Thursday, September 18, 2008

Laura Axelrod Ties Money and the Arts; Scott Walters Caresses His Cerebrum

Laura Axelrod, over at her not-celebrated-nearly-enough Gasp! blog, has apparently been engaged in a minor yet friendly dustup with that avatar of all things clattering and chattering, Scott Walters, with regard to the meatiness, or lack thereof, of theatre blogs.

Mind you, Pol Pot could be back from the dead and rampaging across southeast Asia, Dr. Mengele could be managing the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the history of mankind, Osama Bin Ladin could be perpetrating the murders of God only knows how many more of my precious American kin, and the stock market could be heading through the worst kind of thrashing since my grandfather woke up in October 1929 and learned that my well-to-do great-grandparents were down to about a nickel, and this dude, who I’ve noticed often worships syntax and sophistry over solidity and substance, is whining because theatre blogs aren't spending sufficient time blogging about theatre (as opposed to theatre and politics), and thereby abandoning the call to lead a bayonet-driven charge through the economic and aesthetic barricades. Harrrumph.

Anyway, when not celebrating National Very-Long-Sentence Day or wondering how the departure of Dana Gioia as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts will affect that organization, particularly if John McCalamity and the Alaskan Mynah Bird are elected, I’ve been catching the recent posts on Laura’s blog. On September 14, she had a great preview post called Money and the Arts, concerned in a general and very understandable way with to the probably economic impact of the unfolding financial-sector disaster:

It amazes me that my theater, literature and visual arts friends just don't want to hear it. This has the potential of being a generational-altering event; something that has been gathering steam for almost a year.
And then, on September 15, in a post called Markets and Roles, Laura responded to Matt Freeman’s terrific blog post on the same subject...

The fact of the matter is, some of the most untouchable financial institutions in the country are in serious jeopardy. Lehman is filing for bankruptcy. Merrill Lynch is being sold to Bank of America. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are being taken over by the government. AIG is seeking a loan from the Federal Reserve.

How is this going to affect the arts? Here's some potential problems I can see. But it's something we should all be talking about.

One quick example is your day job. If you've got one, you're probably wondering how this will affect you. I know mine has to do with planned giving and investments. Which means we're directly affected by the markets. I'm also vested in our retirement plan, and that's, of course, invested. writing this in her post, which I’m excerpting below and which moved me a great deal:

But I will say that after I wrote the entry and went to bed, I thought about how it might be unfair for me to judge others by my values. For instance, we all have a different definition of what it means to be a writer or artist. Maybe for some people, it doesn't include understanding how society works...
And then, on September 16, Laura filed a brilliant post called Where We Stand, which attempts, however difficult it may seem right now to do, to put some perspective on what the national fiscal meltdown will mean for artists. Here’s an excerpt:

The American mythology is based upon the belief that if you work hard, you will succeed. If you haven't achieved material success, you are lazy, immoral and unintelligent. Rather than basing our definition of America on the Constitution, we pluck out a single phrase from the Declaration of Independence: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

This mythology has found it's way into the spiritual lives of Americans. Prosperity theology promises material abundance for the spiritually enlightened. In this case, poverty is not only a sign of bad character, it's also a sign that God isn't smiling on you.

Most writers and artists have fallen into this money hell. We've taken out enormous student loans to pay for our education, with little opportunity to pay them off by working in our chosen profession.

Some of us chose to be artists so we could rebel against this way of life. Yet, telling the truth means alienating an audience that is complicit in keeping this belief system alive.

Success as an artist in America means making your work palatable to the masses, who are sleepwalking their way through life. Waking them up is dangerous, and dangerous work is rarely produced, exhibited or published.

Success as an artist in America means making your rebellion slick and chic. Our materialism is insatiable. It looks for the newest trend. Rebellion is crucified until it can become safe to hang in the comfort of our own homes. It is disturbing until it is tamed.

Success as an artist in America is defined by the bottom line. Respect is given to those who can achieve the most sales.

In this environment, it is easy for an artist to become a reactor instead of an actor. Rather than shaping the culture - presenting a new vision - the artist comments upon her present circumstances. The commentary is cathartic for the artist, but it doesn't present any real solutions.

When this commentary is rejected by the system it is rebelling against, the artist can have a variety of reactions.

It may validate her feeling of disempowerment. But is it fair to ask a system to embrace commentary that is attempting to destroy it?

It may lead her to believe that being an artist in this system is about suffering. But is it fair to ask the artist to have a miserable life without any personal benefit?

This is where we stand right now. Our generation has created celebrities out of people who have no talent. We have funded our lifestyles with imaginary money. We watch scripted reality t.v. shows.

Our way of life is a lie.
First off, clearly there's much substantive discussion in the theatrosphere (this being one of many example), and what particularly amazes me is that while months have passed since I’ve given Walters’ blog serious study, he’s still going on and on about “new models” for making work but not actually doing something about them -- like articulating them and putting them into action. In a post, for example, called Money and Art, he praises Laura and writes:

I think Laura is right, and we do need to talk about this. On an immediate level, any slump in the economy that negatively affects the stock market will affect foundation endowments, which means grants will be smaller and harder to come by. If the economy suffers, people have less disposable income, or are less free in disposing of it, which will impact ticket sales. When people are suffering in our society for economic reasons, money gets shifted in that direction and away from the arts, which are considered "extras." If tax collections decline because there is less money in the economy, then school budgets decline as well, and arts education suffers.

The fact is that the arts live on the fat of the economy.

But Laura wants us to deal with this on the personal level, not just the macro level. "I'm not saying that we should come up with a public policy position on the matter. I'm talking about dealing with this problem both in our work and in our lives."

So much of our conversation tends to be about money and how it impacts our artistic choices and opportunities. It seems to me that there are several possibilities every time we create a production:

1. Lose money
2. Break even
3. Make a little money
4. Make a lot of money...
From there, Walters begins to explain what these four possibilities mean in action, and then he reaches what is, from what I can tell, one of the rare times he has tried to articulate what a new economic model might look like:

My question is whether there is a way to disconnect from the commodity economy. Is there a way to make the arts less a product? Is there a way to move the arts into another type of economy? For instance, while still based in a money economy, a church doesn't really sell a product, but rather something else -- an experience? A shared identity? An extended family? [Etch-a-Sketch erase*] In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken talks about a workshop that took place at a large agricultural chemical manufacturing plant, where the attendees, all employees of the company, were introduced to the "spaceship Earth" model and then put into groups and given a goodly amount of time to create a spaceship that was enclosed, needed to be self-sufficient, and had to last for 100 years. One of the interesting things is that the employees created a model that took along actual artists rather than a stock of DVDs and CDs, because for a 100-year self-contained trip they wanted people who could contribute new stuff that pertained to their journey. How might we get our artistic contributions looked as in this way?
This is fascinating stuff, but for me, what it doesn’t do is translate the abstract into the specific. For a new economic model to take hold, governmental intervention, for example, would be necessary. By this I am not implying socialism. But consider the tax code: If a new economic model required the end or radical restructuring of the nonprofit system, that’s a governmental effort.

But before I go down that road, little doggie, I take issue with Walters' glib idea that “the arts live on the fat of the economy.” What? If that were the case, would the arts not have been swimming in money for the last few, especially given the historic excesses being flushed out of the market in recent months, weeks, and days? The last time I checked, the whole demand for new models, the whole belief that there’s something not-strong in the fundamentals of our artistic-creation system (to be McCainish about it), is predicated, in part, on the lack of funding, on the lack of stability, on what ensues when Ayn Rand-style free marketeers throw artists to the wolves and encourage the laws of supply and demand to set their sociological and cultural value. No wonder Walters posted a whole slew of comments on Laura’s blog questioning, if also applauding, her posts.

I’m sure that by my posting this, I’ll ruffle all kinds of feathers -- after all, if you’re not in the clique of the theatrosphere, you’re nothing, as a certain other blogger, who shall remain nameless, made quite clear to me last year. (And, after all, Walters has adamantly refused to add me to his blog roll, as if I'm suffering from the intellectual cooties, which is like the pot calling the stoner stoned.)

Still, I thought it would be worth giving major props to Laura and stating that while some folks think Walters is a great blogger, not much has changed in the blather-for-blather's-sake department, especially when it comes getting off one’s ass, getting away from the computer, and actually doing something. Talk, in other words, is still cheaper than Lehman Brothers stock.

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Scott Walters said...

"since I’ve given Walters’ blog serious study, he’s still going on and on about “new models” for making work but not actually doing something about them -- like articulating them and putting them into action."

*rubbing my cerebrum*

Well, I have actually gathered all my writings, which have occurred over many, many months, about a new business model here:

Also, I have been asked by the NEA to submit a grant proposal for the creation of a non-profit organization to implement these ideas as a way of creating greater geographical diversity by emphasizing theatre in communities under 100,000 in population. It is called the <100K Project.

Finally, there has been a lot of good stuff in the theatrosphere of late. Now, look at the date on my tirade, and then look when those great posts start. I'm not claiming causality, but rather making the point that if those posts had been happening before my post, there would have been no need for one.

But thanks for sharing.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I completely forgot that you were Jesus Christ on the cross, Scott, I'm so sorry. And I'm still not on your blogroll.

Scott Walters said...

You are forgiven.

You'll be on my blogroll in a few minutes.


Anonymous said...

Leonard, I love you for writing this post. Scott Walters makes it so difficult for one to be on his side. I actually find a lot of his ideas pretty interesting. But, he's such an abrasive, arrogantly self-righteous blowhard about it. Christ almighty! The man has no tact, no finesse, no people skills. He just likes to fight, push people's buttons, and listen to himself talk (as far as one can do that on the blogosphere). I don't denounce the man for standing up and defending what he believes in. I think that's a great thing and that he should do that. But a little more diplomacy on his part would serve him a lot better. Wagging his finger at the rest of us won't win him any allies, nor will it help him promote any of his ideals.