April-May 1998 Articles:
A One-Act Monologue About Art, Money, and Power
by Morris SullivanLights come up on a small community theatre. THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS enters. They appear glum. From the group, one steps into the light and begins to speak.
Night after night, they come to me--the cast, the crew, the teenage girl who just got her first shot at the stage, the actor who works at a theme park full-time and in community theatre whenever he can--they lean through the box office window, peer into my face and peeking at the reservation list, and they ask me, "How many reservations do we have?" Unless we're sold out, I lie to them. I fudge a little. I add a few, because I can't bear to give them bad news. I used to fudge 50 up to 60, or 60 up to 70. At 90, I'd tell them we were sold out. Now, if there are only 25 I tell them 30--and sometimes I lie and tell them we have reservations, when we really don't. It breaks my damned heart.
The worst thing is having to go backstage and tell the cast the performance has been cancelled--that not even enough people wanted to see their show that night to warrant running the air conditioners and lights. I try to soften it--to make them feel better ...but I know that, no matter what I say, they're thinking that the hundreds of hours they sunk into the show--into learning lines and rehearsing and building sets and imagining how good the show was going to be ... It breaks my damned heart.
Sometimes people come into the theatre with a show they've written or one they're dying to do. They're convinced that hordes of people will come see them. I try to make them face reality, and I'm sure they think I'm an asshole. That's fine--I'd rather they feel rejected by me now than go to all the trouble of mounting their pet project, only to feel rejected by the entire city. I'm sure they think all I care about is ticket sales, and that I'm obsessed with money. It breaks my damned heart.
The unfortunate truth is that there is an inseparable relationship between the arts and money. More unfortunately, because of the inalienable interaction between dollars and politics in our society, the arts can become a convenient political football for anyone with power looking for something high-profile to throw around. In 1990's America, the arts have been used to promote agendas from a conservative backlash in Congress to downtown revitalization projects. There is nothing new about this--the arts have depended on the ruling class since long before Bach made his living as organist and violinist at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst.
Enter NEWT GINGRICH and THE REPUBLICAN CONGRESS, towing a platform on wheels behind them. On the platform is a cross, from which dangles Andres Serrano. The assembled characters begin to poke him with sticks, snip off locks of his hair, tug at his clothes and otherwise harass him.
A couple of years ago, conservative Republicans in Congress decided to pull virtually all federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The total funding--$620 million--the government provides for cultural programs including music, theatre, ballet, opera, archaeology, architectural conservation, and many others, is less than 1/2 the cost of a single B-2 bomber, yet "fiscal responsibility" was cited as one rationale behind the dismantling of all Federal cultural programs.
This argument won't hold water very long. Non-profit arts organizations receive less than 5 one-hundredths of one percent of the national budget, yet they employ 1.3 million people and generate $3.4 billion in federal taxes each year.
The second reason cited--morality--made a much better rationale. Conservatives in Congress, along with their most vocal backers, the religious right, used a handful of examples of "immoral" and/or "sacrilegious" artworks to prove their contention that the NEA, NEH and CPB didn't deserve any American tax dollars. One of the most loudly preached-against examples was a work by the artist you see on the cross behind me, Andres Serrano. The photo that caused all the controversy shows a blurry, out-of-focus crucifix surrounded by an amber glow. It's pretty innocent-looking.
However, the blurring and the amber halo exists because the crucifix is submerged in a jar of urine, and the photo is titled "Piss Christ." Serrano had received $15,000 of public funds through an award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, which had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to distribute as they saw fit. Robert Mapplethorpe is a photographer, too. A few of his depictions of homo-eroticism were included in a retrospective at a museum that received funding from the NEA. Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe were used as reasons for dismantling the NEA, along with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who have aired a handful of documentaries that offended conservatives, and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well. Consequently, the three federal cultural programs were vilified as breeding-grounds for decadence and immorality--threats to American values.
However, the two artists are a tiny part of the programs funded by the NEA, NEH, and CPB. Those programs fund everything from science and natural history museums to ballet, opera, and a project that collected and published George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's letters and documents--not to mention conservative William F. Buckley's Firing Line. In fact, were it not for the conservatives screaming about them, not too many Americans would know Serrano's and Mapplethorpe's names.
The attack against the artists involved and the federal programs that indirectly funded them was, in fact, neither motivated by financial responsibility to the taxpayer nor by any real concern for morality. Rather, the artists and cultural programs became convenient scapegoats for a group of politicians hell-bent on amassing power and discrediting the "liberal" power-structure they had to overturn in the process.
With "Piss Christ", Serrano attempted to symbolize with his crucifix submerged in urine that the kernel of truth contained in religion, the striving to reach God, is surrounded by human corruption--a fact that could hardly be contradicted when faced by elderly-bilking faith healers, televangelists and mainstream church bureaucracies. The meaning of the photo, therefore, would hardly be considered "sacrilegious" by most Americans. One wonders, however, if the concept it symbolizes might be far more threatening to those in Congress who owe their power to the very piss that surrounds the cross than would the photo itself.
A MAYOR enters, followed by a CITY COUNSEL. They hold onto a long leash, which trails offstage.
The federal government is not the only one in which politicians use the arts to promote their agendas. While the assault on the NEA and much of the controversy has died down for now, many smaller arts organizations have felt the wake of Gingrich's attack against the arts. For example, the head of the arts department at a Florida community college "resigned" after an evangelical preacher led a public outcry against an installation by an openly homosexual Atlanta artist, which she had arranged for the school's gallery.
Sometimes, government and commerce exerts a positive economic influence on the arts. In the 1980's, DeLand, Florida--the county seat of Volusia County--had a sleepy, depressed downtown with few restaurants and shops, but a lot of vacant space. Originally considered the "Athens of Florida" by its founders and centered around Stetson University, a prestigious liberal arts college, the town has a rich cultural history that dates back to the mid-1800's. However, as tourism bloomed in the beachside segment of the county, DeLand's economy slowed, and the center of town fell into danger of typical mid-city disuse and deterioration.
The MainStreet Florida project, which provides incentives for towns to redevelop historically interesting urban areas, boosted DeLand's interest in resurrecting its downtown. A number of initiatives were taken, including building a new county courthouse. One of the most successful, however, was the DeLand Fall Festival of the Arts, which began as a small, out-of-the-way sidewalk art festival and has grown in participation and prestige. The festival now brings in the same Central Floridians that attend the well-known Winter Park and Cocoa Beach festivals; along with the new visitors, the festival brings in a lot of money. New age gift shops, boutiques, computer stores, bars, and coffeehouses now do respectable business where only a few years ago empty storefronts and junk shops reigned. The street now resembles Winter Park's Park Avenue before the rent skyrocketed so that only Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic could afford it.
A regional theatre catalyzed a similar downtown revival in Gainesville. Charleston, South Carolina's Spoleto Festival--a weeks-long festival of theatre, music, and visual art--helped spur the gentrification of its historical district, which by the 1970's had fallen from its civil war era glory into Bowery-esque decay; now the district is choked with tourists and horse-drawn carriages. Fringe Festivals, several-day events where traveling theatre troupes turn empty storefronts into makeshift theatres, have contributed to a downtown renaissance all over the world. Dozens of other examples exist.
Such incentives to change the face of urban areas are not always so beneficent, however. By the middle of the 1970's, Orlando, Florida's downtown artery, Orange Avenue, had become a refuge for wig shops, trashy discount stores, a head shop, and a few old, established businesses that managed to hang by a thread onto survival. Worse still, Church Street, which crossed Orange Avenue at its southern end, was overrun with crime. Local high-schoolers considered a night-time drive down Church Street to ogle the hookers, the pimps and the winos passed out under streetlights was to be an E-ticket adventure.
The 1971 opening of Disney World did little for Orlando's inner city, instead drawing tourists into southern Orange and northern Osceola County.
BOB SNOW enters, trailing behind him a group of developers and city officials.
An entrepreneurial genius, Bob Snow had taken over a warehouse in Pensacola, Florida, and turned it into Rosie O'Grady's--a bar featuring Dixieland jazz, can-can dancers, sing-alongs, and overpriced, watery beer. The nightspot was insanely successful, and Snow started duplicating it in other cities, quietly looking around Orlando for a good spot to work his magical formula. He settled on Church Street, where he made a deal with the city to transform an unused railroad station into a mega-complex of bars--with Rosie O'Grady's its flagship--high-priced restaurants, dance halls and overpriced tourist shops. In return for all this business, the city would build lighted parking lots and increase police protection near the newly-reformed Church Street Station.
Enter A HELL OF A LOT OF TOURISTS and TONS OF MONEY, followed by RESTAURANTS, RETAIL STORES and, of course, BARS, COFFEEHOUSES AND NIGHTCLUBS.
One and a half decades later, where streets and sidewalks once rolled up after 6:00 and parks once provided nighttime habitat for transients, muggers, dope-peddlers and trysting homosexuals, downtown Orlando's streets are now packed with 20-somethings roaming from bar to bar. Orlando is now internationally known for its cutting edge music--which emanates from the turntables of DJ's who work at its all-night clubs, creating trance, house, jungle and whatever other electronic musical fantasies their mixing boards produce.
In part, the dream of resurrecting Orlando's downtown has been realized. A historical theatre dating to the vaudeville era houses a rock club. A converted Firestone tire store houses one of the best-known dance clubs in the country. Even Rolling Stone saw fit to visit Orlando in its quest for the new and the "hot". However, something is still wrong.
The club scene brings a lot of money downtown. Unfortunately, most of it circulates from hand to hand in the underground or near-underground--from ecstasy dealer to vinyl clothing designer to body-piercing salon to beer distributor. The city has tried to stamp it out for a few years--implementing curfews to drive out teenagers after midnight, trying to ordinance away rave clubs, etc. The buzzwords used in their anti-youth initiatives include "undesirables", "drugs" and "crime". The "club scene" frightens tourists and the elderly, chokes parking lots and encourages both victimless crime and property crimes. The young, of course, think it has to do with their weird clothes and leopard-spotted hairstyles. The real reason, though, is money. The city wants to put the money back into the mainstream where it will do them some good--genteel, taxpaying restaurants; high-fashion boutiques; and more overpriced tourist shops.
The CITY COUNSEL begins to pull on the leash, drawing onto the stage a NEWSPAPER PUBLISHER. They lead the PUBLISHER to a soapbox, onto which he climbs. An architect appears, and places a drawing-board rendering of a quarter-billion-dollar performing arts center onto an easel. A crowd of artists assemble.
Attempts to legislate away the club scene have done little good and created an enormous amount of controversy. Besides, getting rid of the clubs will only leave more vacant space. The new answer to the "problem" is seemingly much more pro-active and much less controversial--at least among most residents of the city. The answer? Bring the performing arts downtown, and well-educated, middle- and upper-class adults from all over central Florida will follow, along with families from the cold North coming to Florida to blow their savings accounts on once-in-a-lifetime vacations. They'll leave their money downtown.
The means of this socio-economic restructuring is a big, long-term plan. Get public support for a world-class performing arts center by claiming that existing facilities are inadequate, and by pointing out the benefits of rivaling Sydney, Australia and New York in that arena; bring a few fledgling theatres downtown first, just to prove that an audience exists to fill the seats in the new center; pretend there are a bunch of performing artists trying to make a living doing theatre but lacking the space to do it in; and make people think that the only reason Orlando's theatre scene doesn't rival Chicago's or New York's is that theatres here don't pay their actors.
That's where the newspaper publisher comes in, devoting a tremendous amount of ink--most of the front page of most of its Sunday arts and entertainment sections--building interest in the plan. Of course, everyone's careful not to mention the true agenda and no one is willing to publicly state the problems with the big plan--of which there are more than a few.
Orlando does, in fact, have a lot of very talented actors and performing artists. Most of them work at Disney or Universal, then volunteer their time in community theatre, developing their craft and doing the sort of art for which they got their degree in Fine Arts--work that's a lot more challenging and interesting than doing umpteen performances of "Murder She Wrote" every day. This plethora of talent and enthusiasm has, over the past decade, given birth to dozens of theatrical companies.
Unfortunately, attendance at Orlando's theatres has waned considerably in the last few years. There simply does not seem to be enough audience in this urban area of over a million to fill the thousand or so seats available at community and independent theatres. One of the best-funded community theatres in the southeast, Civic Theatre of Central Florida, tried to go professional a couple of years ago; it just cut short its mainstage season, attributing the decision to falling attendance and shrinking subscriptions. Several others have either fallen by the wayside or are in imminent danger of doing so.
Very little has been done to divert the crisis. To recognize that theatre is in danger of going the way of Orlando's symphony orchestra--which failed due to lack of support several years ago--will hardly promote the big plan. Of course, if these displaced artists are offered good enough deals, maybe they'll all move downtown for a while--at least until the vacant space is absorbed, the rent goes up, and the good deals disappear. By then, perhaps, a Walmart-quality chain theatre will exist to fill the spaces, much the way Olive Garden replaced the mom'n pop Italian restaurant that could no longer afford Park Avenue rent.
One wonders where the audience will come from to support a theatre district and a massive performing-arts center. One also wonders what the city fathers will think of the big plan when--instead of the Tennessee Williams plays and cute, inoffensive Fringe-type comedies they probably envision--one stage features a revival of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and another features a local performance artist calling the mayor the Antichrist.
In any case, the likelihood that the big plan will ever draw enough tourist dollars to make it pay is ludicrous. All the cultural arts in Central Florida combined are tiny potatoes compared to a good day at the theme parks--and the big money from California wants to keep it that way.
It would be nice if the performing arts were as great a priority to Orlando as professional sports are--and if the money spent on them equaled that spent on the arenas and stadiums that brought world-class pro sports to the community. However, Florida has one of the lowest educational standards in the country, and focus in education has shifted more and more towards the vocational. Orlando's economy is based on low-paying service-industry jobs. Therefore, one wonders if the next generation will provide enough people to fill a large performing arts center that possess both the depth of intellect required to enjoy an opera or ballet and the means to spend the equivalent of a day's admission to the Magic Kingdom to attend a performance.
Enter Salvadore Dali, Antonin Artaud, and Charles Ives. They tow a platform on wheels behind them. On the platform is a cross. From the cross hangs Mickey Mouse.
There are hundreds of similar examples of political influence using the artist to promote a political agenda. State governments set up grant programs to give preferential treatment to minority-operated arts organizations, for example, or to organizations that stimulate the state's economy by creating professional positions.
No doubt all these civic leaders, from the Congressman to the state bureaucrat to the city councilman, believe that their attempts to influence the arts--and to use the arts to influence society--are well-intentioned. In many cases, their efforts will be good for both society and the artist.
However, the artist must, if he is to create, act independently of these manipulative forces. There is a path of least resistance, in which the artist follows along with the mood of society at the moment, not threatening his position with funding agencies, city councils, and congressmen. On the other hand, there is the tougher path of independence, in which the artist ponies up his assets, his time, and his comfortable standing in the community in order to take risks. The artist who is willing to take risks will make a true difference in our society.
However, the artist must be realistic and responsible. Realistic in the sense that he cannot assume that society owes him a living; and responsible in that he is aware that as he creates, he defines the culture into which other artists will emerge, and in which his fellows will abide.
The artist in modern culture must be an activist. Not an activist in the sense that he uses his art to make a statement for a cause, but in the sense that he is an activist for art.
The BOARD OF DIRECTORS packs up their notebooks and legal pads and begins to move away.
Making art doesn't have to be expensive. There's a whole school of African-American artists who became successful while painting with remnants from cans of house paint, from clay, and from pigments squeezed from wildflowers. Some of America's greatest musicians played mainly on street corners and at house parties. In my town, theatre has happened in the back yard of a seedy oyster-bar, in nightclubs during their slow hours, and in converted warehouses.
Art doesn't happen because someone decides it should, then throws a lot of money in the general direction of a bunch of would-be artists. It happens because someone picks up a paintbrush, or starts learning some lines, or tunes a guitar. The theatre where I've hung my hat for the last few years has produced about 200 plays for less than a million bucks. That's a lot of art for very little money.
The lights fade to black, as the words trail off ...
© 1998 Loudmouth Productions Inc., all rights reserved.