Mitt Romney’s recent promise to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts if elected President, was met with predictable outrage from the theater community. The necessity of government dollars to the production of contemporary American theater is almost unquestioned by practitioners of the art form. Republican plans to reduce government’s role in theater are seen as unserious efforts to engage in culture wars, pitting G-d fearing real Americans against New York Jewish homosexual pornographers who see a crucifix in a jar of urine and call it art. For the record, I quite like Andres Serrano’s work, “Piss Christ” included. The old school Jesse Helms argument against arts funding, basically the “people don’t want to pay for stuff they find offensive” line of attack always struck me as weak. After all, we all pay taxes that go to programs we may not agree with, or might even find offensive, whether it is Planned Parenthood or the War in Iraq. As with any government program, the ultimate question must be, is it working? Are we better off with it than we would be without it. This begs a question I have seen few attempts to answer: “What would American theater be like without government funding?”
A little historical perspective can help us examine this question. In 1968 a young Vaclav Havel was beginning one of the brightest playwriting careers of the 20th century. In the midst of the Prague Spring, a brief mellowing of Communist hard line rule in Czechoslovakia, his voice, tuned to a pitch of personal freedom, was blossoming. He was also catching the notice of Moscow, and in 1969, when Soviet tanks rolled in, the message was sent loud and clear that this kind of writing would not be permitted. A recent article from the Nation puts it this way “A few years later, Havel and other banned Czech writers felt they had little to lose. They took culture into their own hands, publishing books by typing up carbon copies and smuggling manuscripts to West German printers, and staging plays in living rooms and pubs” Far from being cowed by his government’s clampdown, Havel persisted and created powerful theater which would one day help destroy the authoritarian regime in Eastern Europe, and propel him to his nation’s Presidency.
The lesson from this episode, and many others in the history of the stage, is that government action is not an essential element to the creation of theater. If we know that brutal government oppression is unable to destroy theater, how can we possibly believe that government support is needed to create it? And perhaps more importantly, if theater was truly dependent upon Government support, how could we know that it was not simply reinforcing the message and philosophy of an elite ruling class which holds the purse strings and the keys to the space. After all, there were certainly Soviet approved and funded works of art in 1970s Prague, and the artists who made that work likely did not view themselves as Communist Party stooges. In our system of government funding we like to think that the dollars come without strings, without censorship, without the requirement that the work conform to a social ideal.
What emerges from the “arms length” approach to government theater funding in the US is a kind of schizophrenia. On the one hand, theater insists that its very existence is conditioned by Government funds. On the other hand, in its attempt to speak with the powerful and relevant voice of a Havel, theater seeks to find oppression in the very systems of government and economy which support it. American theater winds up like a precocious 20 something who asks his mom and dad to front the money to publish a book about what shitty parents they are.
In that spirit on September 17th, or should I say #S17, the venerable Public Theater will host a celebration of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We will no doubt be treated to tales of the evils of Big Business, though the Public itself takes plenty of Big Business money. We will hear what a farce it is to claim that corporations have constitutional rights, though the Public is a corporation which no doubt believes it is protected by the 1st Amendment. We will be shocked by the reality of income inequality in the same theater complex that recently ran a show with $160 tickets. This past winter I attended some of Occupy Broadway and saw the rebel troops on 50th street entertained by the Civilians, who will be hosting the Public’s #S17 bash. I got a kick out of watching Michael Friedman, who I went to prep school with, lead the crowd in old union songs, demanding workers rights. Later that night a pre scandal Mike Daisey would whip the would be revolutionaries into a fever with a rousing speech about corporate malfeasance, seasoned of course with the made up bits that rounded the story out. Though I could hardly disagree more with the childish philosophy of Occupy Wall Street, one positive did emerge for me on that chilly, somewhat hectic night. Excepting maybe the police overtime, not one government dime was spent on the event. Occupy Broadway had proven that the government is not needed to created art.
Mitt Romney is probably not promising to defund the NEA because he thinks its the best thing for art, he is likely playing to conservative voters who fear such institutions foster liberal bias in our culture. But in many ways these two impulses are not exclusive to each other. Even at “arms length” government’s enormous role in funding theater does impose social ideals that drastically limit the appeal and relevance of theater in our society. It is my belief that this appeal and relevance would be greatly enhanced by a movement away from government funding. But here’s the thing. Just as the Soviets could not control theater by oppressing it, our government and higher institutions of culture cannot control theater by co opting it. We are theater artists, and we make theater, we need neither be encouraged or allowed.