The Art Scene Is Dead and the Liberal Class Killed It
Why absolutely everything sucks now
These days I mostly avoid being around art spaces and the dwindling population of people that frequent them. This is for the same reason you might duck an old friend who’s been transformed by time and circumstance into a thing that you scarcely recognize. Sometimes it’s better to remember them as they were.
I broke my rule the other night to attend the closing of a theater I built long ago, and it was every bit as sad and disappointing as I would have expected. Hardly anyone came to send her off, and the ones that did could muster nothing better than a couple of beers and off to bed. The whole thing was over by 11.
“Who are you voting for,” a pudgy, bearded, graying Xer, asked me before I left. He was wearing a kind of middle-aged bohemian get-up, right down to the hipster hat, that made him look like he’d just stepped out of a commercial for a new Type II diabetes drug. I’m down to talk my doctor about . . .
“I’m writing in Dave Chappelle,” I said.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to find the part of his brain that knew how to process a dissenting opinion. Not finding one he sputtered, “But you’re not for Trump.”
Then a skinny, wan, pale guy with sunken eyes, and long, greasy black hair, sober as a judge, like someone who’d acquired all the physical attributes of heroin addiction, without ever having had any of the fun, said, “Then you have to vote for Biden, or Trump wins.”
“So what,” I said.
And that was when they both shit themselves and I had to do the whole red-pill/blue-pill thing. By the time that was over, everyone else had gone and I followed suit. Leaving the building for the last time, I thought of livelier days when the whole place, the whole block, the whole city, was full of life and crazy energy.
How did this happen? How did we get here?
This is an article I’ve started, abandoned, and started again a few times over the years. That’s partly because I still had some hope when I began that I might one day be able to return to my craft as a theater director without revealing my opinions. But that was before Due Dissidence had a YouTube show. Now I very visibly express ideas 3-4 times a week that would get me professionally and socially cancelled in about 5 minutes as soon as anyone from that crowd took the time to check out the channel, which of course they would.
Another thing that’s kept this one at the bottom of the digital drawer is lingering affection for a lot of people who are still making the music, lighting the lights, and all that. I have dear friends in the arts and this is going to hurt some of their feelings. Except for the ones who regularly DM to thank me for saying what they can’t without risking career suicide. Those will be greatly cheered by this piece, in the way of a bullied child watching their tormentor take a hard fist to the nose, so I guess in the end that part’s a wash. Here goes.
In the 8 years since the election of doom that transformed me from the kind of guy who wanted to have a beer with Rachael Maddow, to the kind of guy who would protest her book reading, I’ve had lots of debates with lots of people. Enough to notice a distinct pattern
Conservatives will generally keep it on the issues; they may not agree with you, but as a rule they aren’t going to go right to ad hominem attacks on your character. Liberals can go either way: they may debate the issues with you, but they’re just as likely to attack you personally as a closet Republican, a Russian plant, or if you happen to be a white man, that’s kind of their go-to. But the absolute worst people you can find yourself engaging with are members of the arts community. I know this because I’ve been a member of it since at the tender age of 19, I bullshitted my way into a directing gig at the still extant 13th Street Repertory Theater.
The artists I worked with then as a kid from Queens dazzled by the bohemian world I had infiltrated wouldn’t recognize the artists of today, and I suspect they wouldn’t like them all that much. Heirs to a 60’s counter-culture ethos of distrust for authority and institutions, and to an older tradition of the artist-intellectual, they generally thought of all politicians as dishonest psychopaths, and spent more time discussing Kafka than the evils of Soviet Russia, which occupied the same position of public enemy #1 that its successor state does today. And lest the wokeratti immediately jump to its aforementioned go-to, the scene was far more substantively diverse than what you might find at a theater or a gallery today. They were gay and straight, old and young, black and white and brown, and in a major departure from the current moment, both penniless and well to do. There were artists living rent free in the loft above the theater, others renting $250 apartments in pre-hipster Williamsburg who had to walk across the bridge to get to rehearsals for lack of train fare, and still others living comfortably on the Upper West Side. If there was a failing it was in a tendency towards pretentiousness: when a middle-aged woman pronounced confidently at a post-rehearsal dinner that the principal crisis of the modern age was the “post-Nietzschean vacuum,” I almost laughed in her face. No one had that problem in my native Flushing, and I suspected that was true most places. But the problem wasn’t racism, sexism, or homophobia-expressing those sorts of views would have been just about the only thing that could have gotten you ejected in an atmosphere where pretty much anything went, and it was that way in the arts community for as long as I was a part of it.
Generally, I like to heavily source everything I write, ‘cause when you’re offering controversial opinions, you had better cross all your t’s and such. But because the arts are such a distinct subculture and the kinds of institutions that have the means to conduct a wide survey on questions like: what class background do artists usually come from, or, when did artists start to favor censorship, never would, I must of necessity rely on my personal observations and speculations. Which makes this, by definition, a personal essay, so take it as you will.
I’m starting from the premise that something has gone very wrong when you have an American arts community that tends to be politically conservative in the sense of being to the right of general sentiment in the Western world on class and economics; that mindlessly supports politicians like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton who’s records are at odds with even the identitarian issues that they claim to care about, and that sees de-platforming and cancelling figures like Joe Rogan as a legitimate tactic, never considering the idea that once you let that genie out of the bottle, no one will be more vulnerable to having it turned against them than artists. I’ve given a lot of thought to how a bohemian scene of intellectuals and misfits turned into something resembling a PTA meeting in Scarsdale. This is what I came up with:
I will concede this to the painfully woke white people that dominate the arts even as they lately denounce their own position: rich white people are the crux of the problem, with the emphasis being on “rich” rather than “white,” as some would have it. The low to no pay circumstances of most creatives are beside the point, even though many of them will point to this as evidence of their moral authority to speak on matters of poverty and marginalization. If “artist” isn’t a Professional Managerial Class job, what is it? It sure ain’t factory work. The pretense of artists to social disenfranchisement calls to mind John Goodman’s line in Barton Fink, where his serial killing salesman tells John Turturro’s slumming writer, “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton. I live here.”
Most of these folks are just playing dress up for a while before they pack it in for Grad School and take up residence in the same sedate suburban enclaves from whence they came. Just as in every other sphere of American society, the arts are, and always have been, dominated by these kinds of middle and upper-middle class, mostly white people, whose sensibilities reflect that reality. The higher up the food chain you go, the more evident that becomes. The same exact advantages of money and connections that favor people in every other industry, favor those who attempt a career in the arts. Perhaps even more so because the standards are so nebulous. If you’re a doctor, or an attorney, you either do your job well, or you don’t. If you’re an artist, the quality of your work is subjective which leaves a lot of room for just hooking up the people you relate to, which in the arts is going to mean a lot of rich white people, hooking up other rich white people. The net effect of that is, if a lot of bad ideas are coming out of the suburbs, that’s going to be reflected in the work.
When the PMC’s were more rooted in the New Deal, with its focus on class and economics, as was the case when I first entered the scene, so were the arts. Now that they’ve turned to neoliberalism in their economics, and the post-modern turn has unmoored their social activism from observable reality, we have an arts community that has nothing to say about the current moment that strays an inch from what you might hear on MSNBC. This is why, as just one example, in a moment of social strife and economic dislocation, the Artistic Director of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater recently seized on the idea of a Black Trans Women at the Center festival as the best use of his platform and resources. The company lost their home of 55 years shortly thereafter.
Whereas in the 30’s a good many artists responded to the Depression by adopting a Marxist-Leninist posture and playwrights like Clifford Odets, (the writer being satirized by the Cohens in Barton Fink), and later Arthur Miller and Rod Serling, began writing plays for the first time that placed working class people “at the center,” this generation of artists greets the moment with only contempt for the struggles of working people, seeing them as reactionary Trumpers who sadly lack the education and sophistication to realize that the economy is great, incremental change is the best we can hope for, and getting all bent out of shape about books full of graphic cocksucking in your child’s middle-school library is totally uncool. Rather than to represent the struggles of average people, these artists offer them nothing but derision and when they do bother to acknowledge them, it is only to portray them as wrong-think culture war enemies.
Adding to the problem, poor people who manage to get to college usually don’t decide to major in something that’s going to almost guarantee that they end up poor. Being an artist is a luxury most people from economically disadvantaged environments just don’t think they can afford. You’re a lot more likely to choose it if you have a trust fund to fall back on. So, essentially you end up with a scene dominated by trust fund babies, no matter what identity group they align with. Their politics proceed from there. All these artists going on about white privilege is partly a case of, to use a phrase with which any theater aficionado will be familiar, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” And as with Diversity Equity and Inclusion efforts in other sectors, this results in pretenses at promoting “representation” amounting to nothing more than trying to find more black and brown people from similar backgrounds to the whites that are already there, and who consequently share the same attitudes. Barracks and Michelles are always welcome, but the Hueys and Assatas make these folks deeply uncomfortable. The theater party I walked into last week, was no more racially diverse than the scene I knew in the 80’s (perhaps a bit less), but it was palpably less wide-ranging in class perspectives.
Another reason the censorious Victorian lady in high dudgeon pose that has become the liberal class default setting over the past 10 years or so, has had so much appeal to this group in particular, probably has to do with the psychological afflictions common to artists, combined with the insecurities inherent in the profession. This is something else I’d love to see a study on: common psychological illnesses in artists, but lacking such a study, I can only tell you what I’ve observed. Most people don’t choose a career in the arts because they’re very secure, contented and happy sorts. The level of personal psychological torment that’s driven them to such an irrational career choice varies, but deep neurosis, emotional neediness, and pervasive self-doubt are kind of a base line. I do not except myself from this analysis: my head is the kind of snake pit that Indiana Jones has nightmares about. Proceeding from there, you’ll find a fair amount of narcissism, borderline personality disorder, manic-depression, and just plain old depression-depression. These qualities are not at all ameliorated by constant rejection and criticism, which is kind of the nature of the beast. In some ways the people who are attracted to the arts are the least capable of enduring its vicissitudes without severe psychological damage. So, you have a bunch of deeply insecure, neurotic people, trying to make their way in a profession where the rules are vague and the agreed upon standards of successful work are non-existent, and then you hand them a secular religion that gives them not only rules and standards, but a weapon with which to bludgeon their critics as -ists, phobes, and reactionary heathens. That’s like throwing crackers at a starving man. Naturally they jumped on it en masse, without ever thinking through the consequences. Critical Social Justice gave artists something they haven’t had since Duchamp signed a urinal and called it a sculpture: certainty. And this group is far too ignorant of the past to know why their forbears rejected the kind of formalism that these standards impose, and what the price paid in quality, creativity and individual expression will be in the long run. Insofar as they embrace Duchamp’s lesson, it is only in using the precedent set by his famous prank to avoid being interrogated on the basis of quality, talent and craftsmanship.
Which brings us to my final observation.
I’m going to let you in on a secret, although if you’ve ever been dragged to a “new interpretation” of Hamlet on the Lower East Side, back when we still did that sort of thing, you probably already know: talent is rare. That’s why we call it talent. If it was common, we’d call it something else. I’ll give you a breakdown from something I have a fair amount of expertise in-auditioning actors. If you audition 100 actors, it’s going to go something like this: about 10% will be so God-awful you have to wonder where they got the encouragement; around 60% will be passable in the way of people who have had a lot of training; 20% will be very good; 8% will be excellent; a final 2% will be exceptional-in other words, talented. So, based on my admittedly subjective observations, only about 30% of the people who call themselves “artists” have any business pursuing it. And only 2% of those are really gifted. So, the scene is, and always has been, mostly populated by hangers-on who are only one 30th Birthday away from packing it in and getting a Masters in Social Work. The appeal of a set of standards that remove the basis of evaluating work from its quality to its adherence to a set of clearly defined political beliefs is obvious. If you can’t out-talent people, you can at least out-woke them.
None of this is to say that representation in the arts isn’t a problem or wasn’t a problem until these meddling kids started performing their virtue for likes and clicks. It’s always been a problem, particularly at the level of management and project leadership, in the arts as in every other sector of society. I would posit that DEI efforts are a solution in search of a problem, only in that part of the reason for that lack of representation, has always been a lack of artists of color walking in the door, which in turn has to do with the economic realities I’ve mentioned. There aren’t a lot of poor white people walking in the door either; I’ve owned 5 theaters in NYC across three decades, and I never met another theater owner or director, who grew up on welfare. In my experience, that lack of representation never had to do with virulent racism in the arts community. It always had to do with class realities and broader issues of structural racism society-wide that stop POC from ever making it to the door to be considered. If you were paying any kind of attention, that lack of diversity was always an embarrassment, but you can’t work with people who simply aren’t there because of societal problems that reach far beyond the arts. If we really want to do something about this, we need to go out into impoverished and marginalized communities, provide training and encouragement to young people in particular, then offer them jobs in our theaters and galleries, instead of only looking for POC from similar backgrounds to the people who are already there in order to assuage their white guilt. Until we see arts institutions doing that, we will know DEI efforts in the arts for what they are: one more example of rich white people protecting the privileges of their class, even if they have to outwardly denounce them in order to do it.
In the end, the arts scene as it exists today and the institutions that support it may have simply become too sclerotic, out of touch, and irrelevant for saving. The future is with activist-artists grown naturally from their communities, using new technologies and platforms to draw attention to concerns and realities that no gatekeeping clique of PMC’s will ever understand or think to explore. As our self-appointed creators of culture have abandoned us, it may be time that we abandon them in turn, leaving their venues to close as they should, leaving their 501c’s to go bankrupt, as they are doing, and taking the space their collapse opens up to create something new of our own.
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