Monday, October 4, 2010

Grassroots + Power V: Power and Ticket Prices

One of those delightful rows that overtakes the internet every once in a while is upon us -- one of the ones that provokes very long and intelligent posts between people who all have valid points.

Basically, the conversation is about ticket prices: are dynamic pricing schemes fair, do ticket price caps kill the theater or the artists who work in it, is there a better way to price tickets?

I'll snip from 2AMt's recap/index:
[Y]ou might check out a series of posts I did in response to that conversation about different pricing strategies on this site.

You’d probably then want to check out a post on Parabasis calling Arena Stage to task for their use of dynamic pricing on a recent show that ended up spiking prices up above $100/ticket. That sparked a fresh #2amtTwitter conversation and this post from Gwydion Suilebahn about discussing prices in a civilized way. Which led to a lengthy (and highly readable) comment stream, which led to another post from Gwydion and then to a fresh post by Isaac Butler at Parabasis responding in kind.
Reading through it, I really don't have anything to add about pricing -- I suspect, in order to sort out whether Gwydion or Isaac or Trisha are right. I suspect it would take some actual economics research to untangle the effects of ticket prices on audience participation, audience satisfaction, etc. and I suspect I have little to add to it.

But there is one part of Gwydion's argument that I do feel like I need to mention:
The criticism of too much government funding of theater, for example, is that we’d end up having, well, government-approved theater: nothing that threatens the state, nothing very adventurous, etc. After all, they’d have some sense of ownership, wouldn’t they? The same might be said of corporate donations. Personally, the thought of big businesses “owning” theater frightens me even worse. I have a similar concern about individual donations; I don’t want America’s owning class “owning” the stories we tell, either. (If donations were always – or even very often – small and from large numbers of diverse donors, I’d have less concern).
The thing about this paragraph is that it starts with, basically, a classic slippery-slope argument. If the government starts by putting in a money, eventually we'll only have art that is compatible with the state.

A while back, I commented on Obama's arts policy by saying that they looked like they were looking for innovative ways to help the arts, but didn't want to go on a limb to actually create new programs or increase funding. In the comments section, I got swamped by anonymous comments from right-wing trolls who basically told me to reread 1984 because working with the government on the 9/11 day of service was equivalent to either A) bad prostitution or B) fascism.

I decided to try and take a more specific look at the relationship between arts and power. I laid out a number of scenarios of what sort of involvements with the arts the government could have:
  • Government A buys art organizations and appoints NEA officers to run them.
  • Government B gives the NEA powers to license performances: unlicensed performances are made illegal.
  • Government C passes rules saying that the NEA can only fund Pro-America productions. The NEA evaluates grants based on their content.
  • Government D creates a web listing of currently existing arts-charity programs, to help donors find them.
Let's do the same here. Suppose we have a hypothetical government which looks exactly like the United Nations, but whose NEA has the capacities to award $25 billion nationwide. I pulled that number out of my arse, but let's assume that it's enough to largely support a handful of mid-to-large sized arts organizations in every city in America as well as investing into rural and small-town arts in a scheme that bizarro-world Scott Walters is administrating.

Now, let's say I'm a performance artist who wants to create a statement about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I create an absolutely damning piece of work condemning the President, and I try to take it to bizarro-world Lincoln Center. But bizarro-world Lincoln Center gets too much money from the government, and doesn't want the wroth of an angry NEA chair! So they pass. As does bizarro-world BAM, and bizarro-world Taper Forum, and bizarro-world Seattle Opera.

What's probably going to happen? In the scenario Gwydion outlines above, we're just not going to have this daring and incisive piece of performance. But I don't think that's the real world.

In the real world, I would probably find other people who similarly can't get NEA-funded projects, and we'd get together in a warehouse somewhere and we'd form our own little enclave. And we'd fight and scrabble every bit like we do today, without NEA funding, and put ourselves out there. It should be every bit as possible for us to succeed in that endeavor in bizarro-world as it is here.

Remember in the health care debate? When people were told that we couldn't have a Public Option because it would drive all the competition out of business? And liberals pointed out that the Post Office has never driven UPS or Fed EX out of business? I doubt government-supported theater would be any different.

Now, if bizarro-world US Government decided to actively censor works, that would be different. If bizarro-world US Government restricted access to performance space, that would be different too. But the idea that increasing funding necessarily leads to a less-healthy arts atmosphere is not, on the face of it, true. The BBC is still capable of criticizing the British government; the BBC is internationally respected as being an independent arbiter of news information. It's more independent than privately-owned FOX News!

The point I'm trying to get at is that we should never, ever let someone say "If x relationship is established with government, then eventually government will control x" without demonstrating how it would achieve that. Government donations do not, in any way, force competition out of the market. It's connected to a widespread intellectual illness here that Government has a Midas touch, and everything it grazes turns to its bitch.

Remember the NEA Four? And how their government money got taken from them? Oddly enough, Karen Finley is still making work!

Still, go and read all those articles. There's a lot of fantastic thinking going on. I'd just hate to see it sullied by shorthand like that.