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.

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