Wednesday, December 03, 2008

metaDRAMA: Art, What Is It Good For?

The December 2008 Harper's has an excellent article from Suki Kim ("A Really Big Show") that talks about the New York Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang, North Korea (or what she nails as a "fantasia"). The piece questions the morality of traveling to a country like North Korea and focuses on the unease of an oboist's sixteen course meal with people starving outside, but when it comes to actually addressing these issues, the Philharmonic is as repressive with its answers as North Korea is with its citizens ("If you want to talk to our people, we will select ones for you"). What comes across is Lorin Maazel's (the maestro's) bold statement that "Artists . . . have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas. It is a role of the highest possible order." It's a hypocritical statement, especially given that as he sees it, the role is to make bank: twenty-five wealthy patrons accompany the orchestra, at $50,000 a pop, and Suki wisely closes her article with the publicist, Erik Latzky, announcing that "the DVD of the concert would soon be available for $24.99." I agree more with Suki's first-hand account, which doesn't pretend that the music moved the audience to tears (regardless of what CNN and The New York Times may have reported): as she puts it, it was "just a concert." 

I don't think art should be used as a political tool, nor should it risk diluting its purpose for capitalist gains, and the Philharmonic seems to have inadvertently done both. In the theater today, we are unfortunately doing both more than ever. This is not to say that a play can't transcend politics (Betrayed, at the Culture Project) or rise above the money it rode into town on (Avenue Q), but all too often, especially among small independent companies, there's a rush to produce plays that are "relevant" (Two Doors, or the awful As We Speak) or pap that might be digestible enough to move to a larger location. I don't presume to know what the purpose of "art" should be, nor do I wish to imply (contra observations from Isaac Butler at Parabasis) that art needs to do more than simply entertain. But as much as the success of Blasted warms my heart, I get worried on a global scale when reading about the "bigger picture" that seems to be behind artistic development (indeed, as Bush would say [and hopefully not sing] "What is it good for?"), and the directions we seem to be heading.

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