Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, has written a very provocative blog entitled, What Is Wrong With The Arts? on The Huffington Post. In it, he asserts that there aren't as many great artists in the "classical arts" as there were when he was a young man in the 50's and 60's.
It is really good.
Despite having a problem with the separation of "classical" and "popular" arts, and not really gelling with some of his examples of "great" artists, I think he's dead on. The arts are run by people who are overly cautious, myopic, and obsessed with the past. I'm also glad to see somebody of his status say out loud that a new generation of artists should be given a chance. Obviously, I agree.
Here's the thing. I think he doesn't go far enough. I'm glad that people have been discussing the dearth of opportunity for women artists and artists of color. It's an important conversation to have. In doing so, however, we've managed to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
I can feel the collective eyes of some of my Youngblood brethren rolling. I know, I know... I bring it up a lot, but only because it warrants discussion. And, yes, I know people don't want to discuss it. It makes people uncomfortable to discuss privilege, especially when they benefit from it.
I'm going to use playwriting as an example, because this is the world I know. In fact, let's look at Youngblood. How many members of Youngblood come from a family with a total income of, say, less than six figures? I'm guessing not many. But not all privilege is directly about money. How many people in Youngblood hold an MFA? How many people in Youngblood attended an Ivy League school for undergrad or grad school? A lot. How many writers in Youngblood grew up in rural America? The inner city? Not many, right?
Here's the thing: Youngblood is pretty fucking inclusive for the theater world, and I don't mean to call it out. Its fucking awesome. That's why I use it as an example: except for that whole under thirty thing, it's doing better than most theater organizations. Look at some of the other groups and you'll see a much, much narrower pool of talent. So what you get is a whole lot of plays about privilege written by people from privilege. How did this happen?
These are the Artistic Directors and Literary Managers. These are the people who run writers' groups and fellowships and prizes etc. These people really, really hate talking about class because they usually came from privilege, but also because it makes their job easier if they can just give X opportunity to a recent MFA instead of schlepping to the fringe theaters.
The reason that Kaiser doesn't see any great artists is that he's looking at it from the top down. If he could see the situation from the bottom up it would be obvious to him. Admit it: we all see the writers that are winning these opportunities and it's always the same people from the same narrow pool of croney-ism and credential-ism. There are no great theater artists because the gatekeepers either aren't finding them, or worse (and I hope this isn't the case, I really do) aren't even looking for them.
The next great playwrights aren't necessarily in Yale's MFA program right now. Sure, they might be. But you know what else? They're just as likely to be self-producing a play at The Brick. Or at Dixon Place. Or not even in New York at all.
I know this is a bit of a rant, and I'm sorry. Let me clarify: this is not a rant against the Ivy league or MFAs. Nor is it a rant against people with money. It is also not meant as an opportunity for playwrights to discuss their own backgrounds in the comments section. That's not helpful. I know that this class problem runs across many industries, but I love the theater and I expect more from it than I do the banking industry. This is merely a shout out to the gatekeepers running institutions, awards, grants, writing groups etc.
Dear gatekeepers. If you think there are no great artists working today, then look in new directions. Discover new channels. LOOK. FUCKING. HARDER.