Thoughts on Why We Must Talk About Art and Class

Everywhere Theater Group’s “Flying Snakes in 3D!!” Photo by Chase Voorhees

This is a story that’s not a review, about a show I should have reviewed some months ago but, due to my complex response to it, I didn’t. As it happens, since I caught the run at The Brick in Williamsburg, Everywhere Theater Group’s Flying Snakes in 3D!! has been reprised with a week long run at The New Ohio as part of the Ice Factory Festival. It closed last night. I was supposed to be there on the fourth, but despite the assurances of my trusty MTA schedule iPhone app, the train that was supposed to get me there never seemed to come, and twenty minutes to curtain I was sweating down in Atlantic-Pacific station in Brooklyn. So my apologies.

Since that run at The Brick, though, I’ve gotten to know some of the core company members–Teddy Nicholas and Leah Nanako Winkler–which makes it even harder to write about the show. But as I’ve watched the reviews role in, including some that are harshly dismissive, I’ve found myself reconsidering the show. I’ll admit, there are some problems with the production, sure, but those aren’t the critiques I’m concerned about. Rather, it’s the complete and total unwillingness to acknowledge that the show, however problematically, is grappling with the issue of class and art. At best, this seems to be being written off as mere “complaining,” to quote the Voice. And I’ll admit, that was a large part of my original ambivalence about the show.

But I guess I’ve changed my mind.

A quick recap of the plot, which is based on my viewing in February. The play begins with a slideshow and voice-over presenting the actual company members in a production meeting. The mood is cynical–they don’t expect to get a grant they’re applying for and the conversation turns to frustration with the glass ceiling of the arts world, the sense that because they’re not rich kids, but rather people who come from “fucked up” families, that there’s no real course for them to follow as a career. Which leads to existential questioning of why it is they remain committed to creating art in the first place. Eventually, they essentially decide to sell-out and try to present a just plain fun show. Namely, a monster horror show of the sort Syfy regularly churns out, in which a hideous computer-generated portmanteau terrorizes a small town, necessitating the intervention of a crack team of TV-pretty scientists and random victims, inexplicably led by an actor you vaguely recognize in his new, post-fame career. Toward the end, the consciously-constructed framing device of the company trying to figure out how to sell-out (actors play the actual company members during the show) impinges on the plot, as they have breakdowns of frustration and growing sense of failure. The end of the play is thus a bittersweet moment of campy triumph as the heroes, having suffered their losses, claim victory over the flying snake monsters. It’s cheesy and upbeat, played out over what’s presented as a profound personal drama.

When I originally saw the show, I think I had the same response (though not as crassly) as a lot of people, when they usually express it (beginning with a roll of the eyes) as: Oh my God…artists bitching about being poor again? Seriously? Dude, like it’s ever been different….

For my part, I probably would have started by complaining about professionalization. Part of the issue–let’s face it–stems from the  fact that for complex reasons, artists actually have the expectation that it shouldn’t be so hard. That art-making could be a job, or that existing funding and support structures should be there to help them with their specific problems. In a strangely related way, a tedious debate has been unfolding elsewhere over the recent TCG conference in Boston, where a local blogger/artist named Ian Thal has given voice to populist outrage over how expensive registration is, and how local artists who volunteered to take part were silenced by TCG staff who basically told them (maybe) that as volunteers, they could not actually take part in discussions. He hashed the new tag #OccupyTCG.

Well, hello dude, TCG exists to support regional theaters. Like, LORT houses. Not theaters in other regions, but like, you’ve heard the term “regional theater.” Is that what you make? If not, maybe the TCG conference isn’t for you. Also, if by chance you want to be a regional theater but are not, that is not actually their fault. All that big tent “American Theater” stuff is great, but let’s be realistic for a moment and maybe get over ourselves a little in the process and admit that theater is not a monolith, and one trade organization is probably never going to serve all our diverse needs. It’s like, duh. And yes, maybe TCG needs to be more honest and direct about the issues it faces in presenting its program, and avoid the paeans to the art that make it sound like it could be the one thing for us all. It’s not. I know this and knew this and I have no interest in the TCG conference. It’s just not particularly relevant to the work I deal with. And that’s not its fault. It does something well, and that’s being a platform for regional theaters. Other institutions do or need to exist (or maybe just be better) to address other concerns. It is not the fault of one organization that other organizations for what amount to entirely different fields do not exist.

Back to Everywhere Theater Group. My initial thoughts after seeing the show were something on the order of: I’ve seen amazing body-based performers do mindblowing work with no lights, no video, no expensive sets. There are other models of making work and it cannot always be the fault of existing political-economic structures which block you from the true realization of your ideas. Which I guess is another way of saying that the problem lies with you, the artist, and the way you think about what work should be like.

I no longer find this argument compelling. I was wrong. Everywhere Theater Group was right.

I find the sorts of arguments I laid out above to be very believable. They are actually, in a crucial sense, true. Part of the complaining on the part of artists is envy based; someone has it better or easier, so why should I have to work so hard? Part of Thal’s complaint is essentially that he sees the TCG conference as this big important thing (in a way it’s really not), but based on his perspective, he’s closed out and sees that as problem.

But if we actually examine the arguments I’ve made, none of them are at all positive. None are empowering. None of them remotely credit the complainant for having some sort of valid point. And perhaps indeed their complaints are not valid.  But the argument against them is not a tit-for-tat, a back and forth, on equal ground. They’re arguments that say you should stop talking about this because this is the way things are.

How perverse is that? I’ve gone from talking about a show–an art work seeking to raise an issue–to arguing that, although there may be an issue, somehow I’ve determined that how you’ve reached the way of talking about this issue is through a suspect process and therefore the entire point is invalid. It’s somewhat akin to discounting Abolitionism because you heard it argued by a Christian preacher and you’re an atheist.

If I had to say what I truly think the problem with Everywhere Theater Group’s show is, it’s that they didn’t make the show they probably should have. They should have made a show about class and art. Full stop. The flying snakes part is fun, which is why they did it. They were honest in the piece. They love theater. They wanted to give their audience something else, and it is fun. But when I’m confronted with the fact that these issues of class are so close to their hearts, and have spawned so much discussion (befriend Andy Horwitz to read a heated discussion on Facebook), I believe that there’s enough material there that this has to be tackled. And I understand why they did what they did. I don’t think it’s particularly mean to say, “They decided it was more important for you to have fun,” but fun can’t be everything. And if we can’t have serious discussions through art, where can we have them? At the very least, Everywhere Theater Group’s members (and as I write this I’m thinking of Teddy and Leah) shouldn’t have to lure us with toy snakes and the promise of campy horror theater to have a chance, stitched into the seams, to share meaningful personal experience.

I posit that one of the reasons we so readily discount discussion of class–which is of course, not just about money, per se–is because it’s a deeply uncomfortable topic. But it must be addressed. We cannot continue placing the expectation on artists to simply make do with what they have while blithely choosing not to interrogate the structures that have been built with the general intent of supporting them and their work. I spent many years in Seattle, Washington, covering the arts there, and I’ve seen how the punk rock/DIY ethos is so painfully limiting. It’s not resistance, it’s capitulation. And it leads to artistic stagnation. One of the reasons the best cities to produce art in, given space and cost, are not New York-level incubators, is precisely because those communities become comfortable, where you’re solely responsible for challenging yourself (which is why I’m doubly impressed at the amazing work that does come from there). It’s easy to have fun, but fun can become a salve, a way of being in the world. In can prevent us from challenging ourselves artistically and intellectually, and if we begin with the baseline that surely, artistic and intellectual investigation are wholly personal endeavors, we (a) risk turning ourselves off, ignoring the world, and limiting art and thought to nothing more than onanistic pursuits, and (b) accepting a system in which we are categorically devalued by a political and economic structure that has a huge interest in silencing dissent.

Artists are workers. It’s not a good thing that dance as a form exists because of lecherous rich dudes. There is no reason art should have to limit itself to assuming that its only value could lie in helping to change the world around it, at the expense of discussions of its own political economy.

To accept that art is the purview of the rich, or perhaps better, a “certain class” (Leah was making a complex argument when she used the phrase “fucked up families”; money is not the only factor in class) is to accept that those with access to such resources are the only people who should have a voice in imagining an alternative.

Years ago, while he was on a book tour promoting his novel All the Sad Young Literary Men, set in the sort of elite East Coast universities I’ve never attended, I interviewed the writer Keith Gessen (of n+1 and all that). Over soup and a beer at a gastropub in downtown Seattle, we chatted about the book and I asked, off-handedly, from my naive West Coast perspective, why people should care about the sex lives and reading habits of rich kids at Harvard or Yale (I don’t remember which). He looked at my quizzically, and asked, “You know those people run the world, right?”

This is not simple. It cannot be elided. It’s central and a topic Gessen and his colleagues have been far more willing to engage than we in the contemporary performance world. I can’t offer easy answers myself, but I find myself less and less willing to accept a logic that defends the status quo. I appreciate Teddy and Leah and their collaborators for what they’ve done, and tried to do, even as I think maybe they should have done more. Weirdly, Flying Snakes in 3D!! may well be the show that generated the most interesting discussion this summer in New York.

34 thoughts on “Thoughts on Why We Must Talk About Art and Class”

  1. jakerhooker says:

    Hey look! It's my new persona that actually comments on the things I read! #newleafs. OK, so, again, I basically agree with all this…but…ugh…it's so difficult for me to hear when people tell artists what they SHOULD have done. I suppose that's one point of criticism (writ large), but…I mean: there are literally an infinite amount of choices any given artist could make at any different time. I didn't see their show and I don't know them but, honestly, the show you described that they made sounds more effective in theory than the one you think they should have made. Can't humor and fun be used to make a larger point? Doesn't a didactic play about art and class make you want to crawl under a gigantic pile of copies of Das Kapital and have a frenemy set it ablaze? It does me. I'd love to be shocked to find a play of that sort that I also found compelling, funny, emotionally gripping, and also had kinda awesome costumes. I really, really, really hate this critique that says that in order for theater artists to buck the system they should stand alone on a bare stage — or heck, with a chair — and "do their thang." Is that the theatrical world anybody really wants to live in? A bunch of bare stages, a few chairs, and an infinite amount of black turtlenecks and berets? On the other hand, I take your point that the arts have been needlessly, maybe brutally institutionalized for a variety of reasons and in a lot of ways and we should all work HARD to resist that. But money is a reality and one that often gets explained away by saying that class has nothing to do with money. Money is the material of our lives and artists need money to survive and we should talk about it more but we should also find creative, interesting, nuanced, fun, funny, heartbreaking, imaginative ways to talk about it. I wish I had seen their show.

    1. jray745 says:

      Two points:

      1. As the first sentence reads: "This is a story that’s not a review, about a show I should have reviewed some months ago but, due to my complex response to it, I didn’t."

      2. I was going to point out that I never actually said straight up that they should have done a different show, but I did use that phrase once without a caveat like "possibly." However it's a pretty heavily qualified statement and I think is clearly read that way. For the record, when I do review shows, I do not presume to tell people what they should have done.

  2. Thomas Garvey says:

    So . . . we "must talk about class," and yet we must also silence the volunteers at TCG. Duh, indeed.

  3. justmeabird says:

    This is why we're losing so many great artists to Germany and the rest of Europe; the opposite of the talent drain that happened in the '30s-'40s; governments and organizations there treat art as an occupation that produces value, not a product one is on their own to invest in and produce to later sell.
    It's only about class because that's the structure we've allowed to happen- exclusivity was supposed bring a higher price tag and investment like it did 300 years ago, but now it's only created and untenable situation.

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  8. leahnana says:

    thank you Jeremy –I seriously can't thank you enough for this.

  9. August Schulenburg says:

    Great post, Jeremy! TCG actually does count more theatres as members than just the current 75 LORT theatres. Our 513 Member Theatres span 47 states and the District of Columbia:

    Now, that is only part of the 1,807 not-for-profit professional theatres that filed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990 in 2010, but is a diverse group of theatres in terms of size, geography, aesthetics, etc. Our current vision statement (with a vision statement being something that is not yet achieved but worth striving for) does envision us trying to serve all theatre people through the primary partnership of our Member Theatres:

    As it is a new vision statement, we're just beginning to implement it into our programming, and we certainly do welcome feedback.

    A few other things to note:
    -Attendance is open at our National Conference for all Member Theatre staff members, and we offer a number of discounts:
    -Because we know how important unaffiliated artists are to our field, we give our Member Theatres the option to nominate individual artists at a discounted rate:
    -We offer a limited number of scholarships and stipends, such as our Young Leaders of Color program:
    We also live-stream as many of our plenaries as possible for free:
    We're also posting notes (called "Flash Fives") from the breakout sessions on our year-round conference platform, Conference 2.0, so everyone can read what was discussed:
    And of course, we're always hoping people will engage on Twitter in the conversation at #TCG12!

    Ian Thal has said that he will be acknowledging this in a future post, but before he posted these stories, I apologized to him personally, and we then passed on an official apology to the volunteer host committee via email for any volunteers who shared his concerns. This apology acknowledged that TCG should have communicated our volunteer policy earlier, and promised to reconsider the volunteer policy for next year.

    While it is true that no organization can be all things to all people, please don't count us out yet as an ally in the work you do.

    Gus Schulenburg
    Associate Director of Communications

  10. Ian Thal says:

    Indeed, Gus Schulenburg did apologize to me at the end of the conference– and without speaking for him personally, I should note that unlike Jeremy Barker, Schulenburg did express the view that no one, including volunteers, should have felt excluded at the conference. I see no reason to doubt his sincerity, but I also understand that there are a diversity of views currently held by TCG staff and it was important for me to blog my account before they adopted a new policy for next year's conference– to ensure that more people understood the frustrations felt by many volunteers.

    My most basic point is that if the big annual conference is going to rely so heavily on the volunteerism of local theatre communities (this year in Boston; next year in Dallas) then conference policies should be ones that ensure that volunteers (and by extension the theatre community that is playing host) are brought into the conversation– otherwise, there is no sense in having one's conference in a metropolitan with an enthusiastic theatre community– this enthusiasm should not be denied but should be used as an opportunity to connect local theatre communities to larger national (and international) movements in the art form and not as an opportunity to take advantage of some free labor.

    I don't want to count TCG out as an ally; but that is why I had to voice my concerns.

    In short (something illustrated in Homer's Odyssey and experienced when I was a guest of the Writers Union of Kosovo last month) both guests and hosts must display graciousness.

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  13. culturebot says:

    Here's a link to the FB status update that, ironically, I put up about the same Jeremy was independently writing this article. See the rather lengthy comment thread. There's some good stuff and some ridiculous stuff.

  14. Leonard Jacobs says:

    "If by chance you want to be a regional theater but are not, that is not actually their fault." What, precisely, does this mean? That people are corporations, my friend?

    With all due respect, much of what you're writing here with regard to Ian and TCG is reductive. I do, however, find amusing just how defensive TCG is. Gus is a hero to me (genuinely), but the leadership of his institution is profoundly paranoid — that's the biggest revelation to come out of this brouhaha. The fact that some people find that to be OK is sad.

  15. culturebot says:

    On a related topic, if you're interested in interested in another thoughtful, nuanced discussion of Art, Money and Politics, check out this podcast of a panel discussion on the topic. The participants in this panel discussion were: Jan Cohen-Cruz, Randy Martin, Morgan Jenness , Rachel Chavkin and moderator Amy Whitaker.

  16. TheMayoress says:

    This post and discussion are fantastic and it's nice to see relevant parties and other bloggers posting responses.

  17. Rob Weinert-Kendt says:

    Jeremy, the post and the discussion here (and at Diane Ragsdale's Jumper post,… are extremely valuable and heartening. And your most recent comment hones in on a point I've repeatedly tried to make in this discussion: that there IS a legitimate conversation worth having about class and access and privilege at American arts institutions, but that Thal's pathetic volunteer "expose" has literally nothing to do with it. What's worse, his experience at the TCG conference apparently rendered him entirely unaware of the actual discussions going on everywhere there, at the plenaries as well as in the breakout sessions and in the hallways, which were animated throughout by exactly these concerns about who gets to do the work, how people are compensated, how the work gets made and is it any damn good, who it's been made for, who's invited into the room and who's not, etc. This discussion is happening around and among TCG member theatres year-round as well as at the conference; indeed, I can think of few organizations that are more self-examining about their field and their place in it. What doesn't move the conversation forward, and that I've been pushing back against (mostly on Twitter), is potshots from outside the discussion by people (and I don't lump you in this category) who've made no effort to follow it or engage it, or who have for one reason or another decided that TCG is the enemy and who opportunistically jump onto any bandwagon that's bashing it. More voices that are critical of the American theatre and its institutions (including TCG) in good faith, with the intention of making them better and more responsive, are always welcome; the others less so.

    1. Ian Thal says:

      Kendt, I am well aware that debates regarding access, opportunity and compensation were going on at the TCG conference. I was in attendance, after all. My "pathetic" point was that TCG is not a neutral party and that the conference's treatment of volunteers– which very much goes against the mores of the Boston theatre community that had been playing host to TCG– amounts to placing unnecessary restrictions to access and opportunity.

      I'm glad that you see self-examination as a virtue, Kendt, but unlike Gus Schulenburg, you don't seem to believe that it is necessary at your own organization.

  18. Rob Weinert-Kendt says:

    Ian, I can assure you that there's constant self-examination going on at TCG…of things that actually matter to the artists and institutions and field it represents. Was the conference volunteer policy ideal? Was it communicated clearly through the Boston host committee? No to both, and Gus conveyed TCG's apologies to the volunteers, which I understand most were satisfied with. But that's where your "gotcha" begins and ends, and your attempt to broaden the critique to larger class and access issues re: TCG, and to invoke the Occupy movement in doing so, are self-indictingly silly.

  19. Leonard Jacobs says:

    Your assurances are unsatisfying, Rob. Why did it require Ian to identify you as a part of TCG's payroll? It's something you should have done from the outset since, when you opine on this issue and use that moralistic tone, you're biased. (Traits one wants in an "arts journalist"?) Also, for one who went out of his way to accuse me of ad hominem attacks, it's curious that you feel the need to belittle, if not eviscerate, Ian with words like "pathetic" and "self-indictingly silly."

    You state that what "animated" so much of the TCG confab was, in part, "who's invited into the room and who's not." You make it sound like TCG is obsessed (sleepless!) with such topics. If so, surely TCG and its paid minions, like you, can understand why Ian used the #OccupyTCG hashtag. It got your attention, right? That Ian played TCG at its own game galls you — that's the real story here. That you so easily and blithely dismiss what went on is really rather white of you.

  20. Leonard Jacobs says:

    Also, Rob, you say you can think of "few organizations" more "self-examining about their field and their place in it." I can think of MANY service organizations as self-examining. What those organizations don't do, generally, is condone its employees engaging in pedantic digital brawls with a part of its constituency. (If Ian, to TCG, is not its constituency, he should be told so — say, by Gus — and he shouldn't have been allowed to volunteer.)

    What doesn't move the conversation forward is a TCG staffer telling someone who volunteered at the TCG conference, in effect, to shut up and stop moaning.

    1. jray745 says:

      While in general I agree that it's important to name your associations and biases, I think that Rob already did so in at least one, if not more, forums where this has taken place. My irritation with this conversation is that for all the words spilled over it, I've yet to hear much concrete at all about how TCG could or should have done a better job, other than the vague outrage that something happened that offended Thal and others, which has been apologized for and long since publicly aired. The outrage is getting old and I think the discussion should proceed to some more concrete and actionable topic or be dropped. My preference is for the former because I think it's an important topic, but if you prefer the latter, that this just be another online flamewar, than let's just let it die already.

  21. Leonard Jacobs says:

    Rob may have ID'd his biases elsewhere but I didn't see it here, and I was just thinking that if someone saw this post via Thomas Cott and didn't know otherwise, they wouldn't know Rob works for TCG. I want to apologize to you (and Rob) if everyone was already clear about that.

    I don't want a flamewar, either. I also don't like seeing Rob go after Ian in every venue he can find. Also, I agree: we don't hear much about how TCG could have done a better job. Yes, Gus apologized; I'd argue that a note — not even an apology — from Teresa Eyring would really help. Finally, we all recognize there's nothing TCG can do now. It's over. But if that's the case, might Rob cease and desist? I mean, "pathetic" and "self-indictingly silly"? How awful is that? It isn't perpetuating anything other than the "old" outrage. I defended Ian because what Rob said was just not necessary.

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