As an artist my life is about asking myself a bunch of big questions. They’re not new questions and they are probably not that big to anyone except me, but they’re my questions. Often one of those questions can lead me to ask another that on the surface seems completely unrelated. as it did the other day when Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, cut 478 vocation courses from those eligible for student loans, of which 57 were arts related.
We’ve taken a bit of a kicking in the arts of late, and it got me thinking about the value of culture in my country which in turn led me to ask myself this. The Donald is President, Britain has exited the EU and Australia has become the largest net exporter of liquid natural gas in the world, so what do these three things have in common?
To help me answer that question I began to reflect on a quote from Peter Weir’s beautiful film Dead Poets Society where the late Robin Williams’ character tells his students to “…avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy”.
“A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do. ” he tells them.
While I agree that it is perhaps a little loose with its theory about the origins of language, it is a quote that nevertheless contains a number of potent truths. The most obvious is that language, and more particularly, English as a result of it being created by linguistic bower birds, is incredibly rich.
Words, so innocent on the page, take on a profoundly different character when purposefully and articulately employed in the public arena.
Yes, it has given us ‘sad’ and ‘morose’ but it has also lovingly filled the space in between with words like ‘sorrow’, ‘woe’ and my particular favourite, ‘melancholy’; the lugubrious, reflective ennui which I often find myself indulging in for no good reason other than because I can.
It can be paradoxical too in its richness as it is with ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitude’, two words that both describe the physical state of being on one’s own yet; the former expresses its profound emotional pain and the latter celebrates its rather selfish joy. And so it goes.
What the Dead Poets Society quote also alludes to is that language has great power. Words – so innocent and seemingly inert on the page of a dictionary take on a profoundly different character when they are purposefully and articulately employed in the public arena, a place where they have the capacity to both unite and divide us, to cement accord or inflame dissent.
If you combine an authority over language with a knowledge of history and an understanding of human behaviour what you then have is an influential toolkit with which you can alter the course of a country, or indeed, an entire civilisation. But if you get the mix even slightly wrong and add a bit of arrogance or ignorance to the pot you can, and more often will, inflict great damage.
Common sense begins to collectively seem less sensible when there is a cognitive distortion between rhetoric and reality.
Historians tell us this has occurred on numerous occasions but perhaps the most cautionary — and reasonably topical example given the centenary of ANZAC– of how a command of language, an insight into basic human behaviour, egoism and a misreading of history can wreak havoc came in August 1914 when a seemingly optimistic and largely prosperous civilisation decided to collectively commit suicide.
World War 1 would ultimately result in the death or wounding of 38 million people and one of the key players in the carnage was language, language used to create a condition for which English, with all its richness, has a special word: ‘hegemony’.
Hegemony is the forceful articulation of fundamental concepts that become so deeply embedded in common-sense understandings that they are taken for granted and beyond question. Not any old concepts will do for this to occur. Whatever is being proposed must appeal naturally to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities that seem inherent in the social world we inhabit.
For Britain and her dominions, WW1 was a strangely appealing fait accompli; victory was assured and it was backed by value-laden rhetoric like “King and Country” “The might of the British Empire” and “The Filthy Hun” — and it worked a treat. Australians signed up in their droves, often walking hundreds of miles for the opportunity to be popped on a boat, sailed half way around the world, join in the common sense and be slaughtered.
But as the common sense begins to collectively seem less sensible, when there is a cognitive distortion between the rhetoric and the reality, a hegemony can start to unravel and the symptoms of that unravelling can be found in words. Plain language gets tossed out and a linguistic cat and mouse game begins where phrases are used to disguise, rather than illuminate action. Perhaps the most striking example of this collapse in meaning during WW1 was the use of the word ‘wastage’.
Even during the quieter days on the Western Front, allied casualties from shelling in trenches to men waiting to fight were a staggering 7,000 per day. At a point it became obvious that the truth of those numbers was unsustainable and new term had to be found to account for the deaths and injuries. The reports stopped quoting numbers and instead simply read “normal wastage”.
As the four-month long assault known as Third Ypres came to an end in November 1917 (remembered by Australians as The Battle of Passchendaele), the combined German and Allied losses in that little patch of southern Belgium were estimated to have been as high as 1,000,000 dead or wounded. Field Marshall Haig’s dispatch read “Normal wastage”.
If language is anything to go by, the wheels of the neo-liberalism hegemony are falling off.
The word most often used by historians to describe the mood of the people at the end of WW1 is ‘disenchanted’. It is now widely accepted that what they were disenchanted by was not so much the carnage but rather the realisation that language no longer meant what it was supposed to mean. What was spoken of as a great victory in hegemonic terms from behind a benevolent mask of wonderful-sounding words like ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ was in truth a profound, painful and devastating loss at the hands of naked class power. The people had in effect been betrayed by language.
So what does all this have to do with The Donald, Brexit and gas? Well it may be 100 years later but the basic hegemonic formula remains the same and we live with one now.
It’s nothing as cataclysmic as WW1 and not nearly as noisy. It’s something rather more benign, so much so that many of us don’t even know what it is. It’s been around for about 40 years and it’s called neo-liberalism, the economic savior of a generation.
Like WW1, it was born out of an apparently intractable crisis and so seemed inevitable. Political parties of the right, centre and left all bought into its philosophy, they knew no other way of thinking or doing and so it became “the common sense”. For a while it worked well. It transformed the way we do business but then it fell into the hands of ideologues and, like communism under Stalin, it become a shadow of its former self. And, if language is anything to go by, the wheels of the neo-liberalism hegemony are falling off.
In the United States the power elite kept telling the people that trickle-down economics would create opportunities for all Americans, that this trade deal would do this, this one that. They told them that austerity was common sense and privatisation was inevitable, that the concentration of private wealth was good fortune and that rising inequality, student debt resulting from the decline in social funding for education, the loss of well-paying manufacturing employment due to globalisation and declining working-class incomes and social power where a fait accompli.
At the same time they kept telling them how great their country was. But their language, much like ‘wastage’, simply didn’t match the reality. The common sense no longer made sense and so along came The Donald to fill the “meaning vacuum”.
Trump told them how it really was. He pointed out that several decades of neoliberalism had left their country’s infrastructure in ruins, that working class wages were stagnant, that the trickle down had failed to create anything much other than billionaires and that the richest country in the world had more than 20% of its people living below the poverty line.
He told them what they saw, that America wasn’t great and then forcefully articulated what they wanted to believe, that it could be again. So what we have is perhaps the greatest irony of the century, a divisive, misogynistic, messianic nihilist who is one of the most visible beneficiaries of neoliberalism leading the most powerful nation on earth away from another betrayal and into a new age. The sentiments that surround Brexit, though subtly different are fundamentally the same. The language of politicians purporting one thing while the reality that people saw in their streets was something completely different. Betrayal.
In Australia we’ve had several announcements in the last weeks that exemplify a similar disconnect. The first was that we are now the largest net exporter of LNG in the world, something that we should all be immensely proud of. Although a deal done by our leaders means that we will see no real benefit from this windfall for at least six years and even then, very little will go into our pockets.
In fact, in the same way that we subsidise all our mining based on royalty deals sealed in the 1960s, it has come at a net cost. And to add a bit of icing to the cake, this innovation in policy has led to Chevron, the gas field operator, cutting 1200 jobs in WA since hitting full production while its share price has grown by 20% in 12 months.
Change and continuity. Innovation, jobs and growth. Sound familiar? It is unsurprising then to discover that in this age of trickle-down and common sense austerity the three richest people in Australia have a greater net worth than the bottom 10% of the population. You would hope so because, as was announced just two weeks ago, those 10% and an additional five percent are living below the poverty line. And amongst those three million Australians are 731,000 children.
The government’s response to these figures was to reassure us that it is“…very committed to finding ways to encourage people to look after themselves”. Doubtless each one of those quarter of a million children are profoundly grateful. Two minute noodles anyone?
Of course in the arts we have known about this language disconnect for quite some time although we persist in playing our own cat and mouse game with governments in spite of it. Every day it seems we open our doors to hear someone tell us how important ‘Arts and Culture’ are to our society while we watch them take a little more public funding away. Then we busily try to make art that is excellent.
Then we say, “but cultural industries contribute $8 billion to the national economy” and they say, “oh that’s great, we need the cultural industries to drive our innovative new economy”, and then they take a bit more money away, and on it goes.
This confused common-sense has left our peak arts advocacy body, the Australia Council, so moribund in managerialism that I’m not sure they know what art is anymore. It’s the same cognitive distortion that has left arts workers in this country at a loss to explain what they do, or where they fit in — if in fact, they fit anywhere.
But then there was Simon Birmingham and it all became clear. First up, he put on his long pants and firmly denounced the rorting by the private sector of the vocational education system. This is what I call a double-handed grab back, when a neoliberal ideologue takes credit for stopping something his colleagues started. He followed that up with a piece of classically parodic hegemonic artistry when he explained that the courses had been jettisoned because they were not a part of our economic future. Well Simon, you’re on very solid ground there, they are in fact no longer a part of our economic future because they are, thanks to your cuts, no longer.
Arts is a “lifestyle choice” and that means it goes into the big BBQs and outdoor furniture section.
Then, thank goodness he let the ideological cat out of the bag. The point Simon was really making is the one I have suspected our politicians have being trying to make for a few years but haven’t quite known how to do it. It took the British a while to arrive at “wastage” so I’ve been patient waiting for this euphemism and Simon at last delivered. We really don’t need these courses, because they are, as Simon said “a lifestyle choice”. The arts and culture are a lifestyle choice which in hegemonic terms means they are not something we need and that means they go into the big BBQ’s and outdoor furniture section. Finally some clarity.
We don’t need beauty, we don’t need reflection, we don’t need understanding of who we are, or what our purpose may be in life. We have no need to collectively reflect on the past or imagine our future, because the past, as I have shown, has nothing to teach us and we know what our future looks like.
It’s bright and it’s rosy but there are no jewellers, actors, dancers or journalists. It will be economically rocky initially, but if we knuckle down it will be bounteous — and Chevron may even drop a few dollars in the pot.
There will be no beauty except that which is mass produced, but it will be full of other trickle down goodies, mostly made in China. It is populated by university educated automatons who paid off their higher education debt by pole dancing and who work on casual contracts and then go home at night and watch re-runs of Australia’s Got Talent from their hot-tubs. And to think you can choose to do anything else is un-Australian, particularly if you don’t have wealthy parents who can indulge you. In other words, don’t dream. Beauty, dreams, personal dignity and all the things that make us human are at stake.
Well I don’t know about you but I’ve had enough. The common sense just doesn’t make sense anymore and it is incumbent on artists and anyone who feels powerless to say so. We need to stop responding to this hegemonic nonsense in its dysfunctional language and find a new way of talking about who we are and what we do that makes some sense in not economic but simple human terms. For too long we have been encouraged to turn away from treating the public realm as place for social improvement, compassion, understanding and change.
By turning our backs on our values and replacing them with individualism, we have succeeded in dissocialising civic pain, stifling ambition and are slowly ripping the soul from our society. And now this government, not satisfied with privatising everything that hasn’t been nailed down, has taken the extraordinary step of privatising one of the few things we have left, hope.
“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher said, “only individuals and families.” For the Iron Lady it was a dream, but if the last few weeks in Australian politics are anything to go by, it is fast becoming a reality. No more carping on about what the arts are worth please. Let’s start showing people.