Will Epater les Bourgeois For Food

Peter Sellars in search of buyers


After 9/11 and the economic downturn, government and corporate funding for the arts has been in even shorter supply than usual. Small wonder, then, that artists who prefer to avoid exposing themselves to the market have been coming out of the woodwork lately in order to plead their case before the public.

Of those who have done so, none is more famous, or has presented a more bizarre argument for the importance of the arts, than Peter Sellars, former Wunderkind and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award," who made his mark in the 1980s by mounting contemporary productions of classic operas and plays, often turning them into stridently anti-US allegories. It's worth thinking about what Sellars had to say, because it may represent the last gasp of a lamentable and insufferably pompous phase of "artistic practice" prevalent in this country since the 1970s.

It used to be that Sellars justified public expenditures for art on the very shaky grounds that things like flashily updated Greek tragedies promote social justice. Trying to strike a new note more in keeping with the times, he took to the airwaves on the June 9th edition of Public Radio International's Marketplace—a rather surprising forum—in order to argue that the arts are important now because they prevent terrorism.

The absurdities began with the first words: "Art is being scrubbed from the American diet. It's as though Swan Lake is the only thing that doesn't have to go underground right now." So insulated is Sellars from reality that he can't help confusing threats to his wonted funding lines with a world-historical calamity for the arts. Sellars, whose credo is that "whatever you do on stage must = the public at the time you stage it," calls to mind the hero of the Coen brothers' brilliant film Barton Fink. The title character (based on forgotten agitprop playwright Clifford Odets) is a "committed" playwright adrift in 1940s Hollywood, intent on, in his words, "the creation of a new, living theater, of and about and for the common man," but totally oblivious to the fact that that theater has already arrived: It's called the movies—for which, of course, Fink has nothing but contempt. (Appropriately enough, the long-awaited DVD of Barton Fink was released in May, but that's the kind of cultural event that doesn't register on Sellars's radar.)

In ominous tones, Sellars continued, "But eliminating artists from the economy is a big mistake. Right now our boom industry is security, but in fact security is because the lines of communication have been shut [sic], and somebody, in order to get your attention, has to plant a car bomb, in your car." Speaking for artists everywhere, Sellars announced, "we are here to defuse the car bombs," and to do so by "being in the heart of the community, and reminding the community that it has a soul."

These are odd words coming from Sellars, whose attempts at "relevance" have included recasting Sophocles' Ajax as the embodiment of an insane American militarism; one can imagine his frequently incendiary productions playing to packed houses in antebellum Kabul or Baghdad. Age and events do not seem to have tempered his spirit. The play touted as Sellars's response to 9/11, this year's American Repertory Theater production of Euripides' The Children of Herakles, struck the reviewer for The Village Voice (!) as "reductive," "sanctimonious," and "exploitative." Even in his Marketplace commentary, Sellars, the Great Reconciler and Defuser of Bombs, could not restrain himself from getting in a kick at "the American economy of death."

In at least one respect, though, Sellars's repeated attempts to connect with the public suggest a tenacity it is at least possible to admire, since, when he has actually managed to get his hands on the levers of public institutions, the results have been consistently painful, and have left the artist feeling bitterly betrayed by those to whom he sought to bring the good news. His résumé, in fact, suggests why we might get more satisfactory results when consumers, rather than functionaries, are the ones to make judgements about art.

After he was appointed to run the Kennedy Center's fledgling American National Theater in 1984, Sellars took just a year to rack up $5 million in bills, declared that people in Washington did not really care about art, shook the dust from his feet and pulled up stakes. The theater did not survive his departure.

More recently, he was appointed to direct the 2002 Adelaide Festival of the Arts, where once again "the people" failed to rise to his standards. On the whole, Sellars was not exactly the cultural ambassador of one's dreams ("Just about once a week," he informed the Australians, "there is a massacre in an American city"). Although he started out claiming that the festival would focus on "questions of reconciliation," his bossy extremism succeeded only in polarizing the local arts community, one of whose members observed, "Sellars seems to think we are all passengers on his Zen journey of personal discovery, willing or not."

Again following a pattern, Sellars, distressed by what he termed the "darker implications" of opposition to his desires, left the festival in the lurch and quit his post a few months before it was scheduled to start. Later he remarked, "Obviously it is embarrassing when you bring one of the biggest international fish you have ever had in your fish tank and treat them the way I was treated. I just hope you never, ever treat anyone this way again. It's not a good idea, it's bad for international relations, and it's a little bit stupid." (Earlier this year The New York Times reported that Sellars "took the Adelaide flameout in style.") If this is how he brings reconciliation to Adelaide, imagine what he can do for the world.

As Sellars is keen to find contemporary relevance in old texts, it seems appropriate to give the last word to someone who memorably characterized the real spiritual forebears of the Fink-Sellars crowd: the political Romantics who, in the wake of the French Revolution, peddled "the broth of 'heart, friendship, and inspiration.'" "When it is furthest from mind," Hegel wrote, "superficiality speaks most of mind, when its talk is the most tedious dead-and-alive stuff, its favorite words are 'life' and 'vitalize,' and when it gives evidence of the pure selfishness of baseless pride, the word most on its lips is 'people.'"