Recently I was invited to speak, with 24 hours notice, to a group of the city’s most vital philanthropic organisations. The topic: art’s intrinsic value. Ha! Holy shit! Here’s what I managed to drag together:
When I was asked to do this presentation, it presented a paradox: articulate the stuff that’s hardest to understand. Hone in on the feelings, memories, ideas, stories, VIBE of what we do. The reasons that we can’t quite articulate, but we feel in our guts. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare this speech, but I wanted to do it because I reckon if you work in, around or for the arts then you should, at any given moment, be able to tell people why you do what you do. It’s a privilege to work for your passion, something not everyone gets to have. So I feel strongly that it’s our responsibility to always be able to (at least try) to articulate why art is interesting or worthwhile. And you shouldn’t need a lot of time to think about it; it should be that your actions – what you do – represent your values.
Nonetheless, it’s hard.
Because: I like art for its ability to articulate things I don’t understand and don’t have the words to understand yet. I think art can wrestle with change in a way that doesn’t involve words or actions. Art can access a whole world of subconscious and otherworldly tools. It can make arguments for difference without resorting to the structures or methods that previously existed. It can exist outside and above tribalism, politics or tradition, while simultaneously tackling these head-on.
Why do we need artists? Because they reinterpret our social, political and civic humanity with a range of tools that are not yet known. They ask questions, but not like a journalist; they investigate matter, but not like a scientist; they tell stories, but not like a historian; they expose inconsistency, but not like a judge. I firmly believe that artists – particularly contemporary artists, and those working at the edges, outside the mainstream – are the ones who shine a light on contemporary culture, and ensure that our everyday lives are rich, varied, complex, ennobling and unexpected.
Where this all gets exciting is that these days, many many more people than previous are determining our cultural activity. One of my art idols, Curator Nato Thompson, recently said:
“what is increasingly universal is the fact that culture is a thing that is made by people. When Joseph Beuys said that everyone is an artist, everyone was like, yeah, sure. But today you look around and everyone is a photographer, everyone is a videomaker. People routinely make culture. And they don’t even think, I’m an artist. It’s just how they make their life. Look at the Arab Spring, the European protests, Occupy Wall Street. I hate to go on and on about social networking, but it is a vehicle for people to produce their own culture collectively, and that is hugely powerful.”
Last night I googled “intrinsic value” to see what would happen; I realised it’s a term that is grounded entirely in economics, that the arts have borrowed. And the wrestling between ‘purpose’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ is pretty old now: “Brecht thought that art should always be embedded in people’s lives, in politics; while Adorno said doing that is instrumentalizing, and utilitarian.” (Nato, again).
I sit somewhere in the middle. Inza Lim, who runs the Seoul Marginal Theatre Festival, recently said art for art’s sake is beautiful, but ineffective. I like that a lot; to me art is something that truly come into being when it’s shared.
And the truth is that a good artist doesn’t ignore their context. Indeed:
…if you don’t appreciate that your art is being made within a given economic framework, then you’re failing at art, I think. Art is a way of doing things, not the things we have produced. And if you try and divorce the two, one from each other – the context and the process – then you’re not doing it right.” (Andy Field)
It’s true: it’s impossible to separate art from its economic and political frame.
As we made the 2012 Next Wave Festival, we thought a lot about what it meant to bring people together. Festivals insist that we’re better together than we are on our own. I think this is quite a political idea. Over the course of 2011 people gathered on the streets in ever-larger groups, in more and more countries; seeking out change without knowing how to articulate it yet. Change not yet able to be articulated, to me – is a pretty apt description of art.
Right now Arts Victoria is undertaking a review of the small-medium arts sector. At my recent board meeting with Theatre Network Victoria, we wrestled with the political vs artistic elements of what we try to do. On the one hand, an organisation’s business plan is becoming its most important document in securing ongoing investment from government. Sometimes it feels like it’s more important than the art we create. When Paul Gurney and I were creating Next Wave’s business plan for 2012-16, some of the more radical people we spoke to for advice thought the idea of a four-year business plan was ridiculous – the world is moving so quickly that to suggest we can know our context in four years’ time, and make predictions based on this, is absurd. But one context constant is: Treasury puts pressure upon arts ministries to articulate their economic value to the taxpayer. Yet no matter how good your communication skills, nothing will ever encapsulate the depth of impact, nor the scope of possibility, that Next Wave has on young artists’ lives.
So the struggle is this: I don’t want art to have to subscribe to a particular set of goals or aspirations. But I’m curious about whether things can be both beautiful – and effective. When art leaves its own field and becomes visible as part of something else. When it is political, relevant, responsive and immediate.
What is delicate, and must be protected, is the point of departure. What prompts the work to be created in the first place. It’s dangerous to ask artists to fix racism. They’re not social workers, mental health experts or conflict negotiators. But what they do have is a complex arsenal of subconscious, unmentionable, indescribable, unknowable tools, that can be used to reveal what it is to be more human, humans.