Theater eating its young, part II

August 1, 2011

The responses to news of the closing of Infamous Commonwealth Theatre pointed out the indisputable fact that there are always new theater companies coming along. That's always been cited as one of Chicago's competitive advantages in supporting a theater industry: that the barriers to entry are so low. But are they, really?

The barriers to entry appear low because a certain segment of the population is willing and able to work for free ("Anybody can start a Chicago theater and everybody does"). But if the only way to participate is to donate one's labor, we can't expect participation to be widespread or equitable, which may be why there are fewer African-American and Latino theaters proportional to population than there are white theaters: those communities have fewer young people who can contemplate years of uncompensated labor. On the other hand, if the real costs of art-making, including creators' salaries, were borne by the consumer/public, every ticket would cost $300. Talk about barriers to entry!

I've long been opposed to public funding for the arts (doubtless the only left-wing theater critic to make that claim; details on request) but if the argument in favor rests not on the incomparable importance of art but on the necessity of supporting paid labor of any kind in a recessionary economy, then I can be persuaded: having the government pay artists for the purpose of keeping them employed makes sense. We can debate over art's value but it's certainly higher than that of the stereotypical "leaf-raking" make-work job condemned by those who are still busy trashing the New Deal. (The "leaf-rakers" built the Skokie lagoons and probably your local post office, just FYI.)

But that explains grassroots hostility to public funding for the arts: because no one but artists is still paid by the government simply to do their work. Yes, people who work for the government managing the parks and the military and Social Security are all paid; but no one else gets paid for what seem so obviously private purposes, namely, the artist's personal self-fulfillment and the elite's enjoyment.  ("Elite" is used here without any political inflection, simply to mean "people holding a minority taste.") When there are no other public jobs programs, it's no wonder you can get poor people to resent this one and to hate the government, elite and artists, if that's your political goal. But if and when there's a WPA-style economy-wide jobs program, only the most absolutely worthless recipients of government largesse--that is, the legislature--will be bothered to object to arts funding in particular. 

So I oppose public funding for the arts precisely because it's a special case; why not public funding for shoemaking? On the other hand, maybe the only way we can get any economic stimulus at all is in programs that dress up as something else ("Oh, no, it's not a jobs program; we're just bringing Shakespeare to American communities.") Scandalous as they are, the arts aren't nearly as shocking as suggesting that the government take responsibility for employing its citizens when no one else will.