Take my money. Please.

I can’t help it. I tend to see the world’s events through the lens of my own experience. At it’s most obnoxious, this tends to make it seem like I’m saying, “It’s all about me!” But most often it’s just simple human nature. We use the experience we know to make sense of the experience foreign to us. Take the battle raging between the White House and conservative members of congress. Please! (Sorry, that was a lame tribute to Rodney Dangerfield). This battle isn’t really about the debt ceiling, whatever that is. It’s really about taxes.

The experience in my life informing my perception of this debate is the formation of White Pines Productions, the live-perfromance production company I am creating, and particularly its mission. I call White Pines a “performing arts production company with an economic mission”. Simply put, that mission is to fully support our artists, while never charging a dime for admission to our events. This mission is born out of spiritual/aesthetic principles: that art should not be treated as a commodity, and that it should be absolutely open to all people, regardless of their own economic circumstance. This moves performance out of the commodity market and into the gift exchange, an idea first brought to life years ago in Lewis Hyde’s seminal book The Gift. As far as I know, I am the first person to try and apply his ideas to an incorporated, non-profit production company.

One of the things that happens when you announce a mission to the world is that you get to explain it, describe it and even defend it. This has been challenging, since the idea is so absurd on the surface (“Wait, support artists but charge no admission? Are you nuts? How are you going to do that”), and since I haven’t fully figured it out yet (“How am I going to do that? Umm, not entirely sure”). And so, I invite people into dialogue again and again, about this mission and its implications. One of the best things about running a workshop is that you get to take people hostage to your agenda and ideas, and so I am using The Creative Commons as a “lab” for the mission of White Pines, and encouraging an ongoing discussion about it among the participants. I am facilitating the workshop, teaching actors within it, providing opportunities for others to explore their own creative leadings, and refusing any financial compensation. At the same time, I continually ask the question: if we are not bound together in commercial contract, then how are we bound together?

During a recent discussion, Stacy, one of our “Commoners”, said, “it’s really medieval what you’re up to. It’s like one of those old-fashioned villages, in which everyone took care of everyone else.”

Ah. Yes.

Imagine one of those villages. There’s the blacksmith, who makes the shoes for your horses and the plows for your fields. There’s the doctor, who cares for you when you’re ill. There’s the weaver, who makes your blankets. There’s the butcher, who buys your pigs and sells you bacon. There’s you, tilling your fields, making your wares, serving your village with your hard work and gifts. And in this village, there are the actors and musicians, who play for you in your hours of relaxation, who sing and dance in the celebration of the seasons, who enact the Passion Play, who tell the stories of your people, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic.

When you think of your existence, you cannot think of it in isolation, you can only conceive of it as a part of a web or quilt or divine machine. You can only think of yourself as related to others – the special ones who are related to you by blood or marriage, and then the others, who are related to you through your community. It is inconceivable that life could go on without any one of them. You understand viscerally that your well-being is dependent on all of them, and so paradoxically the greatest act of self-interst is to make sure everyone else is okay.

This attitude is shared by all but the most obstreperous members of the community (what would a community be without its eccentrics and cranks?). And so the community decides to preserve itself through a codification of it’s shared existence. This is what a government is, and the commitment the community has to itself is called a tax. When the village feels bonded together in a common existence, the tax each is asked to pay – to fix the roads, to pay for a teacher for the children, to employ a night watchman – is not a burden but rather an affirmation.

In my experience, artists have always been the most generous people I know. Not necessarily with money (watch what happens when the bill comes for a shared meal sometime), but with more community-based gifts: the couch to sleep on, the offer to join in a project, the way in which we welcome each other with that mysterious and ancient recognition: oh I see, we are from the same village. The reason we are not so good with money is this: what we do has nothing to do with money. Money is from another world. The systems of value assessment used in the money world don’t work very well in the art world. And this is why, if you look back in history, troupes of performers always had wealthy patrons, or were supported by the state (Moliere’s and Shakespeare’s companies, the Moscow Art Theater, the Berliner Ensemble; and earlier, the guild-sponsored troupes of medieval community actors making the annual Passion or Everyman play).

Show me a sofa, a drill, a car and we can have a useful discussion about how much it should cost. Show me Dzeici performing Makbet and that discussion becomes confusing.

President Obama and Eric Cantor are screaming at each other because we have lost our sense of community in this country. The conservative movement has succeeded in convincing a large number of our population that taxes are not an affirmation of our interconnectedness, but rather an onerous burden saddled on us by some “other”, variously called “big government”, “Washington” or “tax and spend liberals”. Of all the dangers we face now, this one scares me the most. Because it invites us to believe in a dreadful fiction: that we are not one community of shared experience and sacrifice, but rather groups of competing communities blaming the others for the ills we are all experiencing. We are becoming alienated from each other, and are on the road to chaos.

Mr President, I have an idea. Go to the draught-stricken plains of Texas and offer them a million dollars in assistance. Tell them it’s my money, and I am happy to give it to them. Tell them it’s my Mom’s money, a dancer and teacher in Boulder Colorado, and she’s happy to give it to them. Tell them it’s my Dad’s money, retired in Massachusetts, and he’s happy to give it to them. Tell them it’s Pearce’s money, an actor and father living in Minnesota (where this fight has shut the government down), and he’s happy to give it to them. Tell them it’s from all the artists and people who love them, who pay taxes and just don’t give a damn about the money. Tell them to take it, please, and use it to help themselves out of the dire circumstances they find themselves in out of no fault of their own. Tell them we are happy to give it to them because we need them, to be strong and healthy, to be a part of this great community called America, to contribute to our common cause: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Tell them we don’t give a damn about the money. Tell them we give a damn about them.

I submit that the disunity we are experiencing now comes in a large part to an excessive reverence for money. Money, being attached to numbers, can easily quantified. It’s easy to notice who has more of it and less of it. And so it lends itself to distinctions. When these distinctions become welded to value judgments, the outcome is toxic: more money = good, success, valuable; less money = bad, failure, worthlessness. Artists, who traditionally eschew the world of money, have had to struggle to prove their worth in financial terms because those are the only terms we know how to use anymore. White Pines rejects those terms, and says no, what we do cannot be measured in money. It can only be measured in the mysterious, inscrutable and transformational experiences of both artist and audience. Therefore, it cannot be sold, so if a community wants what we have to offer, it has to figure out another way to support us. This is the mission of White Pines: to explore that way.

Our country was founded on the radical notion that a community –  a nation – could be created and sustained not by bloodlines or clans, but through the mutual affirmation of principals, principals which represent the best about us. My wife works at the National Constitution Center, acting in the multi-media production every visitor there gets to see. The first words of her performance are: “We the people. Who are ‘we’ ?” We don’t know any more, and it’s tearing us apart.


PS: My latest novel, The Deception of Surfaces, was just published. It deals with all these issues in fictional form. Link on the right.