Occupy like an artist


I think corporations are great. I’m a big fan of capitalism. You want to make money? Assuming a mostly level playing field, which it’s not, but let’s pretend it is, with hard work, a great product and superior customer service, you can make a lot of money. There’s a refreshing clarity to capitalism: either an idea will make money or it won’t. This leads to an energetic, innovative marketplace. It’s the best economic system in the world.

But it’s only an economic system. It isn’t a political system. Or a healthcare system. It’s not a religion or an art or a guide to good parenting. If the primary goal of an organization is to make money, go with capitalism. If, however, the primary goal is to do something else—pass just laws, for example, or provide an education, ensure public safety, protect the environment, produce the plays of Chekhov or keep infants healthy, then capitalism falls apart.

The raison d’être of capitalism, pardon my French, is to make money. That’s it. You can’t expect a system which is designed to make money to defend America’s borders or protect its wilderness areas or care for the mentally ill. It will fail. It will fail because these are not money-making propositions. Applying the rules of business to anything other than business is like those people who have so much faith in their religion that they reject modern medicine and try to pray away cancer. There’s a slight chance that everything will work out, but most of the time, the patient is going to die.

And yet, we keep looking to capitalism to fix our government, our heath care system, our schools – there are even mega-churches preaching the gospel of prosperity. How do they get around the whole Jesus thing?

The myth of magical money

Why can’t we make the simple distinction between business and everything else? Well, it’s not as simple as I make it sound. The business of business is money and money is needed for all those other things. It creeps in. More than that, we like money. We want more money. We admire the guys who have money.

We imbue money and the people who have it with magical powers.

Quite naturally, I think, the people who have money start to imagine that they deserve that money. They’ve worked hard, of course, (except for those who haven’t) but a large part of whatever good fortune has come their way is the product of genetics and environment. They forget that. Instead, they, quite naturally, find it easier to believe that their wealth is a reflection of a kind of moral superiority. God or the universe or something has blessed them. They’re special. And then they convince themselves that what’s good for them is THE GOOD and what’s bad for them is THE BAD.

We do this, too. We weave petty, self-serving little fantasies of our own superiority. We buy into the grander, self-serving fantasies of those with more than us. And, dangerously, we begin to believe that the people wtih less than us must be just a little less blessed. Less loved by God. Less human.

This belief has lead to countless acts of cruelty, injustice and the current roster of Republican candidates for President of the United States. Mitt Romney’s entire campaign is based on his success as a businessman.

Fuck that.

Business will take care of business. Private ownership of for-profit businesses is an outstanding system. But applied to anything else, capitalism is, at best, of limited effectiveness, or, at worst, deadly.

Foxes in theater’s henhouses

That, I think, is a big part of the message coming out of the Occupy Wall Street protests. We need to put money in its place. Why are financial regulations being written by bankers? Why are pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies deciding the best way to manage health care? Why does it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to run for elective office? Why would anybody consult oil companies about environmental protection? The Koch brothers can think whatever they like about government, but why should anyone but their mom care what they think?

And then there’s us. We do theater. Mostly non-profit theater, but even for-profit theaters aren’t really for profit. If you really wanted to make money you wouldn’t start a theater company. We do it because we think it’s important, or nurturing, or just a lot of fun. But we need money to do it.

So we rely on corporate giving. We invite corporate executives to sit on the boards of our non-profit institutions. We’re thankful for them. These people are good, kind, smart folks who just want to support the arts. But they are the enemy. Welcome the money people to your boards. Be their friends, work for them during the day, go golfing with them if you must, but don’t try to think like them. Don’t try to be like them. Don’t mistake their success for moral superiority.

They are the enemy! Not because they are bad, but because they are part of a system that is corrupting and deadly when applied to anything other than making money. Plays are not about money. Plays are about people. Plays are reckless and improvident. They’re about imagining yourself as someone else for a little while. They’re about burning away the self-serving little fantasies we build up for ourselves. They’re a bad business.

And, as Gary Gisselman pointed out to me, that’s why the money people support us. They could be yachting off the Cape or organizing charity fashion shows or dressing up tiny dogs, but they’ve come to us. They want to be a part of something that has nothing to do with money. And here we are trying to make our theater more business-like. It’s foolish, dangerous and rude.

Think like an artist and put money in its place. By all means, keep accurate records, manage your expenses and pay your employees. I don’t want your theater to go out of business because your art demands seventeen fog machines. But remember that it’s right and good and natural for art and business to be adversaries. Nurture that adversarial spirit. Think like an artist. Find a good money guy and make it his job to get the seventeen fog machines without going bankrupt. Kick like hell when he tells you it can’t be done. Think like an artist.

To the barricades!