Commentary Magazine


Observations: A New Deal for the Arts

The recent closing of the Living Theater in New York for default on rent and taxes reminds us strongly of the plight of such enterprises in our society. It is hard to be decently poor and to venture in a style uniquely one’s own. To Europeans this was our most famous advance-guard company, and at home it was at least the most notorious. Yet simple calculation shows that it was unviable both economically and artistically. The maximum number of seats an off-Broadway theater may have, if it is to be allowed to pay the “Equity minimum” subsistence wage-scale, is 299; because of the unavailability of real estate in New York City, the Living Theater seated about 170. Its weekly budget was $2000, of which half went for the subsistence salaries. Thus, the theater would have had to sell out nearly every night at four dollars a ticket to meet the budget and get enough ahead to mount a new production. (A new production costs eight to ten thousand dollars.)

The ticket price was out of line for an advance-guard theatre. The directors’ original intention had been to keep half the seats at one dollar—for students, poor artists, beatniks. Worse, the pressure to have pretty immediate “successes” inevitably undermined the artistic intention, which was to provide new-theater experiences and present the best available new plays, in order to enliven the torpid mass audience and form a new audience. Since the indifference or disapproval of the incompetent New York reviewers was guaranteed, one had to rely on word of mouth; but this takes months, one could not wait. Hence the temptation was strong to be sensational, or to play voguish modern classics like Brecht—which prevented the formation of a loyal new audience. If by chance there was an eventual selling notice for a play, like the New Yorker’s rave for Jack Gelber’s The Connection or Life’s spread for Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig (ironically, the theater went bankrupt when it had one of its modest hits), the audience would consist of tourists and mink coats or week-end Yalees. Worst of all, in order to cash in, it was necessary to keep repeating the successful play long beyond the interest of the directors or performers, and this undermined the original aim, which had been to do repertory. By and large, indeed, the most interesting evenings at the Living Theater were Mondays, when off-Broadway is dark and the stage was used for irregular performances or readings.

The Living Theater had a non-profit classification and sought foundation support. But somehow, though a couple of the great foundations have rather generously supported several dozen little theaters, no money was forthcoming for this liveliest one. It was rumored that the Living Theater’s connection with the Worldwide General Strike for Peace put the foundations off; Julian Beck and Judith Malina (Mrs. Beck), the directors, were in and out of jail on this issue and civil rights; also the theater itself was a resort of known pacifists, potheads, poets, and other punks. A representative of a great foundation complained to me that the Living Theater was not financially scrupulous; he was apparently surprised that it would pay its actors before its bills, or that artists would write bouncing checks to save the opening of a play that they had prepared for six weeks. Or maybe the lack of foundation support was just “mathematical,” as Kafka said of the mischances of this world.1

Needless to say, many have proposed the usual liberal solution for such problems: paste the problem on the wall and throw government money at it. Since the arts, like the poor, are worthy and neglected, there must be an Arts Council in Washington and a direct government subsidy. But I doubt that the Congress of the United States would be a more sophisticated or catholic patron than the foundations; we can hardly expect it—under the patriotic fire of Walter Winchell or Senator Eastland—to support potheads, Communists, pacifists, homosexuals, or “nigger-lovers.” At best, officially sponsored theater would be sanitary, uplifting, or mass-entertaining; it could not be corrosive, political, or intimately vulgar and popular. Artistically, official support of new theater would in all probability be positively damaging. Especially under an administration with a certain moneyed cultivation like that of Governor Rockefeller in New York or that of the late President in Washington, the tendency is to support glamorous show-cases like Lincoln Center or the proposed National Arts Center, that create in the public mind the illusion that this kind of thing, with its Big Names, is the norm of living art. Every such enterprise makes it all the harder for the genuine, the modest, the outlandish, to live and breathe. (The case of the WPA theater of the 30′s was different—and I shall return to it.)

In my opinion, there is an important role for direct government subsidy of theater, namely to underwrite standard classical repertory, of drama and opera, say up to 1940, a generation ago. This is simply part of the education of the young and is no different from supporting museums or schools. Such repertory provides good training for directors and performers, it gives interim employment, it can do little damage to new art, and indeed, by raising the general level of the audience, it indirectly and powerfully helps new art.

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II

How, then, can our society support necessary new ventures like the Living Theater? Let me make a proposal springing from an analysis of the structure of our contemporary institutions. The essence of our modern problem, as I see it, is that the growth of mass communications, the centralized decision-making in the big media, their heavy capitalization, their concentration by continual mergers, the inflated costs for overhead, public relations, and highly organized labor, and the vast common-denominator audiences sought and created for the efficient and profitable use of such investments—these things pre-empt the field and make it impossible for small, new, or dissenting enterprises to get a start and a fair hearing. Even more important, the big mass media interlock in their financing and echo one another in content and style; with one tale to tell, they swamp and outblare, and they effectually set definite limits to what can “normally” be thought, said, and felt.

It is hardly necessary to demonstrate all this, but I will just mention the usual headings. (1) “News” is what is selected as newsworthy by a few men in a few news-services; three almost identical broadcasting networks abstract from the same; and then it is abridged for the Junior Scholastic. Even for this news only 60 towns in America have competing newspapers (in 1900 there were 600). (2) The publishing houses merge and their editorial choices are increasingly determined by tie-ins with book-clubs, serialization in national magazines, Hollywood, paperback reprints. (3) The Standard of Living, how to live decently, is what is shown in the ads in a few mass-circulation magazines and identically in the TV commercials; and movie-sets of respectable life come from the same factories. (4) The “important” in entertainment is what is slickly produced, elaborately promoted, and reviewed by the right dozen papers and national magazines. (5) Political thought is the platforms of two major parties that agree on crucial issues like the cold war and the expanding economy, and the Congress decides to abrogate equal time for the broadcasting of minority opinions. (6) Public-service communications, e.g. educational TV, are tightly geared to the Establishment universities and the middle-of-the-road school boards.

Now some of this has real advantages, and anyway the whole complex represents one inevitable use of the technology and the national economy. Yet this whole complex is gravely problematical, so problematical, indeed, that it faces us with a constitutional crisis. For in such an atmosphere of uniform thought and feeling, and potential brainwashing, it is impossible to carry on a free, rather than a mass, democracy. The attempt to regulate the media by government agencies, like the FCC, does not work; and the outcry of censorship, though entirely hypocritical, is correct in principle. (As the case is, however, the broadcasters themselves censor: they blacklist and they wipe out controversial tapes, even though they have exclusive licenses to the channels.) It has been proposed that the government itself be used to counteract the debasing media—for instance by establishing a TV channel like the BBC or by publishing an official edition of classical American literature. This is wise if it refers to transmitting authoritative information and standard fare, but it is entirely irrelevant to the problem of helping the controversial and the new, for of course the government is part of the consensus that makes it hard for the controversial to gain an entry.

Therefore, to meet this constitutional and cultural crisis, let us look for a new principle in the structure of the danger itself, and let us suggest that it is the responsibility of the mass media themselves to support, freed from their own direction, a countervailing force of independent and dissenting media of all kinds. Since it is mainly the size of the common-denominator audience that constitutes the peril, conceive of a graduated tax on the audience size—of the broadcasting stations and networks, big newspapers and chains, national magazines, Hollywood, the publishing combinations—to create a fund earmarked exclusively for the support of countervailing small media: local newspapers, little theaters and magazines, unaffiliated broadcasters. The tax would be collected by local, state, or federal government as relevant; we shall discuss the administration of the fund below. The constitutional virtue of this proposal is that it provides for the danger—of brainwashing—to generate its own antidote. Moreover, it is altogether in the spirit of the American principle of built-in checks and balances, applied to technical and economic conditions where free competition cannot work, where, indeed, there is semi-monopolistic private government paralleling or interlocked with public government.

As an immediate simple application of the principle to cases like the Living Theater, consider the following: Instead of repealing, as seems to be intended, the war-time excise tax on theater and movie-tickets, earmark it for a fund to support little theater and experimental movies. This would in effect mean that the mass and commercial media, which provide almost all of the take, would be supporting the local, the off-beat, and the dissenting. I propose this immediate remedy because obviously it is easier and less painful to shift the use of an existing tax than to levy a new tax. But of course for the general application to the media—TV, press, advertising, and publishing—the rate (10 per cent per ticket) is vastly out of line. The aim of the proposed tax is not punitive or sumptuary or emergency, but simply to provide a steady modest revenue. We are concerned with audiences numbering often in the millions; an audience of 100,000 would surely be exempt. (Incidentally, there is now before the House of Commons a graduated tax on the advertising of the big broadcasting networks, but this seems to be partly punitive.)

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III

To whom should support be given? I am strongly opposed to having Arts Councils or boards of experts as selectors. With the best will in the world, such experts are cliquish. Many of the best artists—as it turns out—are lacking in the character and techniques to win prestigious attention; they do not attend the right parties. Much that is excellent is overlooked or misunderstood; it sometimes wins its way unaided and is then crowned with help when it no longer needs any. The thorny problem is to choose professionally—by definition, amateurs do not need “support”—and yet as randomly as the spirit bloweth.

I have discussed the matter with Mr. and Mrs. Beck of the Living Theater and we agree that the following methods are tolerable: (1) A popular principle: to divide the country into regions and give aid to any group that can get a certain number of thousand petitions for itself. (2) A professional principle: to support any group that can win a certain number of dozen peers as sponsors—namely directors, playwrights, professors of literature or the humanities, critics, film-makers, etc. These need not like what the group does, but must be willing to testify that the enterprise is worthwhile and should be helped to exist. (3) Naturally, any group that does exist in the present conditions has proved its right to exist, and should be supported if necessary. (4) Also, the old policy of the WPA theater has much to recommend it: this was essentially to support everybody unemployed in the field; when there were enough to form a group of any kind in a locality, the group was underwritten and the individuals employed.

Support by the fund should be very modest, of no interest to people in show business; and it should be tailored just to help a worthwhile group get a hearing and either try to win its way commercially or fulfill a non-profit artistic function. Consider an interesting case: Recently there was a little group at the Judson Memorial Church (rent free) that passed a hat for the scenery, lights, and ads; in my opinion, this group provided the best evenings of theater in New York City in the past two years. It seems to me extremely important for the dignity of such artists that they be paid Equity minimum instead of nothing; and of course, without such pay no such group can persist. Or another kind of case: the fund might underwrite a quarterly circulation of 10,000 copies for a little magazine for, say, three years, by which time it ought to have won its own audience or go out of business. Another case (to show how little money is involved): WBAI in New York City, certainly one of the best radio stations in the country, operates for $38 an hour (its salaries are low; most of its programming is volunteer). It has no ads. More than 60 per cent of its $250,000 budget comes from its 12,000 subscribers, at $12 each. Yet the station might lapse because of the difficulty of getting gifts for the remainder. In this case, a subsidy of as little as $5 an hour would put everyone at ease.

Obviously, the fund must entail no responsibility either by or to the government. That is, it could subsidize activities politically extremist in any direction, morally questionable, or aesthetically outrageous, subject only to ordinary law.2

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IV

Allow me a philosophical reflection on the political principle that I am here using.

The justified suspicion of growing governmental power and the efforts to curtail it, usually leave the field open to the operation of private powers that are almost as formidable and yet are less subject to popular check. The exercise and not very tender mercy of private powers are in turn met by the regulatory agencies and welfare policies of public power. Sometimes these public and private powers glower at each other and clinch, and then there is no social movement at all. At other times there are unholy combinations between them, like the military-industrial, government-universities, urban renewal-real estate promoter, politics-Madison Avenue complexes, that pre-empt the field, expand unchecked, ride rough-shod, and exclude any independent, thrifty, or honest enterprise. Certainly, to avoid these dilemmas, we must encourage a different concept and practice of countervailing force. In important ways, public and private power do not usefully countervail each other when both are centralized and powerful, for the independent, the new, the dissenting are destroyed by both.

In a viable constitution, every excess of power should structurally generate its own antidote. That is, power entails a responsibility to counteract the dangers it creates—though proper exercise of the power should not thereby be impeded. In my opinion, resort to this kind of built-in counter-valence is often far more direct and safer than relying on the intervention of the governmental juggernaut, whose bureaucracy, politicking, and policing are sometimes worse than the disease (if one is a “conservative”) or are at best necessary evils (if one is a “liberal”). The proposal of a fund provided by the mass media to support independent media and prevent brainwashing is an example of built-in countervalence. (I think the same line of reasoning could be usefully pursued in another case: to make those who profit by automation more directly responsible to provide or educate for other employment or useful leisure.)

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Footnotes

1 Since this was written, the Living Theater has been able to reopen in a new location—thanks to the proprieter of the Midway Theater, who has donated the premises rent-free for the rest of the season.

2 The chief Congressional champion of aid to the arts is Rep. John Lindsay (R., N.Y.), and he too is earnestly insisting that a “Federal grant-in-aid program operated by a government-appointed panel should not dictate cultural tastes in America.” I am quoting from his speech in the House of April 4, 1963. But affectionate as I am toward Rep. Lindsay, his proposal is a poor one, namely, that the government match funds with individual and foundation gifts above a certain minimum: “this would compel the organization to prove itself with the public before receiving government aid.” If Mr. Lindsay thinks that rich individuals or foundations represent the public, or the artistic public, he does not know the facts of life. He moves too much in the right circles. “As a safeguard,” he says, “a ceiling—say, 3 percent of the total appropriation—should be set on the amount for any single organization. This would prevent a single group from capturing the whole Federal kitty.” (But it would mean that 35 prestigious groups would capture it.) Lindsay entirely misses the point of how to support poverty-stricken authentic art. But at least he is trying. The problem is not perfectly soluble. For instance, there are probably some kinds of art which must not be helped, in order to remain themselves.

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