A Great Nation deserves…

One of the questions in our newly configured nation is: what’s going to happen to the National Endowment for the Arts?

We have a Republican administration that’s talked about potential broad cuts across government  (one article suggested cutting the NEA and the the National Endowment for the Humanities entirely). The idea that the arts will be a symbolic battleground seems tragically unavoidable.   

So what do we do in the arts community in the blue Californian bubble and beyond?

Number one: let’s recognize it’s not about the budget.

The annual budget for the NEA is less than a third of one percent of the Federal budget.  This is a symbolic gesture not a fiscal one.  Like so much of our current politics it is designed to create outrage and tempt distraction.  Afterall, it won’t be just the arts that will be under assault. As Douglas McLellan wrote in Arts Journal, “It’s bigger and more insidious. It’s a vision of a country that doesn’t believe in collective public greatness. It’s the commodification of American values reduced to the profit motive.”

So number two: it’s about the arts but it’s also much larger than that.  

The challenge, for the arts, will be to articulate those ideals in the broadest, most inclusive framework possible. Here’s where the arts need to bear some of the responsibility for the pickle we’re in.

While we may have finally reached the precipice, this is an erosion in our cultural foundation that’s been occurring over decades. In a recent keynote at Center Theater Group, Diane Ragsdale charted this decline across the past three decades as a shift in the justification of arts from “culture for the culture’s sake, to culture for the sake of solving social problems to culture for the economy’s sake.”  

We, in the arts, have chased after the magic metric that would justify our work rather than doing the difficult work of articulating something larger and more profound.  We, in the theater community, have opted for easy answers rather than difficult conversation both in our work and in our discourse.

So what can the theater do?

For starters recognize that the unmediated experience of art is a precious and vital gift more valuable than ever. Bearing witness to an event with your own eyes and being given the opportunity to think critically, emotionally, and empathetically is not a luxury, it’s a survival skill.

Theater can, if done well, capture the spirit of something greater than the individual self.  It can remind us that there’s something more important than profit and that’s being human.  Theater can, as it does in a Greek chorus, provide a collective morality and conscience.
What the theater can’t do, what we can’t do, is be lazy.

Comments

  1. HeathCliff Rothman
    Jan 26, 2017, 5:09 pm

    I'm not even sure about how I got on KCRW's newsletter mailing list, but I was so glad to read your column. The news about the suggested cuts in NEA and NEH has been mostly ignored, in the context of the ongoing miasma of news coming from the new administration. So, it meant a lot to read your rallying cry. I will add the following. I am president of Everyone Matters, an LA-based global initiative that advocates for everyone's right to be who they are, without shame, judgment or attack; for everyone's right to dignity and respect, and thrive within their own unique individuality. I have tried to include the arts in our challenges to youth at schools, because from my non-arts-specific vantage point, being creative and manifesting our unique voice is the epicenter of valuing our individual personhood, and valuing our unique specific voice. There are so many vantage points to underscore why the arts and creativity is so necessary to a person's growth, self-awareness, ability to see others and feel empathy, and be a functioning member of society. http://www.everyone-matters.com

  • I’m not even sure about how I got on KCRW’s newsletter mailing list, but I was so glad to read your column. The news about the suggested cuts in NEA and NEH has been mostly ignored, in the context of the ongoing miasma of news coming from the new administration. So, it meant a lot to read your rallying cry. I will add the following. I am president of Everyone Matters, an LA-based global initiative that advocates for everyone’s right to be who they are, without shame, judgment or attack; for everyone’s right to dignity and respect, and thrive within their own unique individuality. I have tried to include the arts in our challenges to youth at schools, because from my non-arts-specific vantage point, being creative and manifesting our unique voice is the epicenter of valuing our individual personhood, and valuing our unique specific voice. There are so many vantage points to underscore why the arts and creativity is so necessary to a person’s growth, self-awareness, ability to see others and feel empathy, and be a functioning member of society. http://www.everyone-matters.com