Monday, August 18, 2008

Art Speaks

The other day, driving back from the Gold Coast to our home in the NW of Brisbane, I turned on the radio—tuned by default to Brisbane's only non-commercial station—only to drop into a talk show, mixed in with a bad selection of retro music, in which the host was asking listeners to give him the low-down of what they thought 'Art' was saying to them, or should be saying, or was saying at all, or might be or could... You get the idea, I'm sure.

Predictably, the responses were a wank-fest of inane ponderousness, perfectly matching the question; which proved, if proof were needed, that the answers are indeed in the questions. Always.

Then, a couple of evenings ago, 'Art' came up again, this time in a post-news magazine on TV. The anchor interviewed an Australian theater director of some note, who now lives somewhere else, and who has little good to say about how the Australian 'Art' scene is supported, or not, by the Australian government. No need to go into the details of the plaint, which are in any case, nuncupatory. The interesting point though was that this gentleman, like his interviewer, as well as the host and callers-in to that radio show some days before, treated 'Art' like it was something that could be defined clearly enough to, for example, be used in a context like 'Arts Funding'—which is, of course, what all his plaints were about: that the 'Arts' did not receive the appropriate funding or funding for the 'right' kinds of things, and that basically they were more valuable than a lot of other stuff that's going on in society—like 'Sports', which is always a good bashing boy.

The rationale for this assertion was that the 'Arts' represented those activities that would leave the legacy which will, in some future, testify to what we are today, in a similar manner, and this dumb-ass argument always seems to come up, that 'Greek' and 'Roman' arts are a kind of monument for what those cultures were, and that around this, after all, our own culture has developed. In other words, we basically should spent lots of money now on 'Arts' so that 'future generations' should benefit from it.

I'll get back to the questionable nature of that kind of priority-setting in a moment. First of all though, can we please have a reality check on the nature of 'Art'. I would like to submit that, whatever nebulous definition of the subject one might wish to concoct, the following is almost self-evidently true:

Art is an Industry. provides, inter alia, the following set of definitions for 'Industry':
  • Commercial production and sale of goods.
  • A specific branch of manufacture and trade.
  • The sector of an economy made up of manufacturing enterprises.
  • Energetic devotion to a task or an endeavor.
  • Ongoing work or study associated with a specified subject.
'Art' pretty much fulfills all of those. There are producers and those who supply the producers with raw materials. There's a marketing/sales/distribution network. Some producers do well, while others don't; their fate determined by themselves, their products and the 'marketplace'.

Lest someone thinks that this view of 'Art' is cynical: it isn't. It is, in many ways, the only way in which 'Art' can be properly defined, so that it can compete in the marketplace of commodities for whatever share it can get. Indeed, when all the high-brow bullshit is stripped away, whenever someone pleads for 'funding' of 'the Arts' in any way, shape or context, this is precisely what is being implicitly admitted, though rarely said aloud. The moment economy enters the equation, 'Art' enters the same playing field as...oh, say beer.

The only real question about 'Art'-the-Industry is whether it should be funded based on considerations that aren't 'marketplace'; as would be, again the same example, beer. Reason why I picked beer is that by and large people consider the beer industry as not requiring 'public funding'. Also, like beer, the Arts produce 'optional' things. That's as opposed to, say, anything having to do with utilities, health care, education, tools, transport, building and so on. Some things are required—though not necessarily to the absurd extent they are often provided—and others aren't.

Art and beer aren't 'required'. They'll be provided anyway, because lots of people like Art and beer and are willing to pay for it; and that generates 'marketplace forces'. But for the administrative elements of a society (a.k.a. 'government') to spend contributions by members of said society provided, often at gunpoint, to said governments (a.k.a. 'taxes') to support activities outside the scope of the 'required', that should be a matter for debate. And I think it is highly legitimate to ask just exactly what is more important for the 'future' of society and the world and whatever: spending $XXX on supporting the Arts or spending the same $XXX on, say, the provision of more readily available and better equipped health services.

I know, and what about all the poor artists? All that talent that goes unsupported? All those great works that will never be produced, because the encouragement of 'funding' wasn't available? All that culture that'll never be produced and left for our descendants? All the beauty that'll never see the light of day, because those who might otherwise have produced it didn't because they had to earn money to support themselves and the hungry mouths of their families?

All these questions are legitimate. However, the answer may well be "Get in line!" The notion that the 'Arts' somewhow deserve a special place in the doling out of tax-payer collected funds is at least questionable. And, while it is true that a lot of 'artistic talent' may go down the gurgler because it wasn't 'supported'...well, isn't that kind of thing true at any level; not just the financial one? How much talent is wasted because of social pressure on the taleneted ones, because of parental neglect, because of life's endless whimsically-contrary contingencies?

But could it not also be that there's something else here; something that goes beyond our superficial notions of 'talent', 'nurturing' andhow that relates to 'Art' or anything else that requires similar personal human effort, persistence and so on? Could it not be—and I'm just putting this out there as a notion that'll probably find few takers—that the result of trying to nuture every potential talent is actually counterproductive?

In one episode of Angel, Wesley, being charged with the organization of a castle invasion and the deposition of a tyrannical rule, sends a part of his castle-invading troups to what is almost certain death. When someone points this out to him, his reply is something like "in certain situations, making sure that everybody survives just will get everybody killed".

I wonder if this isn't true in this particular context as well—as I suspect it is in lots of others, no matter how uncomfortable that notion might make us feel. Maybe there is more to 'Art' than just talent and the nurturing of said talent, or the provision of opportunities for 'talent' in general to flourish. Maybe 'Art' actually benefits from more...well, let me call it 'robustness'—in the artists themselves. Maybe that thing, whatever it is—drive, ambition, vision, tenacity, a sense of mission, need—is just as and maybe even more important. Art involves the 'production' of something and the quality and value what's being produced may depend on much more than just someone or a whole bunch of someone's thinking that they are more 'creative' and therefore in some sense 'better' and more valuable to 'culture' and future generations than the rest of the, by implication less 'cultured', masses around them.

There is a difference between helping those in true need and just plain 'pampering'. Artistic endeavor, being by its nature 'optional', does not really qualify as 'needy' in that sense. Neither do artists. I'm saying this as someone who was born into a family of artists, and who probably can lay claim to being an 'artist', though I tend to reject the appellation. But the 'family of artists' I was born into was of the kind that not only combined an urge for personal creativity with a sense of what you might call 'artistic integrity', but also with an understanding that if 'Art' is meant to earn a living, even if only of the 'just-sufficient' kind, then you do what it takes to make it so, rather than waiting for, or demanding as if somehow it were your divine right, tax-dollar handouts for what basically amount to an enterprise in personal satisfaction—all-too-often of entirely unwarranted vanity. There are people in much greater need of, or actually deserving of, public-fund assistance than those aspiring to 'artistry'.

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