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What Do We Mean Exactly By The Value And Usefulness Of The Arts?

Speeches and Opinions
Sep 03, 2014

Robyn Archer AO, Deputy Chair of the Australia Council Board, Edinburgh Culture Summit 2014.

Presiding Officer, thank you. Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

If you climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower and look down to the rooftop of the Musee du Quai Branly, you will see a large black and white painting. It’s called Barramundi Scales and is the work of Lena Nyadbi from the Kimberley, in remote northwest Australia. Lena began painting at the Warmun Arts Centre in her fifties, and is now in her late seventies.  When the work was launched last year, the Warmun Centre  director  who accompanied her to Paris, asked how she felt:

“I could see my barramundi scales and it made me cry.”

She was sad. It is a painting of her country, and in Paris, she missed her country. The fact that she is now probably the most viewed Australian Aboriginal artist ever, makes no dent in what she really values, and no change in her modest day to day life as she continues to sit on the ground, in the red earth, and paint.

Some years ago, when another equally revered Australian male Aboriginal artist was brought to Paris for the first time, he was escorted to the Louvre and went immediately to the shop. He saw postcards, bought a few and then, when asked if they should proceed into the galleries, he said, no, that was enough – he had seen the pictures. There was no fetishizing about the objects themselves. He had seen the content, and absorbed what they represented.

These responses offer a clue to the way Australian Indigenous artists traditionally valued art. Despite the facts that 9 out of 10 Australians say that the arts are important, and that, contrary to popular belief, more Australians attend arts events than sporting events, when Australian artists bemoan the lack of the centrality of art in Australian life, Wesley Enoch, artistic director of the Queensland Theatre company, and the first Aboriginal man to head a major state theatre company, reminds us that we need look no further than traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island society to see that once there was no division between life and art. Visual representation, both figurative and abstract, dance, song, costume, ceremony had ever combined with food, drink, hunting, initiation, birth and death – in a seamless and rich weave of life.

When Britain declared this huge continent (peopled with thousands upon thousands of clans and languages and sophisticated artistic practice) ‘terra nullius’ – that is, there are no people here, so we can have it – traditional life started to fall apart – but those first people have survived, and now, while for many of them art may well be separated from life, the newest and most adventurous of Indigenous artists can take the trauma of those past centuries and many of the ongoing present challenges, and make great art from those awkward and painful truths. Danie Mellor, exhibiting during this Edinburgh Festival is a good example.

It should not be surprising that a society built on squattocracy – grab some land, put a fence around it, you can protect it – should develop with values at such odds with those of traditional hunter-gatherer owners who valued so many things which cannot be fenced.

This is the starting point to consider what we really mean by the value and usefulness of art.

In his 1882 lecture The English Renaissance of Art, Oscar Wilde said “ Art cannot have any other claim but her own perfection”. Here was an artist/aesthete completely confident about what he valued in art – just as Lena Niyadbi is confident about what she values in art even though her evaluation is about as widely divergent from Wilde as one can imagine, and her value system stretches tens of thousands of years further back than Wilde’s.

These days most of us are less confident about what we actually value in art. We are confused in a maelstrom of backing away from defining excellence, yet maintaining that’s what we buy or collect or fund. We are left to hack a path through a dense forest of often conflicting evaluations.

The commodification of commercial entertainment or ‘eventism’ has drifted into the sphere of the arts, their success now measured in the vulgate of bums on seats or box office takings: and beyond just that, into how many bed-nights they sell, how many meals or parking fees – that ubiquitous measure of ‘return’ to the city. In yet another dell of this forest are the utilitarian measures of health, diversity, community engagement – found everywhere in public policy. All these good and worthy things, which many artists are happy to pursue through their skill in the arts, are very far from Wilde and ars gratia artis. Such measures are also often very far from the reality of an artist’s development – such as the musician or visual artist who must spend hours every day, alone, perfecting their craft.

But for many politicians, these utilitarian values have become the only justification for funding of the arts. Despite what might be their own personal love of the arts, these measures appear to be the last stand when facing a cabinet of colleagues who will claim that a nation’s health, defence and trade figures are infinitely more important than a nation’s arts and culture. And some arts organisations have fallen into the trap of focusing only on these utilitarian justifications – their eyes distracted from genuine vision, and any attempt to articulate other means of valuing the arts.

This is not the way things should be.

I’m aware of artists and organisations whose skilled and admirably sensitive creative processes, sometimes in non-arts contexts, result in inspirational excellence. You have one such company in the Edinburgh Festival this year – Back to Back Theatre, though I would characterise their process and practice as pure art, despite the fact that many of their performers come initially from non-arts backgrounds.

But in any such contexts, we neglect at our peril the core values of awe, wonder, the stimulation of curiosity and of the creative muscle, the alchemy of imagination, the stimulation of emotion in many a dulled existence, and the enlivening of the lazy synapses in our much under-used brains.

These are the qualities of the kind of theatre which Back to Back continually produces. The fact that they work with actors of varying physical, emotional and intellectual abilities, is not just admirable, but is what makes the work unique and great. These are some of the qualities we must value in the arts, and value those artists and companies which constantly strive to uphold them.

Whether this happens in a concert hall on an expensive ticket which buys us the experience of a gifted soloist to a so-called passive audience which, if getting its money’s worth is not passive at all, or free on a suburban street with thousands of local participants; whether in a sophisticated contemporary art gallery in a densely urbanised megalopolis, or in a tiny town in a remote desert region; these are among the real uses and values of the arts. Let me repeat: awe, wonder, a high degree of skill and craftsmanship, the stimulation in others of their curiosity and their creative muscle, the alchemy of imagination, the stimulation of emotion  and empowerment in many a dulled and constrained existence, and the enlivening of the lazy synapses in our much under-used brains.

The context is significant, but contexts are nuts and bolts issues, not values. An event will acquit its grant by saying we had huge numbers – but does anyone ever question the quality or depth of the experience?  Does anyone ask, as Simon Anholt suggested yesterday about countries, what good does it do?  We must ensure a nuts and bolts framework which allows, in a wholly equitable way, the potential of an artist to develop, and the arts to be experienced, across the widest possible socio—ecomonic and geographic range, That would seem to be self-evident in what we call a democracy.

But it’s the experience which is at the heart of it all: and what that experience means to the artists and to the participants (some of whom include the audience). Getting the framework right, but not taking into account the nature and quality of the experience, means we seriously under-value  the most important things which the arts can do for us as human beings, and that does mean humans on a global scale.

Even those who understand this difference often avoid the next, much more difficult step, of trying to define what that ‘inherent’ quality of art really is. Arguments become befuddled by an insecurity bred of thinking that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that everyone can have a different opinion about art.  While this is certainly true, it is also true that those with long and wide experience of an artform will be able to detect levels of skill, of originality or the lack of it, of authenticity and genuine innovation, of careful or careless process. And painstaking investigation into the experience of a work of art can reveal a great deal about depth and superficiality.

Thankfully, many societies and levels of government throughout the world now appear to acknowledge that the arts are good things to support, as a sign of a civil society, and, in convenient situations, a source of national pride. There is a generally positive evaluation.

I would go further and say that the arts are among the essential services, by now so essential to our quality of life that they are indispensible. Imagine any day when there is no music: this would be practically impossible even for those who do not see themselves as arts lovers. Music comes at them from unbidden sources all round them: their tv, notepad, tablet, and local shop – yet they will rarely acknowledge the composer or musicians who worked to make this music.

And if our quality of life now depends on music, design, screen-cultures all round us, then artists ought to be valued in the same way as other workers in essential services are, and supported accordingly. Clearly, artists are not currently thought of in the same way as nurses and doctors, garbage collectors or soldiers, and yet most agree that a life without the products of artists would by now be so bleak as to be unbearable. This is an anomaly that needs much further exploration than time allows here, but perhaps we’ll consider it in the roundtable which follows.

Even in the current, perhaps less enlightened constructs of competitive arts funding, those of us who are responsible for creating the structures through which artists are supported, are obliged to be very clear about what we mean when we talk about the value and usefulness of the arts. Such phrases run off our tongues so easily, yet we are frequently unable to articulate exactly what those values are.

Yesterday we heard such phrases as the ‘inherent’ values of art, and the ‘true message of art’, but I want to push it further and ask what exactly  is ‘inherent value, and what exactly is ‘the message’? We here understand  the good that art can do on the smallest and largest scales, and we have relating the great narratives of value and usefulness for years now: we have the evidence. But when we encounter resistence or apathy, when others simply don’t feel it as we do, when they disagree, what are the tools, and the language whith which we might convince them. Just as important a question is, how and where do we construct the platforms which allow people to hear what we might have to say. We heard powerful and compelling addresses yesterday, but what are the media through which such wisdom can be effectively communicated to a wider audience, to our people and our politicians?

I believe we are obliged to consider not one set of more easily measurable values, but also the much harder to define attributes of the arts such as inspiration, awe, excellence and process. This ‘balance’ is something Michael Powell talked so clearly about  yesterday. Of course it is reasonable to expect artists and arts organisations to keep clean books, and to acknowledge the same fiscal responsibility as any other business.

But whether it be Oscar Wilde’s selfish aestheticism or Lena Nyadbi’s connection to country; the supreme imagination and skills acquisition of certain individuals or ensembles, or the undeniable thrill of seeing the young, the old and the isolated grow in self-confidence through some small participatory pleasure through the arts; whether it be a small local project, or one which aims, as does A Soul for Europe, and many of the projects of Jordi Savall, for the harmonisation of whole countries in conflict; we must continue to evaluate the arts in a complex and comprehensive way, rather than through a damagingly simplistic economic or utilitarian prism.

To reduce any analysis of what is valuable and useful in art just to any one or small selection of this complex set of measurables is to deny just how deeply the arts penetrate into 21st century life. Given that the way we support the arts now depends on these evaluations, we cannot be too careful about their construct and their wise embrace.

I am confident that the music I will hear during the Edinburgh Festival will delight me and leave me in awe; this festival has set a global benchmark for musical excellence. But I can honestly say that a few weeks ago on the banks of the Clyde, I was also delighted in seeing older women, not professional dancers, move beautifully with younger people and singers and musicians as part of a project predicated on community engagement. I was convinced by the authenticity of that project’s process just as I am of Phillippe Herreweghe’s approach to performing The Tears of St Peter which I will hear tomorrow, and as I experienced, also just a few weeks ago, the National Theatre of Scotland’s highly political history of Glasgow.

I would wish these diverse joys for all audiences, even as I acknowledge that tastes differ. But I demand such expansiveness from policy makers. I want us to create structures which support not just the well-made the well-known and much-loved, but also the ugly, the unknown and the unloved: only time will tell which of the arts of our time will survive. We must seriously value the well-bred success as well as the failed experiment, the wildfires and undergrowth as much as the gorgeous mature canopy:  both are essential for a resilient arts environment – a grand and diverse forest which will continue to grow despite the unexpected storm.