Sunday, November 05, 2006

Are the Arts in peril?

A friend of mine is pessimistic about the state of the Arts. I understand. I will never make money as a director, even though I live in the America's theatre center, New York City. It's mostly filled with tourists going to see second-rate musicals. But I'm not pessimistic. But my lack of pessimism comes with a bite. I can only be optimistic about the Arts when I shine a harsh light on myself.

Artists have always complained about the state of the Arts, but (partly based on introspection), I suspect that these complaints are, in reality, one of four things (and usually all these things at once):

1) Anger that the government doesn't give more money to the Arts. This is a legitimate reason to be angry, but it's not the same problem as concern that the Arts will cease to exist or become "less artistic." If the government stops funding the Arts, some artists will quit making art, because they will need -- or want -- to jump into more lucrative fields. But the loss of some artists -- no matter how unfortunate -- is not the same as the loss of Art.

2) Anger and fear that I -- the artist -- will not be able to support myself by making art. Again, this is a natural concern, but my personal finances have much more to do with my life and comfort than they do with Art.

3) Anger, sadness and frustration that so many people I know don't care about art. This is horrible, but "people I know" aren't necessarily representative of all people. Maybe my "concern about the Arts" is really a concern about my social life.

4) Fear, anger and confusion about aging. Is it true that the Arts are declining? Or is it "just" that the the artists I grew up with -- the ones I'm most comfortable with -- are declining? Am I transferring my fears of aging to less-scary fears about "art" because aging (and dying) is too scary to think about? I grew up reading Raymond Carver's short stories. When Carver died, I pretty much quit reading short stories. But tempting as it is, I can't deduce from this that the craft of short fiction is dead. I'm sure it's alive and well. Rather it's me (or part of me) that is dead.

You could read my list, agree with it (not that you necessarily should) and still be depressed. "Okay, maybe I'm not depressed about the Arts, but I AM depressed about the government, my finances, my philistine friends and growing older." Fair enough, but the good news is that if you DO care about the Arts, you can be assured they will survive and thrive.

I am 100% convinced that making and caring about art is natural to the human animal. It's no more likely to decline than eating or sex is likely to decline. All cultures throughout history have made art. All cultures will continue to make art -- despite the fortunes of individual artists or the whims of particular administrations. Sure, there may be historical blips -- a few decades now and then when the art scene becomes less vibrant -- but then things will bounce back and the arts will be important again.

I often have a fantasy -- and I never admit this to my artistic friends -- that the government will pull ALL support for the Arts. Not only that: in my fantasy, there will be no paid artists. No one will buy art, and artists will never be paid for what they produce. I know this sounds terrible, especially coming from someone who toils in the Arts. Please remember: it's just a fantasy. But I think it would prove to everyone that the Arts are in no danger. Art would continue because it has to. And it would stop the ugly linkage between art and money that does way more harm than good.

Yes, it is VERY sad that people give up making art because they can't make a living while making it. But -- and this is really harsh to say -- I think such people are not truly devoted to the Arts. The best artists I've met make art because they HAVE to. It's that way with me. I often feel that I'm a lousy artist. It doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter that I hate going to rehearsal about half the time. It doesn't matter that my theatre loses money. I'm compelled to do it. It's like sex. Or eating. And if it ever stops feeling that way for me -- and sometimes I hope it will -- it WILL feel that way for someone else. So I might not continue, but the Arts will continue. I may or may not be an artist. But I am not Art.

And I don't know about you, but the plays I most want to see, the novels I most want to read, the paintings I most want to view ... are the ones made by people to HAVE to make them. The ones made by people who will burst if they don't vomit their demons out onto the canvas, the paper or the stage.

I DO think certain art FORMS are dying. Theatre is dying. That is very sad, but it's just Darwinism. Vaudeville is dead; Silent films are dead; Mime is dead; Medicine Shows are dead... but Art continues. Storytelling continues. As it always will, because people are storytellers. And I don't think the sad stare of Theatre has much to do with the government or a decline of culture. Forms just die. It's the same with languages. People get depressed because Yiddish is dying, and I totally understand that, but Etruscan is already dead; so is Ancient Egyptian, Aramaic, etc. But LANGUAGE goes on. It will always endure and it will always morph.

I am sad because so many of the artists I loved as a child are dying, dead or very old: Stanley Kubrick, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller... And I SHOULD be sad. But if I'm feeling up to it, I can put things in proportion. Those losses are personal tragedies for me, but they are not losses to the Arts -- any more than losing Shakespeare or Tolstoy is a loss. People die. New artists -- great artists -- will always emerge. If you think they won't, they you have to explain how the human animal could possibly have changed all of the sudden. When I'm at my most cynical, I think all of this "the Arts are dying" is a way of making ourselves feel like our generation is special and not just the blip in history that it is: I was THERE when the Arts died!

I am in trouble, because I'm moving into middle age. And that's when people make The Great Decision: which is whether to ossify or move forward. Yes, Arthur Miller is dead and Harold Pinter is an old man. But there are NEW artists. And there are many great new artists. And (many of you may disagree, but I mean this with all my soul) this is a GREAT time for the Arts.

The Arts are very vibrant right now: ask a 20-year old who is passionate about the Arts. The trouble is with me. There's a truth about aging that people don't like to admit: it's scary and exhausting to embrace new things. This isn't true when you're younger, but it's true when you're older. Hence the urge to ossify. Most people feel a reluctance to start reading a new novel. Those first few pages are daunting. But if you push yourself past them, you quickly get hooked. If you go out in search of new artists -- if you read the "New York Times Book Review" -- it will seem daunting at first, but you will get hooked, and you'll discover that you could spend the rest of your life, every waking moment, reading great NEW books and watching great NEW movies and tv-shows and you'd die without getting through an eighth of them. So how can the Arts be dying? It's we who are dying. And the Arts don't care. They proudly march on.

I suspect that TV will dominate the next 100 years -- TV seen on an old-fashioned set and TV seen on the Internet. Our generation was told that TV was evil. Of course it's not. It's just a box that displays pictures and sounds, and it's as good or as bad as the particular show that's on it right now. And we're currently in a Golden Age of television. No one is saying this, but it's true. TV artists have finally figured out how to craft stories for their medium. (They didn't get it during our formative years -- the 70s and 80s were horrible for television, so naturally we tend to think it's a bad medium). HBO figured it out. They have crafted quite a few shows that are great art by any standards. And due to HBO, the traditional networks have learned that -- surprise, surprise -- people respond to good writing. So there are now great shows on mainstream TV. And sure, there's also a lot of crap. It's mostly crap. But that's always true in all mediums. Why -- out of a vibrant Elizabethan theatre -- do we now only produce Shakespeare, Marlowe and a few others? Because most Elizabethan theatre was shit. It's hard to make great art. It always will be. 80% of it will always be shit. We need to be thankful for the other 20%.

One day, maybe 100 years from now, TV will die, and people will lament. They will look on TV the way we look on live Theatre. But waiting in the wings will be something else -- some new form to take TV's place. And sometimes the new form is a rediscovered old form. Maybe there will be a live-theatre revival. Whatever. Art marches on.

And if our friends don't care about art, that's sad. But those are just our friends. There are art lovers all over the world. The "masses" will never care about art on the level that we do. But they didn't in Shakespeare's time, either. Most people are too busy surviving to care deeply about art. That's horrible. But that's always been the state of the world. But there will also always be pockets of people, all over the world, who do care. There are tons of people who still go to the theatre, read literary novels, visit museums and listen to classical music. One great thing about the Internet is that it lets such people -- who formally would have lived in isolation, thinking they are the only people who care about Mozart or whatever -- meet each other.

Here are some hopeful signs for the future:

TV: Deadwood, Studio 60, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks, Lost (not as good as the others, but descent genre work)

Filmmakers: Ang Lee, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson

Novelists: Jonathan Ames, Curtis Sittenfeld, Mark Haddon, Michael Chabon

Theatre: Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rogers, mentored by Sondheim -- have you heard his achingly beautiful musical, "Floyd Collins"?) and Conor McPherson. I'm sure there are other gifted you writers for the theatre, but my head is in the sand -- I pretty much only read/watch classics.

1 comment:

rowan said...

Sigh. I want to defend theatre against the blunt statement that it is dying. But, as you acknowledged, these things do have a life cycle, and the sadness at one passing is in proportion to the joy at another arriving.