Six years ago I wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal called “Tolstoy’s Contraption” (it’s in the Teachout Reader) in which I suggested that theater and the novel were “obsolete artistic technologies.” This must be the most misunderstood piece I’ve ever written–Saul Bellow definitely misunderstood it–which most likely means that I failed to make myself clear.
Here are the operative paragraphs:
It’s no secret that the power of novels to shape the national conversation has declined precipitously since the days when J.D. Salinger and Norman Mailer were household names…
For Americans under the age of thirty, film has largely replaced the novel as the dominant mode of artistic expression, just as the compact disc has become the “successor technology” to the phonograph record. No novel by any Gen-X author has achieved a fraction of the cultural currency of, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Movies like this are to today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings what The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road were to the baby boomers….
We are not accustomed to thinking of art forms as technologies, but that is what they are–which means they can be rendered moribund by new technological developments, in the way that silent films gave way to talkies and radio to TV. Well into the eighteenth century, for example, most of the West’s great storytellers wrote plays, not novels. But the development of modern printing techniques made it feasible for books to be sold at lower prices, allowing storytellers to reach large numbers of readers individually; they then turned to writing novels, and by the twentieth century the theatrical play had come to be widely regarded as a cultural backwater. To be sure, important plays continue to be written and produced, but few watch them (unless they are made into movies).
Four years later, I became the Journal‘s drama critic, which doubtless struck a great many people as condign punishment for publishing so grave a heresy. But it never occurred to me when I wrote “Tolstoy’s Contraption” that anyone would ignore that last sentence. My point wasn’t that plays were no longer worth writing, or that all new plays were bad: it was that in a mass culture, live theater is not a major player in the cultural conversation, simply by virtue of the fact that comparatively few people see it. To write a play is not an efficient way of attracting the attention of very large numbers of people, and the novel (by which I mean serious literary fiction, not The Da Vinci Code), it seems to me, is headed in the same direction.
Is that bad? Only if you’re the sort of “artist” who treats your art as an instrumentality, a means of accomplishing something exterior to art and its true purposes. If you write plays (or serious novels) in order to advance a cause (or to make a lot of money), you’re probably wasting your time. If, on the other hand, your interest is in art for its own soul-illuminating sake, you’re in the right business. Merely because very large numbers of people don’t go to the theater doesn’t mean that plays aren’t worth writing and producing. Quite the contrary, it means that those of us who love theater–and I love it passionately–are thereby freed to concentrate on its unique properties, undistracted by secondary considerations.
All this came to my mind in the course of a recent rereading of David Thomson’s Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Most people think of Welles as a filmmaker, but he started out on the stage, and I suspect he would done better to stay there. To be sure, we would have been deprived of Citizen Kane, but as wonderful as Kane is, I can think of far worse fates. Thomson understands this, as the following imaginary dialogue shows:
[T]he movies–if I may say so–their beauty is too available.
There was a time of my life, the 1970s, when I regularly taught Citizen Kane, going through it in a class, in detail, looking at the film over and over again. I probably saw it ten times a year.
I wearied of it. I had to stop seeing it. It became only its tricks, do you understand? It lost its life. Welles felt the same, I think. Consider how many times he saw every detail in the editing, how he labored over its grace. He reached a point where he could not see it ever again. It made him feel…futile, cynical even, empty. Films can do that.
But a play.
Ah yes. I think nearly every day of plays I’ve seen, or even plays I directed. Nothing remains of them. Or much of them. I have Sondheim’s Into the Woods on video in a filmed performance. And I like to see that. But it does not match what I felt that Sunday matinee at the Martin Beck Theatre–the marvel and danger of it, the cries of the audience, the passion of being there….
The passion of being there. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s the one thing theater can do for you that film will never be able to do (or the novel, for that matter). It puts you in the same room, the same space, with the experience you’re having, and it requires you to make a pilgrimage to that given space at an appointed time in order to have the experience. It expects more of you. Such an experience is qualitatively different in effect from anything the mass media, ubiquitous as they are, can possibly offer. It is also, by definition, an experience available only to a limited number of people–a self-selected elite.
All of us now living have grown up with the mass media, whose effect on art has been at once to democratize it and to distort the values of many artists. I’m for democratizing the arts–or, rather, democratizing access to the arts. I believe devoutly that far more people are capable of appreciating serious art than are currently experiencing it. I don’t believe, however, that everyone is capable of appreciating it, nor do I think that a work of art is in any sense better because it is being experienced by a larger number of people. Ubiquity is not the same thing as importance, and those who hanker after the former are unlikely to achieve the latter.
Artists (and arts administrators) who were temporarily fooled into converting to the twin gospels of more-is-better and bigger-is-better are now starting to see how grossly they were misled by the mass-media promise of infinite plenty. It occurs to me that the conditions under which today’s artists grew up will someday be seen as a prolonged aberration from the historical norm, one that is now being corrected with a vengeance. I doubt, to take just one example, that every good-sized city in America is prepared to support a full-time resident professional symphony orchestra, much less an orchestra and an opera company and a theater company and a ballet company and a museum. This sad but inescapable fact explains why so many regional orchestras are now devoting most of their time to accompanying pop singers, and why so many regional museums feel obliged to fill their galleries with imported blockbuster shows from elsewhere. The balloon has burst.
One piece of good news is that arts journalism is being transformed before our eyes by the rise of Web-based new media–and just in the nick of time. The old mass media were and are zero-sum operations, as advocates of literary fiction have been discovering to their dismay in recent years. Allocate more space (or air time) to one topic and you have that much less space available for all other topics: novels compete with memoirs, classical music with jazz, theater with film, indie flicks with special-effects extravaganzas. Now that most of us live in one-newspaper towns, and now that newspapers themselves are struggling for survival, that’s turned into an iron law.
The Web is different: it permits you to publish a “newspaper” or “magazine” of your very own without having to pay for ink, paper, bricks, and mortar–much less a graduate degree in journalism. What it doesn’t guarantee, however, is that such “newspapers” will ever be read by millions of people, or that their publishers will be able to give up their day jobs. Artblogging will never be a true mass medium because serious art doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. And what’s wrong with that? Bigger isn’t better, and the world doesn’t owe artists a living, much less critics and editors. As I wrote in this space last year in response to an e-mail from an aspiring screenwriter:
As we city folk have a tendency to forget, America is a big country, and the smart people don’t all live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. In fact, most of them don’t. From my art-oriented point of view, the most valuable thing about the new media is their ability to distribute high culture (a phrase I don’t define narrowly, by the way) to smart people who don’t live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, I hasten to remind my correspondent that those who want to make serious art must take it for granted that they won’t make serious money doing so. If that’s what you’re in it for, don’t even think about writing indie screenplays or literary novels or symphonies–go work for Donald Trump. Making art is its own reward, or ought to be. George Balanchine…was once asked why the members of New York City Ballet’s pit orchestra were paid less than New York City’s garbagemen. His answer? “Because garbage stinks.”
Which brings us back to the alleged obsolescence of live theater. Of course it isn’t obsolete, not in any way that really matters, any more than paint on a canvas or words on a page are obsolete. It’s simply reverted to its normal place in the natural order of things–and that’s good. One of the best shows I’ve seen this season, Sides: The Fear Is Real, is performed by six unknown actors in a shoebox-sized theater. It couldn’t have been a bit better if it had been performed on TV for an audience of millions. Of course I’d like for more people to see it. That’s why I gave it a good review in The Wall Street Journal, as well as on this blog. Nevertheless, that wouldn’t make it better. (It might even make it worse, considering what you have to do in order to get a show on TV.)
Art isn’t religion, but it has something important in common with religion: it’s a form of soulcraft. Souls can only be changed one by one, and each one is as supremely important as the next. Hence there are no small audiences, only small-souled artists. Blessed are the arts that can be experienced by a mere handful of people at a time, for theirs is the kingdom of beauty at its most intense and precious. Orson Welles might not have made Citizen Kane if he’d remembered that, but he probably would have been a happier man–and a better artist.