The critical attitude
Strikes many people as unfruitful.
That is because they find the state
Impervious to their criticism.
But what in this case is an unfruitful attitude
Is merely a feeble attitude. Give criticism arms
And states can be demolished by it.
Canalising a river
Grafting a fruit tree
Educating a person
Transforming a state
These are instances of fruitful criticism
And at the same time
Instances of art.
– Bertolt Brecht, On the Critical Attitude
I TAKE THIS opportunity to adopt a critical attitude to what I see as something of a hoodwink in current language about the arts. And it's not just semantics. It is an overarching brand that casually (and largely without protest) engulfs the arts and threatens to diminish their importance and wash over their points of difference. The consequence of this is that it will then be easy to starve them. I am talking, of course, about ‘creative industries'. They are perfectly good and productive industries, often highly creative and certainly deserving of investment because they have the potential to make a return on that investment and be financially sustainable. But what do they have to do with art?
There are certain articles that take pride of place in our museums. They might include a rare bowl from ancient Egypt, a fragment of tiled wall from Syria, a chair from the French palace of the Sun King or a vase from Han Dynasty China. These things now so glorified, and so electronically guarded, in our state treasure troves were in their own time simply artisan products – often made en masse. They were valued for their usefulness, not their art, and those who made them were either employed or enslaved to do so. If we now praise them for their beauty and speak of them as rare and valuable treasures, it is because either they were produced with a certain lasting but almost coincidental aesthetic accomplishment or because of their historical value in that there are few such pieces surviving.
While these artefacts are closer to what we may think of as creative industry, they are scarcely even that since the term ‘industry' implies work for profit of some kind: the word ‘industry' implies not just a one off, but enterprise that sustains over a prolonged period. In these examples, there may have been no profit (in the sense that the sale of goods would benefit the maker or producer with a wider margin of profitability than his competitor); they were professions into which the artisan was born and in which they had no choice but to stay and reap no more reward than mere subsistence.
In the case of certain objects from, say, Japan's past, many are tempted to surpass even ‘creative industry' classification and start using the word ‘art' in relation to such beautiful works. They are exquisitely crafted or painted, and we – wrongly – think of such beauty as proceeding from the kind of individual and original inspiration associated with art. Beautiful as they undoubtedly are, what we see are almost exclusively the products of artisan schools. The works are rarely attributed to an individual artist and the skill was learned through years and years of slavishly copying the master until perfection was achieved. These beautiful, very valuable, also highly guarded and cherished works that the public, when pressed, would be inclined to put in the arts basket are in fact also products of the creative industry of old Japan. And as it happens, prior to European contact the Japanese had no tradition of valuing art in museological terms. Now they share, and excel in, the global practice of museology, but that's a borrowed concept.
It is perhaps easier to see the Prue Acton collection, which has pride of place at the Melbourne Museum, in creative industry terms. And why is it easier? For a start, we know the frocks are valuable, but not as valuable as a pair of sixteenth century Japanese six-fold screens. Product appears in the public mind to edge closer to ‘art' the more expensive it becomes. Product certainly makes claims to art when it is one of a kind – and as such, the claims go, the product of individual genius and imagination with the maker then elevated beyond mass product status. But the clearest difference is that the frocks were originally made for profit. Yes, they were fun and original, and in retrospect the collection as a whole turned out to be a great historical record of fashion design and trends in 1960s Australia. But we all recognise that fashion designers do not make frocks in order to hang them on walls. They are made for a market.
This is a useful clue to the way we might think about the difference between creative industry and art. Of course, there are always going to be fine and blurred lines in any attempt to classify – and frankly, I would prefer not to have to think about a dividing line. My own tastes tend to be extremely wide-ranging – in music from rock and pop to the most angular contemporary classical, in visual art from strewn lumps of fat at Documenta to a slow cruise of the Flemish galleries at the Louvre – and to tell you the truth I am probably more inclined just now to gasp with pleasure at the ingenuity and aesthetics of Ikea's packaging than at any piece of furniture denoted as Louis Quinze.
CLARIFYING A DIFFERENCE between creative industries and art has only become a necessity in my mind because the term ‘creative industries' is appearing everywhere, and in particular in places where policies are starting to flow. Once policies flow, then funding and educational directives follow the stream, and then our daily lives and practice are all involved. So we need to know what we are talking about. Currently, the term ‘creative industries' is being used almost as a super-classification, under which the arts are supposed to sit. I think that's problematic, yet there seem to be very few voices challenging the trend.
Recently, Professor Richard Maltby from Flinders University proved to be one of the few. He wrote: ‘In the 1940s, emigré German intellectuals Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote a famously scathing critique of the commercialised popular culture they found in America. Believing that industrial mass production destroyed culture and produced only banal artistic monstrosities, they deliberately gave the Frankenstein creature they described a name that was a contradiction in terms: the "Culture Industry".'
Fifty years later, Tony Blair's ‘Cool Britannia' dug up this monster and renamed it ‘creative industries'. The idea began as a way to regenerate the discarded inner cities of post-industrial hulks or the working-class enclaves: subsidise a few craft co-operatives in an old warehouse, open a gallery or two and the odd smart café-wine bar, and next thing you know you have your own creative precinct, full of the aspirational classes on a Friday night, imagining themselves to be on the Left Bank in Paris.
Maltby has said that, like Britpop, the ‘creative industries' represented an exercise in national branding, a marketing proposition for repositioning Britain. Over the last ten years, everyone has bought the idea. It has come to operate as shorthand for a collection of commercial activities decorated or disguised by the notion that some form of ‘creativity' sits at their core. I would add that creativity sits at the core of every profession, and that the most effective incubator for creativity is art, whether it produces artists or not. A child effectively exposed to art may equally become a scientist, sociologist, engineer or homemaker. But art is the invaluable tool whereby we evolve a creative nation.
Creative industry products are far-ranging and many are exciting. They include design from virtual on-screen web applications to graphic two– to three-dimensional furniture, tools and entertainment machinery; fashion sits there, as does screen gaming, interactive display tools and projects, film and television aspects of screen culture and some music – and this is just the start. But all of them are made for a market. In the back of the minds of those who invest in them is always the desire to please an existing market or open a new one. The motive is profit. I do not use this in a pejorative sense. This can be fun, it can be stimulating, and its profits may well be returned to the industry for the sake of a healthy ongoing sector. But implicit in the system is the understanding that what is being created has value, that there are buyers for it and that the industry is financially sustainable – that is, the cost of training, creating and producing will be balanced by sales.
It is entirely sensible for governments to invest in this arena, and indeed there may be arguments to suggest that investing in this activity is more sensible than investing in traditional industries that have not been profitable for a long time – activities that require increasing subsidies to stay alive and activities that produce for markets already supplied by countries with more efficient means of production. It is also eminently sensible to start thinking about the kind of educational and training packages that will prepare an emerging workforce for careers in these industries.
It is every bit as important to consider new packages and incentives in these so-called creative industries areas, as it is to reinvigorate the education and training that will stimulate careers in, for instance, mining and resources-heavy industries. As Australia experiences a boom in mining, it is obvious that demand for all sorts of skilled workers is high and that we should train young people to supply that demand. So too in the creative industries. Why not?
However ... these subsidies, incentives and packages surely belong in the policy and funding area of industry rather than the arts. They involve industries, job skills and systems that, in combination, can offer services and make products – and make a profit. Why have they ended up in the area of arts and culture?
The first thing to be clear about is that in general, if a society wants to have art in it – thinks that having artists amongst its varied peoples is a good thing and enjoying what they produce is a good thing – this comes at a cost. Art, in general, is not something initially aimed at a market, nor is its prime motive to make a profit. I would almost venture that the most creative end of art, by definition, has no market at all, no value, because it is so new and perhaps so shocking. The fact that it is not yet understood and has no substantial following in its infancy is precisely why it cannot be part of a commercial market, and therefore requires subsidy.
Some argue that this is in fact the only level of art that requires subsidy, that once it has found its market it enters into commercial transaction with devotees who want it – governments shouldn't interfere in that commercial transaction. But art that is new, experimental and at the heart of research and development of new ideas and new ways of expression (the things that eventually do get nicked and fetch up a few years later in commercial applications) represents the very things that require ongoing subsidy. That originality and daring feeds creativity in all professions and sectors; those artists provide a way of seeing the world which is new. I will refer to resilience theory later, but this core and raw creative feed is essential for our survival.
It is obvious to all of us that, as in all endeavours, a handful of artists make an enormous amount of money (in teacher-speak, this is the mistaken justification for career-paths and skills training) and this is often about choices to enter early into avenues and systems that are market-directed. They make the break into industry: commercial theatre or musicals, mainstream cinema, pop and rock, advertising, the commercial visual art market. In all these and more, one finds stars and celebrity.
There is a second, larger rung of workers in the arts who manage to make a good living through their practice – actors and musicians of long standing, some dancers or singers (though their careers are often curbed by ageing), visual artists, writers, directors and administrators. And after that comes a horde in its hundreds of thousands over the years whose income over a lifetime never got much above the poverty line (like many great jazz musicians living and making some of the best music in Australia today) or those who abandoned their art to teach or take up entirely unrelated jobs in order to stay alive and to keep families fed.
All this is obvious. What is less obvious – though shouldn't be – is that none of them, from the pinnacle of celebrity to the artist who just couldn't starve any longer, would have been able to consider a life in the arts were it not for successive societies that believed in the presence of art and artists, and governments that chose to subsidise them. There has always been a framework whose very existence shouts loud and clear that art's primary motive is not profit. It requires subsidy. That is why successive governments have not only provided money for the arts and other attendant resources and infrastructure, but also constructed schemes to grant a tax deduction for wealthy individuals and corporations who donate money and resources to the arts. They understand that, even if there is no profit, most civilised societies value the arts. In addition, that investment also provides a vast number of attendant jobs – tech crews, caterers, administrators, manufacturers, builders, electricians, ushers, box office staff, exhibition crews, transport, and the like. The network of job creation through the arts is massive. There is an industry employment aspect to those arts that are not in themselves profitable. And there is also a business side because it is expected that, in return for their government grants, they will at very best keep their books in order and conduct their business within the financial parameters to which they have committed. It means that going broke and being bailed out time after time is no longer acceptable. Better governance and business practice have been part of the long defence of an arts industry. But these are basics and, apart from tipping the balance too far in that direction over the last few years (too much emphasis on business as opposed to passion, too many levels of bureaucracy), it's fair enough.
The main thing to note here stays the same – and I want to tease this out further a little later: what I call art does not in the first instance seek a market and is rarely profitable. This is what sets it apart from the creative industries. We all have the benefit of seeing what happened in Singapore in our lifetimes. In the 1970s and '80s, the pursuit of commercial success, a new modernism and the elevation of that island's status as stopover and duty free shopping capital of the world saw a great part of Singapore's heritage architecture torn down and very little investment in the arts. It didn't take long for that government to realise that it had created a city that was super shiny and commercially successful, but lacked a soul. Even the stopover shoppers started to trail off and the newly defined segment of cultural tourists was not attracted at all. Then the government began to invest on a large scale in the contemporary arts. It started renovating Singapore's main gallery and museum, gave grants and spaces to smaller contemporary companies and to individual artists, and began an International Festival of Arts. These days, the contemporary arts are thriving in Singapore, the new Esplanade Theatres on the Bay provide an intense focus of international, local and community arts activity, and Singapore is an interesting place to stay for a few days. For the extremely commercially minded and profit-aware Singapore, the non-profit sector of the arts became vitally important to its future and the state went out of its way to support it accordingly.
IT IS IN response to decades of discrimination and attacks on art and its most innovative and challenging constellations that a tendency arises for official channels, or holders of the public purse, not to defend the outer and inner limits of originality and daring. Instead they try to disguise them in the garb of an industry, whose justification is never for its own sake or the ephemeral qualities of life it preserves and extends for its society, but because it can be seen to be the equal of other industries – with potential to compete and make money. This lack of a genuine defence of art is dangerous; the attempt to defend art as something that can be valued in terms of investment and financial profitability weakens the real reasons for valuing it.
We are in a time of change. I have been saying for some time that I believe people will look back on this first decade of the twenty-first century and see that it was a time of profound, seismic change of the same order that governed the changes from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The charge that lit up Secession Vienna is electrifying us today as new technologies develop apace and are taken up by artists everywhere as a means of expression. One recent and sudden aspect of these changes is the return of respect for ideas and the public intellectual. Following 2020, there's a new show, Fora, on ABC TV, there's a new interest in speakers and talk-fests, and after a time of suppression and ridicule of the public intellectual, people are again encouraged to think and talk about issues of import and interest.
This means that there is support for one of the most important roles of the arts: the arena in which the toughest and most complex issues of individuals and society can be discussed, and more than just discussed, really felt. Of course, there is an obligation for artists to acknowledge that role too and stop working with trivial themes, but traditionally we haven't been good at valuing the ephemeral. When it comes to the kind of massive event mentality that has been encouraged, we allow emotion to be attached to the large and very expensive public display.
For subtler questions of humanity – like the fine lines of ethical dilemma, the moment to raise your voice against injustice, the genuine inner debate about honesty, greed or materialism, all of which most people encounter in the run of their day-to-day lives – we are less enthusiastic and forthcoming. Yet it is in these grey areas of doubt and decision, the place where all the immeasurables of life can be tossed and turned, that art can be of greatest public service. And it's not just in, for instance, the explicit play or novel or small-budget film that overtly discusses such issues. Sometimes it is just in the quiet contemplation of beauty (wordless music, or non-figurative art) that thought and emotions have the space to stray into the dangerous human territories we so cleverly avoid in the business of another day, another dollar.
I believe such qualities of introspection, debate and dialectic are vital if we are to fulfil our potential as human beings. A society devoid of reflection and contemplation is held back – is not benefiting from the exercise of all those skills that humans at this stage of their evolution can deploy. Writer Jeannette Winterson recently said: ‘I think that art is definitely on the side of the inner life ... It's helping us to express that unique human-ness, from the high end, really, to the very modest. It's not just about going around museums or listening to great music, or reading fabulous literature ... It's about a kind of independence of mind, an open-mindedness and above all a capacity to feel. We cannot give our feelings over to the values of cheap soap operas and media strap-lines. If you want to feel deeply and if you want to feel profoundly, then you go to the places where that feeling is deep and profound, and that's in art ...'
When a society actively encourages and enables the highest human development and provides the tools and pathways to stimulate it, it is surely capable of developing advantages in a competitive world. In such a way, the presence of art is a vital tool for a hopeful and prosperous future. Band-aiding the arts away from criticism that they are too ephemeral for an increasingly tough world, and that they are not connected to the real world, disguising them in the short-term garb of particular investment and profitability, actually threatens a society with the loss of the intellectual and emotional tools it desperately needs. These are the tools, the well-exercised muscles for thought, debate, challenge, flexibility and compassion that test our metal in the safe environment of pretend and hypothetical in a way that moves us, makes us feel, gives us catharsis and then stimulus, knowledge and power to act. This is the potential of art. Are we happy to neglect this treasure for the sake of jobs in video gaming?
I am not confusing art with entertainment, because entertainment also differs from art in that it understands its market and plays to it. It wants to satisfy an existing market – and make money out of it. This is almost the definition of entertainment. I'm not decrying it – fun and entertainment have their place, but there is no threat to entertainment. Entertainments tend to be faddish, and they run with novelty; some traditional forms of entertainment are already being superseded by new creative industries, especially screen-based applications. But entertainment as a whole is terrifyingly healthy. In skills training terms, there is a demonstrable demand for unending supply.
No, I am talking about those individuals who, through certain gifts – usually called talent – frequently coupled with energy and persistence, and the smart nurturing of those qualities through the home and education, emerge as adolescents with their sense of curiosity and originality intact, and have the encouragement and the means to forge ahead along wholly original paths. Some remain loners; others meet those of like mind and form bands, companies, collectives, schools, and so on. But these are the ones who are not market driven – and to the despair of their families and their teachers, they simply do not have it in them to tread established tracks. Existing markets do not provide a suitable platform for their new ideas and methodologies – there are no obvious career paths for those who are playing with elemental creativity. Often what they do looks lazy, crazy and unacceptable. Many of them start acquiring skills for the manifest expression of what they are thinking and feeling. This is where arts education comes in – instruments, bodies, methodologies, histories, masters, apprenticeships, research, exposure to other art and ideas, these things are all grist to their urgent and hungry mill.
For as long as it takes for them to develop their skill and their individual voice, as long as it takes to develop an audience or a market for their work, such activity does not make money. It requires subsidy. Along the way, those who encounter the new ideas and forms of expression have the ephemeral benefit, and may be inspired in their own work or creativity. That's already good for society. Some of these artists, in the pursuit of their own inner-driven goal, will make the leap to various creative industries and it is good that those industries are there, working and healthy, ready to accept them.
In other cases, the emerging ideas and new methodologies will in any case simply fetch up in the creative industries through stealth. An advertising executive from one of the major Australian agencies once said that his profession desperately needed the arts to stay edgy and edgier, since that originality was the source of their inspiration. The very best new ideas in art, theatre and music always fetch up a year or so later in a commercial application. But unless a society can ensure that there is a framework in which art, its research and development, its newest and boldest ideas are supported in a raft of different ways – through education, venues and materials, the encouragement of audiences to be open to new ideas – then we simply stifle one of the richest seams of originality and experience, one of the most fertile avenues we possess for the exploration of what it means to be human.
ART – NOT ONLY the existing canon and collections of the past and their representation and re-interpretation, but every shade of the new, ugly, unloved and unknown, as I call them – needs enthusiastic support. The unsuccessful endeavours, just like research and development in science and medicine, are every bit as important as the huge hits. Those who dare the newest weirdest stuff should be supported and encouraged every bit as much as those whose work immediately resonates and becomes popular and therefore potentially profitable. It is the entire environment that enables success and progress, and there are more than a few these days who have adopted environmental terminology to describe the necessary steps to preserving a healthy eco-system in the arts. I had been resisting the environmental vocabulary until I had the very good fortune to meet Dr Brian Walker, who is currently the Science Program director of the Resilience Alliance and was chief of the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology. I was drawn to his explanations of resilience thinking and just how applicable it is to the arts.
Resilience is defined as ‘the capacity of a system to avoid disturbance and still retain its basic function'. While this focus has arisen from environmental studies, it immediately struck me as being applicable to all systems – ecological, human and sociological. It is worth teasing out the connection in some detail as I believe it provides an unusually robust defence of how we might approach a resilient arts sector. According to Brian Walker: ‘[We] are all part of some system of humans and nature (socio-ecological systems). How do you approach the task of management in this complex world? Do you assume things will happen in much the same way tomorrow as they did yesterday? Are you confident the system you are working in won't be disrupted by little surprises? Do you appreciate what's needed for a system to absorb unexpected disturbances? ... All of these questions relate to resilience, the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure. They also relate to concepts of sustainability and the challenge of servicing current system demands without eroding the potential to meet future needs. How can we make the systems that we depend on resilient?'
Walker's theory is that ‘most systems of nature usually proceed through recurring cycles consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and re-organisation'. I see this in arts companies and rock bands. First, rapid growth when things are achieved on the smell of an oily rag, incredible effort for little initial return except developing the quality of the work and its reputation. Next conservation: the period in which growth slows, methodologies settle or, as Brian Walker and David Salt's book Resilience thinkingdescribes it, ‘the competitive edge shifts from opportunists ... to specialists who reduce the impact of variability... [there is] more specialisation and greater efficiencies of large economies of scale ... As the system's components become more strongly interconnected, its internal state becomes more strongly regulated. Prospective new entrants or new ways of doing things are excluded ... Efficiency increases and the future seems ever more certain and determined.'
This is the phase in which a company solidifies its reputation, starts paying people properly, gets an important board and starts to become trendy – at this point, it is harder for younger or different artists to ‘get in' because the work of the company is based on its success so far. This feels confident and lasting, but the cost of efficiency is that the system becomes more rigid and resilience declines.
The transition to the next phase can happen in a heartbeat. The longer the conservation phase the smaller the shock needed to end it. A disturbance that exceeds the system's resilience breaks its web of reinforcing interactions. The system comes undone: fires, drought, insects and disease can undo ecosystems, just as a new technology can derail an entrenched industry. The dynamics are chaotic, but the destruction has a creative side – uncertainty rules; all options are open and leads quickly to re-organisation and renewal. Novelty can thrive. Small, chance events can powerfully shape the future. Invention, experimentation and re-assortment are the order of the day.
Indeed, in Britain recently and in a small way South Australia, this kind of chaotic event was enabled, all bets were off, older theatre companies were reassessed and defunded, new ones supported. That needs to happen more often. No matter how good a company's reputation, if it has ceased making inspirational work then the resources should be released for new energies to make use of them.
What this means is that it is a good thing to pump more resources into creative industries. It is helping promote resilience in that it invests in and promotes the new instead of constantly bolstering the old modes for ageing audiences. But this cannot be at the expense of art, that which requires subsidy and investment with no guarantee of return as an industry. I fear that the current fad for creative industries – which are acceptable because they are profitable – may supplant support for the arts. The disguise of creativity is a potential thief.
Unless we also champion, preserve and support unprofitable art, creative industry is deprived of its prime source of inspiration. Failing to nurture the raw materials and concentrating on the part that is economically attractive is fatal for the system as a whole. It would be healthier if potentially profitable creative industries were situated in the portfolio of industry, and therefore presented no competitive threat to art and culture.
Unfortunately, the pattern often goes like this. A government will strike out with a new initiative to support a new form of activity, and then those with experience, resources, audiences and powerful boards – that is, the most conservative and most businesslike arts institutions – make sure that the new initiatives do not come at their expense. The customary pattern is that resources are bled away from the sector that most needs support – independent, small, ugly and unknown – those who usually do not have the capacity to defend themselves. Yet this is the most vital part of the system – the raw seed that eventually grows to feed the majors and the industries. Wounding and depleting the system at its source is probably the most destructive act.
By all means, make way for new technologies, back the future – but unless we take care of the whole, and especially its feral edge, those vitally important little wildfires that ensure new growth, then we doom our future culture to weakness and bleak instability. If you ask me what a creative society and workforce looks like, all I can do is point to its prerequisite – a society that encourages its leaders to use the money it gives them to ensure resilience – so it can absorb change. Resilience is built by ensuring that not just the tall trees are nurtured, cared for and invested in, but that little experiments are equally supported, so that when the tall trees totter and start to decay – as they will – the saplings are strong enough to keep the forest alive.
A creative society is one that is flexible and generous and values all its collective enterprise and activity – one that prizes resilience, and the positive and continuing support not only of the tallest and most celebrated trees, or the sexy new ways in which one promotes, deploys their strengths and profits from them, but also the small and vital, but as yet largely unnoticed new growth at the bottom of the forest. It is from this floor that the future emerges. Neglect it, deprive it, render it less important and less worthy of investment and, despite your best efforts looking after the canopy, your forest is already dying.