At a recent meeting of representatives from different arts fields, one of the participants offered a suggestion: In this increasingly conservative climate, with the religious right and conservative politicians nibbling away at the National Endowment for the Arts, perhaps it is time to look for alternative funding sources for those “controversial” art forms that are attracting so much attention. Aren’t all the arts are being jeopardized by the relatively few that create controversy? To preserve the Endowment and protect those art forms that don’t traffic in the objectionable, this arts administrator suggested a buffer might be necessary. That way we would have “safe art” supported by the federal government read official art and non-government funding for forms that tend to provoke and challenge.
It is a terrifying sign of the times that this suggestion was not greeted with shock, derision or anger. Rather, the other participants listened as if this were the most rational idea to come forward in some time.
Those who laughed at those monstrous social-realistic paintings that emanated from Germany and Russia in the 1940s when official art was all that was tolerated had better sit up and take notice; it could happen here.
No one can sensibly argue that all art must be confrontational. Surely Twelfth Night and Ah, Wilderness! endure, and neither is rendered obsolete because of its lack of political content. But it’s pretty hard to find much in the lexicon of the theatre’s enduring treasures that does not comment on and or criticize the society in which it was written. We don’t harbor violent feelings these days about Napoleon, but certainly Beethoven was making a bold political statement when he dedicated a symphony to him. Since that is ancient history, it no longer raises hackles. But if a contemporary composer were to dedicate a symphony or even a sonata to Fidel Castro or Nelson Mandela, it would be construed as an overt political act. Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings, which have profoundly political implications, are universally considered great art; but in our time, even the distinguished cartoonist Garry Trudeau was roundly criticized for a series of comic strips critical of the Gulf War. If Picasso were alive today and painted Guernica and called it The Gaza Strip would it be revered as Guernica is, or would there be an outburst indignation?
We live in an era of craven cowardice. How else does one explain the passivity with which we accepted the Savings and Loan scandal and the ensuing Senatorial whitewash? Our seeming indifference to the curious legal gymnastics to curtail the Iran-Contra investigation? The public acceptance of the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court? A society that condones (rather than repudiates) those actions by its government is not likely to seek out challenge, criticism or confrontation.
Given this national apathy, it is not surprising that we have entered an era in which only “safe art” is welcome. But if art is about communication, ideas and opinions, then artists are going to be influenced by the world in which they live and that inevitably leads to art with a point of view. Art has never been about expressing consensus; it has always been about showing new roads to take and new ideas to explore. To do that, the status quo has to be challenged.
Lynn Jacobson’s article in this issue tells how three theatres are reflecting the ecological concerns of their very different communities and providing unique leadership in each instance. And Professor Robert Bellah’s “Frontlines” piece speaks eloquently about the role that nonprofit organizations must play in our society.
Does theatre always have to make waves? Unquestionably not. When a theatre’s mission is to appeal to the largest possible segment of its community, it will schedule less threatening material–plays that are uncontroversial and “fun.” But when theatres with a more pointed mission–exploring social and political issues relevant to its audience are forced by financial pressures to back off from or dilute their commitment, that is another matter. Such a scenario is reminiscent of the 1950s and ’60s, when the commercial theatre’s costs had so radically escalated that few producers were scheduling anything that was not a sure sell to a broad popular audience. It was at that juncture that the nonprofit theatre emerged as an alternative and since then it has been the nonprofit, not the commercial, theatre that has developed and nurtured “political” work. To lose this sense of engagement would be to betray the nonprofit theatre’s essential nature.
Freedom of expression is essential to all the arts. Without unfettered freedom, every art form and every artist is at risk–even those twin pillars of our culture, art museums and symphony orchestras. After the Boston Symphony’s debacle with Vanessa Redgrave and the Corcoran Gallery’s cataclysmic compromise on the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, we know there are no cocoons of safety.
Taking provocative and challenging art out of the purview of the NEA is not the answer. While it might insulate the less overtly controversial art forms and remove the more controversial from government influence and exagerated public scrutiny such an approach serves to ghettoize both kinds of artistic endeavor. It would also be the dangerous and inescapable first step toward official art.