Archive for September, 2009

Artless US Gov

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Photo by Joe Benjamin — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

What’s the most controversial way to begin a conversation with artists? “Welcome to your government.”

So said Yosi Sergant, who, at the time, was director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts. On an August 10th conference call organized by Michael Skolnik, Sergant tried to enlist the arts community to support President Obama’s community service initiatives.

The call’s organizers certainly knew their business, their art, and their government. Skolnik is political director for Russell Simmons. Sergant came to the White House job after helping to promote the Obama campaign’s use of the Shepard Fairey “Obama Hope” posters.

The conversation’s goals appeared innocent enough: use the arts as an outlet for the Obama administration’s United We Serve volunteer initiative. After all, what could be wrong with getting the arts community to tap their own volunteers to help communities across the country?

As recorded by a skeptical participant on the call, Sergant asked those on the line to pick one of the keys to Obama’s national agenda — education, environment, health care — and apply their “artistic, creative community utilities.” (Hear the whole call or see transcript from Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site here.)

The conservative community was shocked, shocked that an official from a government agency that gives grants would imply a quid quo pro — you support us, we will support you.

After percolating through the less honorable conservative press and blogs, the Wall Street Journal provided what has become the majority point of view:

The NEA Web site describes its mission as follows: “supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.” Organizing propaganda for the party in power is not mentioned, nor is financially rewarding politically friendly artists.

A government rewarding its supporters? Politicians rewarding their friends? Who ever heard of such a thing?!

As of this week, Sergant is no longer employed at the NEA. The new chair of the agency, Rocco Landesman, promises to keep politics away from the art.

But, why?

Surely, no one believes that the US government is so pure in all the other areas where private enterprise intersects with the public good. Moreover, the arts institutions that receive the largest share of NEA funds are those institutions that serve the most people, are the most well connected, and do their level best never to create art that might offend the powers-that-be. Isn’t their programming just as “political” as the agit-prop group that protests the status quo? It’s only the flip side of a political debate.

Secondly, would it be so bad to politicize the funding choices of the NEA? Just as each administration puts its stamp on the judiciary, permanent staffing at federal and state agencies, and governmental priorities, why not do so for the arts?

If support for the arts, and who should receive support, were part of the way the US evaluates its politicians, perhaps the arts would be brought back to the table of intellectual and passionate public discourse.

The issue should not be about outing inappropriate democratic or republican largesse. The issue should be about the winning party’s choices to represent what is best about American initiative and creativity.

After all, unlike so many other places in the world, America gets a chance to radically change its government every four years. Why not radically change the art, too?

- Bill Reichblum

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Art v. Director — Euro v. USA

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Photo by Richard Cawood — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

“In Europe our tradition of exploring ideas and issues in a very contemporary way is much more advanced than in America.”

Wow. Where’s Tony Kushner when you really need him?

Nikolaus Bachler, leader of the Bavarian State Opera, did not stop there in talking about the difference between the Euro and American approach to his high art: “Theater is for the present. Maybe it’s true that any really good European production would hold up in the United States 20 years later.”

However, he is not waiting twenty years. This season, Bachler’s Müncher Opernfestspiele initiates a co-production of Luc Bondy’s Tosca with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and its leader, Peter Gelb. Still, these two opera powerhouses have not had the easiest time finding a production to share, as reported by the New York Times (and posted in KadmusArts’ Culture News).

Gelb might appreciate those “formidable intellectuals” of Euro art, but believes that “[a] great opera production should work for any audience. I have to believe that.”

Two recent Met hits were rejected by Bachler because they were too much “conventional conventional.” In rejecting Mary Zimmerman’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Bachler declared: “The production tells us nothing about what the piece might mean to us now.” And she’s supposed to be one America’s leading intellectual directors!

Bachler is representing the Euro-favorite taste for deconstruction, radical re-imagining, and high concept approach to production where the director’s vision is the most enticing reason to see opera. For Gelb, though, audiences come if you give them what they want — a good night out: “People should enjoy opera. They shouldn’t need a guidebook. Verdi and Puccini wanted audiences to have a good time at the opera, not to torture them.” Opera as torture!

Gelb uses the history of generous state funding as the source of Euro arrogance in front of a classical work and today’s audiences. Anywhere you do not need to be concerned with box office revenues is a place where you do not need to be concerned with the pleasure of your audience. Isn’t a lecture the most fun for the lecturer?

Gelb, though, might have it backwards. Anywhere you have generous state subsidies is a place where you can keep the price of tickets low. Many of the European audiences have grown up seeing multiple productions of the opera cannon. If you’ve seen many different versions of an opera, you might be more open to new interpretations, especially those most relevant for our times. Surely there are very few people who have grown up being able to afford seeing multiple Met productions.

Fortunately, Gelb has been at the forefront of changing the Met’s audience. The Met had one of the most traditional audiences in the country. As all presenters know, the older an audience gets, the less they are attracted to adventure, and the more they expect the sets and costumes to reflect, if not amplify, the high cost of their tickets. Gelb’s initiatives include bringing the Met to new audiences — outside on the plaza, in Times Square, and in movie theatres across the country. (See “Radical Opera”)

Sure, there are too many Euro-type productions that are completely over the top — radical for the sake of radicalizing, impenetrable for the sake of being edgy, and ridiculous for the sake of being profound. However, as Gelb knows so well, there are also too many productions that never ask themselves: Why are we watching this today? What compels to confront this work, today?

There are two rules to follow in a director’s re-imagining a work from the canon:

1. What does the director reveal about the original?
2. What does the director reveal about our world today?

Opera has very little leeway in these experiments. Of all of the performance arts, most of the operatic experience can be replicated at home with a great sound system and a great recording.

Maybe Bachler and Gelb should move away from the focus on their current audiences. They need to get together to agree on a way to find new audiences. In the opera world that would be the most necessary and most radical manifesto.

- Bill Reichblum

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Expect the Unexpected

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Photo by R.D. Capasso — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

What makes for a good night out? A good trip? A good life? A good festival? When you can expect the unexpected.

With all of the coverage and reminiscences of Woodstock, it might have been easy to overlook what made it such a good festival: no-one knew exactly what to expect.

There were so many factors that were unexpected: the line-up, the weather, the enormous crowd. While it is easy to look back without questioning the universal love-in of the times, the vibe of the festival was unexpected as well. Imagine bringing 500,000 people to a field of chaos today and see if they can accomplish what the Woodstock crowd did: creating a genuine community. This, too, was unexpected — especially in the face of all the obstacles of the line-up, the weather, and the large crowd.

We know from our trend watching that the festival business continues to thrive and grow, even in tough economic times. Clearly, audiences and fans live for live performances.

What makes live performance so attractive is that each one is unlike any other. So, too, for the festival experience.

The fun challenge for maintaining festival growth will be to absorb the lessons of Woodstock and everyone’s best dates: Expect the unexpected.

- Bill Reichblum

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CATS: Now and Offline

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Photo by Art Siegel — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

KadmusArts loves great performances. We love music. We love great acting. We love beautiful dancing. We love to laugh. And, we love our online community. But, even we have had enough when it comes to one area of the web that brings together all of the above: Cats!

The web is inundated every day with cats performing, cats playing music, cats doing scenes, cats dancing, and cats doing funny things. Video after video, email after email, link after link, there is an unhealthy obsession with cat shows.

Thankfully, Urlesque is doing something about it. They have created a “Day Without Cats” (on video, on the internet). On September 9, 2009, the world and perhaps all those lonely people with video capability will take a rest from cats online.

How bad is the situation? Even BuzzFeed, a site that follows viral trends on the web, leads a post with “We haven’t had enough cats on the site today, so here’s a story…”

Cats have never been good actors. Performances with animals often feature dogs, the Laurence Oliviers of the house. (Go ahead and name one stage play that featured a leading role for a live cat — not someone dressed like one.) Dogs take direction. Cats take focus. However, it is this cat independence (or low level of intelligence?) that works great for a quick shot video event. If dogs are great at knowing their lines and hitting their mark, cats improvise and have no qualms making fools of themselves.

So, as we begin a new September to December season of amazing performances, let’s take a day to ban the cat shoots. Who knew how prescient Bernie Jacobs would be when he created the promotion, “CATS: Now and Forever.”

- Bill Reichblum

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