September 6, 2009
Mr. Rocco Landesman
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20506
Dear Mr. Landesman:
First of all, allow me to congratulate you on being confirmed as the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Over the past 18 months, I have had the pleasure of working closely with Mr. Bill O’Brien and Ms. Carol Lanoux Lee in the Theatre Program, both of who have been encouraging, helpful, and inspirational.
Please indulge me while I fill you in on my background. I have a doctorate from City University of New York, where George Jean Nathan Award-winning critic Jonathan Kalb was the chair of my dissertation committee. My dissertation was about someone who, I believe, was influential to you: Robert Brustein. I wrote about Brustein’s critical relationship with Partisan Review critic Lionel Trilling. While in New York, I served as Editorial Assistant at Performing Arts Journal / PAJ Publications, where I had an opportunity to talk to many important contemporary theatre artists including Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson, as well as the co-editors Bonnie Maranca and Gautum Dasgupta. Prior to that, I got my Master degree from Illinois State, where I studied with Alvin Goldfarb, co-author of “The Living Theatre” and “Theatre: The Lively Art,” and also the acting teachers who taught many of the original Steppenwolf actors as well as many others who have since gone on to important careers in theatre, film, and television. While at ISU, I was also the national winner of the American College Theatre Festival’s National Criticism Competition, which allowed me to spend a month at the O’Neill Theatre Conference. I have also served as the Associate Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival for several years. I currently am Associate Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and am the author of “Introduction to Play Analysis,” published by McGraw-Hill. I am also a recent recipient of an NEA “Access to Excellence” grant.
In other words, it is with a certain amount of theatre experience that I write to you today in response to your comments in the August 8th New York Times article entitled “National Endowment Chairman Sees Arts as Economic Engine.” I must admit, there was a large part of that interview that I found refreshing. Your demand that the arts have a seat at the table, for instance, was heartening after years and years of diminishing funds and respect from Congress. However, it was with a great deal of concern that I noted your comments dismissing geographical diversity as a consideration at the NEA.
Since that time, I suspect that you have received a considerable amount of feedback from members of the arts community who took exception to your comments, and I see that you have accepted an invitation to visit Peoria in the future. While I applaud Peoria for extending that invitation, and you for accepting it, I doubt it will have the effect the Peoria arts community desire, because your comments on “quality” reflect an aesthetic orientation that I doubt will be changed merely by a visit.
Robert Brustein, when he would fulminate on how the NEA was giving money to things like folk arts (his shudder would be palpable even on the page) instead of to the Yale Rep or ART, would usually begin with this quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville:
I do not believe that it is a necessary effect of a democratic social condition and of democratic institutions to diminish the number of those who cultivate the fine arts, but these causes exert a powerful influence on the manner in which these arts are cultivated. Many of those who had already contracted a taste for the fine arts are impoverished… The number of consumers increases but opulent and fastidious consumers become rare…The productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished…In aristocracies, a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones.
Brustein believed the US in general, and the NEA in particular, ought to prove Tocqueville wrong. Equating “quality” with “high art,” which by definition is art appreciated by “fastidious consumers” (he usually ignored the “opulent” part), he argued that only those “great” artists and institutions should receive support from the NEA, that only they were creating art of the “highest” order. It went without saying that those institutions would be located in the major metropolitan areas of the US – where else would the “best” be found? Brustein was fond of quoting H. L. Mencken, whose disdain for the non-metropolitan majority of America knew no bounds. I hesitate to use the word “elitist,” because it has come to carry so many irrelevant connotations, but Brustein was a proud elitist when it came to art, and to the NEA.
But the fact is that the US is a democracy, it is not an aristocracy, and the NEA is an arm of a democratic (and Democratic) government that gives it money for the advancement of the common good. Right now, almost 50% of the Theatre Communications Group member theatres are in six states, while there are an equal number that have none at all. The average population of the counties where TCG member theatres are based is 1.35M people, whereas 96% of American counties have populations under 500,000. The arts scene has become increasingly centralized, so that theatre artists feel that, in order to work, they must live in New York City, thus depriving other parts of the country of artists who are connected to them, reflect their values, and share their lives. Theatre artists who would prefer to make their lives elsewhere, and who wish to live in a single place and perhaps even have a family and a home, find themselves uncastable. As Beth Leavel put it when she spoke to hundreds of assembled theatre undergraduates at the Southeastern Theatre Conference this past spring, “”Chicago? I mean, I don’t know much about Chicago, except there are some important rep theatres there. I suppose you can make a living there. All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theatre town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York.” What was most horrifying to me about this statement is that nobody recognized it basic insanity. This is the Wal-Marting of the American Theatre.
What is worse, in my opinion, is that we have made the arts something that “special people” do. We have taken the arts, which earlier in our history were a central part of every American’s life, and turned them into high-dollar products that we sell to an ever-diminishing few. Spalding Gray, in a 1991 interview, described why this is wrong:
“Personal storytelling is very important to me because we’ve become so media-ized that we begin to think the stories the stars tell on Johnny Carson are more important than ours. And whenever I interview people, interview the audience onstage, and I draw their stories out, the audience begins to realize it is a radical move. That everyone has interesting stories if they can learn how to shape them. If I am a preacher, or a proselytizer at all, it’s to say, ‘Get together with friends, tell stories, listen. Turn off the TV, put down the book, listen to a story.’ Because the more we are fragmented and the more people are moved around and are in motion and the bigger this country gets and the more media-ized it gets, tied together only through television, the more healing it is to tell personal stories about your day. It gives you a personal history, and it gives you a sense of existence and place.”
A sense of place. Peoria is a place as much as Chicago. So is Bayfield WI and Franklin NC. People in these places need to have their stories told, need to hear stories about their place, their history, their daily existence . Not life in NYC or Chicago. As importantly as hearing those stories, they need to tell those stories themselves. The theatre, and the arts in general, need to be spread into every corner of this nation, and not just by “bringing” the arts to small towns from the metropolitan areas, but by empowering the people to create art themselves. And the “quality” of their creations may not be as sophisticated as those that Robert Brustein would value, but they may be just as powerful. The quality of the arts does not exist in the art itself, but in the interaction between the work of art and the person who encounters it. And that sort of quality has nothing to do with budget, or training, or certain zip codes – it has to do with authenticity. If you are looking for “quality,” I would suggest that looking for authentic experiences is more important than anything else.
The NEA should be focused on nurturing and supporting and promoting authentic creative expressions across the face of this land. Only then can it truly be called a National Endowment for the Arts.