Essence or Indulgence : how the place of art in society is (under?) valued

Robyn Archer

 Keynote Address to the inaugural Australian Print Triennial

by Robyn Archer

[ This version laid out and punctuated for public speaking ]

C  Robyn Archer   Adelaide, October 2015

Thanks Helen.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today, the Latji Latji people here, and the Barkinji across the river, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and also extend that respect to any first nations people joining us this morning.

Yesterday, Bill Kelly referred to the recurrence of commentary about small budgets for Print. Sasha reiterated that we need more money for the arts, and Cathy sent out a plea for donors. We all understand the need for support, but there are many who don’t.

During this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, I entered into a public forum entitled  Is funding the arts doing any good ?  I was pitched against philosopher Peter Singer, whose most recent book is entitled  The Most Good You Can Do. In this book Peter argues for ethical altruism. An ethical altruist is one who pledges to give away an increasingly large percentage of their income.

The most complete ethical altruist is one who actually pursues the highest paid income they can, in order to give most of that income away. But there are rules for the giving away. It has to be done through a purely logical approach. No being persuaded by photographs of sad little children in Africa, no emotional appeal of any kind. An ethical altruist simply does the numbers. How can the dollar I give away do the most good ? I have to go to a couple of websites purpose-built to let me know what my dollar will buy. One charity will take my dollar, and only twenty cents will go to one person and that spend not really accounted for. Another will distribute ten chemically treated bed nets, and will save ten lives. The aim is to alleviate suffering and save as many lives as you can. These are the benchmarks.

So it becomes obvious, very quickly, that, in the context of this analysis, philanthropy directed to the arts is going to come off rather poorly. And indeed Peter’s position is that when very wealthy people make very large contributions to, for example, the development and construction of a new wing for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, they may be doing a bit of good for thousands of future visitors to that institution, but it hardly compares to the amount of suffering that could be alleviated, and the number of lives which could be saved with that $100 or so million dollars.

It’s worth reading the book, because of course it does make you think – and suddenly walking through mid-city centres crammed with luxury goods, playthings and decoration for those who have lots of spare cash, makes you wince even more than usual.  But, regarding the arts, there’s much more to this story.

My response from that debate has been published in this month’s edition of the Australian Book Review – so you can read it all there.

But at the core of my argument are the following things.

Firstly, Peter’s only references to the arts are massively wealthy institutions like the Met. He never considers those arts organisations which exist purely for social change. I think of a company like Big hART which has worked here in Mildura, or Back to Back based in Geelong, but traveling the world to prestigious festivals. Both companies exist to create beautiful, nay excellent, performance, but always in the context of positive social outcomes.  I find it difficult to criticize philanthropic donations to such companies. It may well be true that statistically philanthropic contributions to these companies do not alleviate as much suffering and save as many lives as that contribution might if it were directed to a developing country.

But it does do some good, and does alleviate suffering (in this instance to people going broke on the land, or young addicts, or people with intellectual disability). It is not the most logical or effective philanthropy in the view of the perfect effective altruist. But, and this is one slice of my argument – we are not perfect, we do not operate on logic alone. We are human and fallible, and as fallible human beings, every time we do a bit of good, we at least not doing harm. Although the effective altruist might well argue that by doing less good than we might, we are indeed doing harm. It’s really tough stuff.

More importantly for me is entering the argument for all art, rather than just those artists who enjoy and pursue social outcomes from their art. It’s great to see a number of the sessions that follow today concentrating on the power of the print as a medium for political and social commentary and action. During the Centenary of Canberra, Megalo held a terrific retrospective that demonstrated very clearly the significant role its print artists had played in political commentary – and indeed this has been one of the enduring roles that print has played throughout its history.

One very important defense of independent support for the arts is that it ensures there are platforms for the dissident voice at any time, anywhere. Given that some governments who support the arts are unlikely to be overjoyed when those artists are critical of their policies ( the upcoming visit of Ai Wei Wei reminds us of  China’s hard line on artists in the recent past and present), it is vital to have alternative avenues of support.  The arts have always provided an obvious platform for freedom of expression, and non-government sources of support are critical for the maintenance of those freedoms.

This is what I mean when I talk about essence versus indulgence. When those who do not overtly embrace the arts think or speak about them as an indulgence, a leisure and pleasure pursuit, an add-on, a frill, I am inclined to point to things like that critical role of the arts in offering platforms for freedom of expression. And from this perspective, philanthropy for the arts is certainly doing good.

Those who support the arts privately have no need of being convinced of the value of the arts: Julie and Kevin Chambers are perfect examples. But more widely in our communities, there’s still a lot of work to do. I’m sure that many who say they have nothing to do with the arts, forget the moments of memorialisation in their community, when music- a song and its performance- expresses grief or memory better than anything else; or the moment when they need to express solidarity or anger with some action or movement in their midst: the fist thing they need is a poster, the graphic representation of the cause. Those who will say they have nothing to do with the arts are forever drawing on the skills of artists. Even when they don’t overtly seek the skills and products of artists, they are surrounded by those things every day.

Music comes unbidden from stores, computers, TVs. People are surrounded by visual imagery every day. Yet few think – someone wrote that song, someone drew, painted or digitally created that image.

So much of our daily life is imbued with what artists do, and yet we are never considered a part of essential services.

On several occasions, I have thrown out the challenge to imagine a day without the arts. You would have to be clothed in a non-designed hessian sack, have earplugs in and a blindfold on to avoid the art that bumps into us every day. So is twentieth century life liveable without the products of artists and those in creative industries? In some kind of wholly virtual sense, yes I suppose you could stay alive – but not in reality. It would be a dismal existence- even worse than Banksy’s Dismal-land.  If this is the case, the arts are as essential to twenty-first century life as are doctors, policemen, and garbage collectors. And yet we are rarely valued as such.

If art and artists were acknowledged as serious contributors to the quality of life, and appropriately valued as such, then we would not so regularly be called on to justify our existence. We know that people who love the arts will defend the arts and support them. We know they will describe the joy and inspiration that the arts give them and they will  speak out for continuing support of the arts.

I’m more concerned with those who don’t value the arts – who use the products of art and artists every day of their lives, but do not value art and artists as an essential service. Since the 60s, for instance, the poster, that mainstay of the print medium, has universally decorated the walls of homes across the broadest imaginable demographic range. In deepest dirt road northern suburbs Housing Trust Adelaide, where and when I knew absolutely nothing about the arts, my teenage bedroom was adorned with the images of those I worshipped at the time – Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, the Beatles. Did I ever think about the photographers or the printers of the original images of which I had the very cheapest reproductions ?  No I did not. Into my twenties, did I ever enquire as to who the artists were who created those amazing psychedelic posters for the Fillmore, for Janis Joplin, for the Cream. No I did not. My eyes were on content, and the glorified stars therein, and never once did I consider those who were creating the images. It is this kind of ignorance that perpetuates an under-valuing of what artists do.

When someone like Peter Singer questions the value of philanthropic donations to the arts, and stands those gifts up against the life and death of children in developing countries, he also enters a process of devaluing the arts – and I think that’s dangerous.  Simply by saying that over the top donations to established collecting institutions are not justified in a world full of pain and suffering and unnecessary death, this philosopher implies that that is all art is – and ignores all the other spheres of art – that which focuses on social outcomes, that which arises from the community, and all that world  of creativity  and imagination which is produced by smaller institutions, companies and individual artists.

We are all aware of budget decisions at all three levels of government, when those things which are deemed both essential and job-creating ( such as national security, the military, infrastructure ) get a financial boost, and the arts (never considered as essential and job-creating, yet they are both) are such easy prey to cuts.

This is all because of the underlying lack of insight which brings about a serious under-valuing  of arts and the work that artists do. When it comes to the crunch, to many we are at best entirely dispensable, and at worst we are portrayed ( as so many were following the debate around the NPEA) on cravenly anonymous twitter and,  in some avenues of aggressively  opinionated media comment,  as useless burdens on society.

The very artists who are pushing the boundaries of aural and visual perception – those innovators who fulfill one of the other essential services – the encouragement and stimulation of curiosity-  were described earlier this year ,as if it were half a century  ago, as wankers.

Even though it is stated time and again, that there is evidence to prove that nothing so excites the synapses of our brain into liveliness and interaction as a new artistic intervention, and that children who have arts as part of their curriculum tend to be more flexible and creative no matter what career or profession they eventually choose, these essential contributions to society are rarely equated with the vital need to support art and artists.

What to do about it is the question ?  At the coalfront of the very medium, practice, and community being discussed and celebrated here at the inaugural Australian Print Triennial, artists will continue to create work in the context of those who recognize, love and support what they do; and those who do not care may nevertheless end up with a cheap reproduction of that work on their wall.

How do we advocate and promote the essential service we provide as artists. How do we claim centrality in daily life?

Let me digress, as the possible pathway to an answer. And I hope you’ll forgive me the example that comes from performing, rather than visual , arts – though performance of course always has a strong visual dimension.

Last Sunday I had the privilege of moderating a public discussion between the director Peter Sellars and the singer/musician/activist Rokia Truare. They were in Sydney with the production Desdemona – a collaboration with writer Toni Morrison. It was a superb production, and incidentally a reminder that there are countries which support institutions and artists to create ambitious, intensely beautiful but highly political works. This was a co-production between Vienna Festival, Theatre Nanterre-Amandiers ( France), Cal Arts ( Berkely California), The Lincoln Centre ( New York), Spielzeite Europa, the Berlin Festival, Barbican ( London) Arts Council London and the London 2012 Festival ( in which all of Shakespeare was presented from different countries and in different forms).

The Australian season was presented by both the Melbourne and Sydney Festivals – our major festivals being pretty much the only institutions which can have this level of ambition – either as presenters or collaborating commissioners.

Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Peter speak in Amsterdam. The occasion was the celebration of our mutual colleague Frie Leysen. Frie had been awarded the Erasmus Prize,  by the King of the Netherlands, and this was the week to celebrate the award. Peter, as a former awardee of that prestigious prize gave the opening address. He praised Frie but in a courageous moment started talking about the state of Europe, and the increasing turn to ultra-right wing parties (and this is very much the case in the Netherlands). He said we had seen what could happen at the extremes, we had evidence of the horror of genocide in WW2 – and yet, look at Europe now, he said. The great festivals of Europe ( Edinburgh, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence) had been created in order to reunite Europe – otherwise, Peter said, how would it have been possible to hear German music again ?

He praised Frie for all her great work – her support and nurturing through festivals and other means of alternative voices – for instance the encouragement of young immigrant North African directors in Brussels. Frie has been a tireless force for new and independent voices in the arts for more than thirty years. Peter said he himself was proud of his work too, not so dissimilar in the projects he undertakes and the artists he works with.  But, he said, if we look at Europe now, surely we have to admit that all our work has been for nothing. Such a lot of work through the arts for peace, harmonization, tolerance and acceptance, had ultimately resulted in a divided Europe, a divided Middle East, where suspicion is rife and suffering widespread. We have to find a new way; we need new tools if we are to have an effect.

Later when the moderator asked Frie what these new tools might be, she replied, after a long pause:

“ Well I think we have just been too polite”.

She suggested that we have for too long given audiences and other stakeholders what they wanted, rather than being loyal to our duty as artists to be societal provocateurs as well as the purveyors of awe and beauty. Of course, a show like Desdemona does both so movingly and eloquently. But when all you do is give an audience what it wants, you are in the business of entertainment. It goes nowhere, it does not progress new thoughts, it will not provoke and stir the imagination. And while much of art is highly entertaining, it surely has other responsibilities – which is exactly why it requires support. Art is not a matter of commercial transaction alone. Unlike entertainment, it will not always leave you smiling and humming that sticky tune. It will unsettle, it will open up doors to the imagination, and will spur some to action. And because most human beings are unlikely instinctively to pay for something which may make them feel uncomfortable, the arts require subsidy in order to fulfill their societal duties.

Part of the conversation that night also included the Iranian playwright Amir Reza Koohestani, whose first play Frie and I saw together in Tehran at the Fadj Theatre Festival almost twenty years ago. Since then Amir has been drafted into the Iranian army for national service, survived that, continued to write plays, and still cannot get a visa to the US.

Amir said people often commented to him “ Oh it must be so hard making your work in Iran”. He said, no, not at all, I make my work, sometimes I get shut down: but if I were not being regularly shut down, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.

Even more significantly, he said that the natural assumption was that he and other Iranian artists would crave the freedom of expression that artists enjoy in the west.

His comment was astonishing and insightful. He said something like “ I think you are free to say anything you want, because no-one really listens to you. Your work doesn’t really matter to those in power or to the wider public. It will not change things” – implying, of course, that in his country artists are powerful, and their work is viewed as genuinely dangerous: hence the need to shut it down. It’s a powerful point, and surely makes us question the effectiveness of our role and the way in which we promote ourselves.

I am not for one minute suggesting that all art must be overtly political. It is anyway. Those who choose not to use their art to comment on things that need to change are also political: they are content to work within the current state of things, and this means they support the status quo. Yet those who simply strive to create works of great beauty and awe can in turn inspire those at the forefront of social change.

We are rightly disinclined to weigh up the politically charged works of Rew Hanks ,Ex de Medici  or Judy Watson against those of Christine Johnson. To us they have value in different ways.

But when things are done in our name and we disagree with them – that is at the very local level , when a Council makes a decision that adversely affects the whole or part of a community, all the way to what is done in Australia’s name at the international level, then artists do have the power to enter the debate, to take the conversation to a different public, to discuss an issue in ways that may be more provocative and more effective than constantly mediated mass-media  and more honest than the anonymity of back-stabbing social media. In this way we confirm the arts as the safest place for a dangerous conversation.

Bill drew attention to the work by Robert Zithweler Siwangaza A Tribute to Mr John N Muafangejo: hope and optimism in spit of present difficluties. It reminded me of the poem by Bertolt Brecht.

Bad Times

Will there be singing in the bad times ?

Yes, there will be singing

About the bad times

The actions of artists in the last Sydney Biennale offer an interesting perspective. Egged on by a tenured academic, artists were encouraged to boycott the Biennale because of a federal government contract awarded to a subsidiary of the family which was the initial and continuing funder of the Biennale. The contract was to build infrastructure for detainees in Nauru. It was a tenuous argument, especially given the complaint really was against the then federal government’s policy around refugees and detainees, rather than that company. But we are indeed free to protest as we wish.

However, we should consider that artists’ power is in their art, and how much better it might have been to see the protest expressed through the art. In the end, the damage having been done, the family having walked away from the Biennale (and the corporation proceeding to do the work on Nauru – so company and government one, Biennale and artists nil) only one artist actually withdrew their work – all the rest, having yelled loudly, still benefitted from being exhibited in what was a terrific show.

We can and should speak out against things we object to, but it seems to me (again in that space of trying to encourage serious and widespread evaluation of the arts) that boycotts are really effective for transport workers, pilots and garbage collectors, but seriously ineffectual for artists. We have so relatively few opportunities to show what we do – any opportunity should be cherished.

The curator of the Biennale actually commissioned a work in response,

But how much more effective would it have been to see commentary from more artists (about the situation) within in the exhibition through the works themselves, or if that were too late, commentary by the artists in association with the works. What happened in the end was mediated news commentary prior to the Biennale, then almost nothing within the duration of the exhibition itself, with most comment being about the protest per se and the resignation of the Chair and the departure of the family philanthropy, rather than concern about government policy regarding refugees, or any action to follow.

The problem we face is that we feel by incorporating social commentary into our work, we alienate the public and possible sources of funding. And so we are rendered polite in order to survive.

Politeness may certainly work in the short–term, and for those whose priorities do not include improving the world or helping to right its wrongs, there is no discomfort. Beautiful works are created for a similarly comfortable audience to consume, or indeed also for those in pain that they may feel some relief.

Only the utilitarian part of this gives us value in the eyes of the general public. And so the long-term ignorance goes unchallenged. We remain in the eyes of that public, and perhaps in the eyes of their council or parliamentary representatives, the beautiful dispensable frill on the frock of life, rather than the fabric form which life is woven.

Even when we choose to make work which is overtly political, who is listening ? Who fears the work enough to shut it down ? Environment ? War ? Indigenous Australians ? Indoneisa has just shut down parts of the Ubud Writers Festival – because it wanted to include sessions commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 massacre.

What gets shut down in Australia ? Bill Henson and Paul Yore, Juan Davila and Piss Christ. It seems that the most dangerous territory we can enter is the depiction of children and young people, or references to orthodox religions. No comment on politics or society ever has such an impact.

Unhelpfully, I have no complete answers about how to change this – how to ensure we are properly valued. I guess I could have been a surgeon  and could have seen the good that I did and feel that mywork and that of my colleagues was valued in society. I don’t want to think that I have spent my life being a self-indulgent wanker. The issue is important to me.  So, I talk about it and sing about it ( as does Reg Mombassa) because I can.

I’d like to see a wider campaign, but it’s a Gruen kind of challenge – maybe I’ll take it to them.  And given the current mainstream political language of disruption, maybe it’s the perfect time. For the moment, I leave you only with questions – but in the hope that they may start to inspire some answers.

If we as artists fulfill our role beyond that of entertainment, if we provide a beautiful platform for the discussion of hard issues, if we experiment in the interest of arousing a sense of curiosity , if we inspire the creative bit of all people, if we are gloriously disruptive , provocative and interventionist , can we be justly and  fairly valued for that contribution to society ?

Can incorporating the tough stuff ever be seen as  valuable ?

Does it alienate people or does it make us more central to and crucial for real life?  Or by sticking to personal inspiration and the quest of beauty are we any less valuable ?

How do we convince our status as essential service? Do we require a campaign?  How do you convince the Andrew Bolts of this world that we are hard-working members of society, making a huge contribution.

And most difficult, how to say that the only way we achieve greatness is to allow success to emerge from a pool of half-successes and failures too. That all artistic endeavor, as in science, contributes to the progress of the whole ? No experiment ? No progress. So let us praise not only those who find favour and critical praise ,and sales, but all those whose work does not yet, or ever, cut the mustard. They too must be valued as a necessary part of the whole.

On that note, and anticipating the setting of tonight’s dinner in the Amplon Gardens, a song written by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler when they were in political exile in Los Angeles – just before McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee sent them packing back to East Germany:

– I’ll accompany myself

On Sprinkling the Gardens

Oh Sprinkle the garden, the green’s taking heart again

Watering the thirsty fruit trees, give more than enough

Give more, give more, give more than enough


And do not forget the shrubbery, even though it bears no fruit

And is worn out

Do not forget that, between the bushes

There are weeds, that are thirsty too


Nor should you water, only the just the fresh grass

For the naked earth needs refreshment too

Refreshment too, refreshment too


Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler ( trs John Willett)


c R Archer, Adelaide October 2015