Friday, October 31, 2008

Art, Politics and the Other Thing

What will we all do when the election is over? What will we think about, talk about, wake in the middle of the night screaming about? I both crave and mourn the approach of November 4, regardless the outcome.

In the spirit of the season, I will continue my political diatribes.

So, I’m at a bar with some theatre folks and we are making a wish list of what we’d like to do in the art world. I say I would like to engage more actively, and unite the Boston Theatre community as a whole to engage more actively in local politics. Everyone is immediately skeptical. Therefore my rebuttal:

Anne Bogart argues in her book A Director Prepares that American artists disengaged from the public political sphere in the McCarthy era. No one wanted to incur the HUAAC wrath, so not only did artists stop talking about politics, but they stopped talking to each other. As a result American Theatre revolved around individual struggles in the domestic sphere. Debate, dialogue, engagement with contemporary life bigger than oneself virtually disappeared. Sure, there was and continues to be fringe work that challenges authority, engages in the community, etc but these small, revolutionary companies tend to have more life in history books than in their contemporary popular theatre. She goes on to suggest that this is when the distrust of the artist in popular culture began. We were all red, pinko commies working to bring down democracy by infiltrating popular media with our propaganda.

I’ll go further. I don’t think America has ever really liked artists. Sure, there is the class association that theatre people were synonymous with prostitutes, but those assertions predate our country and originated in nations with hearty arts scenes to this day. Heather Nathans outlines in her book Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson the colonial struggle to establish a unique, American identity unrelated to their British cultural roots. Theatre, like tea, being a British-ism was therefore out. In short, we established early on a preference to straight-talking farmers over poets who might be trying to trick us with UnAmerican propaganda disguised in lyrical verse.

Artists are a constituency. Along with our audiences, we believe that arts are important in the cultural vitality of the nation. Therefore, our politicians should know who we are. They should know what we want and they should care. It’s not just about funding. It’s about a larger integration into the consciousness of our representatives and our communities. Look at that word: representative. These people act in place of you in various legislative bodies. If they don’t know what you think is important, how well are they actually going to represent you and your interests?

Is it that you are embarrassed? Because whenever you say “I think the arts are important” some asshole says “more important than eating or cancer research, or reducing infant mortality rates or preventing meanness to puppies?” And you think, “shit, if I had to choose between the arts and a sandwich…I’m actually pretty hungry, and how could I choose Shakespeare or Mozart over babies and puppies?” Here is a crazy paradigm switch for you: why do we have to choose? We are the wealthiest nation in the world. Why do we have even one person without healthcare, without heat, without food, without access to excellent education, inspiring arts and culture?

What really muffles my omelet is artists seem to have given up. I just read this article from Seattle that offered a top 10 suggestion list for small theatres with some “tude”. It instructed artists to give up working towards earning a living wage in the field. Now, I don’t expect to drive my gold-plated Cadillac up Newbury Street anytime soon, but if we are satisfied reducing ourselves to amateurs, hobbyists and extracurriculars, how can we possibly expect to make GREAT ART. We must ALWAYS be working towards legitimizing our profession. It took some time to shake the prostitute thing, but that turned around. We have to be thinking long term.

The arts are important for countless reasons – reasons that I attempt to highlight in this silly thing. But one chestnut that never goes out of style is the arts have always been the lasting cultural artifact of an age. What remains of Elizabethan England, Ancient Athens, Renaissance Italy? I watched a documentary on PBS a while back about Sparta, a culture that thought Athens was a bunch of pansies, that only valued war and physical dominance. Pretty much all we know about Sparta is what Athenians wrote about them (surprisingly unflattering) and what could be gathered from skeletal remains. A bright and varied picture you can imagine.

We can yell "U.S.A." as loud as want at sporting events, they aren’t going to hear us in a thousand years. (You know, if the polar ice caps don’t melt and the planet doesn’t careen into the sun.) If we are so gosh darn proud of this little nation of ours, why don’t we want anyone to remember us except by skeletal remains?

So vote. Write your reps. Talk to your friends. And your Mom. And crazy Uncle whozits that thinks you’re a hippie and is waiting for you to cut your hair and get a real job. Talk to them all the time. Watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report because, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, they are saving America. These shows are reviving public discourse and critical thinking through satire. The really good kind.

And for God Sake’s, Vote No on Question 1. Don’t make me bring up the puppies again…