To the editor:
I found two things about your November 18, 1994, cover story “Fringe Dwellers” totally aggravating.
In his pedestrian biography of Beau O’Reilly et al, Tony Adler fails to discuss the essential economic reasons for the characteristically long and twisted route Beau and Co. have taken to their present state of existence. This is not a request for a dissertation on how typically hardworking struggling artists cannot support themselves in a Capitalist society but how can you write about this group of independent artists without putting their experience in a larger (i.e., economic) context and expect anyone to care? Not that the general population cares anyway but without an attempt to contextualize their experience, Adler’s story became little more than superficial, gossipy fluff that sustains the notion of struggling mARTyr-ISTS as lost hungry puppies (“Lost, lost, I don’t wanna be lost.” Is that supposed to be an insightful quote?). This sort of blind, romantic storytelling is pointless. Contrary to the tone of Adler’s article, Beau and Co.’s histories are neither isolated nor unfamiliar, but rather typical and symptomatic of a society whose economic system punishes those who choose to live outside of it (as much as one can live outside it). Why wasn’t that directly addressed?
Although the Reader is to be commended for devoting a cover story to a small local “fringe” theater group, it now seems even more inexcusable that it has devoted nothing to how the recent NEA cuts have radically changed the future of other “fringe” artists (i.e., media artists). Surely these cuts come as no shock (both the Regional Artists Project and Regional Fellowship grants have been eliminated) but these are exactly the kinds of cuts that move independent artists–theater and media artists and organizations alike–not just to the fringe, but closer to extinction. Why hasn’t anyone written about this and why didn’t Adler even mention this aspect at all? Sure, it’s an entirely other old can of worms–the funding crisis in the arts–but isn’t that what this is really about? Who gives a damn about why Jenny Magnus went to San Francisco or how many lovers Beau O’Reilly had? Dysfunctional families come a dime a dozen and are now fodder for TV sitcoms. Adler’s “fringe dwellers” are on the fringe because of a Capitalist system that doesn’t support their interests and now its biggest charity (whose budget equals half of the U.S. military marching band’s) is on the verge of extinction. Isn’t that worth acknowledging? Isn’t this going to present the same challenges to all independent artists and organizations–regardless of their personal histories?
And what about the other arts organizations–originally created to serve developing artists on the fringe–who are in a constant state of jeopardy? In response to the NEA’s mutation into a social service agency, the Center for New Television changed its name (among other things) to the Center for Community and Media. With all the right buzzwords in their name and free from the dangers of “new television” maybe they’ll fare better with future NEA funding (if there is any). Maybe not–the point being that this is just another of many transformations happening in the arts community which pose a number of important questions that are being totally ignored despite the fact that many media, theater, and performance artists and organizations have the same big questions in mind and the same thing at risk–survival.
Please consider a cover story on these issues and if one should be written, perhaps its author can offer something more than insubstantial biographies.
Tony Adler replies:
Jenny Magnus tells me that the Maestro/Curious community has never received a penny from the NEA. On the other hand, their modest capitalist venture–the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, 2827 N. Lincoln–is providing food, shelter, and employment for its principals; a pleasant, respectful venue for fringe performers and their audiences; and tasty, healthy, inexpensive meals for anybody who happens by. Yes, there’s a story to be written about artists, capitalism, and the NEA–but it may not be the one you want to read.