Thursday, February 17, 2011

How We Make Our Case III

What he leaves out are things like Jazz, "Classical" Music, Theatre, Dance etc. In other words, it may in fact be true that some art forms are supported well by the market. But others are not theatre, the one I happen to know the best, is suffering an insane level of market breakdown. It is simply too expensive to make (most) theater to be able to price it accurately. Even now, thanks to lack of support, it is still overpriced in most major markets.

Furthermore, it's worth saying that (at least in theatre) we are still suffering the aftershocks of the government not making good on its promises in the 1960s. The regional theater system was seeded by the Ford foundation on the promise that it would be watered by aggressive NEA funding. The NEA was supposed to sustain it. It never did. We've been spinning plates ever since. There's a reason why theatre always seems to be in crisis. It was built and designed on certain assumptions that turned out not to be true.
[H]ow do you know that the market for this kind of art has broken down? The fact that something is expensive and losing popularity doesn't, by itself, indicate a market breakdown. Just the opposite, in fact: we usually think of market breakdowns in areas where there's a lot of demand but, for some reason, the market isn't meeting it.

Now, I, Kevin Drum, happen to like classical music but not jazz. I like film but don't really get much of a kick out of theater. I love novels but have never developed an appreciation of poetry. Etc. etc. If it turned out that my tastes were broadly shared, would that mean there's a market breakdown in jazz, theater, and poetry? Or would it mean that public tastes have changed over time and artists ought to change with it? If great playwrights are producing scripts for HBO movies instead of scripts for regional theaters, does that mean the market is working or failing? If serious modern composers produce music that the public has to be bribed to listen to (usually with a post-intermission performance of a popular old warhorse), does that mean there's a breakdown in the market for serious modern music? Or does it mean that serious modern composers ought to rethink the kind of music they write? How do you know?

In any case, I look forward to part three. I view the decline of live theater with equanimity because I think that modern film, video, and multimedia performances are better than live theater on virtually every level. Obviously Isaac disagrees, and that's fine. The question is, why should the federal government adjudicate our disagreement?
The thing is, Drum thinks that the problem we're saying is that people aren't coming to the shows. I think one strong argument is that the system we've built is that even the most successful playwrights are making $40,000 / year or less; less than administrative assistants! We've built up a theater where major theaters in New York can have no non-white non-male playwrights produced.

When we complain about theaters that are "nonprofits" but don't behave like it, it's not just an aesthetic argument. It's an argument about how to communicate with more people, rather than more money. Severing the government support of the arts narrows the scope of the arts. For realms of art that are cheaper to produce, the commercial model can still produce a wide range of options.

For me, the only aspect of the arts that are "broken" are thus:
  1. Our major institutions aren't serving our needs (in terms of diversity and access), and the money is going to the major institutions.
  2. The people who work in the field, who make the field really work, aren't getting paid to survive.
The latter is what we're looking for the government to help address. Anyways, it's funny to hear a progressive asking us to justify ourselves in terms of the market. Does Kevin Drum think the fact that teachers are paid almost nothing and bankers can take home billions is not a government issue? Does he think that the fact that non-white male playwrights can't get wider audiences because of conservative institutions isn't a government issue? Because the market is okay with those things; the government should not be.