‘Evil’ capitalism provides the money for art

Ever tried to get money for an artistic project at Yale? It’s easy. Just put in an application for a Sudler Fund, and suddenly you’ve got $100, even $1,000, to put on a play, shoot a film, choreograph a dance or showcase your photography. (Hey, those hors d’oeuvres can get expensive.) The only obstacles that limit Yalies artistically are trivial things like time and space. (Ever tried to reserve a theater for midterm week?)

But in the big bad “real world,” expressing yourself artistically becomes slightly more challenging. No more Sudler Fund. No more Shutack Fund. No more Master Gary Haller of Jonathan Edwards giving thousands to the local opera company. That’s right, folks — beyond Phelps Gate, Yale artists must face the possibility that some people won’t pay to see their shining creativity. These, it seems, are the evil, evil realities of capitalism.

True enough, the relationship between capitalism and art hasn’t always been warm. Actors in ancient Rome, for example, were often slaves who performed in crowded shopping areas for the pleasure of jeering audiences. Only centuries earlier in Athens, actors and actor-playwrights were citizens of the highest esteem. Tragic theater allowed the uneducated citizens of the polis to refine their political judgment and use democracy wisely; as such, theater festivals were financed by an honorary sponsor, attendance was mandatory for all voting-age males and actors became ambassadors and negotiators during times of war and crisis.

Maybe in some ways, artists still feel like those actor-slaves of Rome, left to the cold and stingy mercy of the free market. Perhaps we find it hard to understand why people stand in line for hours at Carnegie Hall when we’d do the concert for less than half the price or why tourists spend a fortune to see “Mama Mia!” on Broadway when they could see our neo-Futurist adaptation of “Cats” (oh dear). In any case, capitalism is here to stay. Artists, however, have the freedom to choose whether they will accept or reject this reality, and it seems that there are three basic attitudes we can adopt.

1) I am a farm: Subsidize me!

Communists, socialists and people from Vermont tend to go in this category. All kidding aside, you can wind up here even if you don’t think Stalin was just misunderstood. Our nation’s professors, for instance, are vital to fostering the creativity that will fuel the next generation of artists, and they receive support from the universities. Also, many current artists who subscribe to capitalism (yes, they do exist — they have fully functioning hearts, too) feel that successful entrepreneurs should bear the responsibility of supporting the nation’s art. It’s a valid argument, but it does nothing to help you succeed. Not to mention that, like a farm, there’s always the danger that you’ll grow dependent.

2) I am a commodity: useful, but replaceable.

So you’ve gotten your BFA and your MFA from the best training programs in the world; you’re good at what you do, so now you just have to wait for your big break. In the meantime, the only thing you can do is get a job waiting tables while you try to jump-start your career. If this is your mentality, then you probably see yourself as a commodity. The good thing about being a commodity is that, assuming you’re truly talented and you’re willing to work hard, you might have a shot at making a decent living. The problem with being a commodity is that you think of yourself as replaceable. You know that, after all, other talented people out there are always willing to work just as hard as you, so as you go from gig to gig, you hope that there won’t be somebody else who has more talent. And there’s always someone with more talent.

3) I am a brand: I offer something that nobody else can.

If you see yourself as a brand, you’re willing to take advantage of the free market and make yourself stand out. Some have huge piano hands or incredibly flexible bodies and automatically belong to this category (assuming they know how to market themselves correctly), but you can get here simply by being smart. If you have a vision for a new art movement, you’re a brand. If you can play the violin like Heifetz, but you can build a business like Warren Buffett, you’re a brand. If you decide to work for the producer instead of going to the cattle call, you’re a brand. Being a brand is all about understanding capitalism, embracing it and using it to give yourself a leg up.

Don’t worry, Yalies: We’ve still got time to ride the back of Mr. Sudler. Just out of curiosity, does anybody actually know who Louis Sudler ’25 was? He was a baritone who soloed nationally with symphony orchestras, with concert bands and at functions for several U.S. presidents. He made his fortune, however, as the founder of the Chicago real estate firm Sudler and Company. The next time you’re filling out the Sudler Fund application, remember that it’s capitalism that makes your artistic life possible.

Alexander Dominitz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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