At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art. Then life will find its very existence from the art – Fyodor Dostoevsky
They say a lot of things about art, some of it rather uncomplimentary. They say an awful lot about artists too, much of which is unprintable. But there are two phrases so often spoken of with respect to the arts and artists that they have ascended to that often unfairly maligned pantheon of sayings we refer to as clichés. “Art mirrors life” is one of them.
This saying has become hackneyed for the same reason all clichés become well worn. It is indisputably true. But in the case of art it is actually more than true because to mirror life is art’s singular purpose. The term has its origins in the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s literary treatise Poetics, where he outlined the basic structure for storytelling.
In it he used the term “mimesis” which translated means imitation or representation. What Aristotle so eloquently described over 2000 years ago is the process whereby an artist sees the world through the prism of his or her understanding, then re-interprets it and reflects it back to the viewer in the shape of art.
‘Art mirrors life’…so if we hold a mirror up to Australia right now what do we see?
It is a process that has remained unchanged through time and expresses itself in any number of mediums; drama, dance, literature, visual art or music but always in the same way. Regardless of form, art creates an “imitation” of the world around it, the prevailing social discourse, the complex inner workings of a society and the more complex questions of human existence. It then presents those things to us in a way that affords us the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our particular world free from the bondage of self. As such, the arts have acted as one of the principal tools to advance civil and human understanding and inspire change since man could speak, or draw, or beat an object with a stick.
At certain times, usually those of profound social dysfunction, the creative world can become engaged with a single social issue in a way that it almost unconsciously assumes the prevailing mood of the society it serves.
Art as a whole begins to mirror life and for the arts in this country this happens to be one of those times. So if we take the arts as a sector in Australia right now and hold a mirror up to it what do we see?
At the top it feels like we are being led by a mob of drunks on a pub crawl squabbling over a bunch of superficial issues like half full glasses of beer while at the same time demonstrating a dazzling lack of unity on important ones. A rabble hopelessly mired in debilitating managerialism, wandering about lost without a vision for the future.
Our creative society, the vibrant community that has been created over the past 60 years is broken.
Instead, our advocates have become obsessed with what Aristotle described as the the least artistic element of art, the spectacle. We are being asked to ignore the bad story and the bad acting and instead focus our attention on the set and the costumes, the beauty of the lead actress and anything else that is removed from the heart of the drama. And at the heart of the drama in the arts in Australia at the moment is the sad fact that our creative society, the vibrant community that that has been created over the past 60 years is broken.
The art world is on the verge of collapse, stripped of its resources and sense of purpose by repeated raids on the meagre public funds available, exhausted by having to justify its existence, devastated by a lack of faith and confounded by language that seems to say one thing but mean another.
A relationship between artists, the public and government that was built on trust and grounded in a mutual respect has ended in a messy divorce for reasons that no-one seems able to articulate. The best suggestion anyone can come up with to salvage what’s left is a candle-lit dinner with big business. The result of all this is that artists are confused, unsure of how to react to any issue and so the majority are falling back on the security of familiar tropes like gender imbalance or cultural representation. The “struggling artist” is indeed struggling.
When we use that particular cliché it is usually accompanied by visions of a malnourished beatnik smoking cheroots in a pigeon loft, sleeping on a mattress on the floor with an upturned box for a bedside table. But the term struggling artist in this context actually refers to the “artists struggle” the struggle, not to make ends meet, but to make creative sense of the world they inhabit.
This used to be uncomfortably simple in Australia, the lucky land of sun, sea and the she’ll be right philosophy, where the hardest question we had to answer was whether we put steak or chops on the hotplate, a country where to look inside yourself for an answer to anything was to be at best a navel gazer or at worst a good old-fashioned wanker. A place where art in some ways had no place.
How do you assist a nation gain an understanding of itself when clearly that nation has no interest in understanding itself?
But in the last few years it has become increasingly difficult to simply “get on with it” in Australia as internal and external forces have begun to put more and more pressure on our carefree existence and things no longer appear as they should be. Perhaps it’s our lack of experience at asking ourselves the big questions, an evolution of the “she’ll be right” philosophy that has seen us forgo all that silly art mirrors life stuff, reject any sense of collective responsibility and decide instead to find someone to blame.
Rather than ask ourselves why things aren’t the way we’d like them we have chosen the softer option of recrimination. The upshot is a country that seems more divided and less benevolent with every passing day, a country that feels like it’s on a road trip but can only make it from one lamppost to the next before we all have to get out because no-one has the slightest idea of where we’re going or what we’re searching for .
It is in these conditions that the artist’s struggle develops another level of complexity. How do you assist a nation to reflect and gain an understanding of itself when clearly that nation has no interest in understanding itself and would prefer to find somebody to lynch? How do you serve a society that seems resigned to having no idea what to believe, being led, one must say on all sides, by a bunch of people who seem incapable of telling us what they believe, if indeed they believe anything at all?
More importantly, how does a nation of fundamentally good people arrive at a place like this? One possible answer to that particular question may be gleaned from that old Greek fishmonger Aristotle and his Poetics. “The artist must imitate either things as they are, things as they are thought to be, or things as they ought to be” said Aristotle, “errors come when the artist imitates incorrectly… factual errors sabotage the entire work and errors that limit or compromise the unity of a given work are much more consequential.”
The artist must honour the story by telling the whole story as truthfully as they can.
What Aristotle was saying in creative terms was that the artist must honour the story by telling the whole story as truthfully as they can. A work will fail to reshape our view when the artists skew the reality they are portraying, when the idea driving the art is not to imitate life as it is but a life that is itself imagined. In the performing arts we refer to this as theatre of reassurance, self-reflective work that is made to distract the viewer with characters and tropes that they find familiar, a work sufficiently detached from the reality that the audience inhabits so as not to challenge them.
A good example of this type of play would be the current Melbourne Theatre Company production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Theatre that doesn’t explore the deep emotional pain of marriage separation but instead makes light of how men behave in those situations. The consequence is that we emerge having had a laugh, knowing that Sean McAuliffe and Francis Greenslade make a good Felix and Oscar but knowing nothing much about the damaging effects of divorce, nothing of its human cost. But with this type of theatre if the spectacle as Aristotle called it isn’t satisfying, if you don’t get the laughs you expect, then the entire experience can seem rather pointless.
In politics the same rules apply. If you feed a population a familiar trope but limit the truth of the surrounding narrative then you get politics of distraction, a reassuring blend of half-truths that placate an electorate and will keep them content until those half-truths aren’t told well.
If that happens and the spectacle isn’t good then you effectively compromise the unity of understanding which in turn leads to polarisation of opinion. But if the delivery mechanism completely fails, if the actors are truly bad and the story is worse than second rate, then what you get is abject confusion and the potential for an audience revolt. A great example of this type of confusion can be found in and around welfare fraud.
Dole bludgers have been a part of our national conversation for close to 50 years. It is interesting that of all the information leaked by government to the media in recent weeks the one thing that has captured our attention more than any other is the case of 20 or so Muslim immigrants that have been ripping off the system. Regardless of the veracity of the claims, this had the effect of implying that all Muslims and all refugees, because all refugees are Muslim aren’t they, are here to rip off our welfare system. Yet the overwhelming majority of the welfare fraud is being committed by multi-generational white Anglo- Saxon Christians, many of them serial offenders. But whatever the case, Australia would be great wouldn’t it if we could just get all these bludgers off the dole?
We are deeply divided about whether Bill Leak is a racist for drawing a cartoon about black children while we do nothing about Aboriginal welfare.
The truth about unemployment in Australia is that our country has been hard hit, as most nations in the west have been, by globalisation. Our employment landscape has changed at a pace that has outstripped our ability to adapt. The vast majority of people receiving income support are young people grappling with a very competitive market or older Australians like the thousands of Ford and Holden workers who have seen their industries closed down.
These are decent people sitting at home staring out a window on $300 per week with skills that no-one wants, watching politicians arguing over tax cuts to big business — businesses that in many cases are either moving their profits offshore or distributing the majority of their profits in dividends so they can pay as little tax as possible.
The unemployed meanwhile are vilified and left to wonder if their lives actually mean anything. All this surrounded by a narrative that says that it is these people have caused the blowout in the Federal Budget. Are these people really dole bludgers? No, but they are tarred with that brush, that same simplistic and brutally unreflective brush that says every Aboriginal is an alcoholic and every priest a paedophile. Is the budget blown out because we have 5% unemployment? Absolutely not. Any self-respecting high school economics student will tell you that is a nonsense. And yet around we go.
It is this same confused, unreflective thinking that allows us to complain about the homeless living in our city streets, demand that someone moves them away from the places where we like to do our Christmas shopping and never have to ask ourselves why they are there.
This is the same superficial thinking that says that every person who tries to enter Australia as a refugee is either a terrorist or an economic vandal. The same thinking that says it makes sense that we imprison people to save lives, that these people must not be allowed to enter Australia because we just can’t fit them. The same thinking that prompts discourse around them taking our jobs while we remain oblivious to the fact that we accepted 170,000 legal migrants last year, as we probably will do this year.
I and many of my colleagues are struggling with the collapse of the inner world of my country and our apparent powerlessness to do anything much to prevent it.
The same logic that has us, Australia, helping to liberate Aleppo by destroying it. It is in this way that all of us can tacitly be party to the killing of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in what has been declared the biggest humanitarian disaster of this century and yet be more concerned with a fall in Australia’s international credit rating. This is the same perverse thought process that has us deeply divided about whether Bill Leak is a racist for drawing a cartoon about black children while we do nothing about aboriginal welfare, somehow believing that the problem will be solved if we just get outraged with a cartoonist. That by condemning Leak we are proving we are neither racist nor socially irresponsible.
And this is what am I struggling with as are many of my colleagues, the collapse of the inner world of my country and our apparent powerlessness to do anything much to prevent it. All we can do is write articles like this one, create what work we can however humble, be they subversive truths or beautiful lies and continue to remind ourselves that it matters little how advanced we think we are; we are still human, we are at the end of the day just flesh and blood and thoughts and feelings. Keep believing that perhaps one day we will come to our senses and accept that life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant and not a page from an Ikea catalogue. That we will realise the feeling of simmering discontent we are experiencing is not a by-product of people rorting the welfare system, but a deep-seated understanding that this, whatever it is, isn’t working.
Of course some people will say that this article is naïve and simplistic, that I clearly don’t understand economic policy and worse, I am, by contemporary definition, an elitist. But what an artist does when they commit to their craft is make a fundamental commitment to the humanity of their society and as such feel I have a duty to write this and to conclude by asking these two questions. Are we really better off than we ever have been before? And if we are, are we content to accept the price of that progress is the loss of that humanity?
When we choose a time for reflection, the artists and their mirrors will be there to support us.
I don’t know if there is a better way but I do know that if there is, very little needs to change materially. I also know that we won’t find that better way unless we collectively decide to go looking and that the looking must begin with us summoning the courage to cast our eyes within. I can say however, with absolute certainty, that when we are ready to do that, when we choose a time for reflection, the artists and their mirrors will be there to support us.