Sunday, July 20, 2008

The money problem

Our thinking about money and art is unhealthy, delusional and devisive. New art will not realize it's potential in our society until we can start having some constructive dialog on this subject. The recent exhanges between Mike Daisy (http://www.mikedaisey.com/) and Don Hall (http://donhall.blogspot.com/2008/07/friday-roundup.html) are emblematic of this craziness. We take this shit personally because we look at it in terms of values and commitments, and it's clear we've all got serious baggage about it.

We should not be asking questions like "what are you playing for?" or even "how did theatre fail america" these loaded phrases are very dramatic and can garner an immediate response, a flurry of debate, and that's great, but at some point the shouting needs to die down so we can talk practicality, compare notes, and make each other better at hammering out our own approach.

Before we can start this debate for real we need to accept the following: 1) a new economic model for art is essential. 2) none of us has the perfect solution. 3) couching this debate in terms of values, beleifs and personal commitments is not getting us anywhere. We need to look at the issue pragmatically and ask ourselves better questions. What works? What used to work and isn't anymore? What is most likely to work in the future? and How do we impliment and practice these solutions?

We'll all have different answers, cuz we're all making different art, but our projects can compliment each other, they do not have to be exclusionary. This does not have to be an us or them question.

Let me start by articulating my position. I am an entrepreneurial communist. My central goal is the empowerment of individuals against social structures through self-help. I find patronage self-defeating and self-imposed deprivation disgusting. It is my opinion that artists need to find ways to finance their art which do not compromise the art itself. Art can be compromised in two ways. First, it can sell out. The compromised artist can modify his vision to make it marketable, or appealing to donors. Second, it can sell itself short. The purist, in refusing to even encounter the problem of financing his art allows economic factors to constrain his productions or productivity. Both are compromises and neither ideal.

Mike Daisy seeks to solve this problem through institutional reform. He is trying to change the hearts and minds of arts administrators to make them more compassionate and supportive of artists and the art they're supposed to be administering. I have a problem with this approach because it requires asking administrators to sacrifice their interests for our benefit. Something that might (and has) worked for the occasional individual administrator, but will not work on an institutional level, because those admins who make their jobs harder to make our lives better will eventually tend to fail at their jobs. Admins build new buildings and spend money to make money on fundraising because that's what appeals to the donors. They cut back on paying artists because the donors don't actually give a shit about art. They'll smile and praise and dump money into anything, as long as it's in a fancy building that makes them feel fancy and special. This worked for a bit in the past, because there were enough fancy people that there was something left over to give the artists. No more. Fewer people want fancy-ness today. Now we want SUVs and big screen TVs, and internet pornography.

Don Hall, Silent Nic, and various others propose that we shun this money and these fancy donors. That we go on a campaign of making theatre that new audiences want. Beholden to no one. This is great, and i agree. The problem is, when Don, Nic, etc talk about this they villify anyone who doesn't follow the method and still claims to be an artist. They also engage in all kinds of doublethink and self-delusion. They claim that if you need money to do your work, then you must be doing big hollywood crap and seeking celebrity status or popularity. But, the fact is, they need money to do their work as well, because no one can do theatre without resources. Our money comes from self-sacrifice. We live poorly on slacker day job income, work full-time with little or no pay for theatre, and put our surplus income into our art. We do this for a couple / ten years and then give up cuz we've burned out or run into debt. To attack anyone who doesn't want to burn out with us is ridiculous. But that's what Don and many others seem to do. They paint everything in bullshit absolutist terms. Claiming that you either play for the money or you play for love of the game, but NO ONE plays theatre for the money. They divide artists into two classes in order to have an enemy close at hand to attack. We can't stop the hollywood shit machine, or Shakespeare-Ad-Nauseum, but we can cut down that sell-out Mike Daisy, right? I mean, he actually reads what we're saying, so he's vulnerable, right?

If we're going to bring new audiences and artists in, we need to bring them in to something lively and sustainable, something thriving and growing, not something that is living off our bitter sacrifices, or using us up while we've got the energy or naivite for it and then spitting us out as soon as we want or need to do anything but this one thing with our lives.

What if instead we recognize that all artists are in this together, all artists have to encounter the money problem and solve it in some way, and that the difference between Don and Mike is shades of grey, not black and white. What if we all set out to empower artists through greater cooperation, specialization, and sharing of resources?

20 comments:

Don Hall said...

To clarify, Rex -

They [Don and Silent Nic] claim that if you need money to do your work, then you must be doing big hollywood crap and seeking celebrity status or popularity.

That's really not my (or Nic's) position at all. And by painting it in that stripe, you undo any "let's all come together" crap you espouse in the post. Further, I don't vilify Daisey for making money - I vilify Daisey for being a pompous ass who believes his own press.

The substance of my position is that for the vast majority of the twenty-odd years I've been involved in professional theater, all anyone really wants to talk about is money and I think that that, after a long while, becomes anti-artistic, that the obsession with "not burning out" and that the constant harping on money and marketing and fundraising sucks the life out of the very thing we propose to do.

I don't believe for one second that one can start the journey by finding ways to corporatize the arts without becoming a corporation with all that I find abhorrent in that mindset. We all tried it with the NFP model and the NFP model has become increasingly corporate in nature.

And, btw, anyone who joins Equity has declared that he/she is doing theater for money. That's why you join Equity. Anyone who performs in a production that charges the audience $150.00 per ticket is doing theater for money. Anyone who performs Death of a Salesman in a dinner theater for old folks gnawing on their chicken marsala is doing theater for money. Anyone who does theme park showcases at Great America or Busch Gardens? For the money. It may not amount to much money, but there really isn't any other reason to do those gigs.

See, I'm not trying to bring us all together because I've seen that when we all get together all we do is bitch about money and I find that boring as hell. But in your obvious desire to "set out to empower artists through greater cooperation, specialization, and sharing of resources" you might start by listening to the positions of those you decide to vilify before you post about their "absolutist bullshit."

Rex Winsome said...

Don- i have not only listened to those positions i have LIVED those positions. You and I are standing on the same side of the line we've drawn in the sand. The only difference is, i'm not satisfied here, and i'm proposing we erase that line. The people on the other side have to be willing to erase it as well, and i think they've got more to do than us, but that doesn't mean we're justified in washing our hands of the whole business, and i've found that telling other people what they ought to do tends to get a lot less done than doing things ourselves.

yes, creating a sustainable economy for our art is hard, and it can be dull, but if we get our shit straight and get creative and remain optimistic, it doesn't have to be whining. Your focus on what other people are doing is what sounds like whining. I've not joined, nor will i ever join equity, but to say that anyone who has joined is doing theatre for the money is undeniably, "absolutist bullshit" so i'm not painting you anyway other than what you've painted yourself.

Don Hall said...

Interesting.

Name for me one reason - other than the pursuit of financial gain - that anyone would join Equity. Just one (and insurance is about money, not opportunity). Keep in mind that if you cannot, you've painted yourself into a "I'm a snarly little douchebag" corner.

Your focus on what other people are doing is what sounds like whining. I prefer bitching top whining, but I see your point.

I will say that your hopeful and optimistic approach smacks of naivete but if you dig spending 50-60% of your artistic time working on marketing and administration, rock on. Have a ball.

Rex Winsome said...

Here's the problem, Don:

in your first comment you said: "anyone who joins Equity has declared that he/she is doing theater for money."

and now you ask me to "Name for me one reason - other than the pursuit of financial gain - that anyone would join Equity"

See how you've shifted the framework?

If joining equity will equal financial gain for someone, then why shouldn't they do it as a means to an end the end being creating art?

See how you're being absolutist?

Your beleif that art ought to come at financial cost, rather than benefit denies the obvious fact that financial difficulties can cripple artistic processes.

Don Hall said...

Actually, Rex, you're combining statements from past assumptions.

In your post, you state (in that vaunted absolutist style you detest so much) that "NO ONE plays theatre for the money." I simply disagreed with that absolutist bullshit by providing a short list of people who DO play theater for money.

I have no issue with those who play for pay but to spin that lifestyle as A) the saving grace of live theater and B) the only solution to avoid burning out is not only intellectually dishonest, it's patently false to boot.

The assumption you're operating under is that more money is somehow going to make things better and my experience dictates that more money rarely, if ever, makes things better when it comes to theater.

And, once again, your powers of retention and interpretation come in question. I have never written or stated that "art ought to come at financial cost" - my perspective is that we all spend far more time on the finances of theater and that that is why it has become so amazingly irrelevant in American society.

Laura said...

Gotta tell you, Rex, I'm inclined to agree with you.

I'm wondering, do you have any thoughts on the questions you posed yourself?
What works? What used to work and isn't anymore? What is most likely to work in the future? and How do we implement and practice these solutions?

Jonathan West said...

Card carrying Equity member and arts blogger, Jonathan West weighing in. If you are an artist, or claim to call yourself one, there is always a need involved with producing your art. Yep, I joined Equity because I was offered a big fat pay check, and I got a free pair of glasses and health insurance for six months once I finished my first two contracts. Prior to that I did theatre as a non-Equity performer and I had needs that were fulfilled by that type of experience. Friendship, adoration, late night sex with my stage manager, access to other artists, and the ability to be in "the art club" were some of those perks. I'm full of the requisite amount of narcissism that Don, Rex and all of we little artists need to produce nice shiny theme park shows or important life altering explorations of humanity. We're all the same at the core. Needy creative children. And as the father of two needy creative children, I know that the best way to change bad behavior in any situation, be it sisters fighting over the same crayon, or artists pissing on one movement or value system over the other is to ignore the behavior and embrace the individual. Hugs all around fellas. Now let's all do our jobs, cards, cash or no.

Don Hall said...

JW -

I saw you once. On the deck of the Titanic. You were playing a violin...

Rex Winsome said...

Damn it, Don, i wrote a great response to this last night, and somehow it appears to have got lost in the space between my shitty laptop's slow processor and my unreliable stolen wifi connection, and now i'm more interested in answering laura's questions than bothing with the petty bullshit semantic games you're playing. Sorry.

Laura- answers that i'm personally trying to apply are things like busking on the street (a creative yet lucrative endevor that's fun and requires only a few hours of energy and excersize) and living in a lower-cost city but taking my shows on punk rock tours to reach a broader audience than i can generate in Milwaukee.

That second idea was stolen from the Missoula Oblongata, one of the most exciting companies i've come accross. Another thing they do to make money is this completely crazy kind of dinner theatre. You pay them per plate and they come to your house, cook dinner for you, and then put on a short original play while you eat.

Another thing i've heard of but don't have access to, is fundraising organizations that focus on tiny grants for small independent groups who aren't eligable or interested in big grants from governmental or hoity toity organizations.

Also, there are situations where small and large companies can work together and recognize mutual benefits. There's a specific idea i have about this locally, which i wanna put together a bit more before talking too much about it.

Don Hall said...

now i'm more interested in answering laura's questions than bothing with the petty bullshit semantic games you're playing. Sorry.

That's what I thought. Snarly little douchebag...

Rex Winsome said...

Goddamn it! i forgot about your silly ultimatum, and now i look like i've backed down from a challenge! Can't have that, can we.

You're rescrambling the framework (again) to wriggle out of the response i gave and avoid the conversation. That's why it's semantic games and not a substantive argument.

Let me spell it out clearly, with references. You are making the logical flaw expressed by the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. You seem to think: "i get paid to play" is the same thing as "i play to get paid" but it's not, and to quote the hatter: "you might as well say 'i see what i eat' is the same thing as 'i eat what i see'".

That's how you're being absolutist and why your ultimatum is silly.

If someone's end goal is to get paid, why would they go into a career in an unpopular dying art form?

I am not making an assumption that money helps art. i know this from personal experience.

here, let me try to track the stubborn fucking blockage in your head... which of the following premises do you disagree with:

1. resources are required to mount a show.
2. money is a versatile exchange value that can be transformed into other resources reliably.
3. access to money can reduce the amount of time (another resource) that needs to be spent amassing everything necessary to mount a show.
4. access to money can simplify many processes involved in mounting a show.
5. compensating people for their labor- in addition to being nice, or even, dareisay just- will encourage and enable them to expend more labor with you in the future.

Now, i'll agree that amassing money has become too high a priority for many theatre producers. It's overshadowed the art. This is the central thrust of Mike Diasey's position, is it not? So, you, me and Mike all agree that theatre is fucked because fundraising has eclipsed the art. Why are we fighting then? Because we disagree on how this should be solved.

Mike wants to solve it by changing the hearts and minds of arts administrators. I wanna solve it by finding creative ways to make art financially sustainable and attractive to new audiences. You seem to be attacking Mike and I with great vitriol, but instead of presenting a solution, you are denying the existance of the problem and attacking anyone who tries to solve it.

So, silly challenge back at cha: if you can't either A. prove there is no problem (by disproving one of the above premises) or B. advance a hypothetical solution, you are not only a snarly little douchebag, you are also a fucking waste of everyone's time.

Don Hall said...

You seem to be attacking Mike and I with great vitriol, but instead of presenting a solution, you are denying the existance of the problem and attacking anyone who tries to solve it.

I don't deny the existence of the problem - I don't think the problem is a lack of money. There is a difference.

For the record, I didn't come at Mike because of his position. I came at Mike because he decided to start a fight.

Likewise, I came at you because, instead of practicing the very point of your post (and it is apparent that you didn't really think it through as you have been unable to sustain that "let's all get along" nonsense through the comments section of the very post itself) you label Nick's and my position in derogatory terms.

You want to provoke, then don't get your vagina all weepy when you get provoked back.

Rex Winsome said...

Don, i know it must dissappoint you greatly, but nobody is weeping out of any orifices over here. You are trying to pick a fight with an unflappable mother fucker, i ain't gonna be hurt by something some dweeb on the internet says, okay?

Even more troubling, i've decided to spend a few, maybe five minutes of my day setting up arguments around you like little traps, because everytime you back out of one like a scared animal, i get that much closer to making you finally recognize that you are a simpering counterproductive complainer, with, what did Mike call it... a persecusion complex.

So, lets see: the most recent trick you've pulled to evade my last argument is to claim that the problem is not a lack of money. Okay, call it whatever you want to, I'm still asking you for a solution. How is this not-a-lack-of-money problem solved?

Now, you DO think that theatre producers "spend far more time on the finances of theater" than we should (or at least you've said so) and yet you do not deny that theatre requires resources (at least not yet). What are your suggestions on how we can spend less time amassing those resources? I'm especially curious how this is done without the conveinience of a universal constant exchange value (that is: money).

If you cannot provide any suggestions, then you're suffering from some serious logic problems. My post starts out saying that we need to stop operating under illogical assumptions and actually look at this problem practically, so it's not at all inconsistant for me to take an absolutist stand against assholes who sling shit from a logically indefensible position. It smells bad, and we don't like it.

Don Hall said...

You might be unflappable but, man, you're in Milwaukee. Gimme a break, alright.

Mike has the persecution complex (learn to fucking spell, wilya?) - his stigmata can be seen all over the country. I haven't felt persecuted in years.

Two thoughts: first, your "solutions" have been done and done and done ad nauseum and, what do you know, Rex? - the system still sucks. Second, how about you figure out what the problem is and go about solving that (hint: it has more to do with the fact that only about 3% of the American population gives a shit about live theater - if they cared, there'd be tons of dough overflowing in your Wisconsin coffers).

Jeesh - you're thick.

Rex Winsome said...

Oooh, hit me where it hurts, My geography! Goddamn cheeseheads, bronze fonz, calatrava worshipping, beer guzzling, assholes i share a city with.

these solutions may have been tried in the past, but not by many people, and not given the current political economy, and most importantly not by ME. Cuz i'm goddamned invincible!! (mispellings and all).

Don Hall said...

these solutions may have been tried in the past, but not by many people, Wrong. They've been tried by everyone who has ever started a theater company. and not given the current political economy What? A recession? THICK!, and most importantly not by ME.

That last bit is a pretty important one. In the constant turnaround that is the theater lifestyle, there is a sense that somehow, each one of us is so special, so endowed, so set apart, that each one of us can do exactly what has been done in the past and achieve different results.

This is the crux of why there is, and will likely be, no National American Theater.

Rex Winsome said...

Don- first, let me appologize, my last response was rather flippant, and perhaps a bit overstated (a bit), i saw that you'd posted while on my way out the door and didn't give my response the full five minutes i'd promised.

So, on to that: there's this giant vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room and it's destroying all the furniture, getting in people's hair swallowing our friends and generally being a real bitch. Mike Daisy is trying to get ahold of it, i'm trying to pull the plug on it, or jimmy something in it's tube that it can't quite get down, i'm searching for black pepper or sneezing powder to try and reverse it's intake. My friends inside, whove already been vacuumed up are rubbing sticks together to start a fire inside and get the damn thing to cough.

Meanwhile, you stand in the corner, throwing things at us and shouting "it sucks!"

i asked you to present a solution, indeed i challenged you to do so, you continue to avoid that challenge, thus proving your utter lack of worth.

Don Hall said...

More likely scenario:

The boat is sinking. Mike is claiming it's the captain's fault and that the captain should do something about it.

You're running around looking for ways to construct a new boat out of the pieces of the sinking vessel.

I'm telling you that the boat is sinking and that we all need to find the hole in the boat that is causing the water to leak in and repair it or jump out and swim for sure.

To be perfectly frank, you're a ludicrous dipshit with nothing of any substance to contribute to the conversation so you go ahead and "solve" the problem and do crazy fundraisers and believe in your heart that you're accomplishing something. Fuckin' A. That's the kind of blind hubris assholes like you are known for.

In closing, go fuck yourself "Rex."

Rex Winsome said...

Don, i'm sorry, but this boat metaphor is cryptic, it seems to suggest that you think there's a hole that could be repaired, but what i've been asking you all week is: WHERE DO YOU THINK THE FUCKING HOLE IS? WHADDYA WANNA PATCH IT WITH?

Goddamn you can sure spin your wheels and get no where.

Since you've "closed" this discussion and will go back to pretending the traps i've tried to set for you don't exist (i sincerely hope you start stumbling into them) let me provide a closing statement as well.

Maybe it's my hubris, but i don't do things half assedly. I like to commit all the way to a project or a perspective. If i were to listen to what you say and adopt your defeatist attitude, i'd go all the way with it, and act on it. i don't know if i'd do it with a knife in the eye, but i'd defnitely fuck myself, permanantly.

Thomas Watson said...

The art industry as a whole faces a lack respect that makes it hard to charge fair prices. Unless the skill is extremely on the technical end people don’t understand why we should earn what our work is worth.