Thursday, August 20, 2009

Who cares if it plays in Peoria?

Regarding new National Endowment for the Arts head Rocco Landesman and the displeasure in some quarters at some of his comments in an Aug. 8 New York Times interview, I have to say I actually liked much of his thrust. He was forthright about how disgusting the lack of federal arts funding is, and how he wants to change that. The new slogan he wants the NEA to adopt is "Art Works," and, wow, he actually does seem to mean to highlight artists as workers. Mind you, this nice talk about the artist as worker comes from a longtime theater producer who I have no doubt did his part in Broadway's sad slide over the last three decades into an elitist island where relentless union-busting campaigns have decimated the rights, jobs and living standards of backstage, onstage and front-of-house workers while astronomical ticket prices keep all but rich tourists from ever getting to see the plays and musicals whose typical cost is now $100 a seat. Nevertheless, when he says something like, "The subtext [of right wingers targeting arts funding] is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay," I give him credit for his forthrightness and who knows, maybe in this new position where his job isn't to make himself a profit he'll do something decent. His thoughts about where to direct funding without hewing to geographical equality didn't seem too sharp to me, but frankly how they play in Peoria ought not to be of great concern. I spent some time in Peoria, and nearby Decatur, Illinois, in the mid-1990s when the pivotal UAW strike against Caterpillar was raging, and at the same time a strike against Goodyear and a bitterly fought lockout at the A.E. Staley corn-sugar-processing plant. It was, in other words, ground zero for the labor movement at that time. During my visit, which combined solidarity work with reporting, I got a rather, um, negative impression of Peoria in particular. Why mince words? What a hellhole. And under Caterpillar control, lock and key. It's all I can ever think about when I see any news item relating even peripherally to Peoria, how that town's bourgeoisie and its bought-and-paid-for local officialdom did their all to crush the Caterpillar workers and destroy their union. It'd be hard for me to believe that whatever local theater company they've got is in any meaningful way independent from the Peoria power structure or accessible to the ever more impoverished workers and oppressed people of that terrible town. Maybe I'm wrong. That would be nice. It would mean that there is life, and art, and the possibility of creative expression, even under the thumb of one of the scummiest corporations on earth.