Lincoln Center's Eastern Promises

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Should Lincoln Center—a hot spot for socially- and politically-conscious works—be working with a culturally repressive government?

Last week, the New York Times’s Robin Pogrebin reported on Lincoln Center chairwoman Katherine G. Farley’s dual—and potentially complementary—business prospects in Tianjin, China: In one corner, real estate giant Tishman Speyer (where Farley is a senior managing director and the wife of chairman Jerry I. Speyer) will be constructing offices and residences in China’s fifth-largest city. In the other, and conveniently close by, Lincoln Center will serve as a consultant to the government as they build their own performing arts center.

The benefits each side stands to gain from the latter deal are nothing to sneeze at: Several Lincoln Center board members predict compensation in the neighborhood of $5 million, and the Chinese government will have a world-class cultural center in time for the 90th anniversary of the People’s Republic.

Pogrebin’s reportage focused on the gray area that could lead to a major conflict of interest: Will the institution of a Lincoln Center-like arts hub right next door to feed the attractiveness of these new offices and apartments, thereby benefiting Farley in her capacities as both businesswoman and board member? Fellow board member David H. Koch (take that source with as many grains of salt as you please—I have a few shakers on hand) called it a “win-win,” but nonprofit lawyer Pamela A. Mann noted that the situation “doesn’t look good.”

The collision between public and personal for Farley—and its implications for both of her associations—aside, it’s curious to see Lincoln Center involve itself with China on such a grand scale, a thought that was particularly amplified when, two days after Pogrebin’s article, it was announced that Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was released after three months of detention. Amnesty International called out the Chinese government for Ai’s initial arrest, claiming that it “violated China’s own legal process.” Ai, a prominent artist, is also a vociferous critic of the communist government, and his arrest was considered by many around the globe to be a means of keeping Ai silent.

“I think that his engagement, his organization of people online in China, is what the government is reacting to,” said Ai’s documentarian Alison Klayman in an interview with Kerry Nolan for WQXR’s Arts File last week. “For whatever reason—we really don’t know—they’re willing to do these things that do end up catapulting him into a larger role as a symbol to a more prominent role in the foreign press.”

Similarly, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, another Chinese dissident who has long fought peacefully for human rights in his native country was incarcerated in his home country and not able to accept his award in 2010. British newspaper The Independent connected this to a national housecleaning of sorts when Beijing hosted the 2008 summer Olympics, and again when Liu was awarded the Nobel Prize, noting that the current level of repression in the government is “unmatched since the Chinese army into Tiananmen Square in 1989.” The government upheavals in the Middle East and Northern Africa has not helped civil obedience.

One Chinese composer (who for this article wishes to remain anonymous) has a different take on the situation, which they deem too multifaceted to be single-cut. “It can be very oppressive on the surface, depending on how you look at it,’” they say, adding too that "oppressive" can be a subjective term. “But when you look at the phenomenon of [Chinese] artwork dealing with subjects like animal incest and gender issues, it’s never been done before. You don’t see that appearing much, if at all, before 1989.”

For Lincoln Center president Per Reynold Levy, the artistic question is just a part of the equation for this partnership. “Lincoln Center will provide a number of services including developing an economic model for the performing arts center’s operations, preparing a market analysis, establishing a design and construction process, providing staff training and recommending the content of artistic programming,” he said in a statement via e-mail.

The artistic content, however, remains one of the biggest questions about this government-owned performing arts complex. Lincoln Center has cultivated a reputation for daring programming with works that often highlight social and political injustices: Last year’s Lincoln Center Festival included Salvatore Sciarrino’s Kafka-based opera La Porta della Legge, and this year’s festival includes Poul Ruders’s opera Selma Jezková, based on Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark and dealing with the experiences of an Eastern European immigrant fleeing her Communist homeland and struggling in America. Mamma Mia! these works are not.

Levy states that while some of Lincoln Center’s offerings "explore topical issues [and] some of them may be controversial," their “programming decisions begin and end with assessing a work’s artistic merit.”

Tianjin may not be the stage for this, but there are also ways of allowing a drop or two of dissidence—essential to any artist’s palette at one point or another—into works that can slip under the radar.

“Sometimes when you talk about revolutions, it has to go through evolution. And in my understanding, it is often better that way in the long run for the society,” says our anonymous composer of the artistic differences between the U.S. and China. “Whatever the government controls, the artists always have a nuanced way to subvert it.”

What’s more, this partnership—though a seemingly odd pairing—could also allow the Chinese government to witness the operations of a successful performing arts center, a huge step for a government whose cultural offerings were once dominated by Madame Mao.

“For the people inside of China, I think it’s great,” adds our composer. “I think it will provide a very good opportunity for artists to do their work, but not in the American sense of presenting the works with the utter artistic democratization."

Images: Scenes from Sciarrino's La Porta della Legge at Lincoln Center Festival (top) and Poul Ruders's Selma Jezková (bottom). Images courtesy of Lincoln Center.

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