A Karl Marx Festival in the Age of Late Capitalism

Alex Cullina
The poster for the Karl Marx Festival. (Courtesy of Skirball Center)

Ever since Jay Wegman became director of the Skirball Center for Performing Arts three years ago, he’s wanted to put together an event centered on the work of Karl Marx. This month, his idea is finally being realized.

Skirball’s “Karl Marx Festival: On Your Marx” is a two-week series of performances, roundtables and talks focusing on the work of the hugely influential German philosopher and economist. 

Running through Oct. 28, the festival will feature a variety of meditations on Marx, such as a talk from Slavoj Žižek, the world-famous philosopher and global distinguished professor of German at NYU; the dance piece “brujx” by choreographer Luciana Achugar; and a so-called “Marxist dance party.”

“[Our goal is] to kind of reorient people’s ways of thinking about art and how art is made, the purpose of art — reframing what happens when people come into this building, but in a playful way,” Wegman said. 

Wegman originated the idea and served as primary organizer for the Marx Festival, which roughly commemorates the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.

“I just thought it would be a fun organizing principle,” he said. “It’s not meant to be overtly didactic.”

But he also felt, given today’s political climate and the rise of self-proclaimed democratic socialists on the left, the time was more right than ever for an event like this.

“A lot of people are rethinking Marx’s writing, and what effect they’ve had on the world and different ways of dealing with the situation we’ve found ourselves in,” he said.

Wegman’s ultimate goal with the Marx Festival, however, is to change the creation and consumption of art.

“We don’t want people to think of art as a commodity,” Wegman said.

In keeping with this idea, drawn from Marx’s writings, the festival will be entirely pay-what-you-wish. Guests will be presented with an itemized budget before each event, detailing how much it cost to put the event together. Afterward, guests can choose to pay as much or as little as they want.

“[Pay-what-you-wish will make people] think a different way about all the work that goes into doing a production,” he said. “It’s not just you go in, you sit down, someone entertains you and you leave. There’s a lot of moving parts to this.”

For many of the performances, some audience members will be seated on the stage, further blurring the boundaries between production and consumption.

Skirball events like the Marx Festival are usually financed by ticket sales, grants and donations; the university doesn’t provide budgetary support. If the Center doesn’t make money from the festival, they’ve built that into their budget for the year.

“We’re not here to make money. We’re a not-for-profit theater,” said Wegman. “The purpose is to flip the telescope around.”  

But Wegman decided to try pay-what-you-wish because he felt it would fit well with the ideas of Marx.

“It would betray the reason why we did it if we were doing a Marx Festival and then charging people cold, hard cash to come see things,” he said.

Wegman came to Skirball after ten years of running the Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency; before that he ran the arts program at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine for a decade.

In finding performers for the Marx Festival, Wegman drew on connections he made at these past positions, including with choreographer Achugar and Ivo Dimchev, who will be performing his piece “P Project.”

Wegman has been a part of institutions whose primary purpose was not the arts: a social service agency, an Anglican church and now a university.

Skirball serves as a classroom during weekdays, and it hosts NYU events like the Welcome Week Reality Show and Ultraviolet Live throughout the school year. The productions it hosts that originate from outside the university are meant to tie in at some level with NYU’s curriculum.

“We are NYU,” Wegman said of the Skirball Center, “as much as the library is.”

J De Leon, Skirball’s Assistant Director for Engagement, also organized roundtable discussions with NYU professors as a part of the festival.

Skirball recently started including blurbs by NYU professors and reading lists of relevant texts for each of its events. Many professors also send students to Skirball as part of their class requirements.

“There are classes here Monday to Thursday, but in a sense anything that happens in here is part of the classroom,” Wegman said.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 15 print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected]

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