|The NEA should be nurturing its plants.|
If you think about it for even a second, Rocco Landesman's meditation on the necessity of Theater Death Panels, which we talked about yesterday, wouldn't stop at theater. The same logic that leads Landesman to want to reduce the number of theater companies applies equally to ballet companies, opera groups and symphonic orchestras.
For example, why should the NEA and its Death Panel partners (local and state agencies and large foundations) spread their meager resources among orchestras, big and small, around the country? Shouldn't they focus on making a few orchestras really strong, financially, instead, and let the others... go, diminish, expire?
We here in Portland will still be able to go to a movie theater for special showings of Gustav Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic, after all. Their Beethoven is better than our Beethoven, anyway, so what's the problem? And the methods of musical transmission are only going to get better (see Frank Gehry's ultra-wired New World Symphony concert hall/sound studio in Miami, for example). Soon, those screenings of the flashy young Dudamel will stream directly onto my own 3-D screen and course through my own exemplary sound system. (Well, if I had such fine appliances.)
And in the meantime, precious dollars will go where they'll really do some good -- to the symphonies in LA, New York and maybe Chicago. OK, Houston, too, because Texas has some serious political clout, or so I imagine the Death Panel deciding.
In the abstract, this is a perfectly defensible proposition. And though "Theater Death Panel" (or in this case Symphony Death Panel) is a term admittedly stolen from the Far Right's disinformation campaign against the Health Care Reform Act last year -- with no basis in fact or logic whatsoever -- an argument based in something like reality can be made to support Landesman's position.
Except it can't.
Landesman is thinking in terms of a national culture -- why does America need more than four or five symphony orchestras? Or five or ten non-profit resident theater companies? But I don't live in America. I live in Portland (and maybe you live somewhere else), my arts needs are best met here, by artists responding to similar conditions. On that basis, they make a claim on my resources -- time, money, brain space.
We don't live in the Galapagos. We know about Dudamel, and we may even want to emulate him (or at least the system that developed him). But ultimately, the health of my symphony, my theater companies, my museums, my ballet and modern dance groups, my poets, etc., is a community negotiation, in which I have a place at the table.
In Oregon, we don't make a sufficient investment (to use at least one economics term -- in general, I think the pervasiveness of the language of economics has been terrible for us -- as individuals, as communities, as a nation) in the arts, not nearly. And I've heard some sympathy for Landesman's position from representatives of major funders. The solution for our cash-strapped orchestra, for example, involves increasing our allocation of tax revenue to the arts, and it involves work by the orchestra to make sure it's as connected to its community (classical music fans) and the rest of the state as it can be -- as responsive, as creative engaged, as central to our ongoing conversations about ourselves. That doesn't mean pandering to the audience; it means the opposite -- challenging, stretching, leading us to a series of re-assessments of music and ourselves.
But that's a discussion for another day.
In the post yesterday, I talked a lot about "ecology." I meant complexity and inter-relatedness. We can't calculate the effect of removing as large a piece as a symphony because we can't calculate the effect of losing a single small theater company. And even "failed" theater companies have an effect we can't measure.
We are not just consumers. We are not automatons. Society is not just a marketplace, even though our language, imagery, efforts at organization, attempt to reduce us to that. That's the one, single great lesson of Art with a capital A. The marketplace may twist, bend, spindle or mutilate art, but it's clear to anyone with just the barest glimmer of self-awareness that we are more than ticket-buyers, more than our accumulation of technological toys, more than our "tough business language" about "over-supply" of art.
We don't have an over-supply of art. We have an under-supply, because the forces that reduce us to consumer ciphers are so powerful. And Landesman and the NEA should be on the side of more art, not on the side of less.