Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arts and Government I: From the Duh Department

David Byrne has a basically spot-on blog-post about a $14,000,000 bailout for opera in Los Angeles, which I got from a post by Scott Walters, who manages to avoid the reflex to defend the arts organization involved. I understand the emotional draw -- one of my first responses was, "shit, this is basically an argument against the field of Opera, which we all know couldn't survive a day without state support.

For me, Byrne's argument all boils down to:
Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring — but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places.
In a perfect world, where we weren't choosing between opera and children's education, I would passionately defend Opera's right to state funding. But Byrne is right: the county doesn't have the money to support the students it has. How can it ethically put a big whopping $14,000,000 into one opera?

There's also another argument that's implicit in Byrne's post that I want to highlight because I don't think he does it quite strongly enough. Talking about the Bilbao museum:

The show that’s up there now is a Frank Lloyd Wright survey (previously exhibited in NY’s Guggenheim), and a permanent collection hodgepodge — not exactly reasons to make a special trip.
And then a few sentences later:
Funding future creativity is a real investment — there’s a chance these kids will build, write, draw or play something that will fill theaters, clubs, stadiums, web pages, whatever. The dead guys won’t write more symphonies.
If we don't invest in creating a generation of young artists, museums, opera houses, theaters are going to get trapped in time. Slowly, a vaccuum will be created--I say slowly because there are a few MFA programs in this country that will produce people to fill it, but it won't be convincing. Like the Bilbao, there isn't going to be that compelling, new work to really draw people to the venue.

And also, when Byrne says:
I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare — to say nothing of opry. In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians — though a few might. It's more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery — which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence.
He doesn't say that part of that greater value is that studies show that the best way to create audiences for the arts is to have children participate. A staggering majority of our arts audience today is people who participated in the arts when they were young. If less and less children get that opportunity, then--well, let's just say that however bad our decline is now, it could get even worse.


Scott Walters said...

I'm with you all the way to the last paragraph, but then I pull up. You're right, of course, participation in the creation of art as a child DOES lead to a greater likelihood of buying a ticket in the future, and the research shows this. However, to support arts education for such a self-serving reason seems more than a little icky to me. I suspect that putting advertisements for Pepsi in the classroom would increase Pepsi consumption as well, but that hardly makes the average citizen feel like using tax money for those ads. No, I think we as artists need to stop thinking with our pocketbook in this instance and look at art education as leading to happier, more creative, more empathic children who become happier, more creative, and more empathic adults. Whether they buy a ticket to a play or not.

Ian Thal said...

One problem with Byrne's argument is that he's essentially arguing from a pop-music perspective (and I would say, pushing a false opposition.) It's a middle-brow argument: "Arts funding is okay, but we should be encouraging the next generation of pop-artists, because the classics are just too challenging."

Pop is always about setting a groove, making a hook, or writing a catchy refrain for that moment in time. If the song finds its audience now it has done its job, even if it's forgotten twenty years later.

The other artforms, on the other hand, are engaged with tradition and learning the cannon is an essentially part of learning how to be creative.

Pop-music (and popular entertainment) is very forgiving of naîveté and clichés on the part of the artists; not so much other forms where quality is at least sometimes measured in innovation: and the innovators usually know the cannon pretty damn well.

My upbringing included going to theatres, museums, and concerts-- so the arts were part of my life regardless of whether the funding existed that year for arts education. The fact that there were museums to escape into when school was boring is not to be dismissed.

These institutions provide an important educational resource for young people (though, as always, they can be used better.)

And occasionally you have a pop-artist whose work transcends their era and earns a way into the cannon: say William Shakespeare, or Jimi Hendrix (but the evidence points to the idea that these guys were autodidacts with a great appreciation of the cannon they were drawing upon as well as being keen observers of their eras' pop culture.)

The point, of course, is that both are important.

Scott Walters said...

Ian -- As a theatre historian, I have to disagree. It really isn't until the mid-19th century that the performance of the "classics" acquired any status, and it really didn't get going until the 20th century. The Globe never did revivals of, say, Aeschylus -- they regularly and relentless produced NEW work. So did Moliere's troupe, and the theatres of the English Restoration. For most of theatre history, the plays of the past were old news -- studied in school, perhaps, but not produced. The early regional theatre pioneers in America -- for instance, Margo Jones and Zelda Fichlander -- shared this orientation; so did important earlier theatres like the Group Theatre, and Provincetown Players. It wasn't until Tyrone Guthrie hijacked the regional theatre movement with his policy that a play must be at least 100 years old to be given a spot in the season that this classical orientation became dominant. The same was true of symphonic music, which featured new music with a few old standards thrown in. Far from being middlebrow (a term invented by Dwight McDonald in the 1950s when this orientation was starting to take off), a focus on the new is the orientation of most of art history.

So yes, both are important: the classics are good for education, so that young artists (and everybody) know what has been considered of quality over time; but production should be focused on new work, because that is what a culture is based upon.

Ian Thal said...

Even so (and I'm still not strictly speaking of theatre, since we are talking about David Byrne here) the classics were still being performed on stage, in the orchestra pit, or being studied in the classroom or at the museum by latter-day innovators.

Sure, there may not have been as much slavish devotion to Shakespeare then as now, but the work wasn't unknown. Even if the audience doesn't know the canon (I'm embarrassed that I kept referencing artillery in my last comment) intimately, they still benefit if the artist has some familiarity.

My point is that David Byrne, who is certainly an important contributor to pop-music is wrongly arguing that the pop-music approach be the primary mode of arts-education and production of new work. I certainly agree that pop is an important component, but it should not be the whole.

I like dancing at parties as much as the next blogger-- possibly more so-- but I also like to see choreographed work in concert -- I also like to sometimes listen to music that doesn't have a groove that makes my body move.

A vibrant culture needs both classics and new work-- and sometimes that new work has to be challenging work, and not just pop, or as in Byrne's case: quirky-pop.

Scott Walters said...

I have a sneaking suspicion that we are saying the same thing differently. I would never advocate for the complete disappearance of the classics from our stages or our classrooms (neither would David Byrne, I suspect). We need both classic and new work. What needs to be examined is the balance, which right now leans decidedly toward the classic in both theatre and symphonic music. I, and Byrne, are arguing for a greater emphasis on the new.

Ian Thal said...

I agree that we are taking the same basic position, Scott.

My problem with Byrne is not that he is advocating for the creation of new work, it's that he's advocating for new pop, which really doesn't need the same sort of public support. Not that there's anything wrong with pop, I just want new challenging works that defy the pop market place as well.

CultureFuture said...

Scott: I understand the hesitation of investing in the arts to create "arts consumers." But without participatory arts for everyone, art is just something that some people do -- art being something that artists do that people don't particpate in. Is it fundamentally different than putting ads for Pepsi to get more Pepsi consumption? Not on a fundamental level. But I don't think it's wrong for us to believe in what we have to offer. We want to share something with an audience, so it's incumbent on us to preserve the idea that we will continue to have an audience.

To the point that you and Ian were debating: I think you're right, Ian, that Byrne leans too closely to the "classics aren't important, pop is the way to go" side of things, but I don't think it's a huge gulf. Byrne doesn't listen to Bach; other people who get good arts education will decide for themselves.

The strength of a participatory arts education is whether we're trying to create a particular sort of artist-student (whether it be "the next generation of pop artists" or "the next generation of Hamlets"), or whether we're strengthening people's abilities to explore their own creative path.

Scott Walters said...

CultureFuture -- I agree, I just don't think that the selling point of "it'll make more customers" is particularly effective in getting funders to cough up cash. Sounds good to us, but to the general public, they want something about the public good.

Ian Thal said...

I think we also need to realize that Byrne's position has a lot to do with his place in pop music history: he's of the baby-boom generation, and attended art school at a time when the rejection of formal technique was most prevalent. The Talking Heads came were part of the early proto-punk scene in New York which has to be understood in this context as both a rejection of crass commercialism of both disco and arena rock on one hand , and of the highly technical progressive rock or art rock on the other, so he's representing a milieu that sees pop as opposed to the classics, and technique as somehow less authentic -- and I think that shows in his essay.

(I also find it odd that he doesn't mention jazz, which requires a lot of technical mastery but allows for a great deal of individual expression.)

And again, I do think that this is generational. Most conservatory trained musicians these days also have a healthy love for folk and pop music and they often play in more than one idiom-- I know plenty of rock bands that feature orchestral or chamber music instruments.