Pic: Mark Broadhurst

News & Commentary

The death of meaning

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Some weeks ago, at the funeral of much-loved colleague Annie Phelan, one of the senior members of our profession, Terry Norris, used a particular phrase in his speech to describe the world we used to inhabit as performers. “Our business” he called it, a term that carries with it a culture of traditions and values that are as old as time itself, a very human phrase that speaks of the deeply meaningful and ineffably complex web of relationships that made up our world both personal and professional. It is a phrase that encompasses the ups and downs, the long years of hard work, the irregular brushes with fame, the moments when something occasionally goes right, the times when more often something goes wrong.

Watching my colleagues celebrating a life well lived, a life of performance, activism, of ideas and passion, it became clear when each family or community member or professional colleague spoke that Annie’s life was more than that of a good actress, it was a life that gave meaning to everyone and everything she touched.

“The market will decide,” they say and it has. It’s decided we don’t need art that has meaning, that what we need is product.

That powerful sense of meaning was tempered by the conversations I had afterwards in the foyer of the theatre in which Annie’s funeral took place. Conversations that spoke of bewilderment and confusion. A foyer full of actors, directors and writers all of whom were struggling, as one of my colleagues commented, for relevance, for meaning. This prompted in me a question: “Where does ‘our business’ and the meaning it implies sit within the neoliberal world of Creative Industries?”. And the answer sadly is that ‘our business’ is no longer any of our business.

The introduction of creative industries promised so much: an ambitious idea to combine culture and the economy in a way that would bring – not just economic growth in this new technological age, but increased participation – participation in an informed, articulate future, a creative and ideas-rich society in which we would all benefit.

The understanding was that the arts would be central to that ideal by continuing to focus on the task of framing the social and cultural narrative while importantly opening minds to creative thinking for broader economic benefit. That benefit would be harnessed by cultural industries, using the creativity at the heart of traditional arts practice to drive commercial innovation. It seemed like a perfect fit. And yet its drunken, ideologically-driven implementation has instead, in a relatively short time, almost completely derailed traditional arts practice.

A successful contemporary society must have a robust and innovative economy, one that is able to adapt and adapt quickly. Change requires big thinking, it requires a narrative and it requires risk backed by creative solutions. But like so much of Australia’s politics – whether it be energy policy or climate change, manufacturing or education – arts policy within the creative industries remit has been delivered bereft of coherent narrative, short of creative vision and almost allergic to risk. In effect, it has been stripped of the very things that make it creative.

We, the artists, have been complicit in this slide into irrelevance without even knowing it.  

Instead neoliberal politicians on both sides of the house have done as they always to do when something isn’t black or white: reduce a complex and multilayered sector full of nuance and meaning to a base objective, defend sectional interests and then throw the rest of it into the too hard basket. In neoliberal terms that means that redoubtable cure-all ‘the market’. “The market will decide,” they say and it has. It’s decided we don’t need art that has meaning, that what we need is product.

Rather than integrate a centuries-old tradition into the economy for the benefit of all, the imperialising nature of this dumbed down version of creative industries has secured the interests of the wealthy. With the top end of town boarded up, that part of creativity that belongs to all of us, that apparently archaic idea of culture as separate or apart from pure economics, the bit that asks the questions of what binds us, that helps shape public policy through deeper community understanding, the type of creativity that promotes the all-important innovation and freights a thing that even the brightest economists haven’t yet been able to monetise – meaning – has vanished.

And with meaning shed from its lexicon, the technocrats have transformed the creative arts from something that was designed over time as a finely balanced mechanism for the exchange of ideas and a source of innovative thinking into a blunt market instrument defined only by aggregated acts of purchase. It has been a slow stripping away of the reasons behind supporting an arts sector that has occurred stealthily over time, so perniciously that ongoing funding cuts have left us with almost nothing to defend. And we, the artists, have been complicit in this slide into irrelevance without even knowing it.  

What has happened to artists is not unlike the fate of any of those in an abusive relationship. As it is in many alcoholic homes, the opportunity to be involved in big picture decisions is removed from the family. The alcoholic continues to drink despite protest and slowly collective action against the principal threat begins to dissipate. The family instead turn their attention to what they feel they can control amidst the chaos. The minutiae. They ensure that the table setting is perfect, the garden neat, the washing folded, the shoes shined. Minor details that point to normality take on great importance because the big problem, the source of all the dis-function, the drinking, is beyond your influence. And you stay, either because you’re too young to leave, you believe it will change or you have no alternative.

But it doesn’t change and over time, as the pressure mounts and all sense of trust disappears, family members struggling to keep their individual heads above water begin to turn on each other in the most destructive of ways. Self-preservation replaces collective care as the personal insecurity and fear builds and criticism emerges as the standard form of communication. And over time that criticism turns outwards to anyone or anything that appears to have more, seem more successful, more content, are more in control because to do otherwise would be to look down on yourself. To blame yourself for not being good enough to make it stop. Eventually, without even being aware of it, life has been reduced to an every man for himself scenario, a frightening state of isolation with the principal driver of the mess, alcoholism, all but forgotten. 

All sorts of divisive comments have been hurled around as we each sought the attention of an addicted parent with nothing to give and in the process whatever unity we had as a sector has steadily evaporated.

So too in the arts. We went along with the early signs of policy drunkenness, the initial cuts, encouraged to believe the promises that things would improve. Over time they didn’t, and as our trust was shaken by the wild actions of the alcoholics governing our futures and our fear grew, we slowly became less concerned about the overall health of the ecosystem and focussed instead on our own patch believing somehow that the big problem, those ongoing and capricious funding cuts were beyond our control.

We concentrated instead on the minutiae, our own practice and with time the defence of our own practice turned to the criticism of others. While the top end of town took to ignoring its most valuable asset, the emerging artists, the bottom end of town started complaining about the top. Circus is rubbish, spoken word theatre is dead, installation art isn’t art. All sorts of divisive comments have been hurled around as we each sought the attention of an addicted parent with nothing to give and in the process whatever unity we had as a sector has steadily evaporated. So here we stand, a disparate group of exhausted, isolated, frightened individuals staring at an elephant that is far too big to eat alone with our capacity for collective action all but gone.

We need to see the true status of the arts in the minds of politicians, its separateness from creative industries and recognise the deep-seated political belief that art making is economically soft and so socially pointless: a truth that is clear whenever funding decisions are announced.

Embarrassingly small grants are handed out like cheap Christmas gifts at a work function by drunken technocrats who spend all of their time making statements designed to convince someone that everything is brilliant. In the case of my own state Victoria that means being continually reassured that we are cultural capital of the southern hemisphere while we are forced to watch a minister magnanimously hand out $1.2 million per funding round to a struggling independent arts scene, a ludicrous sum that is substantially less than the collective pay check for the first round losers at the Australian Open. All accompanied by shimmering statements describing a competitive sector brimming with vitality. In truth it is political drunkenness that simply points to the contempt with which all addicts hold reality and the complete disregard these particular addicts have for those affected by them.

And now, despite assurances from a Federal government that has no arts policy that it is maintaining its commitment to the arts they have removed it as a federal department in what is yet another small step on the road to an ever more certain oblivion. “Our business” doesn’t exist. Another sliver. Nothing big like Brandis, just an abusive, incremental slice.

Can we expect the states to rally with funding or moral support? History tells us no. Despite that raid on Arts funding by George Brandis that ripped the heart out of the sector at a Federal level in 2016, all of our state governments failed to take the opportunity to step up in any meaningful way. In the shadow of those cuts the Victorian State Government delivered a budget surplus of over $1 billion, $106 million of which was handed on to the Creative Industries and not one cent of that windfall went to funding the arts. Another example of how what we are led to believe is at odds with what we see, another example of ideologically driven book burning, a symptom of a form of government that no longer deals in the truth, addicted to an ideology regardless of the consequences.

It’s not about money. The IMF estimated that over $29 billion in direct or indirect subsidies were gifted to the fossil fuels and mining industry by governments in Australia in 2017. With one hand they quietly give while with the other they refuse to budge. And they can do it because they know that like the children of alcoholics, we haven’t the collective will to resist.

When, I wonder, is enough enough? As artists we have a social responsibility to make some sort of stand because we are not the only ones affected. If ever there was a time when we needed to put aside our petty differences and stand as one it is now. Forget the institutional responses and the minutiae. We need to focus on the big issue as individuals, the blatantly inequitable and drunken lie that is being perpetrated on our society as a whole or else we will have to accept that we truly are irrelevant.

  1. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2019/05/02/Global-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-Remain-Large-An-Update-Based-on-Country-Level-Estimates-46509
  2. https://creative.vic.gov.au/news/2017/2017-18-state-budget

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