What is the value of art, the visual arts, theater, music to the souls of an audience? Oftentimes, it depends upon how ambitious the promoters are to spin an image defined by anticipated profits. And it depends on the extent that unwitting, starving artists allow predation by promoters, agents and managers. If promoters and their marketers can hype/manipulate an audience to accept the conceptual “worth of the art” regardless of how good it is or whether it will have merit to last centuries, then the art, visual/theatrical productions, music, etc., will gain a following and be deemed valuable. If the art is great, but cannot find representation or vulturine promoters to “back it,” then regardless of its intrinsic worth, it will eventually fall into oblivion, unless someone in the future stumbles upon it and is empowered to capitalize its greatness.
One of the conflicts in Money Lab, an economic vaudeville conceived, curated and directed by Edward Einhorn and currently at HERE Arts Center, is the dilemma of art vs. commerce. Inherent in this brilliant and ironic comedy comprised of rotating vaudevillian acts and games is an underlying theme questioning the extent to which art’s true value to the human spirit should be commoditized. Einhorn’s intricate and entertaining work then elaborates with an additional question: If we decide art shouldn’t be commoditized, mustn’t we then work to reverse the mores entrenched by corporate profiteers which have oppressed artists and made them the slaves of social and economic hazard?
Einhorn, cast, and company bring us to these philosophical underpinnings by twisting us through an interesting labyrinth of provocative scenarios and acts with which we are both compelled and invited to engage. Before the production we are compelled, much as all citizens of a nation are forced into the fiat money system without choice; we become an investor by being “present.” We purchase chips which are indirectly tied to the framed economy of the production, and by the conclusion of the evening, we discover whether the audience valued the ineffable worth of artistry, or whether we valued the basic necessaries of living which include retaining and receiving back our own initial investment (though we can also donate it to the cause of art).
As audience members elect to engage with the actors, they become seminal players in the economic and social culture of the production. All participate, whether actively or passively; this is demonstrated through audience response to the acts, the games, and the auctions. (Yes, representative items are auctioned off and they impact the upward or downward flow of the intangible relationship between art and the value of necessaries/tangibles/commodities). This market like financial markets everywhere, and especially those created and monitored by insurance companies’ quants,, has been engineered to measure values with an algorithm. For the purposes of this production, the algorithm, created by Gyda Arber, measures the stats of audience priorities (art vs. life necessities/commodities).
Money Lab with its tongue-in-cheek playfulness and grinning-in-your-face ironies is incredibly serious underneath all the fun. It is replete with humorous and entertaining economic games, but like all games, there is a hidden realm, especially if they are truthful in their design. Einhorn and Gyda Arber, the designers, have smilingly made “the game” truthful as an object lesson. The audience is a part of the experiment. As such we are stimulated to consider this thing, money, that people have died for, sold their souls for, spent most of their lives accumulating, and, for some souls sick with its obsession, never are able to accumulate enough of. We are prompted to consider money as a priority amidst other priorities and values in our lives, including art’s value and verity (the value of the immutable and spiritually uplifting which is non-material) to us.
And we are, if we are “present” at the “Money Lab,” called to consider where we ultimately stand in the balance. Can we confront this? Or are we lying to ourselves? Do we value money more than what is ephemeral and a pleasurable, healthful requirement for our emotional, spiritual and psychic wellbeing? Or do we value what is material, the satisfaction of our lower needs, even the desire for status and power? Money Lab ultimately provokes the audience to discover something about themselves, even if it is to realize that they are recoiling from the concepts each of the acts presents.
The production numbers vary every night, so the random quality of the audience interactions with these differing scenarios provides an interesting result each night. Truly, who is in the audience impacts whether art or necessities “win out” for the evening. The acts and auction serve to massage the audience toward one or the other. Some acts are sardonic and humorous; others are unsettling; others are confusing; some involve risk-taking by audience members who engage with the actors as part of the experiment. All the acts stimulate thought.
For example, in one performance, PT Barnum gives us his treatise on “The Art of Getting Money,” stating his golden rules for acquiring it and becoming a fine entrepreneur. Of course, we understand it was Barnum who became associated with the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute” (though he may not have said it). But what we perhaps did not know about Barnum is revealed on a screen that only we can see. As PT (in a humorous, pompous portrayal by Trav SD) rattles off his “brilliant if self-evident maxims,” projected pictures and explanations of the rather rotten truth of Barnum’s life and behaviors in their full hypocrisy are shown. Thus, every word he speaks becomes an ironic counterpoint to his real actions.
Truly, Barnum represents the most typical of rapacious promoters in their “greed for profits” in a cruel and sometimes horrific exploitation of individuals and animals (the case of Jumbo the circus elephant is sadly revealed). With this scenario we are reminded of promoters and agents who duped, misled, bankrupted and stole from the artists they impoverished, then tossed them on a heap to be further picked apart by other scavengers until little of the artists’ strength remained. When promoters conceptualize the value of art, no artist is safe, and the wallets of those who accept the promoters’ values, the patrons, are not safe either. If enough individuals accept what the promoters sell them, the art somehow “gets lost in the shuffle.” It becomes a commodity. The originator of the art/music/dance/film work is oftentimes exploited, demeaned and objectified, until fame and the media devour them.
As an exclamation point on Barnum’s “recipe for wealth and fortune,” his parting words are accompanied by screen shots of the city which he had been mayor of, Bridgeport, Connecticut. After he died, his city, financially mismanaged and rooted in corruption (did subsequent city fathers use his recipe for their own agendas?), filed for bankruptcy protection in the 1990s. Its urban blight, poverty and desolation has been troublesome and continues to be a problem in the 21st century. Thus run the side effects of a promoter who exploited the value of image at the expense of substance.
Another salient act that is sardonic and revelatory for those who do not know of Karl Marx’s background is an operatic solo in which Marx sings his “Letters to Engels” (Jonathan Kline is Marx). Singing from his letters to his friend, Marx whines about not having money to buy his wife a dress. He repeats the theme of his need for money ad nauseam. In his dependence upon Engels to finance his life, he also harangues his friend that he hasn’t been able to finish his book. His song is desperate and he would rather “cut off his finger” than ask Engels for money.
Kline’s on-point operatic delivery makes Marx’s mewlings humorously ironic. He will not work; he would rather sponge off Engels whom he eventually lambastes in his second letter, since Engels has not been forthcoming with the money. As Marx grows more desperate, he writes/sings a third letter. In it he compounds his hypocrisy with appropriate melodious operatic backdrop in a prostrate grovel. He has modified his singing petulance; instead, he kowtows to Engels, becomes the sweet mendicant and forever the sycophant as he unctuously pleads for the cash. The drama in the letters converted to operatic recitative is very funny if one contemplates Marx’s theories and writings. Can it be possible that Marx bowed and scraped begging Engels for the thing which he railed so strongly against? Yes. And this rendition in operatic solo, by composer Avner Finberg, hits the spot beautifully.
There is a frame which encapsulates these acts and others I saw, which included “Free Dance” (performed by Jody Oberfelder), “Meat Market” (performed by Tatiana Baccari and Tessa Allen), “Tragedy of the Commons” (performed by Nic Cory, Liz Kimball and Jenny Rachel Weiner), and which vary every night. This structure is an extended auction during which the market is opened to the audience to purchase more chips until the auctioneer signals for the market to close. Like money, the chips fluctuate in value depending upon whether necessities or artistic aesthetics has gained in value as determined by the audience’s actions. Auctioneer and Master of Ceremonies Mick O’Brien presents a live auction of items pre-selected for their value as art or necessities.
If the audience is hesitant because they are unaware of what is being calculated, Gyda Arber at the exchange table gives an accounting of the item, approximating how much it is worth in “real” dollars. This is another layered irony, and it was interesting to note how many in the audience the evening I saw Money Lab were wary and suspicious, though the items were being auctioned for a fraction of their “real market value” in dollars. After the items are auctioned during segments of the Lab’s “open market,” the Master of Ceremonies closes the market and Arber records the values upward and downward via her algorithm. Throughout, on the screens on either side of the stage we see whether art aesthetics and necessities are decreasing or increasing in value.
By the end of the evening when the experiment concludes, the audience, having become a microcosmic society, discovers which they value more, and each member leaves more mindful of his or her own priorities, or perhaps still unaware. The audience I was in had a very interesting result. You will have to attend Money Lab to see how you fare and how your audience is measured according to the algorithm: whether your audience values material necessaries or the aesthetic realm more.
I thought Money Lab was fun, wacky and compelling in an innovative way, but such are the great offerings of Untitled Theater Company No. 61 which is a “Theater of Ideas: scientific, political, philosophical and theatrical.” The production is wonderful conceptually for the volumes it doesn’t speak but intimates. It reminded me that the gross tensions between the spiritual worth of artistic endeavor and material necessities are more and more becoming battlegrounds that we are forced to confront in our daily lives. This is particularly so in an economic downturn which the uber-wealthy (with their control of oligarchies) engineer to make even more profits and which for them becomes an upturn.
Increasingly, with limited resources, the force of cultural economics creates an environment where we must choose on a sliding scale between material, physical sustenance, and that which uplifts our hearts, minds, and souls through our artistic endeavor or someone else’s. How do we prioritize the two if one or another of our appetites is out of control? Worse, if we cannot afford to partake of the arts, are they to be sustained only by the rich? And to what extent should the wealthy determine what is artistically valuable and worthy? Is this not pandering to one segment of the culture and society while dispossessing the other segments?
Finally, how do we achieve a balance? How do we fuel our spirits and fuel our bodies with just enough sustenance so both thrive healthily? These are important questions Money Lab provokes along with its overriding theme: when the cultural more of commoditizing an artistic aesthetic based upon a promoter’s greed and manipulation dominates, then we need to say, enough is enough. Money Lab reveals the overarching presence of the Minotaur in our lives but leaves us with no answers or solutions. We have to come up with those ourselves.