If we are going to talk about dance, then it seems appropriate to start with the body. Walt Whitman, America’s most iconic poet, famously opened his epic Song of Myself with the following words:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
The poem forms the core of Whitman’s sprawling, majestic collection Leaves of Grass (1855), and contains within it a foundational conception of the American body. The “self” of which Whitman sings is at once his physical body – the one next to which a “hugging and loving bed-fellow” sleeps, retreating at dawn – and the resplendent body of a democratic republic; multi-faceted, complex and vigorous, pursuing freedom in all its forms. He sings of himself, of the young nation:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Whitman worked as printer, teacher and as a nurse during the American Civil War, taking all manner of jobs, menial and otherwise, to support himself. He literally self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass at a local print shop in Brooklyn, paying for printing costs and doing most of the typesetting himself.
He’s not unusual: entrepreneurship and self-invention have long been characteristics of the American artist Mary Louise Fuller of Hinsdale, Illinois, transformed into Loie Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance. From her origins in burlesque, she became a practitioner of “free dance”, later developing her own improvisational and “natural” movement techniques even as she invented new technologies for theatrical lighting. Her accomplishments were widely acclaimed in France, where her artistic and technological innovations placed her at the centre of the Art Nouveau movement.
One could argue that the greatest American artists, from Whitman to Fuller to Miles Davis, from Jackson Pollock to Trisha Brown to Bill T. Jones, locate meaning in physicality and a muscular sense of “being in the world”.
American art frequently reveals the work that made it: the labour is visible, as are the flaws in the handiwork. Pollock’s “action painting” emphasises the physical gestures of painting, the splatter is evidence of energy and exertion; we can hear the clicking of valves and intake of breath in the recordings of Miles Davis – off-notes that on first listen sound like mistakes are transformed into opportunities for sonic investigation and formal experimentation. In American dance, from Isadora Duncan to Ralph Lemon, the gracefully labouring body is displayed as the height of aesthetic accomplishment. American artists are, in the current parlance, “makers.”
The American aesthetic is rooted in a culture that, for better or worse, values action over contemplation. We tend to resist the cerebral, instead framing ‘doing’ as ‘thinking’. In his recent book Strange Tools, American philosopher Alva Noë – formerly philosopher-in-residence for William Forsythe’s dance company – proposes that “perceiving is a kind of skilful bodily activity,” where choreography is embodied philosophy.
The cultural preference for doing over thinking is expressed as a conflict between democracy and elitism; a conflict that influences the way America funds the arts. Until the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965, “high art” in America was supported mostly through a patronage model. Symphonies, operas and ballets – culturally specific art forms of European origin – were never lacking in support, while wide swaths of American creative expression were left to their own devices.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the NEA into existence as a component of his larger vision of the Great Society. It was intended to enrich the cultural lives of the American public by increasing access and opportunity and in so doing, forge a national artistic landscape that was as creative, diverse and multifaceted as the country itself. In 1971, the NEA launched the Expansion Arts Program that, for 25 years, nurtured community-based arts organisations from America’s inner city, rural, and tribal communities. Many of the program’s first grantees—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, Appalshop in Kentucky, Arte Público Press in Texas, Urban Gateways in Illinois – went on to became nationally renowned.
By providing crucial financial support and cultural capital, the NEA counteracted a kind of philanthropic redlining. These groups became viable and were now able to compete alongside more established cultural institutions in areas where they had previously been excluded.
But an unrelenting and highly successful conservative assault on the public sector began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and continues to this day. This attack has left the NEA a shadow of its former self. The National Endowment for the Art’s 2015 federal budget allocation clocked in at a mere $146.021 million, which accounts for 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of total federal discretionary spending.
The Reagan Revolution has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams; the drastic reduction of state, local and federal government spending on the arts is consistent with a wider political push towards privatisation and has created a gap to be filled by individual mega-donors and corporate philanthropy. This disparity has transformed the non-profit performing arts into a funhouse mirror version of America’s corporate sector.
Look at the stark numbers: as of 2012, 55% of philanthropic funding of the arts went to the 2% of arts organisations with budgets over $5 million. In practice, this imbalance means that the majority of arts philanthropy is a transfer of capital from older, wealthy white people to arts organisations run by other older, wealthy white people in support of art that speaks to their concerns and affirms their biases.
Seen in this context, the non-profit performing arts sector is dominated by the same conservative, “free market” ideology that has come to define much of American life. The nation’s most influential arts management graduate program is funded by the ultra-right wing DeVos family; it is accepted as self-evident that the apex of Peter Gelb’s “spectacular mismanagement” of the Metropolitan Opera was, in the words of critic Terry Teachout, being “unwilling to demand substantial cuts in labour costs from the Met’s powerful unions.” Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater is now named for the infamous conservative businessman David H. Koch.
The establishment of the NEA coincided with the publication, in 1966, of William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen’s seminal study Performing Arts—The Economic Dilemma. They cautioned against “what might happen to the performing arts if their prime objective were profit maximisation. One can envision the nation’s performing arts reduced to a vestigial state, with a very small number of theatres and orchestras catering to an exclusive group of persons who could afford to pay the very high and ever-rising prices necessary to keep them going.” And that is exactly what has happened.
Baumol and Bowen identified a phenomenon called “psychic income”: the “considerable pleasure and personal satisfaction” derived from working in the arts. They observed that, “as the general level of real income increases over time, people may well feel that they are better able to afford to pursue careers which offer relatively lower money incomes but larger psychic incomes.”
But real income in the United States has not increased in nearly 40 years; in 2015, no amount of “psychic income” can bridge the economic gap between working in the arts and working in the private sector. Income inequality in the United States has excluded wide swathes of the population from formal cultural participation, not only as audience members, but also as artists and administrators.
It is almost impossible to become a “full time” artist and equally impossible to pursue ongoing professional development of your artistic practice without taking on crippling levels of student debt. Outside of a handful of the largest cities, artist communities exist in precarious conditions, where survival often pre-empts artistic exploration. Working on a large scale requires access to resources unavailable to all but the privileged few; the American aesthetic remains grounded in forms that require few resources to create, produce and tour.
And what of the American Body in 2015? When Walt Whitman wrote, “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he was articulating a powerful vision for the first democratic republic to emerge since Ancient Greece, a hopeful vision shared by Abraham Lincoln. America’s Civil War was fought for the preservation of the Union, the body of the Nation, and it was fought over slavery.
It seems timely and instructive, then, to listen to the words of American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his epistolary essay, Between The World and Me, Coates observes that “disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all of our lives and, like terrorism, this distortion is intentional.”
He is referring explicitly to physical disembodiment – the enslavement, assault and killing of black bodies in America – and philosophical disembodiment, the “extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur.”
Coates calls out the myth of whiteness, reminding us that in this nation of immigrants, each newly arrived group “were something else before they were white.” He frames those who consider themselves white as “Dreamers”, saying that they “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery” and that to “awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body.”
The systematic impoverishment of the public good and assault on the values of civil society plays out most brutally on black bodies; the decimation of government arts funding and turn towards patronage and corporate philanthropy has disproportionately affected communities of colour. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans are all drastically under-represented on American stages and in America’s most prominent artistic institutions. As only a privileged few are able to participate in formal arts structures, access to funding, resources and stages is restricted not just explicitly, but implicitly through aesthetic bias.
So that strand of conceptualism in contemporary choreography that seeks to remove the body from the consideration of dance, when favoured by elite American arts programmers, curators and institutions, has real consequences. “Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism,” and when the labouring body is erased by (white, male, of European origin) philosophical constructs, we are complicit in devaluing human lives even as we are destroying the democratic American body.
If anyone tries to sell you on “The American Model” for arts funding, I strongly suggest you either walk away from them as quickly as possible or, if you can, send them packing. The very phrase “American Model” is a devious sleight of hand meant to obscure a conservative “free market” agenda. Purveyors of this “model” will sell you a bill of goods that you’ll be paying off for years.