Tuesday, December 02, 2008


When belt-tightening time comes, every group has reasons for preserving its share of the public pie—for explaining why a budget cut will precipitate an apocalypse of Katrinaesque proportion.

My favorite self-serving rationale was put forward by an arts group that claimed cuts in its budget constituted an attack on the poor. I don’t know if the perpetrators of this argument actually believed what they were saying or if they were just employing a logical ruse they thought might succeed.

To me it’s clear that the primary beneficiaries of government support for the arts are individuals in the artistic community, especially managers who pull down salaries well north of a hundred grand. I also suspect that poor folks, given a list of government programs, wouldn’t put art subsidies high on their priority list—which brings me to the annual “quo vadis” inquiry about the California Center for the Arts.

I’ve not yet heard the Arts Center called a poverty program, but I suppose anything’s possible, as cutbacks get closer to the bone. What’s true, I think, is that the Center was conceived as a status symbol and merchant magnet by individuals who wished to change Escondido’s image from that of a “migrant-rich” bedroom community to that of an inland haven for artistic sophistication.

The tug-of-war between those two cities played out year after year in terms of program offerings, ticket prices, and empty seats. The winner of that struggle, as burgeoning deficits suggest, is a community more at home with concerts on the green than with a majestic venue comparable to one recently built in Mesa, Arizona—a Phoenix “suburb” with a population nearing 500,000.

This result doesn’t reflect badly on the Hidden Valley, especially given the fact that the arts, at least in recent decades, haven’t clearly served to elevate the culture or to present a reasonably accurate portrait of reality. Instead, what many of the arts have regularly provided has been an elite community’s warped view of the world—a view through the eyes of what critic Lionel Trilling long ago dubbed the “adversarial culture.”

A prime example of this perspective is the Broadway smash musical “Rent”—an “updated” version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that features a cast of struggling New York artists, half of whom have contracted AIDS or are HIV positive. Not surprisingly, this slice of self-referential artistic life didn’t fare all that well at the CCAE in 2007. By contrast, “Jesus Christ Superstar” packed ‘em in—an audience preference the programming director described as fickle.

I suspect that the avant-garde, Vietnam-centered dance-play “Movin’ Out” ($52-67) and “The Mortified Guide to…Epic Romance” ($27) will meet with the same tepid reception as “Rent.” Clips of the latter production (that invites audiences to “witness personal redemption through public humiliation”) are available online. Here is one of its tamer comic lines: “Social (life) in college means beer drinking and cheap fondling of ugly girls.”

Given fare of this caliber, CCAE budget deficits reflect well on the community.

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