Arts Issues for Journalists: August 2007 Archives
I'm going to depart from both of the two planned entries that I have in partial draft for today's post.
Instead of talking about weightier issues, I'm going to tell you about a party I went to last night. And if you'll bear with me, you'll see that it's not totally off subject for Flyover as the party had to do with both art and journalism.
The soiree took place at the historic Gem Theatre in downtown Detroit, in a beautiful section of the city near the new field for the Lions. More than 200 people packed into the cabaret-seating style theater enjoying a cocktail reception, a show, and then a dessert reception.
The show was the Oscar Wilde Award Night, sponsored and produced by a Detroit weekly, Between the Lines, to recognize excellence in local professional theater. The newspaper puts on an excellent party and representatives from the theater community from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson, and Lansing turn out to celebrate.
The three reviewers from the newspaper reviewed 96 productions from 31 different professional companies. When announcing the nominations, Don Calamia, staff arts critic wrote:
For despite the second worst economy in the nation that seemingly kept a noticeable number of paying customers out of the seats and a governor who reneged on several million dollars of previously promised grant money, not one theater that Curtain Calls reviewed over the past few seasons shut its doors for financial reasons - despite numerous rumors to the contrary.
Instead, the Williamston Theatre set up shop in a sleepy little town near Lansing, and Who Wants Cake? snuck into Fabulous Ferndale with The Ringwald, a renovated home all its own. And StarBright Presents Dinner Theatre doubled its venues, one in southern Oakland County and another in northern Macomb County.
Call them crazy - and you wouldn't be the first - but these brave souls reflect the attitude of ALL Michigan thespians who believe the mitten state is a great place to live, work and raise a family - despite some major obstacles. So they stay and struggle - oftentimes for little money and even less recognition.
The staff at this newspaper understand their community and the environment it works in. More than one person expressed genuine surprise at receiving an award because, as they said, they didn't know anyone knew them. There was an amazement and gratitude that someone saw them and recognized their work.
For any in the journalism world who might wonder whether the arts community has noticed the cutback in arts coverage, let me share a moment with you. The master of ceremonies asked the newspaper's publishers to come to the stage to give out the publisher's award of excellence. Before the two women arrived at the lectern, the audience was on its feet, giving them a standing ovation. They recognized the commitment this newspaper has made to its art coverage and were eager to express their appreciation for it.
Earlier in the evening when I was talking to those same publishers about how thorough their arts coverage is, one of them said, "We're gay, we have to cover theater." A nearby actor came back with, "No, you don't have to, that's why it's great that you do."
Between the Lines is a newspaper that recognizes how vibrant the theater community is and how much coverage matters. Earlier this year, Calamia went to the publishers and said, "We need to do more." This from the critic who reviewed more than 70 shows, outstripping the two Detroit dailies and every other newspaper in that town. The publishers agreed with him. So they're soon launching Encore Michigan, a Website that will contain daily updates with new reviews every Monday morning.
Between the Lines is a shining beacon lighting the way to what is possible for newspapers to do. They demonstrate how to be part of the community while providing outstanding arts coverage. They understand their role in the ecosystem. While the artists may not always like what they say, they're grateful that someone is out there talking about their art, letting them know that they were heard, and telling others what is happening.
Our readers often inspire me as much as our colleagues. Something that resonated with me this week was Steve Durbin's comment on Joe Nickell's post. He said that "people work for their passions, as well as for money." I'd have to agree with him. I'm not sure there is anything other than passion worth spending one's life blood and precious time for. I know that one of the reasons I do corporate writing is to subsidize the type of writing that I want to do--including arts writing.
Someone whose work has long resonated with me is Dorothy Sayers. She once wrote a play dealing with the topic of work and why we do it. Given that she considered art to be her work, I find it particularly germane to the discussion that has been going on here. She argued that we need to "estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made."
Certainly artists and journalists alike will often say that they are called to a higher purpose than simply a bottom line. I need to make enough money writing so that I can continue to write--which means feeding my family and paying my bills. I'm not writing so that I can get rich (I wouldn't complain if that were to happen, but that would be a pleasant side effect, not the end goal).
Many artists would tell you the same thing. They're not creating so that they can become filthy rich, they're creating because they have to. To not create would be to psychically damage themselves. There is economic necessity that must be met, but as Sayers promotes, payment should be that which allows people to continue doing the work that they're doing.
This is often at odds with the capitalist society we live in. It's certainly at odds with the exaltation of acquisition above all else. It's perhaps where art often suffers the most as it is difficult to "possess" a performance.
When I was very young, my father was careful to ensure that I could distinguish between political and economic systems--and, because it was in the midst of the Cold War and we attended what I later learned to be a very conservative church--that none of them were good or evil; they were just ways of doing things.
However, our culture doesn't always draw such fine distinctions and we often try to apply our economic system to our politics and our politics to our culture. Rather than allowing them to influence each other as part of an ecosystem, there is a tendency to force one system's philosophy upon the other, to believe that what works for one will work for all.
Art suffers when we force upon it the same economic model that businesses operate under. If their goal must be the making of money rather than the making of art, they're going to fail. This doesn't mean that artists can be oblivious to economic factors or lack in all business sense, but it does mean they must choose their model carefully. How they manage their finances will say something about who they are and whether their art will be sustainable.
Art has traditionally relied much on government support and money from individual and corporate donors. There is an understanding that not all art will be commercially viable and succeed only through the price paid by those who consume it. We've accepted this because there is a societal value that far outweighs the burden of cost that any individual can afford to bear.
Indeed, like education, society reaps the benefit of art even when it is not the direct consumer. My life is made better when my neighbor goes to the symphony, even if I do not. As a member of my community, I want to see our communal dollars support what benefits all of us. I want to live in a society where people share a commitment to creation and to connection. Those are things that will spill over into politics and economics. Those are the things that will bring about a better world.
At the NEA Institute last winter, Ben Cameron talked about how theaters make communities a healthier place. He quoted a study that said high school students who have been in a single play are 42 percent less likely to support racist behavior than those who have not.
If arts were to operate on a purely capitalist model that encourages greater consumerism, it would miss out on its higher calling and the calling that makes it truly relevant and of value to the community.
The money has to be there, but it can't be the reason or the goal. Rather it is the set piece which makes the play possible, not the story itself.