Critical Condition


Last week the Pew Charitable Trust announced it will devote some $50 million over the next five years to pushing cultural policy onto the political agenda. Rather than spending the money on producing art, the $4.7 billion foundation plans to commission academic reports and to conduct opinion polls to determine, indeed to measure, art’s value. Here’s how the reasoning seems to go: A slew of social scientists will gather data and splash it across the media, and that will persuade politicians to develop a seriously considered and generously funded cultural program. Thus America will join the rest of the industrial world— among whom it currently spends the lowest per-capita amount on culture— in supporting the arts as essential to its national definition.

Though this logic is tempting, its perils are many, and they may best be summarized by noting the apparent irrelevance of critics to the enterprise. Sure, such irrelevance may strike many a theater artist as a fitting comeuppance for critics, but consider the notion that data is more important than discourse when it comes to trying to understand the meanings of art. Can a questionnaire capture the appeal of contradictions, the pleasure of the unresolved? (Choose one: Dare Clubb’s Oedipus challenged my moral imagination [a] often; [b] sometimes; [c] not at all.) Can a poll express passion or gauge the downright corporeal intelligence of a performance? (Peggy Shaw’s Menopausal Gentleman made me [a] giggle; [b] cry; [c] sweat; [d] all of the above.) Can statistical results be a lovely, revelatory read?

On the other hand, one may reasonably ask, what discourse? There’s less and less room for the considered critical essay these days. Arts pages shrink. Attention spans dwindle. Habits of mind turn ever toward the goes-down-easy. Disagree with them where you will, but the last generation or two of serious critics— Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Elinor Fuchs, Richard Gilman, Stanley Kauffmann, James Leverett, Bonnie Marranca, Mary
McCarthy, Erika Munk, Gordon Rogoff, most of whom do not write regularly about current theater anymore— successfully distinguished themselves from the thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviewing that dominated the dailies, and produced a lasting body of thoughtful and engaged writing. How discouraging to realize that if all of them (or their new-generation counterparts, wherever they may be) wanted to cover the theater now, only a couple of publications would welcome them— and then, could seldom offer more than 600 words’ worth of space.

Perhaps all this is to say that the Pew Charitable Trust seeks to measure art’s usefulness because criticism is already irrelevant. And this, of course, is not merely a malady of the theater, but of our culture at large. In a world where Rush Limbaugh passes for a political pundit and Jerry Springer considers a run for Congress, is it any wonder that a capsule review by an ignoramus stands in for criticism? When the wisecrack is the oratory of the day, who needs ardent, analytical thinking?

But what about the theater itself? Does most of it merit more than a wisecrack? That last generation or two of critics often wondered. “[T]elling the truth about the theater’s shame and boredom and death is very nearly the central activity and radical justification for a journalist-critic of drama in our time,” wrote Richard Gilman in 1963.

Telling the truth about that death today must, first of all, mean fingering the assassins: right-wing demagogues, religious fundamentalists, homophobic crusaders, and fulminating philistines of all stripes. And even if the religious right is losing its grip on the Republican Party, it certainly has, over the last decade, squeezed ever tighter on our theater’s throat, suffocating more than our energies and financial resources by forcing us to fight back. The lack of oxygen seems to have gone to our heads. Last year fundamentalists in New York almost bullied the Manhattan Theater Club into backing out on Terrence
McNally’s Corpus Christi. And in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Young Playwrights Festival— without any pressure from any outside groups, other than the memory, perhaps, that the local repertory theater got its budget killed after presenting Tony Kushner’s Angels in America— declined to present Samantha Gellar’s Life Versus the Paperback Novel, one of five plays by teenagers chosen as winners, because it’s about two women who fall in love.

Meanwhile, in New York, our professed opera queen of a mayor annually proposes cutting an already anemic cultural budget by huge percentages. While he wants to steer funds to MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center for the
purpose of enhancing tourism, he dismisses the hundreds of smaller arts groups around the city as political pork, undeserving of public support. CHARAS, the Lower East Side arts and community center, saw its building auctioned off from under it, when the mayor decided to privatize public buildings— or at least require the public to buy them back from itself in order to keep them public.

Certainly, two different theologies drive these assaults on the theaters, but they converge in a corporate mode of worship that disposes of heretics viciously. One bows to the Bible, the other to the bottom line; one markets God, the other makes the market God. But whether motivated by a narrow definition of morality or by the widest expansiveness of Mammon, both coincide in an attack on the very principle of public spending. And as we’ve seen not only in NEA battles, but in assaults on public universities and on public assistance more generally, conservative campaigns are a lot like Buick commercials: sex sells. Particularly if it’s female or queer. The shears that snipped welfare from our budgets and that are now aimed at SUNY and CUNY were sharpened on theater artists. Focusing on lesbians and gays, the prolonged assault on the arts introduced a trope of sexual excess that has done further service— in accusing so-called welfare queens of sexual incontinence, in denouncing women’s studies and queer studies departments and conferences— all as a way of undermining the idea that any such endeavors deserve taxpayer dollars. Indeed, that anything at all deserves taxpayer dollars.

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.