08/29/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

On Miley, Shakespeare and the Cult of Sustainability

I awoke 48 hours ago to two painful realities. The first, as The Onion so presciently pointed out, was that Miley Cyrus's performance at the Video Music Awards was the nation's top story, warranting "above the fold" space usually reserved for news more pressing than "20 year-old gyrates awkwardly." Better critics than I can deconstruct the problems of "The Miley Show," including her acts of cultural appropriation, the hyper-sexualization of the female body or the widespread slut-shaming and name-calling that this dance routine has inspired.

The second reality came via email, and hit far closer to home. This notice informed me that, despite meeting all ticket sales goals, Shakespeare Santa Cruz (a repertory theater company that runs productions and events almost year-round) would be closed at the end of its 2013 season. Done deal. Any explanation or discussion of this decision would not be in the University's interest. This theater in the redwoods had been a part of the University of California at Santa Cruz campus (30 miles south of San Jose) for more than 30 years, the last 3 of which I have served as dramaturg. I have watched these productions with fog rolling in as a magician/actor began his incantation, as if nature itself was taking a cue from us. I have caught my breath time and again marveling at the talent before me. I have heard the chimes at midnight.

Apparently, the decision to close Shakespeare Santa Cruz is said to come down to a question of "sustainability." The key piece of jargon to emerge from the financial crisis of the last five years, "sustainability" is a concept that doesn't map very well onto the arts and humanities. If "sustainability" is to be the metric by which all things at the UC are now framed, dozens of disciplines and activities will soon disappear. If it can't be worshiped at the altar of analytics and commerce, it's not going to have a place in academia. I am not sure how to commodify teaching an individual effective writing and argumentation skills, how to count the value of understanding Shakespeare, or how to put a price on the experience of art, or the worth of bringing the broader community on campus for cultural events, but I suspect that all of these things will soon have to be numerically demonstrated in order to satisfy the mantra of "sustainability."

If you don't already believe in the value of art to our society, this post isn't going to convince you of that truth any more than Miley's inelegant footwork and leg-spreading will reveal the transformative power of dance. What seems clear to me is that the nation is interested in having a discussion about what is and isn't art, and why such art may or may not be valuable. The problem is that this conversation is being focused on (and obscured by) the body of a 20 year-old pop star. What I can be sure of is that Ms. Cyrus is no more sustainable than I am; just as Madonna begat Britney begat Gaga begat Miley, in a few years another ingénue (or her managers) will find a way to up the ante. To crib from John Irving, we are all terminal cases; mortality is by its definition unsustainable. Things like Shakespeare, and Shakespeare Santa Cruz, had long seemed to persist; no more. While I have faith that Shakespeare will soldier on, albeit to an ever-dwindling audience, I have less confidence in the ongoing viability of art in small towns, even those with huge universities capable of shouldering ambitious artistic endeavors.

The realities that prompted this post remain; a nation-wide conversation rages on about the state of contemporary culture via the body of a 20-year-old woman, all the while a national theater company shutters its doors with nary a whisper. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was something out of Shakespeare.

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