Anxiety can be good for art.
I have fond memories of the culture of creative dissent triggered in the UK by Margaret Thatcher and her sociopathic, conservative government. British artists didn’t whinge into their beer but rallied, critiqued and reaffirmed a lively human spirit.
Musicians like the Clash and Elvis Costello mocked their rulers with post-punk agit-pop. Movies and TV drama such as Boys from the Black Stuff and My Beautiful Laundrette interrogated class, ethnic identities and the secret state. Withering satire like Yes, Minister and Spitting Image and the carnival-esque chaos of The Young Ones led a comedy renaissance.
Call me a masochist but I preferred the angry, anarchic energy of the Thatcher-inspired Underground to the glitzy optimistic spin of Blair’s Cool Britannia.
Vyvyan, Neil, Mike and Rick from The Young Ones
Closer to home, periods of anxiety have also provoked great cultural effervescence in Australia “ think of the Bulletin writers and illustrators who found a rebellious yet humorous Australian voice during the great strikes and depression of the 1890s; the iconic art of the Angry Penguins modernists during the darkest days of World War II; or the emergence from the counter-culture of a new wave of local theatre and cinema in the late 1960s and early 1970s a period when Australia was quagmired in the Vietnam War, Cold War paranoia was rife and the conservative government seemed interminable. Provoked by ‘interesting times’ these artists drawn largely from sub-cultural margins fashioned words, images and ideas that have helped develop a sense of what it is to be Australian.
Times of anxiety need not only produce nation-defining or left-of-centre clarion calls, but may also provoke interesting, radical art that shakes up pre-conceived ideas and aesthetics – art that is nihilistic, decadent, right wing, crazy or just plain offensive “ for example, Dada in World War I, Weimar ‘s Cabaret Voltaire, the 1968 Situationists or Punk.
Liberated from the sepia-toned nostalgia with which we customarily cuddle yesterday’s avant-gardes in the weekend newspaper supplements, these creative projects, at home and abroad, took guts to get up. They could be prickly, annoying, profligate, amateurish, pretentious, down right offensive and … risky.
What all these cultural eruptions share, above all else, is a propensity on the part of artists and arts enablers to take risks. Without risk, art atrophies and becomes a market category or mere nostalgia.
When John Howard was first elected in 1997, some of the artists I was interviewing for the ABC documentary film Bohemian Rhapsody observed that a conservative government might be fuel for satirists and troublemakers. While a larrikin, subversive comedy has undoubtedly thrived under the Coalition “ John Safran, The Chaser and The Glass House, to name a few – I don’t think the Australian arts community has responded with the energy, iconoclasm and bravery we could expect from our own age of anxiety.
There are some notable exceptions “ especially in writing and theatre – but I don’t get the feeling that Howard’s version of Thatcherism has triggered a popular art of dissent comparable to that of 1980s Britain. Great edgy political books have been written by the likes of David Marr, Margo Kingston and Ghassan Hage. Richard Bell’s paintings push the Aboriginal resistance to new extremes and make white folks the object of derision. Scott Rankin’s therapeutic Big Art theatre projects, like the inspiring Knot@home, literally bring the actual victims of a dividing society to centre-stage. But outside of TV comedy and newspaper cartoonists, ‘political art’ has been a conversation among the converted, as opposed to the critical engagement with popular audiences that occurred, say, with the radical working class press in the 1890s and with Australian cinema in the 1970s.
Pop and Rock music, in the past a site where bohemian flair and working class grunt fused to unsettle ‘the man’, has succumbed to the manufactured idolatry of Australian Idol. Judging by audience figures, local cinema and TV drama are failing to tell stories people want to hear. While liberal America flashes its angry underbelly via a documentary renaissance that sets box office records, in Australia the genre has disappeared into self-indulgent personal stories and infotainment. And unlike New Zealanders, Australians cannot do wondrous escapism like Lord of the Rings, so trapped are we in the here-and-now certainties of realism.
I believe that Australian creative culture has lost its nerve, and as a result has entered a period of nervous quietism, where grey, somnolent politicians set the national tone. I know that there is no shortage of interesting grass roots creative people working within and outside cultural institutions, straining at the leash to break rules, cause trouble and have fun with art. But they are ill served by cultural gatekeepers who are adverse to risk.
New talent remains untapped while the same old stagers, mirroring the greying of politics, are wheeled out for yet another lap of honour while they look back with nostalgia to the glory days of the last waves of the 1970s and 1980s. This is ironic, because what made the art of those decades fun and interesting was its iconoclasm, its oedipal desire to slay fathers “ remember Aunty Jack, the Pram Factory, The Birthday Party? But now the same artists have reached mid life it’s ‘father knows best’.
The lesson of the transgressive art of the Baby Boomers is that younger people have to be prepared to turn their backs on how things were done then, and be original, offensive, rule-breaking and unafraid of failing. But the problem is less a lack of ideas and creative nerve in the garrets and ‘burbs, than a fear of new art, stories and aesthetics within the institutions whose business it is to enable art. We have to ask: why, at a time calling for an art of risk, does Australia’s creative culture feel moribund? The fear of risk has its roots in the managerial revolution of the early 1990s, but it has been sharpened by growing authoritarianism in government and business at one end, and dependence of artists on shrinking state patronage at the other.
Artistic creativity does not just happen, it is nurtured by cultural and institutional settings. We are living in risk-averse times, because the managerial culture that controls our public and private institutions demands accountability to accountants, value for investment measured by ‘indicators’ and ‘outcomes’, and top-down control of cultural assets.
One only needs to look at our premier cultural institution, the ABC, to see a highly centralised, top-down management structure, where control of commissioning and editorial has become more concentrated than it was a decade ago. Yet media technology for production and distribution are more suited than ever to heterogeneity, creative autonomy, narrow-casting and interactivity.
The worst aspects of this managerial ascendancy are:
¢ a tendency to view senior management and, in some cases, government as the principal stakeholder rather than audiences and cultural producers;
¢ an intolerance of the mistakes and failures that a risk-taking culture would applaud as a necessary by-product of experimentation;
¢ underestimation of intangible, unquantifiable, social formations that greatly enhance creativity “ everything from student life and bohemia to laziness and long lunches;
¢ adherence to commercial indicators of success that simplistically divide diverse audiences into masses, elites and core audiences;
¢ a passive model of arts consumption rather than one that encourages popular production and interactive appreciation;
¢ the entrenchment of a middle-aged cohort as cultural gatekeepers who snared all the good gigs in the 1970s and who boost artists they grew up with the average age of our arts CEOs is significantly older than in Blair’s Britain;
¢ the circulation of the same group of managers from one cultural institution to another, preventing real change. For example in the public media sphere a small pool swish back and forth from the ABC to Film Australia, from SBS to the NSW Film and TV Office. This game of musical chairs gives the appearance of change, but no real change;
¢ a colonial mindset written deep into the DNA of many cultural institutions that marginalises new local stories and Australian traditions at the expense of northern imports, especially from the UK and US;
¢ lack of education in Australian cultural history which limits managers’ vistas to their own biographies so that we are condemned to a creative Groundhog Day;
¢ an inability to appreciate that in a diverse society – criss-crossed by age, class, regions, and ethnicities, and where people have different cultural literacies and interests – art will necessarily offend some people, leave some indifferent and deeply engage others;
¢ the triumph of marketing over content.
While both Labor and Coalition governments have run with managerialism, state Labor governments at least support the arts as an engine of economic growth and national dreaming. The Howard Government has not been a great friend to the arts, reflected in actions such as the funding squeeze on the ABC, the introduction of a GST on books, censorship and outright banning of films and the continuous disparagement of arts and intellectual workers. It has a philistine tinge that ultimately, runs contrary to its pride as an enabler of economic growth.
As Richard Florida argues in The Rise of the Creative Class, encouraging the arts and cultural enterprise is the engine of economic growth in the new economy. If Australia is to sustain its standard of living and continue to employ its people it must become an exporter of value-added products.
Next week, Tony Moore explains why the long lunch is good for Australian capitalism.
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