The Paradox of Bashing Institutions for Cultural Elitism
One of the stranger aspects of populism to me is the love/hate symbiotic relationship it has with allegedly elite institutions. I’ve seen this expressed in fandom/geek culture and I have seen this expressed in conservative cultural populism. The fandom aspects usually come from complaints about not getting science fiction and fantasy books reviewed in the New York Sunday Times Book Review. I’ve also seen numerous complaints and blog posts that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Comedy movies are under represented in Academy Award nominees and winners. Another form of the populism comes from Jennifer Weiner’s very public complaints that the NY Times Book Review does not cover the books that people read. The argument usually goes further to speculate or command that Box Office success should be the most important factor in determining whether a film is nominated or receives an academy award. The conservative/Republican variant of the complaint is usually to complain that their voices are not heard or presented at major art institutions. A good example is this essay by Daniel Jones on how the nation’s top non-profit theatres have a responsibility to showcase and present plays with a conservative-political viewpoint. Or book’s like Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad which seek to show how America’s leading universities are just hedonistic play pens for rich, latte-sipping, precocious liberals.
At the same time, both populist attacks also like to present elite institutions as being nothing more than Avignon Popes, speaking with an authority that they do not have. We see this in any snide comment Sarah Palin can make against New York and San Francisco or William Buckley’s famous comments about preferring to be ruled by the first thousand or so names in the Boston Phonebook over the Harvard Faculty. This round of attack seeks to destroy any concept that an elite can exist in the United States. Harvard and Yale are no more important than any other university in the United States. Lincoln Center, Berkeley Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), MOMA, and others are no more important than the Grand Ol’ Opry, TBS, Amusement Parks, etc.
This raises the question of what makes these so-called institutions elite and I think part of the answer lies in the attacks against them. All these institutions might proclaim themselves as being cultural leaders with some degree of truth but the fact is that with a few exceptions they have little cachet outside their relatively small target audiences. I love the BAM and their daring next wave festival but unless you are very rich or live in the NYC-Metro area, it probably means nothing to most people. I doubt most people could even tell you what the BAM Next Wave Festival was. The same is true for Manhattan Theatre Club. Yes it is one of the leading non-profit theatres in the United States and New York but this is not saying much. Most non-profit theatres put on 4-8 shows a year and operate in theatres with 100-500 seats. Your average show runs about a month or so even with 8 performances a week, this does not create much of a cultural impact. A small handful of plays might transfer to Broadway or eventually get produced at regional theatres across the United States.
I would also argue that there is a conservative theatre including in Manhattan that Daniel Jones is ignoring. These theatres operate in a different world/market. This is primarily an African-American theatre. Before he moved into film and television, Tyler Perry spent many years as a playwright, stage director, and actor. Mr. Perry’s plays and movies frequently deal with conservative themes like Christian forgiveness and the importance of family Furthermore his plays are significantly much more successful than any leading non-profit theatre. Wikipedia states that Mr.Perry sold over a 100 million dollars in tickets and around 50 million dollars in DVDs and merchandise.
Leading non-profit theatre can also present conservative messages, Last spring New York Theatre Workshop produced a play called Bellville by Amy Herzog. The play is about the downward spiral of a young American couple that fled to Paris instead of dealing with their problems and secrets. The dysfunction of a young, secular American couple is contrasted with their landlords, a young Muslim-immigrant family that cares about working hard, raising their children, and earning the respect of elder relatives. The intent of the play might not have been conservative but there was a strong implied critique of materialism and American culture with how the fucked-up American couple dealt with issues and themselves.
The other conservatism in theatre is that the bigger non-profits tend not to be daring in their production choices because they fear alienating their older, wealthy subscriber base. I know a lot of theatre people who sneer at Manhattan Theatre Club’s umpteenth revival of Dinner with Friends (first produced in 1999) than taking a risk on a new playwright. I have heard plenty of conservations about how mainstream theatre is too comforting, conforming, and concerned for the world view of white, upper-middle class Clintonesque liberals.
We live in the age of niche media and markets. There is no longer the big three or four for television, radio, or news. Marketers divide the American public up into every demographic and interest conceivable and then find a way to create a profitable audience for that market. In my mind, non-profit theatres and other art institutions are part of this driving for markets. Non-profit theatres tend to be located in major cities and big cities are largely Democratic because of Big Sort politics and other issues. The average subscriber tends to be older, professional, and at least upper-middle class. It seems natural that non-profit theatres are going to produce plays that these audiences find attractive and confirming to a world-view. Even downtown edgy theatres tend to produce edgy works because of niche-marketing, it is simply their thing. Would we demand that a Country Radio Station play indie-rock and hip-hop? No. We would probably laugh at such a demand.
My only thought is that calls for conservative voices in non-profit theatres and other institutions has to do with conversion. The existence of upper-middle class liberals seems to puzzle many conservatives. The essay calling for libertarian voices in theatre on Howl Round was called “We May be Right.”
In short, these institutions are culturally elite because people constantly call them culturally elite. Usually people who object to their content from the right. If social conservatives ignored MOMA and the New York Theatre Workshop, those institutions would simply just be one small aspect in our multitude of entertainment choices and a very small one.
If people want conservative and libertarian voices in theatre, they need to create their own voices. Every year hundreds if not thousands of young adults head to New York and other cities to start theatre and other artistic careers. The overwhelming majority of these young people will find it impossible to break into the established art world. They will not get auditions, they will receive polite rejections on their submitted plays, they will not be hired as directors. The more enterprising and determined will form their own theatre companies and perform in grungy 50-seat theatres that are fourth-floor walk-ups. Most of these plays will slip under the radar for the establishment. Every now and then a play, company, actor, or director will get noticed. Most of these people have a combination of sheer determination, talent, and shameless self-promotion to make it at all costs. The Lena Dunhams of the world are rare. These are generally seen as conservative values. Almost every leading cultural institution that conservatives claim to be locked out of started as a bunch of scrappy kids who were locked out of the mainstream institutions when they arrived in the city. My advice to those seeking libertarian and conservative voices in theatre is to form their own companies, produce their own plays and send out invitations to producers, casting directors, literary directors, etc. Chances are they will not come because they don’t go when young liberals do the same. Most of the conservative and libertarian theatre companies will fold because most young theatre companies fold after a year or two. Theatre is a hard life and you generally need to be willing to live a very hand and mouth existence to succeed. However sometimes they do come and maybe they will find a good voice that is worth developing and encouraging.