Recent comments on the book of faces and the current political climate here in New South Wales (and the rest of Australia) has got me thinking about the Arts and it’s place in our society. When a person makes the decision to be a practicing artist that persons bravery is often overlooked. Australian society (and by connection much of the world that was was colonized by the British) has a very ambivalent attitude to the role of art and it’s value to society. Ambivalence is by it’s nature fairly benign but ambivalence can occasionally make a space for disinterest, distrust, distaste and sometimes outright hostility.
If you make a decision to lead a creative life you have to be prepared for a lifetime of derision. You have to accept that a large proportion of society sees you as nothing more than a burden on society. In many people’s eyes you are a no better than a leech. The sooner the salt is poured on top of you and the sooner you are plucked from the leg of life the better. The objects you produce, the ideas you present, the dreams you have are nothing but a distraction from the “bigger picture”. The bulk of what you produce is seen as being irrelevant to the real economy.
If you choose to be creative you should not expect to be taken too seriously by the people that “run the show”. What you produce is of little consequence. If you are lucky enough to bring a little joy and hope to the world with your work then you are lucky. However, you must accept that joy and hope cannot be measured on a graph and neither do they sit easily in a spreadsheet and as a result they are of little value.
Many people with money and power see creative people as an annoyance at the very least and as a pest, worthy of extermination, in the very worst views. Sadly these feelings are not only shared amongst the powerful. The influence of the powerful on the pervading world view means that these extreme views are often held by the average “man in the street”.
“Art is a waste of money.”
“Art is irrelevant.”
“All Artists are wankers.”
“Art contributes nothing.”
These are statements that the creative person has to deal with on a regular basis. Most Artists develop a tough skin. The support of friends, family and the wider world remind us that these views aren’t held by everyone. Most creative people are able to rise above the derision. Some creative people are able to balance working for their “real” job and use that income to fund time spent on their actual job...or at least the job that they see as having more value (if only to themselves).
I grew up in a small country town called Gunnedah. It was a pleasant enough place. I haven’t been back recently but when I have been there I am often asked
“ What do you do?” a fair enough question and one that helps people place you within their world view.
I honestly answer “I’m an Artist”...then a wait. A smirk appears on the other person’s face and 9 times out of 10 the reply will be...
“What...A bullshit Artist!?”.
It is a an oldie but a goodie and it has a lovely way of reminding me not to take myself too seriously. I realize that it is meant as a joke but the underlying sentiment is that I am wasting my time. If only I were a footballer or a fitter and turner..or both! My chosen career is not real. I must be able to bullshit pretty well if I’ve managed convince people that what I do has any real purpose. I think many people make the connection between someone pulling a scam and making art hence the name “con artist”.
In the last six months we have seen the N.S.W State government dismantle the teaching of Art at TAFE Colleges. I teach in the area of Graphic design and there is a general feeling of unease amongst staff as we look up and see the vultures circling. The current N.S.W Government is but a small for-taste of what is to come when the Federal government changes later this year. One of my friends recently told me to “Man the barricades” It was a tongue in cheek jibe at myself and at left leaning people in general...but behind the joke lies the warning that we are entering a time when a new Government will use the word “mandate” to assume that they can slash and burn anything that they consider a waste. Make no mistake that the creative industries will firmly be in the the new government’s sights. Politically Conservative organizations have a long tradition of distrust for the creative person and by extension creative institutions. I am reminded of a letter to Queen Victoria from King Leopold of Belgium.
"dealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that reason dangerous; they are hardly ever satisfied, and when you have too much to do with them, you are sure to have des ennuis.” (trouble) 10 October 1845.
The Conservatives like to see themselves as the ruling class and anything that challenges their power is seen as a threat. So in the coming years expect to see many cultural institutions dismantled or strangled to within in an inch of their lives. Once they attack the creative people any empathetic social institutions will be crushed or silenced.
We’ve been here before of course. Don’t despair. Like the Artist with the thick skin we will take these blows and cuts in our stride. The one thing a creative person can do is be creative with whatever is at hand. Some creative people are not tough enough to withstand these sort of attacks but we have to be supportive and shelter them. Human creativity is one of the great beauties of the universe. The world is almost always a better place because of the creative spirit. In Australia we may well have to put up with a few decades of tilt-up architecture before we can ever see a building like the Sagrada Familia rise here. It’s been nearly 40 years since the Sydney Opera House was completed...we’ve had to put up with a lot of concrete boxes since then...but one day the creative spirit will win out...mandate or no mandate.