Friday, July 24, 2009

Sustainability III: Legitimacy Pt. 2

So, if I just left you with the last post about the importance of legitimacy in arts organiztions as a key component of sustainability, it would be one of those frustrating things I see on the blogosphere where they make a solid claim ("Integrity is important!") without really giving you an approach to applying the claim. I can't promise I'll have a strong recipe for legitimacy, but here's one part of legitimacy, told yet again through our sociopolitical narrative lens.

(by the way, it is important to use the sociopolitical narrative lens to look at this sort of stuff because, as the Thriving Arts Report put it, our strength is drawn from status as a social movement)

So, at the beginning of the campaign, even as far back as the 2004 Keynote Address, it was clear to me that Barack Obama was a different candidate from others. I can't say I knew back then that he'd be a President, but I knew I wanted him to be a President. And it was from the way he spoke--I knew little about his platform, and he certainly hadn't emerged with his practical-idealist hybrid of society-changing reforms.

A lot has been made of his eloquence, but it's more than simple eloquence. In fact, not a lot has been made of the absence of his eloquence for a long time. For me, the greatest of Obama's speeches are far behind him: the rhetorical flourishes of the "Yes We Can" speech in South Carolina are substantively different from solid speeches like the Reverend Wright speech or the Inauguration speech.

For the rhetorical, "eloquent" speeches, he was channeling passion and a beautiful mastery of images and linguistic skill. The Inauguration speech was a far more minimalist speech, but it was simply revolutionary in terms of its content. But it wasn't "eloquent," it was simply straightforward.

Yet I would argue that it was that second mode of speech that got him elected, rather than the "eloquent" speeches that fired his base early in the primary. Why?

Jon Stewart was asked once why he backed Obama so strongly. He had backed John Kerry in 2004, but only a bit implicitly. He still had a lot of scorn for Kerry, and he clearly wasn't happy about the choice. In the time that I've watched The Daily Show, I haven't seen him excited about really any other candidate.

When asked why, Jon Stewart had simple answer. He said that Obama was the only candidate he'd seen in a long time who seemed to describe the world the way he personally saw it. He was sick of standing in the rain and hearing politicians tell him about how sunny it is.

That simple ability to look reality in the face and describe it accurately is what drove Obama into power, not the "eloquence" with which he wrapped those realities. That "eloquence" was him describing the world in the way that the excitable, idealist base of the Democratic party would see it. But when it got to the general election, he espoused a far more Moderate worldview. Because that's the world view that most independents and centrist Dems/Reps could agree with.

When Obama talked about our energy crisis, it rang true with a younger generation who had agreed with Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. When he talked about health care, he talked about it in a way that rang true with all of the uninsured or poorly insured. When John McCain talked about the world, it rang false--and let's not even talk about Sarah Palin. (We should be careful to over-generalize, because there are quite a substantial part of the population to whom McCain and Palin did ring true).

At any rate, this isn't meant as a political post, this is a post about art development. So what is this discussion of Legitimacy?

The point is that if you want to be a legitimate organization, you need to understand the worldview of the people you're trying to serve, and you need to be careful not to contravene it. There are a number of theaters that try to tackle "issues," but rather than trying to tackle the local issues that are close to the hearts of their neighbors, they tackle big global "issues," which to the local folk might not be as crucial.

If you want to be a Legitimate (and therefore Sustainable) organization, you need to tell people it's raining when it's raining, and tell people it's sunny when it's sunny. They have to trust your judgment when you describe the world. You need to look around at the community, and figure out how their day-to-day existence meshes with your artistic aims.

This, by the way, is why artists are most successful at making art for other artists: their personal day-to-day matches the day-to-day of their audience. But it doesn't necessarily match the day-to-day of their audience. And that makes them hard to get legitimacy there.

(not that everything has to outwardly resemble the day-to-day... try not to be overly reductionist with my argument!)

This, I think, is why in Germany they did a "theater piece" in which a man went into a field and farmed every day for a month, and other farmers came to watch. It's sort of a perverse over-the-top version of what I'm describing.

"The Office" is successful because it very, very accurately describes the awkwardness and absurdity of the way people actually interact, not in the way Hollywood thinks we interact. (note: "The Office" is NOT successful because it accurately describes office life. You could make a perfect representation of office life and it would bore the crap out of people. It's an expressionistic representation of the experience of office life).

So, that's one of the ways to cultivate legitimacy: to really strive to understand what people are actually going through, and find ways to represent that.

(a little closing note: this is my 200th post, and is very slowly growing in readership, which I hope might be a sign of this blog gaining just a tiny fraction of that legitimacy!)

No comments: