Getting A Rise Out of the Catholic League

“In the guidelines you wrote up for the Lab Theatre this summer, did you list sex acts as prohibited?” asked the head of the drama department in a phone call to me this morning.

The form he was referring to was one my staff and I made up after students took advantage of the informal agreement we made with them about the lab theatre’s use this summer. After their disappointing behavior, we published an official policy with the usual prohibitions against smoking and drinking in university buildings.

The reason he was asking about sex acts is something else altogether. The drama director had asked to use the lab space for a production of edgy plays by former students and other noted up and comers in the local community.

We had already issued warnings about language and adult situations in our press about the shows but things went a little farther than expected last night. Apparently while the professor was watching the rehearsal that was going pretty well and showing promise up to the point the actors stripped down, got under a sheet and apparently left both little to the imagination and a sneaking suspicion that they weren’t acting.

I don’t mention this so much to titillate and air dirty laundry. It is quite a serious subject and one that will be monitored closely. The drama professor was previously requiring students to see the production and now, even with the changes he is insisting on, has made it completely voluntary lest students accuse him of forcing them to watch obscene material.

I thought the incident was quite apropos and timely in reference to the Camille Pagila interview I cited yesterday in which she says:

The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people on the far right. Thinking, “We’re avant-garde.” The avante-garde is dead. It has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell’s Soup labels and Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avante-garde is dead. Thirty years later, 40 years later, people will think they are avante-garde every time some nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, “Oh yeah, we are getting a rise out of the Catholic League.”

She goes on to blame this approach as a strong factor in the loss of funding for arts programs across the country. I don’t necessarily agree. Serrano and Mapplethorpe were an excuse to rally support, but not the initial reason.

I do think that there are a lot of performers who go to nudity as a way to prove they are hip and avant garde because it is the easiest thing to do to provoke shock in people. It is actually quite similar to how beginning acting students often choose to employ shouting and violent gestures in their scenes because anger is easy and doesn’t require vulnerability.

As the drama professor said to me, art is more powerful when it leaves something unsaid and allows the imagination to run wild with its own projected assumptions. The acting space is barely 20×20 with only two-three rows of chairs around. The physical proximity of the audience and the circumstances that lead up to the actors getting into bed together are going to make people uncomfortable enough as it is.

Choosing not to bring the lights down at the end and instead graphically playing it out crosses the line for people and the fidelity of the play. Instead of being memorable for examining the forces that drew these people into bed together, (and believe me, they are controversial in their own right), the scene becomes all about the sex at the end. Instead of leaving thinking about the awful and repellent choices the characters made, people leave thinking about the nudity and whether what happened at the end was real.

Of course, nudity sells tickets. This has been discussed in many articles for the last twenty some odd years debating whether all the nudity that seemed to be creeping into every show on Broadway was a necessary part of the story or whether it was there for sensationalism to draw a crowd. And everyone is an artistic devotee and offended at the suggestion they are pandering just to sell some tickets.

Especially if the ticket sales are doing well.

Giving The Arts a Bad Name

The Washington National Opera is advertising for a Priority Services Coordinator. This is bad, oh so very bad.

There has been a lot of discussion about the arts being elitist for many years and lately people have been talking in specifics. This week there was a lot of commentary on Camille Pagila’s interview in The Morning News. (There is a portion quoted on Spearbearer Down Left that sums up her theme.) In the interview, she essentially says the says arts and literature has to examine what they are presenting and the context within which they are presenting it.

Elsewhere, The Playgoer lifts a quote of the day from a Guardian article on the backlash against classical music in the UK.

So amidst this environment, imagine how I cringed when I saw the Washington National Opera advertising for a Priority Services Coordinator who “is accountable for the ticketing, fulfillment, and tactics targeted toward specific segments including high-level individual and corporate donors, artists, and other VIPs.”

I don’t have a problem with the job per se. I mean, the opera is located in DC where you have congressman, lobbyists, ambassadors, etc., running around needing cultural experiences. From the size and titles of their development staff, they look to be dealing with a large number of donors too. Having a person dedicated to their needs makes good sense.

What I object to is the title of the position. Even if you are giving people preferential treatment, you aren’t dispelling the perception of elistism by announcing to the public that you if you aren’t dealing with this person, serving you is not a priority for the opera.

It is just an ill considered choice of titles I think. However, they are in DC, performing in the Kennedy Center and despite the claim of being “Your National Opera,” they are probably a little too insulated from the reality of operating an arts organization in the rest of the country to realize how poorly this reflects on the rest of us.

Comforting Metaphors

One of the metaphors that has always made me nervous as an arts professional is releated to the need to correctly define what your company does. If you say you make horse drawn carriages rather than that you are in the transportation industry, you will probably go out of business when the automobile rolls around.

In a world where the arts just sort of seem to be lucky to prove their relevance from moment to moment, I think it is understandable if I might wonder if I am working in a horse and buggy industry. The dying industry is usually blind and living in denial about its fate after all so it is hard to tell.

I heard a gentleman speak today at the college’s convocation (I forgot to bring the flyer home so I could credit him. Come back tomorrow for the name.) He was discussing the use of technology in the classroom. I started filing much of what he said away in my brain against the day that I get back in to teaching again.

But he also presented some metaphors which were comforting. One of the things he pointed out was that in the 1800s, ice harvesting in New England was big business sending ice all over the world. However, due to the costs, people in the southern part of the US developed a way to manufacture ice. However, the demand for ice actually increased so much, the New England harvesters actually increased production. In time, of course, refrigeration overtook ice production and yet there is still a need for ice production today (though granted, not through harvesting.)

Okay, so now I just have to worry about not being in an ice harvesting business. Given that the entertainment industry is comprised of movies, cable television, DVDs, etc., it is possible that live arts experiences are the ice harvesting of today. Plenty of demand for many, but not all entertainment forms.

The speaker also referenced the fact that at one time radio was king and then television came along and many of the radio shows were now on television. Instead of withering away, radio changed and started offering something different.

So, okay, this is no big revelation. Changing with changing times is the talk of the industry these days no matter where you go. Blogs talk about it (it was actually one of my first entries), convention speakers talk about it, everyone is saying we should do it.

Question is, how will that happen? Lots of speakers and bloggers have lengthy suggestions about that. However, thinking about things like radio and ice harvesting helps to make a confusing, overwhelming problem seem a little simpler and easy to start tackling. It also gives a point of reference so we can assess in a general way how radio stations successfully made the transition and what sort of thinking lead to the closing of thoses that failed to do so.

Edit: Gentleman in question was Paul Bowers, Asst. Prof. Mass Communications, Director of Teaching and Learning with Technology, Buena Vista University.

Things Are The Same All Over

Two articles shared the same webpage over a today. The first is one talking about Pittsburgh Ballet’s decision to perform to recorded music to save money. The decision was made to preserve the ballet’s budget. They aren’t the first ballet company to go this route and according to the article, they probably won’t be the last.

The move has Drew McManus worried that this is not only a harbinger of the rise of recorded accompaniment, but that mission statements will be used to justify gutting artistic value for economic reasons.

Which leads me to the second article I mentioned earlier. It seems our brethern in Australia are also facing the necessity of making A Better Case for the Arts, as discussed on earlier this year in response to a recent Rand report. (I have discussed this before.)

An excerpt from a speech Prof. David Throsby made in the last couple days was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Throsby’s speech sounds much the same as the discussion on and the points the Rand report makes:

More and more do arts organisations feel they have to demonstrate their financial rather than their artistic prowess as a means of obtaining funds to support their existence. Arts festivals big and small commission economic impact studies to trumpet their success in creating employment, raising local incomes and encouraging tourism; understanding their cultural impacts often seems to take second place.

Actually, he cites the Rand report right after he cites a similar report made by a British policy group, Demos, titled Capturing Cultural Value.

…John Holden, takes up these arguments, writing that “the value of culture cannot be expressed only with statistics. Audience numbers give us a poor picture of how culture enriches us.” He goes on to argue for a reshaping of the way in which public funding of culture is undertaken. He suggests the need for a language capable of reflecting, recognising and capturing the full range of values expressed through culture, drawing on ideas from anthropology, environmentalism and the debate about “public value” in the field of public sector management.

I wouldn’t be surprised if similar articles started to appear in Germany, France, Spain, (Or perhaps it is the English speakers’ epidemic.) Looks like everyone is facing the same dilemmia about how to resolve artistic sensibilities with capitalist ones at about the same time.