Thursday, August 20, 2009

the arts wont save your career, either (dresden, part two)

And now the uber-capitalist American defence of arts -- kind of a bizarro-world reflection of the Dresden Paradox. Users of Glory's List, a New York City-based theater listserv, were treated yesterday to a commentary by John Louis Anderson that warned against the temptation to cut the apparent fat of arts programs in higher education:

In response to the economic crisis, Washington State University has proposed eliminating three academic programs, among them theater. When a state doesn't have the funds to extend health care to the neediest, the arts can seem to some like a pointless luxury.

At a time when "liberal arts major" is becoming a sardonic punch line, declaring yourself to once have been a theater major gets the biggest snort of all. Someone's always sure to point out that there aren't many theater majors working in professional theater. True, but I suspect there are more theater majors working in theater than there are physical education majors working in professional sports.

So far, so good. I'm all for levelling the playing field and assessing academic theater programs as coldly as any other. But the train soon veers off the rails:

Let me give you a real-life situation. My best friend in college -- who was also the best man at my wedding -- and I were both theater majors, several millennia ago, in pop-culture terms.

I went on to grad school and was lucky enough to work as a photographer with the Guthrie Theater for a short time. From there I found my way into advertising photography. Ray, on the other hand, became a harbor master in the San Juan Islands, then opened a boarding stable.

So, were our theater degrees of any use to either one of us? Absolutely.

By the time we graduated, we'd already experienced several worlds' worth of people. We'd seen the world through a kaleidoscope, from Shakespeare to Schiller, from Pirandello to Peter Ustinov. Commedia dell'arte, with its bombastic businessmen, blustering warriors, idiotic doctors, clueless young men and clever cuties, was our Cliff Notes to Life, detailing and explaining the people we'd meet and have to deal with for the rest of our lives.

But neither of us realized how profoundly we relied on what we learned in theater classes until recently.

We're now at the age where our parents are passing on. No matter how much you anticipate that loss, it still comes as a complete surprise.

Both of my parents and my father-in-law passed on years ago. Now my mother-in-law is in poor health. If you have read or seen Sophocles, you already know something about grief. Chekhov teaches you about people whose lives are consumed by regret.

I'm always a little leery when a defense of arts takes a utilitarian approach (and just as leery when one defends art as a form of flag-waving patriotism).

Art doesn't give us better business acuity or more likely to succeed at animal husbandry -- and it doesn't necessarily make us better people. It articulates the human condition for those who are willing to listen. That's all. (And if you're Michael Kimmelman, that futility alone is cause for despair.)

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