time to change the way we view music and the arts

Cookie cutters and circular traps: Are we condemning creativity itself?

Thumbs-up cookie cutter image

Maybe this should be turned upside down…
“Hand Cookie Cutter (Thumbs Up)”, Online Image, Copper Gifts, 1 May 2014
< http://www.coppergifts.com/cookie-cutters/pc/catalog/p/thumbs-up-cookie-cutter-cg1-p2251.jpg >

You’ve Cott Mail, the free weekly digest mailer of arts news and commentary run by one, Thomas Cott, recently featured and linked to a pair of stories in the same newsletter that presented, what I see,  as a virtually unavoidable and ever-constricting loop for arts value in the United States.

Today Children, We’re Not Going to Do a Show
Beyond PG-13: Theaters divided on applying movie-style ratings on productions
The first piece is directed more towards perspective on what good, and bad, can result from the kinds of “excess” spins being put on the importance of the US’s newly rolled out, Common Core State Standards Initiative. Extreme views and headlines that clearly oppose the Common Core, turn the topic of arts in education back toward the also “common,” grudge match on “Is art worthless for inclusion or not?” Howard Sherman, the reactionary highlighted by YCM, admits to stepping back and then clarifying how things can be redirected and refocused to gracefully highlight the practicality of emphasizing arts, rather than aggressively attacking a “side.” The former is being brought on by parts of the system that extend outside of any one particular subject area -music, math or otherwise- because of stylistic expectations when it comes to curriculum layout and delivery. AKA Teaching to a test.
A view harking toward “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” becomes apparent by the time that standard comes around, because, no matter the subject, importance gets lost if you’re just cramming information into children’s heads for the sake of cramming information.
The second article is from a different publication and focuses on a different topic of controversy altogether, so how can they fit in my singular line of thinking? Well, unlike the first piece, the meat and potatoes of the second from The Sun Times is comprehensible right from the title: Theatre productions and standardized ratings: yay or nay?
Just from that, it might seem like my correlated element comes from mutual standardization. This is partially true but not explicitly the major binder at work. The summarized excerpt used by YCM, reveals the main observation in this quote:

“…presenters [are] convinced theater audiences tend to be sophisticated enough to do whatever “pre-screening” they might think necessary on their own, especially if they’re planning to “take the kids.” But theaters [like movies historically have] are increasingly playing it safe [now], too.”

The part in bold was made so by me, to distinguish where I see a problem that, yes, turns back toward standardization. The rub is not to just outright dismiss standardizing, whether it be through a new approach to the general US education curriculum or through production advisories. The issue is that such a rubric existing for each intended body, in the respective ways proposed by these two articles and combined with the mentality implied in the quote above, creates a new connection that eliminates their initially, mutually exclusive-looking existences, while bringing in an unhelpful stereotype to boot.

The Common Core has come under some satiric fire as of late, with some specific core math questions being brought to the social media spotlight, showcasing what, through the lens of the satire, is made to feel like a mish-mosh of subject areas and concepts required for calculating an answer to what is supposed to be, at its root, a mathematical inquiry.

This is not about either backing or ranting against the linked comedic segment but it does highlight that the conflict over this method is hardly one-sided, one way or the other. Stephen Colbert, whose is the satire linked above, expresses opposition not for a lack of arts inclusion in this “important” system, however, the Common Core’s own stated objectives from their official website, don’t highlight the “arts” outside that of the traditional “language arts” label.

“The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.”

Now, for argument’s sake, let us just accept the CCS and the primary “learning goals” they provide in this statement. Let’s accept that nowhere is art of any kind mentioned as a skill or type of knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life. Arts are out, or at least, severely diminished because that’s how things just are for the moment. Okay, moving on…

Let’s also say for the minute, that this rating system, or at least the beginnings of a rating system, start to be incorporated by even more theaters and opera houses. Drama becomes more preemptively sterilized for parents so they can know on the surface, what is not suitable for John or Jane because the art they go to see will or won’t have things like nudity, drug references, violence or serious themes. That’s well and good but there are two kinks that need addressing:

What are people, both arts and non-arts alike, supposed to do about pre-screening or pre-contemplating theatrical work, when US systems like the Common Core, or even just the general “it’s less important” attitude held over the arts, does not deem that kind of work an area worth designated, deep or ongoing analysis? That would mean that the inclusion or exclusion of ratings for theatrical work is coming solely from a place of elemental face value. Nudity gets you the biggest push to a more adult rating, then swearing, then violence, and so on and so on. Each of these “offenses” is looked at not for its contextual significance or metaphorical representations or even straight up quantity but rather, just the flat question of, “Does this play have X, Y or Z in it, and, if it does, this is the label it gets.” That premise works as a rubric but only to a very shallow degree; one that stops at seeing a play only as a vessel that either holds a wholesome set of stories and values or one that does not because X, Y or Z is there.


What’s a very possible end result of this? 
Cookie-cutter label based stigma. 

Sure, currently theatres that are advising about controversial material are devising many different ways of doing so, which is the opposite of a standard but then, why bother at all? If a standard theatre label system came into play, like that of film, it would impress upon parents and kids that kind of mentality film gets. (Though one could argue film ratings have lost their moxie because too much is being put under a limited number of umbrellas and where do you draw the line?)

Imagine if plays only had four labels to give, that went from “General” to “Restricted,” like films? Theatre characters and storytelling is as broad as film and has the added need to contemplate, the question of how a character action needs to be blocked/choreographed and how those plans will translate emotionally, because someone is seeing it live, put right in front of their face, whereas film is pre-prepared and can be altered with artificial effects. Suddenly deeply complex plots that are branded the ever parent-averse “R” get taken in on a whole different level that sidesteps individual analysis and crudely boxes in an array of stories and character structures -both for the parent and the child.


“Oh, it has an explicit label? Don’t bring it in the house.” 
“It’s rated “R?” Don’t even ask to see it until you’re 17.”

Traveling down and nurturing the development of the two paths outlined above leads not to separate changes but conversely to them affecting one another -and not leaving positive results. Presently, it almost feels like raising another generation on a now further arts-deprived body of education will only force a third party, semi-blind rating system because there’s going to be no alternate or layered perspective to deviate.

How can future parents be considered “sophisticated enough” to do anything other than see theatre for simply “having nudity or not having nudity,” if they are never encouraged to explore dramatic storytelling and narrative formation? We expect great plays and great creative expressions of the human condition to be available for our entertainment. However, in continuing to de-emphasize arts’ relevance and even worse, de-correlating it from being pertinent to “success,” what else can be expected but what could eventually become something akin to “playwriting to the parent,”   much the way we keep hammering for teachers to “teach to the test?” (But for the former, not really, because that would involve parents’ individual evaluations, so it would be more like playwriting to the the one, mean, parental ideal.) It’s a circular crisis harping the very character of creativity, that will only shrink in circumference as the generations come along and the ingenuity of drama gets stunted by our own lack of willingness, and or ability, to include and value the arts as a part of life.

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