Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Case For Difficult Art, Part 1 of ???

Once again we find ourselves in a situation where a small arts company is being threatened with money partly, if not solely, because of the company's choice of material.  Specifically, Actors' Theatre Grand Rapids faces a challenge from a Trustee of Grand Rapids Community College.

ATGR receives money directly from GRCC's annual budget as well as various in-kind types of support including the theatre space itself and offices.  Further, ATGR is not the only organization that this particular Trustee is challenging.

Let's start with a few basics.  GRCC does have money problems of its own.  This Trustee is doing his job by 1) looking for places to cut the budget and 2) openly voicing the nature of his objection.  ATGR is always facing money problems, but they are also doing their job by being true to their mission. 

There is no way to monetize creativity and art.  The closest we can come to it is to monetize the experience of that art.  We can (literally) pay the people who transform that art from idea to representation.  And, we as consumers can pay for the opportunity to witness, to experience, that representation.  There is a money chain that goes directly from the mind of the original artist to the person who is witnessing the result.

Between those two endpoints are layers of transformation, each represented by people, individuals, who expressly or indirectly support or assist in the process.  Those internal layers are the ones who allow creativity to flow, who make it possible for a great idea to become a great experience.  Those internal layers never get the spotlight, that's not what they're there for.  Those internal layers don't care about the "meaning" of the art.  They care about the process of getting an idea from concept to realization.

Threatening to "kill" (or at least harm) an organization because of the nature of its work is valid, to a point.  But most of the time those who are doing the threatening fail to realize that it is the process that is more important long term than the product.  Without an army of people who know how to perform those internal steps between idea and experience, the next Great Idea stands a good chance of being unheard.

Every time someone pulls the plug on funding, for whatever reasons, the ice upon which you and I skate gets a little thinner.

There is a balance, of course, and you Dear Reader knew I was going to get to that at some point.  Money makes the world go 'round, after all, and it is not in unlimited supply.  Individuals do need to make choices about what's important to them and how they are going to pay for it.  Support between corporate organizations does get complicated when the people inside the organizations disagree about what is and isn't important.  That's fine.  That's normal in any inter-organizational relationship. 

Remember though, that all those people referenced above that stand between idea and result don't care about the message.  It is disingenuous to categorize them as malcontents, unbelievers, infidels, dangerous, solely because of the process in which they are involved.  I know that's a statement that can be taken to extremes in pretty much any direction. Do I blame the workers at a munitions plant for making the weapons that kill innocents?  Maybe.  Maybe not. 

Similarly, the arts organization itself has to understand that they do not exist without community context.  It's all well and good to bill yourself as the "edgy" outspoken one, but that is going to limit your reach, limit your audience, and self-select the way in which the experience can be presented.  It's a choice, and if the choice is to be offensive to someone over and over again, then you had better be prepared to go on without them.

The GRCC Trustee wants to cut support to ATGR and cites two shows, one in the past and one in the future, as an example of why GRCC should not support ATGR.  I suggest that he is being short sighted and disregarding the value that even difficult material brings into the society.  The professionals who work in the organization are part of the community and their work, their experience, contribute to the health of our culture. 

Difficult and challenging art makes the audience consider their own place in the world.  One does not have to be happy about everything creative.  But one should celebrate that creativity is happening at all.

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