The Dry History of Arts Funding As Juicy Downtown Theater

"One is never going to get all of America on board with any one issue -- let alone the public funding of arts."

At first, Jackie Kennedy looms large in "The Arts." Production photos: Wilson McGrory.

Let’s play a little game. Let’s say you asked a reasonably educated American — yes, I know you’d have a better chance of dancing with extraterrestrials — but let’s just say you found a reasonably educated American, and you asked that person to name a famous quote from Congressional speeches or testimony. “Have you no sense of decency?” the person might say. “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” perhaps. “Lordy!,” lately. Now ask that person for a famous Congressional quote on arts funding.

I’ll wait. And you’re going to wait awhile, frankly.

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This is not to say that The Arts, a docu-drama conceived, written and directed by Kevin Doyle, and running at La Mama (66 E. 4th St.) through Sept. 30, dumps some moonshot quote in your lap that you share with your compatriots. Rather, it proves that timeless quotes aren’t always what you want for a timeless debate. The piece is provocative in this way, and arguably a little sad. It bright to light and traces the hyper-politicized, ridiculously checkered history of public arts funding in the US — and if that sounds exaggerated to you, just sit in your seat before the performance begins and read the avalanche of verbiage that scrolls on a screen behind the spare playing area. The long history of the debate over, and the apathy toward, US public arts funding actually pre-dates our bruised little Constitution. Arts funding has never enjoyed widespread popularity. Reactionary types have always felt threatened by it. They’ve always hoped to kill, starve or demonize it, rendering it useless.

As source material, The Arts (the r is backward) uses Congressional hearings and debates from the mid-1960s, when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created, and from the 1980s and early 1990s, when radical right-wing Republicans weaponized it against the First Amendment. Doyle, his co-director and co-producer Mike Carlsen, and his cast (Dracyn Blount, Alexander Chilton, Shayne Conde, Nick Daly, Georgia Lee King) zero in on this more recent history because the forces implacably opposed to public arts funding then have basically gone nowhere. Today they have other names and employ other outrageous assaults upon America (like writing anonymous op-eds in The New York Times), but they’re still there. They still hate public arts funding. They still hate arts and artists. If you aren’t familiar with Doyle’s highly accomplished company, at least appreciate the irony that it’s name is Sponsored By Nobody.

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The script of The Arts is fractured; there’s hardly a straightforward narrative to cling to. What the actors do and say is constantly being juxtaposed against footage on the screen that is often downright wild. There’s Jackie Kennedy, for example, seemingly so pleasant and so endearing until a reporter asks a softball question about arts funding and suddenly she’s a 1950s housewife, pretending to be coy and dumb. There’s the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, pudgy in his tan suit from the bile that bloated his liver, leading the charge against the NEA nearly 30 years ago, still stirring waves of revulsion in us now.

A 10-minute fantasia near the end of the 85-minute work drives the piece fully out of the realm of documentary theater and parks it in performance art. It’s a loud and disorienting sequence: What is going on? Maybe they’re illustrating how 2018 America has moved one level up toward a grand national breakdown. To underscore the point, soon there’s footage, too much footage, of the White House’s current occupant speaking at the Kennedy Center. The arts are dead? I don’t know. I know The Arts is not.

For tickets to The Arts, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Kevin Doyle has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

It was in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in March 2009, during a talkback after a performance of W.M.D. (just the low points). A Dutch woman asked: “Why do this project about the Bush administration since Obama is the President now?” The long answer I gave involved issues of history and the media — but also about the lingering long-term consequences of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq; that we had a responsibility to examine what happened. My answer also took me into trying to explain how hard it is to make this kind of theater in NYC, and how hard it is to find funding or even spaces to work.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

“What is this? Dancing?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

“That guy who walks out of the ocean in the final film — was that you?”

Kevin Doyle. Photo: Richard Davenport.

Let’s be honest: the right-wing hates arts funding and has hated it for 50 years. Freedom of expression is antithetical to what used to be their party’s organizing principles around limited government. Yet many people continue to believe this isn’t true: that if we could only come up with the right magical mixture of words to persuade them of what the rest of us already know inherently — that arts are indispensable — they wouldn’t be so hostile to funding it. What do you think we need to do to get all of America on board with public arts funding?

The right-wing hates the idea of the government funding anything; with the exception of the military, I guess. They are not going to change. They haven’t since the onset of FDR’s New Deal policies. I think we should stop focusing on the right-wing to some degree, and reach out to the vast numbers of people in this country who do not vote, who are not engaged. Many state and local elections are decided by such low numbers of participation. There is so much more room for growth there.

However, I don’t understand why we continue to look at the public funding of arts as some separate and distinct realm — apart from other things the government funds and/or protects. It is all part of the same package: voting rights, marriage equality, basic labor protections, basic clean air and water regulations, Social Security, etc. The right-wing has been attempting to undo all of it for a long time, following a clearly developed strategy. And it is not just about arts funding, but also the public funding of communication, of the information citizens have access to with a public option on the table. One of the loudest warnings was raised early on by former NEA Chair John Frohnmayer in 1992. He identified that the arts were being used by the right to distract and divert attention from this wider agenda. He put forth that once the public funding of arts and culture goes, it opens the door for the erasure of public funding in other areas. The last 25-plus years have proven his warnings correct. Ironically, they are similar to warnings the artist David Wojnarowicz first expressed when he began to be attacked by the right also.

One is never going to get all of America on board with any one issue — let alone the public funding of arts. But our working thesis has been that we believe great results are possible by returning to the original bold arguments that were successful in the first place during the 1960s. Americans do not know our own history. I bet nine out of 10 arts workers you ask on the street have never even read the NEA/NEH legislation or even know that it is still the law of the land. This is what the “performing legislation” discovery has been all about for us in the rehearsal process. Audiences will see theater students we worked with at Laguardia Community College realizing that the text they are reading is still the law — the conclusions they come to, the doors that open for them. It is the law that as citizens they can expect the federal government to not just fund artists directly, but to provide adequate funding for arts education, arts infrastructure, subsidized access to the arts. To quote the legislation, government must be “creating the conditions” that might cultivate not just great artists, but great audiences for the arts. It is hard work, but it pays big dividends.

Personally, we feel this is the path to success: reclaiming this bold terrain. Retreating from the big, bold fight and hiding behind “economic impact” arguments, or conflating “entrepreneurship” with “arts education” and “cultural rights,” has clearly only delivered the whole arts industry to where we are now — which is precisely where we started in 1963. Our retreat has only led us to come full circle.

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What about a different argument: that because our government is inherently corrupt and untrustworthy, we should not fund the arts  — to prevent government from hijacking the arts toward various, and nefarious, political purposes?

I do not believe that government is inherently corrupt.

I think the right has followed a clear and sustained strategy to demonize the role of government in order to fit their long-term goals and agenda. Other scholars or writers better than me have traced that. Thomas Frank and Walter Karp come to mind.

artsThere already exist clear and defined protections to prevent the federal government from hijacking the public funding of the arts; it is built into the original legislation. This was one of the original concerns that was debated, addressed and solved during 1963-65. So no: I do not think much of this argument.

I would counter with a different question, though: Why do we revere the dominant, for-profit business model as sacrosanct in the performing arts or mainstream entertainment industries? Isn’t there ample evidence of the private sector and corporations also behaving in an inherently corrupt and untrustworthy manner?

How did you come to see public arts funding — its history, present and future — as somehow theatrical when put on stage?

I did not initially think it was possible. I was simply following a hunch.

We had previously worked with transcripts and found texts on a project in 2008-09 called W.M.D. (just the low points) that was focused around a single date: Jan. 8 2004. This is when the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a definitive report that the Bush administration clearly manipulated intelligence prior to the Iraq War. However, the report went nowhere in the mainstream media — unlike in previous decades with The Pentagon Papers or the Iran-Contra Scandal, for example. So we looked at newspapers and magazines from the day/week to see what we were paying attention to. Turns out we were all focused on the premiere of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice on that date, but I digress. So, we had experience with accumulating a great deal of research and then distilling things down to find performative links or moments.

The playwriting and theatrical elements revealed itself during the research phase of the project. I went down to the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC and with the help of staff there was able to pull everything about the NEA/NEH legislation. If you know the bill title number, staff there can find every single moment that proposed bill was ever debated or even mentioned in Congress. By law, every word spoken in Congress must be printed and entered into the record. After three days, I walked away with a stack of papers up to my waist, every page filled with the tiniest print you’ve ever seen.

And then you just read it all.

During 2014, I was fortunate to have the support of a series of consecutive residences all across the US — where I had the time to read it all, every page. And I read it all out loud to myself wherever I was. Eventually you discover not just the musicality of the language and its wonderful usage of repetition, but you discover incredible moments of theatricality. For example, in the 1963 hearings, suddenly Charlton Heston appears out of the blue to testify! And it’s hilarious! And a total contrast to the Heston we saw late in his life as the head of the NRA. Incredibly, he was also very much in favor of public funding of the arts. You have to just do the work, trust your gut and do the research.

But then as you are reading these bold transcripts while working at residencies in locations around the country, you are witnessing how little access many Americans have to the arts in their local communities. I saw a gap between the debates and arguments in the transcripts and the sad reality in these local communities in Florida, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Michigan when it comes to their access to the arts. We talk of “food deserts” in the US, but there are also vast “arts deserts” and “information deserts.” This was an important connection for me. The project had to try and connect with citizens and attempt to reinject these original arguments back into our public discourse.

By pure coincidence, I was on a fellowship in 2014 at the Saari Residence in Finland, run by the Kone Foundation. During my time there, a group of artists presented the “Make Arts Policy” event inside City Hall in Helsinki. I saw this large-scale, interactive performance where the general public interrogated politicians in real-time on their political party’s arts platform. One aspect of the performance was actors reading from transcripts of debates in Finland’s parliament during different stages of Finnish history. It confirmed for me that this approach was not only possible but also incredibly exciting and effective. By then, I knew I was onto something.

It took a long time to translate the best moments of what I discovered into a viable theatrical language and vocabulary. It did not happen overnight. It was actually quite hard. Ultimately the text was arrived at with the help of some pretty talented and dediated actors willing to read whole sections and excerpts and various drafts of the text, to discover the final arrangement in the performance space.