Thursday, October 7, 2010

Free the Arts

A few weekends ago, Cal Performances offered a Sunday "Free For All" of music, dance and performance art, at venues all over the UC Berkeley campus. It was a beautifully warm afternoon, and I was one of the many people scheduled to perform that day.

My husband drove the family to the campus, dropping me off near the venue, so that I could make the call time before the concert. He then parked and took the kids to wander about, seeing and hearing other performances before getting in line to see my concert. They got in line 20 minutes before concert time. When concert time came, they were among the more than 200 people who were turned away.

This was not an isolated incident. Hundreds of people were turned away from many performances. There were thousands of people milling through the campus on that warm summer day. All of them wanting to hear music, see dance, people watch, picnic or any number of other possible activities.

What does this say?

Living, as we do, in the wake of free-market free fall, perhaps the only affordable art experience for the average person is the free experience.

But, here is the rub: art has its costs. Being a singer and a writer, I know this all too well. Everyone involved in art personally invests so much more time (and even money), than any professional person with a 9-5 job could ever understand, to the art. Seasoned professionals are expected to continue "paying their dues" by donating their time to give free performances or showings all the time. The cliche argument is: "for the love of your art." The people who use that cliche don't really know what that actually means for the person who participates in a life of art, what is truly sacrificed. And, no, that kind of thing really isn't useful on your resume.

Once we realize we (and what we do) are commodities in a world that only understands buying and selling and value judgement, the love of our art shifts in imperceptible ways. The public desires an endless stream of entertainment to dull the blunt horrors of wage slavery. And so, there it is, an endless, even mindless, stream of entertainment sent out to meet the endless needs of the public. Some of this entertainment does entertain; much of it does not. Think about the hundreds of television channels that deliver 24 hours of dubious content, when the technology is capable of delivering on-demand content, tailored to the taste of the client. This endless stream of noise is very difficult to compete with, and who wants to?

What am I trying to say? There is a lot of money being spent to produce a lot of crap content, forcing "art" to be all about buying and selling products, most of which are not necessary for living a good life, many of which will be soon added to the pile of junk that, in many ways, looms over the future health of our planet.

But the minute a musician, actor, dancer, artist wants to receive professional recognition in the form of a decent paycheck and benefits, the buck stops. I find this interesting, psychologically and philosophically. To some extent, I find this to be evidence of a sick society.

People really cannot do without art in their lives. Art is what keeps us sane in a world crusted by layers and layers of political illogic and common denominator frustration, from which no reasonable sense of order can be derived. So many people are not or , at least, do not believe themselves capable of opening themselves up to creating their own artistic experience; this is why artistic individuals are so special and so necessary. The creative thought behind art has done as much to develop industry and technology as mathematics and science.

Singers, dancers, instrumentalists, thespians invest their bodies and psyches in the stream of artistic continuity in a way that no other set of professionals can. Fine artists and writers often sacrifice a social existence in order to have the time and solitude required to develop their art. Yes, time spent in this way is personally rewarding and edifying, but it comes at great personal cost, that even a steady paycheck can never truly repay. The personal angst (and even attendant therapy) that frequently informs an artist's work provides someone else a therapeutic experience. "Poetic Justice" would allow this exchange to have full circle closure back to the artist(s) in the form of remunerative therapy.

This leads me to my radical thought for today: The only way to truly Free the Arts is for society to earnestly invest in them. If a fraction of the money spent on crap commercial product junk were invested in arts organizations to the extent that artists could earn a decent living wage, we might be able to deliver more of what we love to do to a public that is obviously starving for it, as well as open the artistic frontier to explore and evolve beyond the mainstream of public consciousness.

Obviously, there is so much more to say. Discussion, anyone?


  1. While not directly in response to your post, a thought struck me as it often does when I read about “the arts”. When I hear the term “the arts”, I often find myself irked by an implied elitism in the label. As an EDM (Electronic Dance Music) producer, I find myself relegated to the “low art” camp along with the likes of Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga, etc. I don’t understand how the “art world” can put groups like Yes (a progressive rock group) alongside Lil Wayne. Why do we even have a low art/high art distinction. It’s completely ridiculous. The genre or form of art a person is involved in doesn’t matter. Most artists are struggling financially. We need to come together and support each other. I think we could learn great deal from our different expressions of the creative spark.

    Lady Gaga

    Yes -

  2. smanalo: I agree that there is a certain amount of misperceived elitism attributed to the label "the arts". I think one of my purposes in this particular entry was to suggest that the arts are somewhat hampered by financial constraints to "conform to mainstream". Because there are so many artists vying for an audience in any given marketplace, boards of arts organizations are naturally under the impression that audiences are more likely to be built when accessible and familiar presentations are made with expression and precision that will warrant a second hearing, and then a third, and then you can push the boundaries... This may be shortsighted, but it can be absolutely necessary for artists getting their start. On the other hand, organizations whose mission is clearly to start beyond preconceived boundaries may have more freedom, and might also find grant money to support their efforts. I agree that creative partnerships broaden the spectrum of art, in all directions. I have had the good fortune to be involved in such partnerships. I don't think in terms of "low art" and "high art", but funders sometimes do have that in mind. I meant to suggest that art of all kinds can be freed to find its greatest potential when it is fearlessly funded. Do I see this as a likelihood in our future? Sadly, no. "Elitism" may be just another way of saying "mainstream and predictable, but funded." However, there are new groups and new artists who are coming into the scene all the time, with new concepts of artistic image and vision. And, I place my faith in the knowledge that all the arts, through technology, are speaking to each other now in ways that were unheard of even 15 years ago. This is encouraging.