Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Kaiser Rolls Over (oy....)

Michael Kaiser is the chairman of the Kennedy Center. Within the ten years he’s held that position he took a struggling, increasingly irrelevant behemoth of an arts organization and turned its fortunes around in a way thought unable to be done. Before the Kennedy Center, he did the same for the Royal Opera House in London, the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, and the American Ballet Theater. Depending upon whom you ask, he’s either arguably the best arts administrator in the world by a few hundred leagues, or the luckiest businessman in the history of the arts. Unfortunately, like many great businessmen in all fields, he has deluded himself into thinking that anyone can do what he does and that those who aren’t able to succeed on his level simply aren’t trying hard enough. He is the performing arts equivalent of a supply side economist - telling arts executives from failing companies that the only way to increase their revenues is by spending more money. Many of these executives come away from him feeling that spending beyond their means is the most responsible way to re-achieve fiscal solvency. Whether or not he practices as he preaches, his message is dangerous and irresponsible. The first duty of an artistic organization will always be to create a great product. But in terms of their need to do so within the means they have, there is no difference between an arts organization and any other business. Those who spend beyond them cannot expect that there will be a savior who will bail them out of the mess they created.

Mostly on his regular perch at the Huffington Post, he’s beaten on this drum - and by extension, most of the hard-working people that comprise his colleagues - so often that he could declare himself completely wrong tomorrow and lots of people in the arts world would still hold him in contempt. But in his latest column he made a claim so provocative that I’m not even sure he realizes how incendiary he’s becoming. His claim is as simple as it is inflammatory: the reason the arts are in trouble is that artists are not making good enough art.

The degree to which that claim is true is impossible to know. But one thing from it is easy to intuit. Michael Kaiser just shot himself in the foot. Artists always need to trust that the people who promote their work approve of what they do. This is a comment that would haunt any arts executive for the rest of their career, but for the chairman of the Kennedy Center to say this is an unbelievably stupid business decision.

But even if this latest column is idiotic from a business standpoint, and even if it’s impossible for anyone to have a completely accurate view of the state of the arts, is Kaiser wrong? Well,...... not really.

Don’t misunderstand, he’s not totally right. By any standard there are all sorts of great American artists living in our time: from John Adams to David Mamet to Mark Morris to Philip Roth to James Rosenquist to Stephen Sondheim (even if he’s twenty years past it). There are artists in the younger generations who have already done incredible work and I have no doubt that some of them will soon ascend to the same prestige their predecessors now hold, if they haven’t already. BUT, there simply aren’t enough great artists in the 'arts.' There hasn't been for a long, long time.

Even in the postwar years, an alleged golden age to which Kaiser refers, there weren’t enough great artists working in 'the arts.' In the 50’s and 60’s, what artists were forward-thinking people most excited about? Alfred Hitchcock, not Tennesee Williams. They went mostly to Jerome Robbins Broadway productions, not to Balanchine ballets. They listened to Miles Davis, not Stravinsky (and it’s kind of hilarious that anyone would call Stravinsky the classical music giant of postwar America).

Even today, it’s difficult to say that the greatness of mid-20th century movies didn’t leave a far bigger impact on its time than the era’s plays, jazz than mid-20th century classical music, choreographed musicals than modern dance. And if 'the arts' were lagging behind then, how much more are they to today’s genres? Let's be honest here. What broadminded music lover would throw a new Sufjan Stevens into the fire to get an extra album from Nico Muhly? How many observant theatergoers would destroy a new P T Anderson film if it meant getting another play by Tony Kushner? Hell, who would even destroy a Spike Jonze music video if it meant being able to hang up a Damien Hirst in their apartment (...unless they were worth more than $30 million already)?

Whether from ignorance or informed judgement, most people feel that the arts (at least as Michael Kaiser defines them) are not as worthwhile as other forms of culture. C’est la vie, I suppose. There are still great artists and I hope there always will be. But there aren't enough of them. And if my claim is true, then the blame goes everywhere. It’s not just the fault of artists. Many of the reasons that what Michael Kaiser says is true have to do with people who have the positions, the power, and the influence of....Michael Kaiser!

How can composers learn to write for orchestras if they don’t regularly have orchestras at their disposal for which to write (regardless of quality)? Even if we don’t have a world premiere of a great new opera to look forward to every month, could the situation improve if major opera companies made investments on helping young composers develop the way they do for young singers? And how can we regularly expect to see great visual art if major galleries are only willing to show exhibits of artists who spend the time it takes to obtain advance hype? For that matter, how can playwrights learn to write plays fit for marquees on Broadway if Broadway isn’t willing to produce new plays?

No doubt these are extremely simplistic generalizations, perhaps they're even ignorant. But my only point is this: In order to achieve great things, artists need years upon years of practice on the materials for which they’re writing. And they’re not getting the help they need from the places where they should. Saying, as Mr. Kaiser does, that he gives something back to the communityby giving promising beginners and artists on the cultural fringe a chance to do free concerts on the Millenium Stage is not the same as giving these people a chance to break into the cultural mainstream.

I do believe that with many exceptions, the overall quality of new classical music, new theater, new visual art, new dance has dropped precipitously as far back as living memory goes. So sue me. I believe that the energy to create has been sapped because the willingness of many people, particularly arts administrators, to take risks on new concepts has been sapped. Unfortunately, the only people who can revive the spirit of innovation are powerful people like Michael Kaiser. And for all his talk about risktaking, his record on innovation is as alarmingly timid as most other arts managers.

We in 'the arts' still allow ourselves an aristocratic definition of what constitutes art. But the invention of the recorded sound and images is the single greatest cultural leap since the invention of alphabets. No longer does art have to be transcribed on paper. It only has to be recorded. Anybody with access to a guitar and a computer can log years of practice on their material which no amount of grant writing could ever hope to equal. Anyone can now make great art with the most flimsy materials imaginable. And while ‘the arts’ is busy trying to find a way forward. There are unknown people at this very moment with video cameras and computer recorders creating art on a level that nearly all classical musicians could never hope to achieve, even with twenty years of schooling.

...and get off my lawn!


  1. I completely agree with you on the aristocratic definition of what constitutes art. Things do need to move forward.

    I'm a bit puzzled by your suggestions for how to do that, though: easing artists' passage towards producing works for major orchestras, galleries, opera companies and Broadway theatres sounds like a recipe for shoring up an aristocratic hegemony, not one for changing anything and having that 'big impact' on our time that you're looking for. The single biggest difference between jazz and mid-20th century classical music is that one gets played in a club, the other in a concert hall. If you're still writing for the 19th-century institutions of the latter you're not changing anything.

    Fortunately, many many 'classical' composers aren't doing that; they're exploring and expanding genre possibilities (far more rigourously and adventurously than in some mainstream musical genres, like rock). You just won't find them at your major concert halls.

    Oh and, "Hell, who would even destroy a Spike Jonze music video if it meant being able to hang up a Damien Hirst in their apartment" - seriously? In a heartbeat.

  2. I don’t think anybody could argue with the notion of a concert hall being an outmoded institution. But realistically, behemoths like the Kennedy Center are the places that will always take up the most money and time. If the Kennedy Center, or the Metropolitan Museum, went bankrupt tomorrow, something would take their places before long. If the LPR model takes off, then in a hundred years we might have five square blocks of Manhattan devoted to a space for classical clubs the way they’re devoted to Lincoln Center today. We absolutely should define art as democratically as we can, but there will always be organizations that will try to make art as aristocratic a pursuit as possible, and the money will always be on their side. Eventually, every lasting idea becomes part of the establishment. So my feeling is that we should do everything we can to make these behemoths as democratic as we can.

    Also. To be perfectly honest it’s not like I have any great love of Spike Jonze’s full-length movies. But if I ever come to your apartment I’d sit on the sofa that’s facing away from the Damien Hirst :).