education and elitism
January 13, 2003 07:24 PM

Last night on Inside the Actor's Studio, Kathy Bates rather randomly got all angry about congressfolk calling PBS elitist.

I really like Kathy Bates. I mean, her movies are mostly those "real emotion" chick flicks that I mostly hate, but I just plain like her. She's neat.

Still. I think PBS is elitist. Public broadcasting and public radio depend so greatly on their audiences that they have to cater to the Maslovian idea of art as a privilege of the privileged (or at least, the comfortable).

It's like regional theatre, which is primarily supported by donors and season ticket holders - not by the ticket-buying public. So, regional theaters treat the art they produce as part of an event, the discriminating palate's dinner and a movie. This is why regional theatres do so well in restaurant districts (or, better yet, by having a stylish and expensive restaurant on the premises). Regional theaters sell what they can.

It sounds like treason against art, but it's just how things are. They do what they can to stay afloat another day. They play A Tuna Christmas in hopes that it'll make enough money to fund something more real. And sometimes, they lose sight of real in endless loops of Tuna Christmases, because real is so far away and it costs so much just to make it through a season.

I didn't understand this when I worked at a regional theater. Now I do, and it breaks my heart.

Public broadcasting networks are in the same situation. They must sell their product as part of a rarefied experience in order to make it seem worthwhile, to make donating seem worthwhile. I find this even sadder than the current regional theatre situation in this country - because PBS isn't selling entertainment masked as High Art; PBS sells education. And in selling it thus, subtly sends the message that eduction is only for the comfortable, the wealthy.

Then again, I'm not sure anyone actually benefits from the education public broadcasting can offer. Not in its current state, at least. Its earlier, more heavily state-sponsored (in the era of Reagan and Bush The First, no less) incarnation was quite another animal.

And television and radio are government subsidized. Subsidized, but not for educational purposes. They're subsidized in the form of FCC controls, meaning that there can be no such thing as true independent television or radio. You can't buy a camera and decide you'd like to produce guerilla television, except in the narrow confines of the local public access station.

All of this, to me, points to a need for more state-sponsored art and education. Of course, it will never happen in an America so fixated on independence. But it sure seems to work well for all the American experimental theatre artists who took real theatre to France.

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