Tuesday, June 15, 2004

WHAT'S OPERA, DOC? Terry Teachout's OpinionJournal complaint against the Ground Zero arts companies selections pretends to be a righteous jeremiad against "culture by committee." The recent theatre, dance, and museum choices are "modest and safe" and "very, very small," says Teachout, when the committee, had they any guts, could have made "the boldest possible declaration of faith in the power and glory of Western culture" by including Teachout's favored candidate, the New York City Opera. "What a disappointment," he cries, rending his garment. "What a wasted opportunity."

Now, any critic whose candidate fails to receive its piece of the funded pie is entitled to a good huff. But c'mon, doc: an opera company?

Don't get me wrong (especially you, Sasha). I respect opera (more by breach than observance) and take Teachout's word that City Opera is a good pick. But let's not kid ourselves: the Ground Zero selections were never going to be about grandeur -- not even the fake grandeur of the hideous neoWTC building design. They were picked for their potential appeal to the area's prime constituencies: tourists and yuppies.

As John Rockwell observes in the Times:
...the very name of the body that made these choices — a "development corporation" — indicates the true rationale behind its selection, and behind the decision to involve arts organizations in the first place. The winners were picked not because anyone gave first thought to their worthiness as art, but because they represented a canny mix of institutions likely to make downtown a better place to live and do business.
The selections are modest because that is what the punters will pay for. The Freedom Center is an unknown quantity, and the Drawing Center unknown, alas, to me; but the Signature, best known for its one-playwright-a-season schtick, and the Joyce are solid and reasonably popular art-brands that will edify without scaring anyone. They are perfectly suitable for Mr. and Mrs. (or Mr. and Mr.) New York Striver who, after a hard week of shuffling papers, don't mind dropping a few bills for the quality art these vendors provide, any more than they would mind dropping a few bills at Dean & Deluca, Kenneth Cole, or Design Within Reach. The stuff goes down easy and has the smell of quality.

You don't even have to know much about art to patronize these establishments. The Signature is practically a missionary enterprise, reviving and (where needed) resuscitating moribund reputations. If they're doing a whole year of this Maria Irene Fornes, well then, honey, she must be damn good.

Museums have the advantage of sitting perfectly still for gawkers from Iowa to tromp through. What they'll see at the Drawing Center will probably be good draughtsmanship at least, and you don't have to be Bernard Berenson to appreciate that. As to the Freedom Museum, well, one can only imagine. They'll clean up in "Remember 9/11" hanky sales alone.

One might wonder how a modern dance company would be more pleasing to the constituents than an opera company. The answer is simple: bodies. Now, maybe you watch dance entirely, and chastely, for love of technique. And maybe old Uncle Roy watches women's gymnastics events on TV because he admires athleticism in all its forms. Please. As a tired businessman observed years ago (in the presence of my friend Bob Schaffer) at some spectacular gyrations in a Pina Bausch performance, "Now that's what I like to see -- bottoms up!"

Art can be grand, but it doesn't have to be, and hardly ever is. If the voice of God comes to Ground Zero, chances are it will be in a much different form than opera. Sorry, doc. The people, through their elected time-servers and jobsworths, have spoken!

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