Sunday, September 04, 2016

Penn Jillette vs. Oskar Eustis: Should government fund the arts?

I forget down what Internet rabbit hole I fell in order to end up reading about Penn Jillette, but I found him explaining how he became a Libertarian. Jillette wrote for Cato, reprinted in Newsweek:

There was a theater in Philadelphia called the Walnut Street Theatre—it’s still there—and upstairs at the Walnut Street Theatre was Theatre 5, which was a little tiny room that sat 100 people. And they had local grants, federal grants, just grants, grants, grants to put together little experimental theater shows in this 100-seat theater on the 5th floor of the Walnut Street Theatre.
They had all their money paid by the government, and they had to put up one new show, I think it was every six weeks. Teller and I, at this point, were street performers. 
We went out to Head House Square in Philadelphia, and I would do a 12-minute juggling show, and I would then pass the hat. I was a very, very successful street performer.
We had a dream of doing a full evening show indoors. We needed a place, and Teller had gone to college with one of the guys who had these grants. But we didn’t know they had grants—we thought they were the same as us, that they made money from ticket sales.
They said that they couldn’t get their show together (six weeks with nothing else to do and they couldn’t do a show? Shakespeare’s in the public domain!) so they said, “You can have our theater to put your show on—you’d only have to pay us a little bit of money, and you can have the whole space and do the whole show.” 
We were thrilled to pieces. Just thrilled to pieces! And we worked really hard (I mean, hard for show business.) We went out and did press releases and got reviews. And that 100-seat theater, when we were in there, was sold out for the whole six weeks.
Then the head of the Walnut Street Theatre found out that our show had been so successful—they’d never been successful in there at all—and came and talked to us. We didn’t know we were blowing the G on the joint—to use carny terms. We didn’t know we were giving up a secret, to use, I guess, regular-people terms.
He said, “How much of the grant money did you get?” And we said “Grant money? No, we just happened to have the theater — thank you so much, sir, we really appreciate it. It’s really helpful, you know, that small amount of rent we’re paying.” And he said, “Rent?!” I said, “This has been wonderful! We’re making our living, it’s going great.”
Well, anyway, they lost all their grants. And then there were all sorts of articles written on how Penn and Teller were destroying the arts in Philadelphia because we had lost the federal grants because we went and ratted out the people that were doing the real, important, significant work that we weren’t doing because we were “commercial.”
Then the 80s came around and there was all that controversy over a few artists— there was the Piss Christ art, and there was a New York artist named David Wojnarowicz. They did art that was very, very controversial, and very, very blasphemous. 
They lost some of their National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants, and I was then in a very awkward position. I was a freedom of speech nut, and I thought that they absolutely should have the right to do whatever art they wanted. 
But I was also remembering my Theatre 5 days in Philadelphia—and I didn’t think that the government should pay for them. And although I was—am—an atheist, my mom and dad were very strong Christians, and I was very close to them. 
And I had that image in my head of the gun. I looked at this art that I loved, that was so blasphemous to my mom and dad, and I was appalled by the idea that my mom and dad were having a gun held to their head to pay for art that I loved, but they didn’t.
And that to me was libertarianism in a nutshell. I wanted those artists to have their work everywhere. I wanted those artists to be very, very successful—but I did not want anyone that did not like that art to pay for it, and certainly not to be forced.
So when Wojnarowicz lost the grants from the NEA, I went over to his studio. He was a little surprised that I’d showed up there, because I’d been on TV a few days before saying that I didn’t think the NEA should exist at all, and he shouldn’t get any money whatsoever. I said, “I’d like to buy a lot of your work. I want to buy it because I really, really like it.”
So what Penn Jillette wants, essentially is a return to the days of patrons of the arts - people with money who could buy the work of artists, rather than artists being subsidized by the government.

I've long debated to myself whether or not government should fund the arts, in part because my art has never been the beneficiary of government largess. But if Penn Jillette is opposed to something political it tends to push me in favor. Jillette is not only a libertarian, he loves Ayn Rand. It's amusing to see Jillette go on about the evils of government power, when as I and others have pointed out, Rand herself had no problem with her Atlas Shrugged ubermensch using force whenever it suited them. I've been talking here for a couple of years about what an absurd, unedited, a-logical wreck Atlas Shrugged is.

Jillette loves Rand so much he says in this video he would have had sex with her.

It just so happens that I recently saw a video of Oskar Eustis giving a TED talk in which he points out that Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA was developed over six years thanks to government grants.

I don't know if Penn Jillette is a fan of theater, although I assume not since his argument against the limitations of a six-week development period is to stick to producing Shakespeare plays. He prides himself on the fact that his magic show made money at the Walnut Street Theater. But what value is Jillette's work, ultimately? People will pay to see it, mainly in Las Vegas, as a break from gambling and drinking. But once Penn and Teller are gone, what is left? A few TV specials? Their show Bullshit? Does the entire body of work of Penn and Teller equal ANGELS IN AMERICA? I think not. And I suspect that future generations of intellectuals will agree with me. And future generations of  drunken gamblers won't care.

But without government subsidy, could ANGELS IN AMERICA have ever been created? Eustis, who worked with Kushner to develop the play says in the recording above:
The National Endowment for the Arts gave a grant to Tony, to an individual artist, to write this play. It's important to say that as often as possible: made possible by public support... 
Eustis goes on to argue against art as commodity.

Now if the development of ANGELS IN AMERICA was left entirely up to the market, it's unlikely to have ever been made -  I'm sure Jillette's strong Christian parents would approve of ANGELS no more than they'd approve of PISS CHRIST. And even I, an ex-Catholic liberal atheist, while I might not disapprove of ANGELS would not consider a play about AIDS - assuming that's all I knew about it - as something I could relate to.

Not everything that is chosen to be funded by the government is guaranteed to be a masterpiece like ANGELS. It would be strange if it was - Sturgeons law applies to government grant-produced art the way it does to everything else. But I think it's likely worth it to fund a bunch of crap in the hopes of eventually hitting on a masterpiece.

Leaving everything up to the market will only serve to limit the possibilities. I'm working on a production of my play about Marilyn Monroe. It has everything that the market likes - a story about a celebrity, a beautiful woman, in danger. It happens that I am genuinely interested in Monroe's story, especially when I read her own account of her stay at the Payne Whitney - I saw it would make a great play and I wanted to get it done before somebody else did it.

 But I also know that I have a better shot than usual of getting people to come out to see my play because of the subject. People perk up a little when I tell them my play is about Marilyn Monroe trapped in a psych ward, which doesn't happen when I tell them what DARK MARKET is about: "Alan Greenspan's devotion to the work of Ayn Rand and how that caused him as Chairman of the Federal Reserve to promote deregulation which led to the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown."

That's just not sexy - Penn Jillette's feelings about Ayn Rand notwithstanding. And it also requires six actors, which isn't huge by old time theater production standards, but NORMA JEANE requires two actors (maybe three I haven't decided yet) and has a simple, one-location set.

But not every play can be a two-hander about Marilyn Monroe. Do we as a society want to limit our arts to whatever is an easy sell?

And the irony is that ANGELS IN AMERICA is so hugely popular that if they ran it on Broadway now I guarantee it would make money. When they did an AIA revival in 2010 at the Signature Theater I tried to go see it, having fallen in love with the Mike Nichols directed version shown on HBO in 2003, but it was sold out on the first day - virtually the entire run. So it isn't like the public is paying only for work nobody wants to see - it's that work has to get past the public's skepticism first.

Jillette admits that his buying the work of David Wojnarowicz ended up being a good investment on his part. But the almighty market was unlikely to offer Penn Jillette the chance to buy David Wojnarowicz delightful blasphemy because it wouldn't have existed without the government funding.

I'm not sure exactly what if anything the government gets back directly from money-making projects it initially funded although it certainly gets repaid in the form of taxes paid from the jobs created - I'm sure Kushner pays his taxes at the top-most rate, and I'm sure he pays it without looking for tax dodges since he supports taxes in principle, as much as Jillette opposes them in principle. Although Kushner's income is high more because of his screenwriting career than as a playwright - but without his impressive, government-sponsored playwriting career Stephen Spielberg would not have heard of him.

I am not impressed by Penn Jillette as a thinker, he's not rigorous. But then his entire life is based on a career in which you fool people. Penn and Teller might not tell people they are doing actual mystical magic, but it's still about trickery. They made a pile of money doing it and now they don't want to pay high taxes on that income. And they don't have to present arguments to the people they disagree with - even people who would be pretty easy to argue against. As this Onion AV Club review notes about their show Bullshit:
The show is one-sided by design: P&T's field interviewers rarely confront their subjects with the evidence against them, preferring to let the crackpots ramble on so that Jillette's voiceover rejoinders can score points without inciting a real argument. 
One-sided arguments - a rigged situation in which Jillette can confidently predict the outcome. It's a great bubble of smug certainty that he lives in. As another fan once said of Rand:
She had certainty. This is what really attracted me emotionally to her that night. She was the first person I had ever met who projected it—she projected that what she knew was true, and that she was sure of it.
For the record, I'm sure Ayn Rand would have wanted to have sex with Jillette right back, especially if he kept telling her how great she was.