On aspiration and reality in the creative arts

By February 13, 2013Other

At the National Arts Summit yesterday there was a moment of unhappiness in what was otherwise a productive and enjoyable day. A speaker on the floor accused the panel of ‘digging a hole’ — of stating that those who were looking for a career in the creative arts should, as one of the panel said, ‘make sure that they had a day job’. The speaker was cheered, and in conversation afterwards more than one in the audience said to me that the panel members were giving the game away.

I was probably the main discordant voice, having said in my short paper that while I would be delighted to see a doubling of arts expenditure by Australian governments, that act would simply increase the number of disappointed applicants. A second theme, half-stated in the paper, was that while the role of governments in the arts is one to facilitate activity in the creative arts, it is not, in my opinion anyway, to provide jobs for artists.

But I understood only too well the feelings in the mostly young audience on the day: there they were, devoting their lives, time and energy to the pursuit of excellence in a creative endeavour of some kind. Since we were in the ANU’s School of Music, many of the audience were training to be professional musicians. No doubt some of them dreamed of being a word-renowned performer, or playing in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (which does possess two Australians) — of earning their living, and a sustainable one, from their craft.

Richard Gill, conductor and music educator, said he hoped that many of them would become music educators in the schools, because that was where they could help Australia most. I said that 99.9 per cent of those who were using their creative potential would, even in 25 years time, be doing something else for a living. Monica Penders of ScreenACT told them that a career in film was chancy at best, though the rewards were great if you happened to be part of a great success.

This was not what the audience wanted to hear. It wanted a future in which much more money would be devoted to the arts, which would have much more public standing, and people who had a developed creative gift would be able to exercise that gift and live a straightforward life as an arts professional, without having to wash dishes in a restaurant, or drive taxis in order to pay the bills.

I have thought about this issue a lot, and my view, sketched in the paper, is that the shift in public standing of the arts would have to come first. You might get a Prime Minister once every fifty years who saw the creative arts as vitally important, and could make a real difference — as Menzies was able to do in the making of the National Capital. But the realities of government are that there are hundreds of applicants for every spare dollar, and the arts have to be in the queue, not in a privileged position above the clamour. There they compete with jobs, and health, and defence and education. Improving the standing of the arts will come slowly, as more people take the arts more seriously.

There is also a tension between the elitist view of the arts and the urge to develop every child’s creative potential, an agreed position everywhere at the Summit. The elitist view is what we see today: the artist and the audience. But if we were able to unlock the creative potential in every child, and develop it to the full, what sort of society would we see? My guess is that there would be many more performers, and smaller audiences. We would participate rather than spectate, if you’ll forgive that coinage. And, unless no one needed  restaurants, taxis, shops, banks, insurance, and government, we would all still have day jobs, nearly all of us anyway. We would be participating in the arts in our spare time.

And as Richard said, the role of the music teacher, and the art teacher, the dance teacher would be vital, highly sought after, and honoured. Minister Peter Garrett, who did have a career in the arts before he became a politician, shied away from promising the moon. He too was sympathetic but realistic, and for him too it was education that was the way forward.

It is true, as someone else from the floor said, that we all talk about how important the arts are, but we don’t place it high in the budget. No other country does, either. Yes, Finland gave Sibelius a state pension when he was a young genius on his way up. Yes, Shostakovitch lived very well as an honoured State Artist in the former Soviet Union (and had his bag packed should there be a knock on the door from the secret police); so did some dreadful hacks.

When I compare the state of the arts in Australia now to what it was when I was 18, and dreaming of being a famous jazz pianist and song-writer, I think how much better things are in 2013. And I know how long it takes for cultures to change — in our case more than two generations. Go forward another two generations — to 2065, say — and with any luck the arts will be even more important and widespread. But I don’t think that even then they will rival sport in their appeal. Many see sport as the model for the arts, but it appeals to a different part of us altogether.

No, to all aspiring artists I would say, repeating the words of another on the panel, ‘keep going with your dream, but make sure that you’re very good at something else!’


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