Songs for the Struggling Artist


Art, Entertainment and SpongeBob SquarePants

My friend told me about some friends of hers who came to see her dance performance and were clearly pretty baffled by it. She didn’t take this personally because she understood that these friends of hers had no experience of contemporary dance or art in general.

What was ironic about these folks with no art experience was that they were convinced they were dedicated arts supporters. They went to tons of Broadway shows after all; They thought themselves very artistically literate. My friend tried to explain to them that Broadway wasn’t so much art as entertainment but they had no idea what she was talking about.

I think most Americans would have no idea what she was talking about. We conflate art and entertainment so dramatically that it is sometimes very hard to distinguish between the two. I have spent my entire life in the arts and am only now starting to work out the distinction. Art can be entertaining and entertainment can be artful but art and entertainment are not the same thing.

I suspect that if you come from a country with funding and support for the arts, this distinction is obvious. The national theatres, state granted and council funded work iare more likely to be art and the shows in commercial houses are entertainment. Done and dusted. Sometimes there’s crossover but it’s mostly clear. Here, where we have no state theatre, no national arts, there is little to no distinction. Maybe at the margins you can find consensus. We might be able to agree that amusement park shows and cruise ships are entertainment and avant-garde performance in a gallery space is art – but as those two things approach one another, things start to get muddy.

The distinction can be muddy for people who work in Arts and Entertainment as well. When you think of yourself as working in The Business (as in Show Business) and The Industry (as in The Entertainment Industry) you approach your work in one way. If you think of yourself as working in The Arts, you are likely to approach it another way. Even if what you are doing is fundamentally the same. Context is everything. If I sing a song on a cruise ship, it is Entertainment. Even if I sing it artfully, it is still entertainment. If I sing that very same song in a contemporary dance performance, it’s art. Same material, same artist, different genre entirely. For many performers, there is no distinction and no need to make one. And perhaps that’s true for audiences, too.

But asking these categories to do one another’s jobs makes for an anemic art climate. In a capitalist culture, entertainment consumes art, like giant multi-national banks gobbling up local ones. Entertainment grows and expands while art starves and diminishes. People start to expect art to make money, to boost the economy, to create an insatiable demand for tickets. And while that may work for Broadway, for entertainment – it will never work for art. Art is not motivated by money. Art is after something else. Art is concerned with a dramatically different range of values. It won’t be a good return on your investment. If it IS a good return on your investment, odds are good, it’s probably not art, really. There are exceptions, of course. But very few.

I am pretty clear that I am pursuing art. I enjoy entertainment as much as the next person but art is my goal, my purpose, my raison d’etre. I mean, true, there is no business like show business, like no business I know. I agree that you can nowhere get that special feeling as when you’re stealing that extra bow. Applause is exhilarating and intoxicating and I am delighted to receive it any chance I get. But – for me, applause without art feels hollow. I’d rather do without applause than reckon with that emptiness.

And so we need to talk about SpongeBob SquarePants, the Musical. When I heard it was opening, I laugh/cried so hard at the absurdity of the world. SpongeBob SquarePants is not art. It’s on Broadway. It is theatre. But it’s not art, y’all. Not even close. No matter how much the Creative Team tries to convince us otherwise.

Tina Landau, former director of Steppenwolf Theatre (art,) writer of multiple theatrical works (art,) directed SpongeBob SquarePants and in a promotional video declares that this show is what we need now. America needs SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical, she suggests. Everyone on the creative team seemed to echo this sentiment of significance and importance in this video. Everyone was on message and seemed to be trying to convince us that this was a great artistic triumph.

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And maybe SpongeBob SquarePants, The Musical is amazing. The cartoon is very entertaining, I concede. Critics seem to love the musical (“It’s not that bad!” read one review I read) but even if it is artfully done, it is not art, it is not important, it is not what America needs now. It may be what Tina Landau, formerly a director of art, needs right now – like she needs a summer house, so she’s directing a mega show based on a lucrative licensed cartoon figure affiliated with a multi-national corporation. And that is fine. I do not begrudge Tina Landau being able to buy a house – not many theatre directors can do that, especially female ones. But I do begrudge her trying to convince us that SpongeBob is important, that SpongeBob is art. It’s not. It’s just not. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining or not well done – I’m saying it’s not art and I resent every single piece of media that equates it with things that are actually art. I saw multiple Best of New York Theatre 2017 lists and most of them featured SpongeBob and I didn’t see any with Indecent on them – which was the single most relevant piece of theatrical art I’ve seen in decades. SpongeBob is selling well and Indecent closed – twice. Entertainment sells like hotcakes. And Art is food for the soul and awfully hard to sell in mass quantities.

As an antidote to the entertainment-heavy world I live in, I’ve been reading the writings of Tadeusz Kantor, painter and theatremaker from Poland. He sits firmly in the art camp. He rails against the stultification that can come from theatre buildings. He bemoans the theatre’s move toward professionalism – toward codification and art strangulation. He would not be confused about the landscape we have here in America. He would not let the existence of SpongeBob SquarePants make him feel despair about his own work. His work has nothing to do with SpongeBob. And mine doesn’t either.

For me the distinction between art and entertainment comes down to a simple question. That question is related to Kantor’s history. During World War II, it was illegal to make theatre in Poland. He did it anyway, in a basement – risking death for his art.

The question I ask myself if I’m wondering if something is art or not is. “Would someone perform this in a basement in the middle of a war?” “Would someone put this on in their attic at great personal risk?”

I have a long list of shows I cannot imagine in a secret war torn basement and SpongeBob is right at the top of that list.

So why is this important? Am I just splitting linguistic and categorical hairs here? The American Theatrical landscape has always been thus. Let’s look at 1922. Alongside the premiers of Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Hairy Ape and The God of Vengeance were also plays called: Hunky Dory and Hitchy-Koo of 1922. There’s nothing new in the crass work presented alongside the sublime. It is perhaps our national impulse to sit entertainment side by side with art.

We once had national organizations to help foster and develop art. The Federal Theatre Project in the 30s and the development of regional theatres in the 60s. But now, due to the eliding of categories and things like enhancement deals, a regional theatre is much more likely to produce an entertainment than some art. There are very few places that foster the growth of art, independent from the rules of the entertainment business.

With no distinction made between art and entertainment, the Boards of theatre companies continue to make choices that privilege entertainment and the theatre’s bottom line. And there’s absolutely nothing in place to stop them doing that. On a smaller, more personal scale, artists who make ART are often made to feel that what they do has no value because it does not make a lot of money. Look at the concept of “making it.” “Making It” is a Show Business concept – not really an artistic one. But that doesn’t stop every artist I know from feeling bad about how much or little they have “made it.” Without a distinction between The Business and The Art, artists will relentlessly beat themselves up for failing to meet criteria that has nothing to do with their actual raison d’etre.

Artists can start to feel bad that they can’t make a piece of work that “America needs right now” because they can’t bring themselves to make something like SpongeBob. This could be mortally wounding to American art if we don’t start to make some distinctions and some adjustments to the field. SpongeBob and Kantor’s The Dead Class are technically the same medium. Naked Boys Singing and The Bald Soprano are both theatre. Is it any wonder people don’t want to support the arts? They think because they spent $150 a head to see School of Rock or Kinky Boots that they’ve done their bit. But they haven’t. They’ve paid $150 a ticket to be entertained. And the arts continue to languish unrecognized and underfunded.

There is a sort of Venn Diagram of Art and Entertainment. They overlap, for certain – but some things are clearly one or the other, while others sit squarely in the middle, as both. We fund and support the entertainment circle, including the bit that overlaps with art, while the Art circle is only supported where it overlaps with entertainment. This is not good for art, obviously. But is also not good for entertainment which benefits profoundly from that overlap. For the sake of our cultural health, we need to start making distinction so we don’t let art get left behind.

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System Secrets
July 28, 2011, 10:37 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One of the perks of spending a lot of time with someone trying to get his show produced in the American Theatre SYSTEM is that I’m learning all sorts of things I never realized before. I feel like I’m discovering all kinds of dirty secrets and being shown lots of dark corners of knowledge that I shouldn’t be seeing. A lot of this knowledge is right out in the open but somehow in my thirty seven years on the planet (and the bulk of them involved in theatre) I managed to miss it. I suspect that most of us are missing it.


For example, did you know that most major “non-profit” theatres are in the business of producing work for the Broadway stage (i.e. – the most “for profit” part of the business)?


Here’s how new work gets done in this country: for the most part it’s either “developed” (i.e. funneled through new work programs where it is sliced and diced according to the whims of literary managers, dramaturgs and administrators and then never actually produced) OR it’s brought to the “non-profit” by a Broadway producer who offers it up with an “enhancement” deal. A Broadway producer basically says to a non-profit theatre, “Hey, would you produce this show please? If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and a percentage of the cut when it gets to Broadway.” And this institution (one of the only things our government will pay for in terms of arts funding) produces this commercial production and gets its name splashed on Broadway marquees. It also rakes in some cash.


Meanwhile, this whole non-profit system was initially created to encourage risk-taking non-commercial work. These theatres were set up to provide opportunities to support work that otherwise would have no change of being seen. Now that most theatres are essentially subsidizing Broadway theatres, there’s no space for riskier work.


Apparently, when Arena stage did this enhancement thing with the Great White Hope in 1968, they lost their grant money because this use of public funds was seen as corrupt. By the 80s, it became the norm and now you’d be hard pressed to find a large non-profit institution that doesn’t have its hand in the game.


What happens to the work that these institutions were set up to fund? It cobbles together what dregs it can from private donors and the occasional tiny grant and fights for survival in smaller venues.


The system is so calcified now that my friend’s show (which HAS a Broadway producer attached to it) is not getting produced because the “non-profits” aren’t willing to take the risk on it. It’s a crazy cockamamie world in which a Broadway theatre producer is more willing to take risks on a new work than a non-profit theatre.




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