SARAH ANNE AUSTIN’S by now notorious March article in Dance/ USA’s e-Journal compared dance in higher education to a pyramid scheme. The harsh economic reality faced by contemporary dancers is probably not lost on many readers of that publication, or this one, but that doesn’t mean that the average dancer’s pitiful income or the burden of student debt are not worth pointing out.
Nonetheless, I was sad to see yet another dance advocate stuck strategizing about how to better sell performance as product. In truth, I felt she failed to point a finger at any real culprits (hint: it’s not MFA programs). The arts funding crisis is a symptom of political and economic dysfunction; if the live arts are dying, it’s because the profit motive is choking them, not because people don’t love dance. So what should artists do? We could continue trying, through endless grant applications, fundraisers, and schmooze sessions, to prove the worth, exceptionalism, and specialized professionalism of what we do to those who have all the money. Coming from a privileged background to begin with, and having lots of wealthy friends and family, will help with this strategy. If we have very, very wealthy friends, and the stomach for it, we could resort to strategies like Seattle’s ACT Theatre, which recently commissioned a play co-written by uber-wealthy CEO Dwayne Clark, who packed the house through Medici style patronage. Or, perhaps, we should finally just say enough is enough, and demand that leveraging of interest into value (funding for the arts) happen at the level of public policy, not through private or corporate sponsorship.
And perhaps we should look up from our own plateful of crumbs now, and denounce the shocking and absurd economic inequality perpetrated by contemporary capitalism, inequality that affects artists, of course, but also any creature or thing or system or cause not motivated by profit. We could stand in solidarity with all things that are not easily monetized: clean air and water, biodiversity, a sense of belonging and safety, freedom of thought and exchange, our cultures and the meanings they have etched into the void. This is a political issue that goes far beyond the arts world. To quote Leslie McCall, “If there were a gold medal for inequality, the United States would win hands down.” Few of us were surprised last year when Thomas Piketty’s tome Capital proved with six hundred pages of stats that people who have lots of money have an easier time making even more money, and that the rising tide of elite wealth is not, in fact, raising all boats. Increasingly, we are drowning in inequality, and people know it. Indeed, from the Occupy Movement to the Tea Party Movement there is a popular sense that the system is rigged, and a growing abhorrence of crony capitalism. And still, simple principles of return on capital are often ignored, and we somehow end up thinking that the wealthy and successful must be wealthy and successful because they’re somehow doing it better.
An arts administrator complained to me recently that fundraising had become a daily part of her job. Later it occurred to me: you know whom else that is true for? United States Congresspeople. The average senator spends an average of four hours calling donors every day. The system is rigged. Earlier this year, Martin Gilens’ studies, which expose the sickening extent to which our elected officials’ legislative activities respond to funders and lobbyists, rather than to their electorates, went viral. Again, few were really very surprised. “Free market” ideologues would have us believe that there are real money-making industries—energy, finance, pharmaceuticals, big agriculture, tech, etc.—that operate in a kind vacuum, while the arts and education just leech public funds. But to pretend that industry exists outside of a socioeconomic safety net is disingenuous. Corporations depend on public handouts and donations much the same as artists: it’s just that we call them contracts, subsidies and bailouts. Industry also depends on public infrastructure, not to mention natural resources. These days, say ‘wealth redistribution’ and you’ll be called a socialist like it’s in insult. Meanwhile, the data is showing that public policy is in fact creating tremendous wealth redistribution—from the bottom upwards.
Dance is not politics. As individuals and organizations we will continue to adapt in order to survive. Gorgeous art has been created under tyrannies, monarchies, fascist states, dictatorships, as well as democracies. Nonetheless, artists are also people, and as a people it is high time that we say no to the tyranny of this corrupt capitalism. And to those who would be inclined to say that it’s always been like this, that the US is not France, I would say, look again. The US constitution outlines a democracy, not neoliberal capitalism. Look again at the WPA and the amazing publicly funded arts programs of the progressive era. Ending corruption and showing solidarity doesn’t have to mean the end of all competitive or innovative spirit in the arts.
At The Finnish Hall in Berkeley, a place built in 1932, a time when folks could still publicly claim to be socialists, and democrats, and Americans, I’m currently working with a group of six collaborators—Leslie Castellano, Kevin Dockery, Rosemary Hannon, Emily Leap, Andrew Lundberg, and Phoenecia Pettyjohn—on a piece that would rage mindfully against the way democracy is being mangled by capitalism. We live in a time when even the US Supreme Court has repeatedly decreed that money equals speech, and that its power is sacrosanct. What can a bunch of experimental dance makers do? Some in our group simply want to be more informed and politicized voters and consumers. Others of us hope to construct alternative ways of living and trading. Some of us participate in direct action. Some of us protest, educate, organize and boycott. None of us claims to have all the answers. We are all, to varying degrees, willing to risk failure and discomfort in this attempt to make performance that is explicitly political. Personally, I am respectfully tired of dances that make polite and abstract allusions to pet causes. I want us to “say no with our whole bodies,” as Leslie put it in a recent performance. Maybe there is ultimately nothing we can do, and unbridled capitalism will bring the end of history, (though probably not in the sense Francis Fukuyama meant it when he coined that phrase.) Maybe, then, we are no longer interested in hope, and maybe we are ready to let there be nothing new under the sun in terms of political theater, in terms of choreography, in terms of experimental dance. Maybe we feel we might as well try anyway; let’s rather rage against the dying of the light.
We want performance not to preach, but yes, to inform, and yes, we want dance to build solidarity in rehearsal rooms and performance halls, we want art to be thoughtful, we want to feel each other’s warmth and weight, to struggle with collective bargaining and challenge power dynamics, to learn and share and debate, to link audiences to real organizations doing work to restore democratic accountability and end corruption, to hold a folk forum for people to talk about issues that really matter to them, to pretend for a moment that we actually live in a democracy, however imperfect that ideal may be, and that dance is a celebration, a mirror, a distillation of our lives, not just a pretty product battling other pretties in the marketplace.
Politics and money, and money and dance, and dance and politics. We need to talk about this. We need to gather, we need to rage and we need to organize. And we need to dance.