The arts and the political world exist largely in isolation from one another in Australia. Artists and politicians don’t tend to meet regularly, or respond to one another’s work, or rely on each other’s perspective, or call on one another’s advice.
Why is that? Yes, both are incredibly busy and incredibly determined. Both can get lost in the detail of one particular idea, or pulled in a thousand different directions as that idea takes them somewhere unexpected. And both have a sense of how their work contributes to that constantly evolving thing that is the Australian culture – a sense that’s extremely difficult to articulate, but one that is complex, galvanising.
For exactly that reason, I suspect also that both find one another too intimidating to contact or talk to easily. Artists suspect that politicians aren’t interested in them, or worse, that they might be hostile towards them as they focus on other national priorities. Politicians suspect that artists create work that they can’t understand, or work that might unsettle their convictions and challenge them publicly in ways they’d struggle to overcome. Each suspects that the other is more articulate, more confident, and ultimately, more powerful.
Last week, artists informed Parliament’s first sitting with their passions, concerns and bold expectations for addressing the nation’s key priorities.
“The arts should be provocative and disruptive and even on occasion outrageous.” – Arts Minister Mitch Fifield.
As Parliament began its 2018 sitting, Australia’s artists were showing new work in independent and state-owned galleries, in public and unconventional spaces, in studios and online. Each one of these exhibitions offers a perspective on contemporary Australia that’s sensitive and complex, timely and urgent. Like each bill before Parliament, each of these exhibitions has involved many months and possibly even years of work to be ready for this moment.
So what’s on the arts agenda? What have Australia’s artists chosen to make work about? What does the critical mass of all these exhibitions tell us about what’s most pressing right now? And how can we inform decision-making at the highest levels with the voice of the artist?
“The arts should be provocative and disruptive and even on occasion outrageous. They’re sometimes gentle and affirming and embracing as well,” Minister for the Arts Mitch Fifield said in a recent interview. “We want to have a mindset in our community and our society that is innovative, that is creative. Where people can use their talents to create something from nothing… Part of the role of the arts is to push boundaries.”
“Visual art touches us and affects us from the first glance, Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for the Arts, told us. “It is anything but silent and needs to be heard in the corridors of Parliament.”
“Australian artists regularly produce world-renowned works that hold a mirror up to society and show us in new ways, what Australia’s struggles and triumphs are,” said Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Spokesperson for the Arts. We can all acknowledge the wealth that the arts community provides by visiting our local galleries and supporting our artists.”
Sometimes, after years of quiet coexistence, each going about their work with passion and rigour, the arts and the political world collide. It might be an policy change, causing unexpected damage. It might be a human rights protest, achieving unexpected impact.
If those conversations were ongoing – artistic conversations, political conversations, policy conversations, ethical conversations, and ultimately, civic conversations – then neither such event would create massive, irreparable disruption. It would be a normal part of the Australian conversation.
Our elected representatives want to hear from us. So while they’re busy in Canberra this week, #artsagenda lets them appreciate all the work that’s creating the Australian culture.
And that’s a conversation we can all join in on. If you see work that moves you this week, tell the artist. And then tell your local member.
If you see work next week that moves you, tell everyone.
Let’s champion the voice of the artist in setting the national cultural agenda.
Esther Anatolitis is executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts which organised last week’s #artsagenda program