New York's Public Theater probably should not have been surprised that Delta Air Lines dropped its sponsorship of the organization following right-wing criticism of its production of "Julius Caesar."
Delta, which has been the "official airline" of the Public Theater for four years, fled in abject panic after Breitbart and Fox News, among others, threw conniptions over the portrayal of Caesar as a Trump-like figure in its production of the Shakespeare play for its free Shakespeare in the Park program. Julius Caesar, you see, gets assassinated in the piece. Bank of America, another fine upstanding patron of the arts, withdrew its sponsorship of the production, though not of the theater group.
One couldn't hope for a better illustration of the drawbacks for arts institutions of relying on corporate sponsorship. Artists don't have the right to count on a sturdy defense of their judgment from such patrons. That's because corporations don't sponsor art to promote art for its own sake. They sponsor art for their own sakes. As they tend to do in other contexts, they can be counted on to run for the hills the moment it appears that their own reputations might be sullied by what producers, directors and actors do in their name.
What marks the decisions of both corporations as especially philistine in this case is that they're couching their withdrawals as responses to a breach of decorum.
"No matter what your political stance may be," Delta said, "the graphic staging of Julius Caesar...crossed the line on the standards of good taste."
BofA offered a similar rationale. "The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend," it said. The bank cast itself as rather a victim in the affair: "Had this intention been made known to us," it said, "we would have decided not to sponsor it."
Yes, it's true that art sometimes intends to "provoke and offend." That's what tends to distinguish productions of "Julius Caesar" from broadcasts of "Family Ties." BofA's statement comes uncomfortably close to suggesting that corporate sponsors should have the privilege of dictating the artistic terms of productions they have money in. At a certain level, this is unsurprising, since companies generally operate their cultural sponsorship programs out of their marketing departments, so why shouldn't they control their art the same way they control their advertising campaigns? But one seldom finds this principle being stated so baldly.
In any case, it's clear the companies were responding to ideological pressure, not aesthetics. "Julius Caesar" has been playing in previews since May 23. Neither corporation uttered a peep of misgiving until after the sirens were sounded by Breitbart (on June 6) and Fox (on Sunday). Both folded their sponsorships before the end of the day Sunday, the day before the show's official opening.
For those looking for equivalence, a production of "Julius Caesar" featuring a black actor in the title role, which was widely read as a reference to President Obama, was staged in New York in 2012 by the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis. No one objected. Delta, which was a sponsor of the Guthrie though not of that specific production, wasn't heard to object.
Corporate sponsorships of cultural institutions aren't new, and they've always presented the possibility that they'd be putting their names on art that might give offense.
The problem there is that great art by its nature is subversive. Often, what makes art great is that the subversion itself provokes reaction from the status quo; consider the years-long effort to suppress James Joyce's "Ulysses."
Corporate sponsorship bears dangers for artists themselves. The best explication of the relationship comes from David Foster Wallace in his essay about taking a luxury cruise, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." On board his Celebrity Cruises ship, Wallace came across an essay in the cruise brochure by the memoirist Frank Conroy. The essay described Conroy's own Celebrity Cruise in terms of unalloyed pleasure. But Wallace knew it was just an ad masquerading as a personal recollection. That's the offense: "An essay's fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader," Wallace observes. "An advertisement's primary obligation...is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor."
The corporate sponsors of "Julius Caesar" are couching their objections as though the production is an offense to the audience, but the truth is they're fleeing because it's a threat to their financial interests. That the threat is exceedingly shallow doesn't matter to them.
It's probably unwise to expect corporate marketeers to have read past Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," the point at which Caesar gets assassinated. But the rest of the play is Shakespeare's gloss on the dire consequences of this act for its perpetrators.
It would take a dull spectator indeed to take the play as an endorsement of political assassination. But it also would take a dull marketing executive not to have understood the potential parallels between the Roman emperor and the current president implicit in the text. The critic Harold Bloom described Shakespeare's Caesar as "fatuous," "self-centered," and "bombastic" — and he was writing in 1998. So what do Delta and BofA really object to in this production? Evidently the bloodiness of the assassination scene and the topicality of the wardrobe and line readings. The first is quite possibly an artifact of the times. Many critics over the centuries have remarked on the curious bloodlessness of the violence in "Julius Caesar." Such decorum simply won't work for modern audiences steeped in Hollywood gore, so the producers chose to provide what Shakespeare left out.
As for dressing up the actor Gregg Henry in Trump's blue suit and blond combover and endowing his wife, Calpurnia, with a vaguely Eastern European accent, New York reviewers have tended to regard those facets as rather crude winks to the New York audience. The director, Oskar Eustis, also has amended a single line. Uttered by the conspirator Casca, it now reads, "If Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue, they would have done no less." According to the New York Times, at this "the audience roars."
But some reviewers have noticed that the contemporary touches actually are at odds with the scenario, something Eustis himself seems to acknowledge. "Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means," he writes in a program note. "To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him."
What makes the issue of corporations' control over the institutions they sponsor, whether implicit or explicit, so difficult is that some level of disinterested patronage is crucial for many such institutions. The Public Theater may be an exception at the moment, since it was the original producer of "Hamilton" and is probably pocketing huge sums from that show's Broadway success. (As it did when its show "A Chorus Line" became a mega-hit when it moved uptown in 1975.) But successes like that aren't eternal.
An alternative is government patronage, but that presents its own problems, derived from preening politicians eager to play to their own base by condemning publicly funded art. Then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani withdrew city funding from the Brooklyn Museum when it displayed artist Chris Ofili's depiction of a black Virgin Mary resting upon balls of elephant dung and surrounded by pornographic imagery. Andres Serrano's photograph "Immersion (Piss Christ)," depicting a crucifix immersed in a glass of urine, drew widespread condemnation by headline-seeking politicians. Among their targets was the National Endowment for the Arts, which had funded Serrano — and is now under attack by the Trump administration, on general principles.
So if neither corporations nor the government can serve as trusted patrons, what's the solution? There may not be one. Arts institutions can try to insulate themselves from the cravenness of their sponsors by, let's say, demanding grant money up front on irrevocable terms, but the universe of companies that would agree to such an arrangement must be exceedingly small — why encourage grant recipients to be even more provocative?
Arts organizations can launch public campaigns to fend off attempts at official censorship, but their success is bound to be hit-or-miss. The campaign to end the official suppression of "Ulysses" in the U.S. took 11 years — after a seven-year battle to get the book published in the first place — and it succeeded only because Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, saw the battle as not only a defense of a literary landmark, but a means of bringing his young publishing firm some useful publicity.
The most important counterweight to the drawbacks of corporate sponsorship may be the reader's or audience's awareness of what sponsorship entails. Wallace performed a great service by contrasting the marketing-speak of Celebrity Cruises with the explanation by Frank Conroy of how his essay came to be marketed by the cruise line. Celebrity told Wallace that Conroy had been asked merely to "provide perspectives on his experience" and was to be paid whether the company liked its article or not.
Conroy put it more concisely. He told Wallace, "I prostituted myself."