Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Ten years ago, the Atlanta Ballet, in the US state of Georgia, found itself in what the US Musicians' Union describes discretely as "a financial bind". To help the Ballet out of its difficulties, the musicians of its orchestra took a cut in wages. As the Musician's representative Mark McConnell says today, "the musicians of the ballet have been playing for sub-standard wages for the last ten years". This year, during an industrial dispute with the Ballet's management, the members of the orchestra learnt just how much that display of dedication and sacrifice meant to the Atlanta Ballet's management and the corporate bigwigs and socialites who make up its Board. Bugger all. On August 14, Orchestra members attended a meeting called by a Federal Mediator expecting to begin negotiations with the Ballet management to resolve the dispute and end their strike. But the Atlanta Ballet's management wasn't there to negotiate. Instead, they told the musicians that they were all fired. In future, the Atlanta Ballet would outsource its orchestra. Music is integral to ballet. You cannot dance without it. The music is so significant that it can, and regularly does, stand alone, without the dance. Undeterred, the Atlanta Ballet would outsource its "orchestra services" just the way it outsources its candy-bar or refreshment services. As the Ballet's attorney put it: the Atlanta Ballet had decided to "eliminate the musician class of employees and move to a complete outsource of orchestra services". In fact, it would hire scabs as needed from the Czech Republic. The Ballet had signed a contract a few days earlier with a Czech corporation in Prague called Poksound to provide up to 46 musicians for specific ballets. Musicians supplied by Poksound will work under the Atlanta Ballet's direction, but will not be considered AB employees, and the Atlanta Ballet will not pay any required insurance, workers' compensation, or federal or state taxes on their behalf. The AB orchestra has played for ballet in Georgia's capital for 20 years. All its members are natives of the city and typically enrich its cultural life outside the bounds of ballet performances. Developing culture in Georgia, however, is not apparently the concern of the Atlanta Ballet's board and management. Some number cruncher has no doubt shown them that the Ballet can make more money using poverty stricken Czech musicians — for whom the number of orchestra jobs would have shrunk considerably since the overthrow of socialism in the Czech and Slovak republics. How long will it be before they are trying to "outsource" the ballet company itself, I wonder? The Atlanta Ballet is state supported, but it must be under same pressure as other arts organisations to be "profitable". And what better way to be profitable than by ceasing to train and maintain a company of soloists and corps de ballet when you can hire them in job lots from abroad ballet by ballet? There must be lots of under-employed dancers in the former USSR and eastern Europe. The possibilities are boundless.
* * *Art and capitalism
The problems of the Atlanta Ballet's employees highlight once again the approach that now underlies so much of arts policy in capitalist countries: why should ballet and opera be "profitable", anyway? The same question applies to chamber music, choirs, symphony orchestras, public libraries, museums, art galleries and historic buildings. Because they can — and frequently do — charge admission does not make them businesses. Capitalism, for all its pretensions to culture, in fact has no interest in the arts other than as a means to increase profit. Works of art are bought and sold as investments, a hedge against inflation and a sordid flaunting of wealth the "investor" never worked for. Capitalism has long since ceased to be concerned with the promotion of culture. When it needed an educated, skilled mass workforce capitalism promoted education and culture for the people. But it is many years since capitalism could use all the workforce available to it. Today, capitalism has as little interest in the widespread promotion of culture as it has in universal education. Its essential philistinism is revealed in the way capitalist governments are cutting back on support for the arts, even those — like opera and ballet — that capitalists themselves like to think of as their own privileged domain. The essential capitalist, we should remember, is as cultured as Kerry Packer, ostentatiously dropping $34 million at the casino, Rene Rivkin with his 67 cars, or Rupert Murdoch and his one-man crusade to dumb-down the world's media.