Duke University Alumni Magazine

Artists and Audiences

by Richard Riddell

    n the last few years, there's been a lot of discussion, sometimes heated, about support for artists in the United States, particularly government support for progressive artists. I confess I've found myself buffeted by the rhetoric and emotion from both sides. Having lived in West Berlin during my formative graduate education and tasted the rich fruits of the German subsidized theater system, and having designed lighting for theater productions with such progressive artists as Philip Glass, Richard Foreman, and Liviu Ciulei, I have great admiration for any country that considers theater an asset, as well as much creative sympathy for artists who genuinely express their particular point of view. Yet there's another part of me, nurtured in my teens by performing in high school musicals, and later strengthened by designing a musical on Broadway, that values the experience of popular theater, supported entirely by people who buy tickets or invest money. Lately I've found myself wondering, whom can we expect to support the arts, particularly the progressive arts in the United States today?

         Maybe in fighting Jesse Helms and defending the National Endowment for the Arts, we've been focusing on the wrong thing. Government support in this country, after all, means dealing with the democratic process, and progressive artists have never been particularly adept or interested in democracy. Art historian and professor Albert Elsen was once asked to comment on opposition to a program of public art at his beloved Stanford University. Students in the law school there were objecting to a large sculpture by the celebrated British artist Barbara Hepworth that had been placed in their school's courtyard. Seeking to explain why the work was important in terms of the history of art and why it was ultimately none of the law students' business, Elsen said, "If modern art had been put to a public vote, it never would have happened."

         It was from Elsen that I first learned the origins of modern progressive visual art and its opposition to conventional taste and values. I remember learning how Gustave Courbet, pioneer of realist painting in the 1850s, had his work refused by the established Salon in Paris and was forced to exhibit his work in alternative exhibitions. In the theater, one of our modern pioneers, Andre Antoine, got his revolutionary theater moving in 1877 by selling private subscriptions and thereby avoiding certain censorship by the government. The more I think about it, the more examples come to mind--Jarry, Grotowski, Brecht, and in our own country, the Group Theater. None had government support; in fact, most opposed their governments.

         With such a notable history of progressive artists in opposition to conventional society and government, how did we get to the point where today progressive artists and their supporters get very angry when members of Congress don't want to fund an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs or performances by a chocolate-smeared and partially-clothed Karen Finley? How did progressive artists come to feel dependent on government money? And how did the U.S. government find itself funding Mapplethorpe and Finley?

         Artists came to feel dependent on NEA support for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was, relatively speaking, an easy source of support. As arts consultant Melanie Beene said recently in The New York Times, "It's much easier to get a $50,000 grant than to get 1,000 people to give you $50, or 25,000 new audience members to see your show." As artists came to understand the peer-review system, many developed strong relationships with arts administrators and those fellow artists who were in positions to award grants. They educated them about their work. In a sense, these grant-givers became the primary audience for many progressive artists.

         As government support declined--a consequence of concerns about the growing country, were undermining community standards, the majority culture, and patriotism--artists felt their survival was threatened by the disappearing "audience" of grant-givers.

         Some artists came to depend on the NEA not for money, but for something even more important--a sense of self-worth. Josephine Abady, artistic director of Circle Repertory Theater, represented this often expressed view when she said recently in Theater Week: "You know, to be honest, the NEA was never a source for any institution to stay alive. But what having an NEA and NEH did was to let the country know that the arts and humanities were important." Artists had come to rely on the NEA to tell audiences what was worthy of their time and support. Without the NEA's endorsement, some feared that their audiences and donors wouldn't know which artist or arts organization to support.

         Throughout history we can find plenty of examples of artists seeking the easiest and most profitable source of support. After all, that gives them more time to do their art. We can also find instances where governments contributed to the progressive artist's sense of self-worth; however, in all cases, it was fleeting. For rooted in the very notion of progressive art is the idea that artists are leading the way, are out front, are on the "cutting edge," asking the difficult questions that need asking, prodding us out of our complacency and causing us to see reality with fresh eyes. Being out front means being separate from the majority. It can be lonely. It's not activity that is likely to be supported by a democratically-elected government. From time to time, governments may support the arts for their own reasons--to glorify the Russian Revolution, to give Germans a sense of cultural identity after World War II, or to give Americans a sense of prosperity in the 1950s--but that support is fickle and rarelylasting.

         If that's the case and we can't depend on the government to support progressive art, where can artists turn for more reliable support? The true supporters, I believe, have been with us all along--although they have been treated rather shabbily during the halcyon days of NEA subsidies. They are the people who care enough to buy tickets and to support our work with their time and gifts. They don't need an NEA to tell them that the arts are important; they know they are important because they experience them. They buy tickets with their own money to see what we are doing. They care enough to leave the comfort of their increasingly self-sufficient homes and risk an evening with us. The tragedy of the NEA and the peer-review process, adopted by it and other granting agencies over the last three decades, has been the inadvertent distance that has been created between the artists and these loyal supporters.

         Contrary to what many progressive audiences fear, building a relationship with your audience does not necessarily lead to a compromise in artistic values. The American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts--perhaps the most progressive repertory theater company in the United States --was faced with a crisis in its third year of existence. Several of its productions had been badly received. Challenging plays like Frank Wedekind's Lulu, directed by progressive artist Lee Breuer, had caused some audience members to noisily exit the theater during the performance. When it came time to solicit support for the next season, 60 percent of the subscribers decided not to renew. After the shock wore off, the theater management was advised not to worry about the 60 percent, but instead to look at the 40 percent that did renew. These subscribers were the real supporters of ART and they gave the theater a base from which to grow, which it did.           Building support from audiences while maintaining artistic identities is not easy. It involves lots of listening, asserting, and negotiating, with ourselves and with others. But it's the only way that we can move the arts forward and make them more integral to people's lives. Rather than viewing audiences as groups of people who need to be enlightened, we might consider them as individuals who have their own thoughts and desires. Audiences then become a source of inspiration for artists, who lead by giving expression to their community's concerns, dreams, and hopes. In this way, artists may find something no government may give--more reliable support for their work, as well as a renewed sense of purpose.                               

Riddell is director of the program in Drama and Mary D.B.T. Semans and James H. Semans Professor of the Practice of Drama. This essay first appeared in a different form in Arts & Ideas, a publication of the Duke Institute of the Arts.

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