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Julian Burnside: Support the Arts, Support Daily Review

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The arts are profoundly important to our society. Rewarding artists adequately is not only morally right, it is essential if the arts are to flourish. Supporting  artists is bound up with the importance of the arts.

The case for the importance of the arts is not difficult to make, but it is not often made. There are at least two arguments which, in my view, demonstrate that the Arts, in all their forms, are profoundly important.

In my last column, I advanced the first argument. Here is the second: it is a reflection of the first. Take a group of people of fair intelligence and average education and give them a list of names from each of the past five or six centuries and see which names they recognise. Although this is only a thought experiment, I guarantee you that, overwhelmingly, the names most people recognise are those of writers, composers, painters and sculptors;  one or two tyrants perhaps, a couple of scientists and explorers as well; a few (very few) politicians and sportspeople. No lawyers or accountants. Go back a century or so and my instinct is that no politicians or accountants or lawyers will be recognised. Prove me wrong if you will.

The point is that you should never buy a work of art in order to make a profit: you buy it because you like it.

The extent to which artists are recognised in an experiment like this is quite striking. While artists might represent less than one percent of any given population at any given time, they will represent 70 or 80 per cent of the names recognised, and the further back you go, the greater the disproportion in the results. What this demonstrates is that almost everyone acknowledges implicitly the importance of our received culture, the value of the inheritance we all receive from generations of creative artists. We cannot do anything to repay our debt to past generations of artists, but we can try to see the present generation properly rewarded for their work.

But who will advance their cause? Most creative artists struggle to make a living. Some well-meaning people go to auctions and buy second-hand art by dead people. That may generate a profit for the original collector and for the auction house, but it does nothing for the artist, and nothing for the Arts.

Some people buy works by the current “big name” or they think they can pick the next “big name”.

Big mistake.

Buying art with a view to making a profit is not about supporting the arts, it’s about supporting the people who will inherit your estate. Apart from being the wrong motivation, it is probably doomed to failure.


The point is that you should never buy a work of art in order to make a profit: you buy it because you like it.

You want to pick a winner? You will fail.

In 1874, two significant exhibitions were staged in Paris. One was the annual Salon, at which the leading artist was Franz Xavier Winterhalter. He is not widely remembered today, except for a full-length portrait of the young Queen Victoria, painted in about 1842. It’s a good portrait, in the style of its time. But otherwise, if you mention the name, most people won’t remember him. In the same year the second Salon des Refusés, was held.

A rather snippy commentator called Edmond Le Roy went to the Refusés and wrote an unflattering review. He gave the artists a derogatory name. He called them “Impressionists” as a sneer. He drew it from a painting in the show: Impression, Sunrise, by Monet.

Of course, the smart money of the day was rushing off to the Salon and buying Winterhalter, and joined the chorus of abuse of the Impressionists.

Presumably their descendants did not thank them for their choice.

The more people support the work of people whose work they like, the better will be the lives of creative artists.

Support the artists whose work you like. Consider the case of J.S. Bach. He died in 1750. By the early19thcentury, his reputation had sunk: he was regarded as a hack. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) recognised Bach as a remarkably gifted composer. Mendelssohn tried to revive interest in Bach. He arranged a performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829.

Mendelssohn wrote just two piano trios. The final movement of his second piano trio has two extended quotations from a Bach cantata. He was in large part responsible for the revival of Bach’s reputation.

And remember Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)? Everyone has heard his ‘Four Seasons’. Not everyone appreciates that for almost 200 years after his death, Vivaldi had been forgotten. His reputation was restored, and a great deal of his original work was revived, from the 1920s on. In the late 1960s the Nonesuch recording label produced the first vinyl disk of the ‘Four Seasons’.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Not all art is collectible. Composers can only make a living if their work is played and people go along and listen to it. Commission music if you get the chance: it’s not hard. If you aren’t up for the price of a commission, join together with some friends and commission a piece jointly. It is astonishingly satisfying, whether or not you like the music which is composed.

These days there are some very talented women composing music in Australia. Mary Finsterer, Kat McGuffie and Moya Henderson are easy examples. But how often is their music heard? It is notorious that artistic directors of many groups and music festivals tend (unconsciously, of course) to choose music composed by dead white males or (more rarely) living white males. Women who are composing great music find it much harder to get a look in.

Daily Review provides the sort of guide we all need if we are going to make a genuine contribution to the arts in Australia.

The more people support the work of people whose work they like, the better will be the lives of creative artists. If collectors go to shows and buy the work they like, they will enrich the environment in which artists work, and that will enhance the possibility that artists who are genuinely great will have an improved chance of survival. If music lovers go to hear the music of contemporary composers and commission work by composers whose music they like, the environment in which creative artists live will be … friendlier, less hostile.

And think about publications like this. Daily Review helps keep you informed of what is happening in the Australian arts scene right now.

Daily Review makes it easier for all of us to decide what to go and see; what to go and listen to. Daily Review provides the sort of guide we all need if we are going to make a genuine contribution to the Arts in Australia. It deserves our support. It deserves your support.


Main image: Composer Mary Finsterer’s opera Biographica in rehearsal in Sydney in 2017.

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