Wednesday, July 09, 2008

More talking with Theatreforte:

"If I could give the "Dr. Strangelove treatment" to the title, I think it could be called How Theater Failed America, Or: How Non-Profit Arts Institutions Pay Salaries and Benefits to Arts Administrators Instead of Working Artists and Why This Is Not Ethical."

This made me laugh. In a good way, because it's funny. Truthfully though, I would probably substitute "as well as" in the place of "instead", as it is more equitable in both directions.

"Notice I used the term "ethical" instead of "fair" because it's clear that Mike is arguing for something much more fundamental than simply getting a fair slice of the funding pie. Rather, there is an ethical imperative to provide "a healthy, sustainable path for artists to live and work." Failing to provide this path has had dire repercussions in other aspects of American society, notably a meaningful engagement between art, artists, and citizens on a local scale."

That's seems fairly accurate.

"But who ought to bear the burden of fulfilling this ethical imperative?"

We should--those of us who work inside and within the institution and institutions of American theater should. After all, it's the systematic undervaluation of artists that feeds and sustains the current state, so we're responsible for doing it to ourselves, and its up to all of us to rectify that situation.

And how did something as abstract as the "institution of theatre" get saddled with this massive responsibility?

It's not all that abstract. WE are the American theater, and we have that responsibility. We create institutions, and since they derive and are born from us, and then perpetuate the status quo, they are also charged with the same task.

Unfortunately, the US government made a promise that it couldn't keep. The corporate model has abandoned American workers across the board. Full-time employment has been replaced with cheaper, part-time, contingent labor while corporate administrators continue to make more money than ever. The institution of theatre is not special in this regard.

I would agree with this, though I'd add that it's our responsibility to hold institutions and corporations to account when they fail us, something which we've become increasingly distanced from doing in all walks of modern life. I'm not comfortable deflecting responsibility onto the government, however much the LORTs love to do this—we are our government, in a democracy.

Mike should be commended for "engendering discussion and fomenting debate" about these urgent issues. But I find it puzzling that he chooses to admonish arts administrators to "do their jobs and lead." After all, he's convincingly proven that the arts administrators are corrupted by a broken system and that they're now driven by self-interest to perpetuate that system until they retire. Arts administrators have had their chance. If anyone is to take responsibility for fixing the broken system, it must be the artists themselves.

That is the pessimistic view, and I grant you there is plenty of reasons to believe that the glass is half-empty. For many reasons, I continue to believe that there is leadership out there, in the theaters--maybe because I have met so many courageous and full-hearted people in positions of authority in the American theater. I continue to believe that if they are freed from fear and have their eyes opened, there will come a point where fear of inaction will trump fear of action, and that someone will be first to take a large institution and work for real equity and change inside the system by remaking it. If I did not believe this, I would not work within the system at all--I would leave.

Why should theatre artists have a subsidized salary and benefits while other hard-working artists - hip-hop musicians, comics artists, fashion designers, indie filmmakers - are left to compete in a free market economy?

First, I think the idea that the salary is "subsidized" is a dirty phrase in our culture, and meaningless--every salary is "subsidized", in that it is paid for indirectly. Second, theatre artists deserve to be paid and have a basic level of security when they work because that's humane, and because the American theatre espouses left-leaning values that embrace social justice and equality, and its hypocritical and shitty to treat your artists like chattel.

Third, I take offense to this cockeyed charge of "exceptionalism". What is this, the Boy Scouts? I have no idea what the lives of hip-hop musicians, comic artists, etc. are like in any great detail, which is why I don't speak for them. I speak in the idiom I understand and the art form I practice, which is the American theater. That is an ecosystem I know very well, and so I'm working within and with it for change.
This posting by Mr. Walters covers much of the reasons why I believe the exceptionalism argument is off-key.

3:51 AM