There was an interesting court case recently (“Night Moves vs the State of New York“) in which a Strip Club owner sued the government, arguing that his patrons should not have to pay sales tax on their entry fees, and lap dances. The merit of the case related to a statute that waives sales tax for professional live entertainment, including dance performance. Dancers in strip clubs are professionals, and what are we, puritans?
The line between porn and modern dance actually launched the career of renowned choreographer Anna Halprin, who was famously arrested in 1965 after performing her work “Parades and Changes” (which involves everyday movements, including undressing.) But even within the avant-garde dance community, it is offensive to compare exotic dance to professional modern dance.
The values embedded in stripping and the values embedded in non-profit dance are entirely different. If one tries to twin them, to pretend that they are of the same family, it degrades non-profit dance and threatens its survival. Making the case for government support (arts funding) and government subsidy (the non-profit tax deduction) is a challenge in the current political environment. Sexuality continues to be a lightning rod for controversy, and even considering extending the non-profit tax deduction to exotic dance makes the deduction’s defense more difficult.
We shouldn’t waive the sales tax for exotic dance because professional modern dance is good, not because exotic dance is bad. It’s not uncommon for people to try to twin concepts together, and the problem in this situation and others isn’t so much the approval of the one, but the pollution of the other.
Lance Armstrong recently went on Oprah to apologize for his theft of seven Tour de France titles, and subsequently fraudulently soliciting over $470 million dollars in donations to his foundation. Armstrong has a number of apologists, including his biographer the Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who recently penned a column explaining all of the reasons why she’s not angry with him. As with the Strip Club court case, Lance Armstrong is another one of those cases where people are trying to wrap reasonable arguments around an inexcusable proposition. Lance Armstrong’s success was predicated on a narrative that was a lie, constructed around an athletic success that was a sham. His deception is all the more terrible because of the tremendous honorable effort he marshaled using his fraud. What now?
There are real heroes out there that we never knew because we were paying attention to Lance. The Livestrong Foundation raised over $470 million dollars between 1997 and 2011, and someone who wasn’t lying should have had a chance to solicit those donations, but Lance Armstrong’s championship wake swamped and prevented that. His fraud as an athlete underwrote every check written to Livestrong. A similar non-profit fraud was perpetrated by the founder of the Central Asia Institute, and exposed in 2011 by both Sixty Minutes and John Krakauer (Three Cups of Deceit.) If we accept Lance Armstrong’s apology, the message it sends is that the ends justify the means.
In his famous Supreme Court opinion on obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart, who was being asked to define the difference between art photography and pornography admitted simply, “perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Stripping and concert dance are not twins, and success and fraud are not twins either. Sometimes we over-complicate our judgments, and as Justice Stewart might agree, we risk sending a terrible message to youth when we do.
Kate Mattingly wrote an excellent short piece for the Washington City Paper recently questioning the value of a particular DC arts festival. “Is Velocity DC Doing Right by Local Dance?” she asked.
The author/philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize”, and as an artist surely the two groups one can’t criticize are funders and presenters. Who would want to? But there’s a nifty parallel from Mattingly’s piece to the hootenanny arts writers been having about criticism being generally too friendly.
Clearly not all criticism is too friendly. But last week Jonathan Jones in the Guardian accused art critics of “fawning”, and asserted, “the real reason for critical timidity is that everyone is scared of the young, and art has allied itself with youth.” His sentiment is echoed in the piece David Hadju wrote back in 2009 for the Columbia Journalism Review (Can Arts Critics Survive the Poison Pill of Consumerism?) which quoted LA Times music critic Anne Powers saying, “People are afraid. There’s this fear that you could hurt your career or your image if you go out on a limb and say, ‘I don’t like The Hold Steady or Arcade Fire.’”
The Columbia Journalism Review piece by Hadju goes on to cite Alisa Solomon, director of the Arts and Culture Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism arguing, “In an environment where there’s disdain for expertise, and where intelligent conversation about a topic is considered elitist and therefore oppressive, critics look not only dispensable, but somehow evil or wrong.”
From the get go, critics are assailed as anti-populist, and are reflexively under pressure to be populist. And the exact same pressure exists for arts programmers. Mattingly interestingly critiqued the Velocity Festival noting, “It was populist to a fault.” I’ve written with concern about populism (You Like Me – You Really Like Me!! for DanceUSA), and while there is nothing wrong with being popular, it does sometimes feel like as a culture we are in danger of holding populism as a good above all others.
Perhaps we are not articulate enough about what other goods exist. As Alisa Solomon stated, “Our attitudes toward the arts have been framed within this notion that they have to have some kind of utilitarian or commercial value, and we’re losing our ability to talk about them in other terms.” In addition to saying that thing about who rules over you I quoted earlier, Voltaire also said, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do”. And sometimes, that good is pointing out the bad.