Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grassroots + Power VI: Separation Between Arts and State?

A few months back, I got attacked by some drones from Andrew Breibart's big Hollywood blog because I approved of the Obama administration's realistic approach to arts policy -- basically, we'll provide what distant support we can to whatever is already going on in the field. My sense was that, given the incredible resistance to the arts from many politicians (excluding a few heroes).

At first, I was just irritated, especially by criticism that I hadn't given proper thought to the relationship between the grassroots and government. And then I decided to reflect on the relationship between arts and government for a few posts (starting from here).

The problem at the core of the criticism, which I felt it was necessary to address, was the proper relationship between mass movements and government. The right has shrewdly decided to draw parallels between the mass movements directed by government under Fascism/Nazism, whereas the left sees this government as government directed by mass movements. In the end, of course, neither is true -- my sense of the Obama Administration since it took office is that whereas it is responsive to some of the mass movement's concern, he certainly isn't bound by them, and on the other hand, the idea that the 9/11 National Day of Service indicates that Barack Obama is directly controlling artists is just ridiculous--or that ACORN is a malicious plot directed by Democrats to rig votes in their favor.

I was led to re-reflect this morning on that line of thinking by this post at Butts in Seats, about a recent TED address about a program that uses arts to address controversial concerns. The post ends:

She argues that social leaders who strive for change need to harness the universal language of the arts to bring it about.

My favorite quote: “You have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake. It needs to be the yeast.”
It struck me, suddenly, that although I have often heard the message directed towards artists that art is a powerful vehicle for social change, I had never heard the message directed towards politicians that art is a powerful vehicle of social change. And I wondered what that would look like -- politicians partnering with artists to create social change.

And then I remembered those anonymous flame messages accusing me of being a patsy to Stalinism because I thought it was a good idea for the arts to be included in a government community service program.

In other words, what has happened is that public backlash against political art has created a situation in which we have enforced separation between arts and state. Sure, Obama can go see a show (not without catching some shit) or even invite them to his house (and notice how both are considered historic gestures of support for the arts). But the idea that artists would actually work with politicians on public issues feels absurd (except maybe in the realms of film and music) and the government certainly doesn't lead art events on issues.

I am reminded of Ian's post for arts to become a partisan issues. In a way, he was just articulating something that we've articulated before, that arts needs to have political clout, but specifically he was saying that we need one party or the other to come out and say "Actually, we're the party that supports the arts."

But I wonder if it's deeper than that. Certainly, I know this unique sense of irritation that comes over most audiences if they feel you have too sharp a political "message." I get that too. They'd prefer artists not have political affiliation, but pretend to be simply presenting the world as it is. Brecht must be throwing a hissy fit as I write these words, but I think in American culture, the arts are supposed to be separate from politics.

Is that part of what has made us irrelevant? I don't think arts have to be political to be relevant. But is the fact that we flee from tackling the central issues in American culture? And I don't mean "doing plays about controversial issues." Certainly we can do a controversial play, but we certainly know that we're not actually going to influence events. Whereas there are some cultural events that have an impact.

If a group of talented, intelligent theater people wanted to create a theater event that would actually change health care in this country, what would it look like? I don't know. But I know it wouldn't be a play about a politician torn between the insurance lobby and their past as a doctor. (I can already see the poster: "First Do No Harm," the controversial new play about Health Care, going up at the Roundabout, starring Neil Patrick Harris as the doctor and Julia Roberts as the lobbyist... I should register that at the WGA, just in case).

Do we want this separation between arts and state? Does it give us integrity or make us irrelevant? Can we bridge that gap without becoming irritating, didactic, or -- at worst -- Code Pink?