Critical Condition

Assassins and Cash— In Search of a True Theater Discourse

In this climate of free-market mania, when we seem to have lost the democratic principle that there are some fundamental needs that a humane society fulfills even if there's not a buck to be made, the arts have been pushed to justify their existence in commercial or at least instrumental terms. While the right wing of the culture wars long derided any claims for the social role of the arts, today's defenses strike me as far more dangerous. In Giuliani's New York, theaters are getting wiped out when they don't draw tourist dollars. Will music curricula get struck from schools if they don't increase math skills after all?

Pew's research is likely to document many such benefits from the arts. The foundation's director of culture programs, Marion A. Godfrey, told the Times that "arts in schools help kids develop their thinking and learning skills, there is anecdotal evidence about the role of arts in community revitalization, and there is the impact of arts on individuals, the stories of how one person's life is changed." In other words, now that the Reagan-Bush-Clinton administrations have gutted social services and let the public schools rot— and cut arts funding nearly in half— it's the arts that are going to get kids to pass reading tests and keep crack dealers off the corner.

Maybe they can, to some degree. But if we must look at theater in utilitarian terms, perhaps it's best to be, well, more grandiose. Theaters, after all, are the places where alternative worlds come to life before our eyes; they are the places that, like nothing else on earth, demand, and therefore ignite, the imagination. Maybe it's redundant to say the critical imagination. For all works of the imagination are works of criticism. And democracy itself depends on criticism.

This essay is based on a talk Alisa Solomon gave upon receiving the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

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