to counterbalance the corporate culture, the elites who run them are one and the same (as is the case here, more or less).

It is fundamentally an issue of the definition of the American identity-- that of the individual, who in America, in exchange for little security or general support is offered the glimmering possibility of fabulous success (and the great likelihood of struggle and failure), against that of the group, secured generally against the worst vicissitudes of social breakdown, but almost prima facie forced into a class structure that is bound firmly in place (as is the case in the socialisms of Europe).

What is America? What is American? Is America a nation of isolated winners (the Derek Jeters, the American Idols) who prove him or herself in the "arena" and are given a place of privilege, rewarded by the corporate masters who control the nation's purse, and surrounded by untold millions of faceless losers, who fail or never attempt to rise? Or is America a people, a group of individuals who have united to form a society that mutually benefits its citizens, rather than simply assuring the freedom of it's most privileged to do as they please?

Fundamentally, it's this question that produces the answer to the problem of state funded art. It's about the American identity, and the power of the political in the shaping of our own visions of ourselves.

Finally, it is especially ironic that some of the most cherished works in American art and culture were supported and nurtured during the WPA period in the thirties and forties-- a period when government considered contributing to the arts a vital part of American culture. Those works are virtually looked on now as the products of a golden age, and are valued as canonically as some of the greatest works of European art and culture.

What does that say about the need for a state supported American culture?

Brian said...

I think you're being a bit hard on corporations (like Time Warner) and generous individuals (like Laura Pels) who fund the arts. Particularly given the absence of major state funding in America, these people and businesses have stepped into the breach. Encouraging the government to do more shouldn't also mean a knee-jerk negative response against the rich sponsoring art for everyone to access. Private and corporate philanthropy has given us a lot of great institutions since the days of Carnegie...

As an American now living in London, I can say that one sees increasing reliance on corporate arts sponsorship here -- some of which, like the Travelex ten pound ticket scheme at the National, seems mostly positive.

I will add, though, that BP is one of the corporate names one sees most frequently on posters here as an arts sponsor. So we'll see of that money continues to flow (so to speak...)

Tony Adams said...

75% of giving in the US is from individuals. If you add that to the mix, are the arts less well funded here? (from the numbers I've been able to find, the answer is no.)

Does it matter where the support comes from? Or that there is support?

Playgoer said...

Thanks to all for the interesting comments. If I may address Brian's thoughtful rebuttal in particular...absolutely right, corporate support is by no means inherently evil and--in our climate--absolutely to be applauded and encouraged when it doesn't come with too many strings attached.

I'm glad you bring up Travellex's support of the National in the UK. (Yes, I thought of it too while typing and was hoping no one would bring it up! But now that you have...) It is indeed notable that UK and European institutions ARE turning more to private/corporate funding. But I don't think that signals a HEALTHY trend. On the contrary, it's usually a result of budget cutting governments pointing to the US and saying , "Look, THEY do it, American arts orgs go begging with a tin cup, why can't you?"

Still, corporate sponsorship in the US is here to stay so let's learn how to live with it. (My post was meant to be less call to arms than a sigh of resignation.) I think the Time Warner ticket subsidy for Signature, for example (all tix $20--kinda based on the Travellex/RNT deal) is a great and encouraging model that I hope is copied. Interesting, though, that so far it has not, eh?