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Divided They Stand

In a Quarreling Country in an Election Year, The Arts Cleave Us in the Lurch

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page N01

Is it an accident that, in an election year with the country bitterly divided, the highest-profile event at the Kennedy Center during the 2004-05 season will be a festival devoted to the art of the 1940s?

The $14 million multidisciplinary festival, which begins in January and runs through April, will bring back Martha Graham's ballet "Appalachian Spring," acres of music by America's tonal sentimentalist composers (Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein) and some of the most established film classics of the era, including "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane."

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The 1940s are America's safe years -- witness the orgies of unifying nostalgia during the dedication in May of the National World War II Memorial -- and a time of such moral clarity (at least in hindsight) that they are safely beyond painful reevaluation. Artistically, their easygoing style, which would have been perfectly palatable to the anti-modernist cultural commissars of the Soviet Union, is a godsend to timorous arts leaders.

But Washington is in many ways an exception to the general trends of artistic production in America. As the Kennedy Center looks backward, much of the arts world is thoroughly embroiled in the current, confrontational political moment. In Washington, where the local industry is all about conflict, art is almost exclusively a form of escape. So the capital of the most powerful and innovative nation on Earth is defined by the safe parameters of Old Art -- something to be curated, tended, dusted off once in a while, but never unleashed upon the real world with the ravenous, boat-rocking, bourgeois-tweaking joie de vivre of art as practiced in our nation's real cultural capitals: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago.

If you never traveled outside Washington's nexus of Old Art -- the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery, the Shakespeare Theatre, Arena Stage -- you might not realize that out there in the larger cultural world, deep fissures are forming. As America divides, some artists are forced to decide with which America they want to throw in their lot. Other artists don't even have the luxury of a choice.

You could definitely sense something in the air, something new and both exciting and troubling, in June at the National Performing Arts Convention in Pittsburgh. Among the conventioneers, an earnest and nonconfrontational lot, there was a sense that the world has gone wrong -- lies have replaced truth -- and that perhaps salvation lies with a newly energized and politically insurgent arts world. Many of the participants, who represented a broad spectrum of the arts, seemed uncharacteristically angry, and surprisingly overt in their discussion of politics. And few of them were vocal in favor of the Bush administration.

Echoing this talk are the headlines in America's newspapers and journals over the past months. "Caution: Angry Artists at Work" is the headline above a New York Times survey of several recent, politically charged displays of visual art. "Visual artists, almost always Democratic, are joining in gallery shows, sales and auctions to raise money for the presidential campaign" was the subhead of a Los Angeles Times piece that managed to find one New York painter who favors President Bush and the Republicans. And then there's the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, éminence grise and moral authority of a cross-country tour of rockers opposed to Bush's reelection. That, too, has garnered a lot of ink.

So the natural conclusion is that the arts are politicized as never before, and for the most part, politicized in favor of the Democratic Party. But the arts world is made up not just of artists and arts lovers, but of people who fund arts organizations, and a vast bureaucratic class that runs them. And they are not monolithic in their political beliefs. Liberal curators must cater to moderate audiences, and conservative donors often pay the bills of liberal artists. A convenient self-definition has grown up in many arts organizations: We aren't about politics, that's not what we do, our concerns transcend such petty worries.

Last month, while talking to a reporter from the Austrian daily Der Standard, conductor Donald Runnicles said, "I would really have to think about whether I could stay there [in the United States] if Bush wins a second time." This is the kind of remark that Americans abroad -- if they fall into the anti-administration camp -- can be easily tempted to make. The threat of emigration is also telling: It indicates that things are so bad that it feels ethically superior to remove oneself from America than to submit to a misguided majority.

Runnicles, who is Scottish-born, is the music director of the San Francisco Opera and principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York. But it was in Atlanta, where he holds the relatively more minor position as principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where he got the most flak. Not liking George W. Bush -- not liking him to the point of fantasizing about leaving America -- doesn't raise eyebrows in the rhetorical landscape of blue-state America. But those are fighting words in more conservative Atlanta (where Runnicles was instant fodder for right-wing talk radio), and the Atlanta Symphony and Runnicles quickly issued statements.

"The recent comments made by ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, reflect his personal opinion and not the opinion of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra," read a statement released by the symphony. Runnicles was abjectly apologetic: "I profoundly regret that my words might have had any negative impact on the ASO, which is so clearly a matter of civic pride for the city and the state."

The politicization of the arts, clearly, is more complex than a simple alignment with the left. In some cities, and within the social world defined by some art forms, it is safe, and perhaps even expected, that artists express (generally left-leaning) political opinions. In other artistic milieus -- the world of Christian apocalyptic fiction, new schools of realist painting, mainstream country music, or the galleries of pop nostalgists such as Thomas Kinkade -- the political rhetoric is decidedly more conservative. And within much of the established arts world, like the stodgy, buttoned-down world of symphonic music, it is still dangerous for individuals to express opinions that aren't purely about the art they make.

But it isn't just a matter of comfort levels with political expression. Although classical music was once very much at the center of political self-definition -- Beethoven famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, then tore off the dedication when Napoleon betrayed Enlightenment political ideals -- it has evolved as the quintessential apolitical cultural space: noncontroversial and terrified of projecting meaning, or having relevance, outside the confines of the slowly emptying concert hall.

Classical ballet is in much the same position. And opera, which flirted for a while with political restagings of classic works, has settled into a museum function, recycling a narrowing roster of sentimental classics in productions that emphasize theatrical traditionalism and interpretative neutrality. The few exceptions -- for instance, operas by John Adams that deal with difficult political subjects -- are rare and, in some cases (such as Adams's "Death of Klinghoffer," which deals with Israeli-Palestinian issues), so controversial that many companies keep their distance.

The arts are sorting themselves out into two camps: one that prizes independence, provocation and even direct political engagement, and another that offers a refuge apart from controversy and argument. They are, in short, diverging down either a secessionist path (come with us, if you will) or a concessionist route (we will work to please as many as we can). Both paths have their promise and their danger.

This year, two films, both of them unlikely box office hits, showed the promise of secessionist artistic thinking. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" both said to their respective audiences: Choose. Both staked out radical, uncompromising positions. Both were independently funded, and made outside the usual studio system that might have tempered or censored their message. They both elicited storms of controversy, yet succeeded commercially beyond expectations. Their success demonstrates that radically independent art, art that advertises its own freedom to provoke, can be wildly profitable.

There is a growing dichotomy in the arts world between the bristling, high-energy world of independent movies (and independent dance, music, literature and visual arts) and what might be termed the "dependent" arts. Dependent art is defined by its purse strings, by being cash-strapped and obliged to donors or investors, or responsible to and hemmed in by the divergent values of large, heterogeneous audiences -- it is the world of opera and ballet, but also the dramas of network television and, to a large extent, mainstream rock and hip-hop. It is the Kennedy Center and the films of self-consciously neutral, likable artists, such as Tom Hanks.

Independent art, though it may be attuned to the marketplace, has freedom of action because, like the recent works of Michael Moore, it is art made for, paid for and consumed by people of like minds. Or like small, independent artists working in obscurity, it can be made and paid for without obligation to other people. It is Mel Gibson, and also the lone artist who posts her work on the Web.

In a culture that processes information through controversy -- through the conflicts set up in reality television, through punditry, gossip, scandal and gotcha journalism -- independent art thrives and fails and is reinvented to thrive again. Arts that are fast on the uptake, that can react to political and cultural news with speed and without fear of being edited, bleeped or otherwise censored, are rewarded with substantially more attention than the old-guard arts can generate. Much of the visual arts, alternative music, contemporary dance and theater and all the unclassifiable Web-based and performance arts, are culturally vibrant. They give us plays about the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay (the play "Guantanamo" opened in New York last month); or lampoon the obfuscations of major-party politics (in a media installation called "The Experimental Party Disinformation Center," also in New York); or all the lovely games and provocations dealing in gender, sexuality, race and class that fill out the major visual-art biennials, year after year.

The independent arts are New Art: They embrace new artists, new ideas, new forms, new trends, and frequently they tend to the political. The dependent arts, especially the classical performing arts, often feel old, static and rather sad. But they live in the same world as New Art, and they make valiant efforts to appeal to that taste. In program notes, for instance, symphony orchestras will underscore the controversy, the yelling and the riots, that attended the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." But they virtually never program something that today might elicit the same reaction. They are not only apolitical but pathologically risk-averse -- left, in the end, to claim that, once upon a time, they too were new, and people cared enough to be angry.

Last season at the Kennedy Center, one got a good sense of the danger faced by Old Art in a New Art world. The National Symphony Orchestra performed a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra by Stewart Wallace. At a Friday afternoon performance, there were perhaps a dozen people in the hall (besides the musicians) younger than 50. The piece, an Old Art nod to New Art vitality, failed utterly. It was too loud and too raucous for the elderly audience members, who complained among themselves bitterly about it.

A political expert, examining this concert, would diagnose a very simple problem. The leaders of the NSO had offended "the base," the core of their audience that tends to be ideologically hostile to anything new. The solution? Retreat. Shore up the base by defining the orchestra as an alternative to the world outside the concert hall, a space apart from the 20th and 21st centuries, where music is cozy and familiar and always elicits a nod of happy recognition.

A demographic expert, however, might chime in that you can shore up the base all you want, but if the base is dying, the art form dies with it.

And if you appeal only to your base, you are defined by your base. This is perhaps the biggest danger faced by the Old Arts: They have retreated so thoroughly from the world, become so dependent financially and so temperamentally averse to risk, that there is an aura of defeat about them. Successful politicians can forge consensus, develop coalitions and make once-unpalatable ideas seem attractive. Success flows from strength. Leaders of the Old Arts have largely sacrificed any authority they once had to build that kind of consensus among their audience; they may occasionally perform a new electric guitar concerto, but they would never demand that their subscribers listen, and try to like it. They have become so hemmed in by the demands of concessionist artmaking that they have no freedom of action, no power to persuade, no basic cultural capital to invest in the new.

Artists who force audiences to choose, who make strong and confrontational statements and expect that only the like-minded will follow them, lose authority to speak back to the general population. They secede and, with secession, they face being marginalized. Artists who succumb to concessionist pressures, who seek primarily to please, consign themselves to be servants within an entertainment industry, not cultural leaders. There seems to be no certain and secure way to play this game. Fight hard for something you believe in, and you alienate people; believe in nothing, please everyone and you have no profile. A politician, looking at the current state of the arts world, might feel a pang of sympathy.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company