A Night at the Opera
(On the phone) Hello? Yes, thank you. As I mentioned in my voicemail, I’m writing a play about elitism in the arts, based on interviews, and I’d like to make an appointment to interview the congressman . . . if he’s willing. Yeah . . . It can be brief — only ten to fifteen minutes or so. (pause) No, it isn’t about the NEA, just about the arts in general. (pause) OK, my number is 206-415-0236. Thanks.
So, if the measure of elitism is the audience in the house . . . their education . . . income level . . . race. Then yes, the nonprofits arts in the US are elite. They exist primarily for wealthy, educated, white people. That’s a no-brainer, right?
How do they say . . . it’s like the ability to hold to two contradictory ideas is a mark of intelligence or being civilized
(Interrupts Don) Elitist and progressive at the same time? You want me to talk out of both sides of my mouth at the same time? I’m a Jew and a politician. I can do this, you know!
Elitist . . . yeah, there’s something to look at there. As for the arts being left leaning or progressive . . . it’s the people who have political leanings, the arts are neutral . . . or better yet, silent.
What I was trying to say . . . well . . . is that the arts are actually conservative in that they carry culture from generation to generation. Sure, they can change people’s minds, but they’re also a big force in keeping things the same. Does that make any sense? Like they reinforce and preserve the status quo. Professor what’s-his-name rescues Eliza Doolittle from the gutter and makes a lady of her. The rich men hold all the power.
But wait a minute. At the same time, arts have a powerful ability to create community, and that’s a condition for change, so they’re actually progressive, yes?
So, is elitism really a problem for the arts?
No . . . Maybe . . . Hell, I dunno . . .
(Interrupts) Everybody seems OK with the idea that there are elite scientists, and elite fighting forces, like the Navy Seals, right? They’re all cool. Why not for the arts? Yo-Yo Ma is cool, right? Same difference . . . Duh.
As for your question, Hmmmmm . . . I don’t think the arts are intrinsically elitist, or left leaning, for that matter. Nor is there a contradiction between the two ideas. You just need to get rid of the value judgment. “Elite” can mean many things. For artists it can mean virtuosity, a combination of talent — a gift, if you will — and years of training. In some disciplines, genetics can play a role. We’re all not born equipped to sing Verdi . . . or the blues.
Are the arts progressive or left leaning? No easy answer . . .
OK, so there are works that are clearly ideological. Oleanna is an ideological play, as is Angels in America. They’re about social and political topics. Radio Golf is about gentrification and class mobility. Ya know what I’m sayin’?
But would you say Much Ado about Nothing is about heteronormative marriage? Look at the bias toward the status quo built into the plot. All the straight couples are sorted out and happily married in the end. Is it an ideologically conservative work? Ya know what I’m sayin’?
I am going to reject this premise. Elite . . . populist . . . left . . . right. This is a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one. I run a corporate funding program, and we don’t fund the arts. The company’s focus is on social sustainability — workforce development, strengthening communities, and such. All our funding is done at a local level and funding decisions are made by the people in those communities. What’s interesting is that it is often arts and cultural organizations that are the important players in those communities . . . so that’s who we fund. They are the fabric of community. The arts tell us who we are as people. You can’t call that elitist, can you?
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(Interrupts) I grew up in a small town in the rural South . . . a poor family with a single mom. I had no education in classical arts. We made our own music. Orchestras and things belonged to a different class than us. You had to know how to act and how to dress. Fast-forward to college. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I was with a bunch of girls talking and they were all excited that Yehudi Menuhin was coming to our campus. I had no idea who Yehudi Menuhin was. Was he some famous yoga guy? So I was smiling along with the conversation, trying to not let on that I was totally clueless. So, I finally asked where he was going to be . . . thinking that would give me a hint. The basketball gym! OK, so that was no help.
I go to the opera as part of my job, and I like it. But, I’ll tell you what happens over and over. OK, I am usually the only young black guy in the audience . . . and (laughs) it’s the happy hair, I guess. (laughs) I kinda stand out, but over and over, usually an elderly white lady will approach me and ask, ”Are you enjoying this? Is this your first time at the opera?” I think they are well intentioned, but just the same it is very off putting, like I‘ve transgressed some line and am being interrogated. Just the fact that they try to make me feel welcome says they also think I don’t belong there.
I never feel as black as when I am at the opera.
So, here’s one for you. We were working on a community arts project in one of the city’s more challenged neighborhoods, and one of the artists actually said to a resident, “Yeah, I’m poor too, but not like you.”
I grew up in a bicultural household — my parents spoke Chinese at home — and the difference was they never talked about art. It was just part of what we did and part of everyday life. It only gets to be elitist when people segregate it off and put it on a pedestal or something.
A lot of this has to do with being . . . uh . . . “not like us.” When we feel someone is “not like us” we tend to distrust them. Many artists do dance to a different beat, and see themselves as separate, so it’s easy for others to see them as “not like us.” This is evident in the way Obama is treated. People say they aren’t racist, but at the same time see him as “not like us.”
Elitism? You bet. Lemme tell you where I’m comin’ from. I was at this conference in California . . . it was all artists in the room, and there was this split. The people of color all wanted to talk about how race was such a factor in their work, and the artists of European de — oh, let’s just put it on the table. The white artists only wanted to talk about the excellence of the work.
And what they’re totally not getting is that it’s a privilege not to have to think about race first . . . like it’s not even on their radar. And for artists of color . . . we can’t dodge it. We face it every day. It’s not like a choice . . . like I’m sayin’, OK, I am only going to write about racial stuff. No matter what I write about . . . it’s always just there.
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(Interrupts) Let’s take sports. Competitive sports at the highest level of course are elitist. Not everybody can be a Yankee or a Michael Jordan. And Americans love watching those people compete . . . it’s part of your collective identity. And there’s no inherent tension between the pros and the amateurs. People love the Yankees (or not) and they love it when the Yankees bring the Little League kids out on the field at halftime.
Would that ever happen at intermission at the symphony?
No, and we only have ourselves to blame. Ya know . . . we kinda circle up and say, “Here we are . . . the arts people . . . we’re kinda special or something” . . . and that amounts to a KEEP OUT sign posted at the door.
My family didn’t go to see plays when I was a kid, or really even have books in my house. I got my first book when I was fourteen. Then overnight I was in college studying physical therapy and then overnight I was in a theater program. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about being a cowgirl . . . We were ranchers and I know all about alfalfa and cows, but when it came to theater I was always afraid of being seen as a fraud.
Then I heard about another guy from New Mexico who had graduated from Juilliard and I wanted to talk to him. So I called him up, and he was such a snob. “Do you know who Sam Shepard is, do you know who so-and-so is? You have no business going to New York until you know who those people are.”
Later I realized he was the one with the chip on his shoulder about being Chicano in the white world, and he thought he had to make me pay my dues . . . that I couldn’t just win this overnight.
Take a look at the architecture . . . museums and concert halls. Those massive steps and columns say YOU DON’T BELONG HERE to a whole bunch of people.
For a while I worked with this rural community-based theater company, and we made plays based on the stories of the people in the area. This was a transitional time for me. My mom had just died and I was sorting a lot of stuff out, and working in this community organization was a big part of moving through that time. She would have wondered what the hell I was doing.
Anyway . . . the shows were great . . . a lot of country music, singing, storytelling. Then we had the chance to take a show to New York — to Harlem — and I was real excited. I loved Harlem. Never been there . . . all the people were all so nice.
So, we opened the show, and I was just blown away by the audience! They wandered in late, talked to each other . . . talked back to the actors onstage. People were acting rude and not behaving like they were supposed to in a theater. I was completely upset and had to go outside and have a time-out.
Then I came to understand this was how black people engaged with theater in Harlem. They were digging the show, and this is how they showed it. Harlem was a long way from my home . . . and what I had been told were “good manners.” I had to acknowledge that people behaved differently in other places and own up to my own elitist attitude and expectations.
Call me an elitist if you like. Art is one of the towering achievements of humanity. It gives us direct insight into the human condition . . . the power and urgency of the tragedy and joy that’s our lot. It survives and crosses generations. Hamlet still moves us because there’s something there that touches a nerve.
I have no patience for this crap that art is important because listening to Mozart helps babies’ fine motor skills develop, or how the arts can have a positive economic impact in the inner city. All that’s well and good, I suppose, but it’s not why Mozart wrote with the passion that he did. And it’s not why I listen to his work.
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A lot of this idea of elitism is embedded in our history . . . public support for the arts and the idea of arts councils has its roots in the early twentieth century. Arts councils grew out of the settlement house movement. And settlement houses were started by the Junior League at Vassar College — young women trying to do some good and help new immigrants find their way.
But just say those words, “Junior League” and “Vassar,” and what kind of images of class come up?
I find it interesting that many of the classical art forms seem to become more stratified and class conscious in America.
It may be an expression of a kind of inferiority complex. Lacking an old-school aristocracy, Americans had to make up their own, based on money, and the arts — dressing up and attending the performance — became part of the trappings of establishing a social position. The art itself was not the driver.
Part of the problem is the culture of the institutions. We’ve allowed the language and discourse around the arts to become academic and self-referential, which is . . . exclusionary. It is like saying, “If you don’t understand this work, or like this work, that’s your problem.
(On the phone) Hello, yes, we spoke last week. I was calling about setting up an interview with the congressman about his views on the arts. I am writing a play about elitism. Oh. OK. I’ll call back tomorrow . . . I’ve left a couple of messages . . .
If the perception of elitism works against the arts, whether that’s politics or raising money, we only have ourselves to blame. We haven’t done much to address it, or face the facts. In the public arena we seem to trade caricatures . . . the arts are fops in smoking jackets, and those who don’t like them are ignorant rednecks in baseball caps.
It’s easy to resort to stereotypes . . . stuffy conservatives in suits for the symphony and the opera, and loose-moraled liberals at the hipster SoHo galleries. It’s not quite that simple. There are a lot of loose-moraled opera fans, too. Have you read some of those opera plots?
I live in the Midwest. There’s a dynamite choreographer here, and her work has been seen all over the world. A funder actually told her, “You can’t be serious about dance living out there. You should be in New York.” Like that’s the boundaries of the real world? What a bunch of crap.
I’m thinking it’s maybe the other way around. Dance people in New York are so wrapped up in their little world, they’re isolated from what is actually happening, and it shows in the work, which is . . . I dunno, all looking inward? Out of touch with the rest of us? Kinda like . . . hmmm . . . jacking off?
Art challenges conventional wisdom, upsets the status quo, creates discomfort, upsets people’s belief systems, and rocks the boat. Dismissing it as “elite,” and therefore irrelevant, is an easy defense mechanism . . . which is just a nice way of saying a cop-out.
Are the arts left leaning? OK, so sing me a conservative protest song. What are some of those great right-wing folk songs from the fifties?
OK, thought so.
OK. Let’s try this. I’ll sing the first line of a song, and you all sing the second line if you know it . . .
(sings) Where have all the flowers gone?
Oh, come on. Don’t be shy. Let’s try this one . . .
(sings) If I had a hammer . . .
(If the audience continues to sing, encourage them and go along with it.)
(Hold for this line until there is quiet.)
You know, for a lot of us in New York City, the arts were really the glue that helped hold it together after 9/11. Musicians playing on the street corners and for the rescue workers. That wasn’t about class.
(Sotto voce) Former governor Sarah Palin.
NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14 trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids. Yes, those are the type of things that for more than one reason need to be cut. The reality is we have fifteen million Americans who are out of work.
(Sotto voce) Robert Lynch of Americans for the Arts.
Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry supports 5.7 million jobs and generates $166.2 billion in annual economic activity. The NEA is one linchpin in that sizable economy.
(Sotto voce) President John F. Kennedy.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength, but for its civilization as well. I look forward to an America which is not afraid of grace and beauty.
(Sotto voce) Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times.
Of course art is elitist. The glory of the art museum is that anyone who walks through the door becomes an elitist, too. Museums don’t make people into better citizens. Hermann Göring was a connoisseur. Museums show people what beauty looks like — or what tastemakers at a given moment decide is beautiful — and through this encounter, people may or may not gain a larger, more humane view of civilization.
(Sotto voce) Andy Warhol.
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
OK, so this pisses me off. Our larger institutions have simply betrayed the intent of their nonprofit status, and don’t serve the public good. They only serve to keep themselves in business, sucking up all the money because they’ve managed to bully everybody into thinking they are “essential” or “legacy” organizations that we can’t live without, and that is elitism rotten to the core.
OK, so does that make me another kind of elitist? Deal with it.
The arts elite? No, no, no, no, mon ami. The arts are pond scum and I am the queen bee of the arts, darling, and it all revolves around me. There’s really nothing more to say on the subject.
You know what else pisses me off? The way Broadway producers use regional nonprofit theaters as tax shelters. Ya know what I’m sayin’? Theaters that are supposed to be trailblazers get turned into enhancement houses for Broadway because it comes with big money. New York producers develop a show in a nice tax-free nonprofit regional theater — sucking it away from its mission and then take it to New York. Ya know what I’m sayin’? This is bullshit.
You’re asking about elitism and are the arts left or right wing. Let’s talk about this whole “green” movement. That’s about as elitist and as left wing as you can get. How can I think about saving some animal when brothers are getting shot on my street? Maybe if you live on a street where folks don’t get shot you got the time to worry about animals. But that’s a privilege to get to do that.
People like me get a little choked up and emotional when we talk about the arts and completely lose our reasoning skills.
Here’s an idea, funders. How about you drop any kind of funding for any institution to do outreach and bring more people of color and what you call “marginalized communities” to big institutions? Instead, take that money, ask the communities of color what kind of art they are making . . . and just fund that.
You know what makes me go ballistic? Michael Kaiser thinking he has the answers for all the little guys. Talk about elitist.
Why on earth would I want talk to you about that?!
We have this funder here — I won’t name names — they collect money from corporations and make arts grants. But the reality is that they are like this big bloated ship, flags flying, tooting their horn, but actually they are stuck in the sand, years behind what is actually happening in the arts. Is that elitist? I suppose, but more like sadly stuck in the past.
The arts? Bunch of crap. I don’t care.
I suppose it’s like . . . totally naive to think that the people who control the money are smart?
In theater, there’s definitely a class system . . . directors, SMs, actors, designers, technicians, house staff. You may be queen of your little shit hill, baby . . . but it’s still a shit hill.
It’s all the Marx Brothers’ fault. Ever since that movie A Night at the Opera, where Groucho takes on the high-society woman. That scene established the classic battle of the everyman American schmuck versus the high-society dame, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.
(On the phone) Hello? Yes, we’ve spoken a few times earlier. I was calling about an interview with the congressman. No, I’m not a blogger. I’m writing a play about elite — Hello? . . . Hello? (looks at phone)