Playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced, The Who and the What, The Invisible Hand) delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the annual gathering of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in New York City on Friday, Jan. 6. Full video of all the plenaries is here.
Good afternoon. It’s good to be with you today. I want to thank the planning committee for the invitation to address you all.
When I was first approached about offering these introductory remarks, I inquired about the committee’s hope for what I might say. Something uplifting, they responded, something about art’s potential to change the world. Right. I wasn’t sure, I told them, that I really could do that. I toyed with offering my apologies, politely declining. I couldn’t see how to be uplifting and, at the same time, force the conversation I thought needed to be had. I said as such.
They responded: By all means, speak your mind.
And I thought: …okay.
The Chinese have an interesting proverb I’d like to start with, and I quote: “In a house where the son kills the father, the causes do not lie between the morning and the evening of a single day.”
The political events of the last few months in this country are not the result of a single day’s election tally. Nor of a season of campaigning that seemed to bring to those who paid sustained attention to it more nausea than anything else. No. The recent political events are the quaking eruption of a tectonic shift that has been at least two generations in the making, a shift that long ago infected our nation’s soil.
The logic of the market. The rules of the market. The market’s language and being. Value reduced to its exclusively monetary meaning. Competition not as a striving toward betterment, a striving for—as the Latin etymology of the word suggests—but as a struggle to wean out the weak, celebrate the strong, and offer up the lowest price. Our language and experience have become polluted by the ethos of finance. We seek upside and minimize our exposure and consider the best use of our sweat equity. We invest in relationships. We communicate our deal breakers and negotiate around our competing interests. Indeed, even our greatest human intimacies are increasingly nothing more than transactions. We have become customers to reality.
The market has reached so far into us. It has replaced our old deities with a new one. The Religion of the Commerce, ruled not by Yahweh or Krishna, but by another disembodied abstraction hovering far beyond us, and whose well-being we tend to with unflagging collective attention. The Economy. We are terrified of its humors. Grateful for its dispensations. We are exhorted to appease and placate it with our ritual purchases. (For indeed, the spending of money has become our daily act of penitence and absolution and rapture par excellence.) When our economy is well, we are a happy people. And when it isn’t, premonitions of ultimate doom are never far.
How did this happen? How did it happen that the logic of finance—its devouring and monetizing imperative—make money everywhere and in any way—how did this aberration, this deformation come to stake its dubious claim on every part of every one of our lives?
This is the real question. Not what can art do about it.
For what can art do about it? The logic of finance has only delegitimized what art does best, which is to nurture and develop the most invisible, interior, intangible parts of us. What use is the soul’s growth if it doesn’t make you money? Indeed, what use even to speak of a soul in this near-totalitarian era of the market. We are customers first and foremost. Of course, the humanities are useless to us. To wit: Little surprise that we are gutting music education at every level. Long ago, we ceased being a culture capable of understanding that responsiveness to the world is fundamentally rhythmic. That attunement to cadence and phrase, the embodiment of beauty in song—that these are fundamental human capacities, requiring development. And their development is more central to our well-being as individuals and as a nation than learning the periodic table. Wishful thinking. Warm, well-meaning expressions of weakness in the face of cold hard reality, which apparently only money makes apparent. And so, an education in music—or philosophy, or literature, or performance, and that list goes on—is of no fundamental use to us in this era of the Economy, for these do not help one secure existing wealth or accumulate future wealth. These are the only terms of true good in our world today. These are our only genuine societal covenants.
Art’s great capacity is to renew and to restore. To remind us of death. To cleanse and nourish us. To offer us a path to a clearer and more vivid sense of ourselves and each other. But art in the service of commerce cannot do any of this. Not really. Indeed, art in the service of commerce isn’t really even called art anymore. It’s called content. Content to be distributed across platforms, enabling the swift and frictionless monetization of the viewer’s attention. Art becomes content, which becomes branded entertainment, which becomes advertising. How far we have come. Percy Shelley, the great English Romantic writer, believed that poets and philosophers were, what he called, the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” Really? Maybe not so crazy after all if you take your definition of poetry and philosophy and lower it, as we seem to do with almost everything these days. After all, who is most effective at influencing and transforming the way people speak and behave today, how they think, what they believe to be worth pursuing, worth being; indeed, which storytellers, if you will, are most deeply shaping the imaginal landscape of our time? Those who have been most effective at turning their content to commerce’s use; those best at selling themselves, at art as advertising: the Kardashians and Jenners, the Jay-Zs, and yes, of course, the Trumps of the world. Unacknowledged legislators, indeed.
Of course, most of us in this room do not believe we can compete in that way. We don’t necessarily want to. We are outliers, suffering the prevailing cultural sickness, endeavoring, often at great cost to ourselves, to toe a different line. And we know the discouragement of trying to articulate the good we are attempting, with it never quite really landing on our listeners.
(That, mind you, is part of the problem. For when we are transformed from citizens first into customers and consumers foremost—well, then different rules apply: When I’m the customer, I know what I want. And I pay for it. And you give it to me. That’s the social contract. But art is different. It is not about giving a customer what they already know they want—just at a better price. Art, at its essence, is always about the unknown. And at its best, it’s not something given at all, but shared. Art, at its truest, has never really had an easy place in the economy of commerce.)
We, here in this room, may indeed be toeing a different line, but make no mistake: We have not resisted the corrosive effects of the rampant, unconscious materialism in our world today. Needing to bridge the divide with those who do not understand, with a culture that will not understand, we change the way we talk. Now we embrace the terms of tangible good. Social justice, advocacy. Changing minds. Opening perspectives. Empathy. We objectify and quantify art’s good, we find our fight, make our case, articulate the narrative. We turn ourselves into salespeople for our causes. And with time, we grow hidebound, hidebound by our battles, beholden to our identities, committed to promoting and celebrating our differences.
But let me submit that art, at its best, has always been about unity, not difference. And that in this age of art-denatured-by-commerce—an age in which, at its best, art appears to be a tool of advocacy—art loses its deepest and truest meaning. Any vision of art as a vision of advertising by another name is just that. A commercial.
Such is the world we have allowed to come into being. We have allowed that world, each of us. If there is any hope for the future of our human experience—as opposed to our mediated, monetized experience—we would do well, I suspect, by spending more time pondering that matter than struggling to make our case for art as a vehicle of change.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!