Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Julian Meyrick on creativity during the time of the coronavirus

Julian Meyrick writes:

‘The arts and culture we will turn to in coming months to fill our time in isolation will provide us not just with distraction, but with meaning …

Arts and culture make important and varied contributions to the national economy and social cohesion. But the reason they do so is because of their intrinsic value. This arises in two forms.

Firstly, our culture is a steady source of thoughts, feelings, stories, images and moments which coalesce and collectively define us – what the philosopher John Searle called “the background”. Culture brings us pleasure, connection, meaning and joy, and in the current situation that’s a significant contribution to our narrowing lives.

Secondly, and even more crucially, it is where we may find our best selves. To act in a creative way is to act generously. This is not to say that artists are better than anyone else, or that creativity is the sole preserve of the arts. It is to observe that to be creative is to give to others through a selfless impulse to share, and not just a desire to monetise that relationship as an economic transaction …’.

You can read the full article here.

Coronavirus: cancelling culture

The global coronavirus pandemic is escalating so rapidly that an observation made in the morning is likely to out of date by the afternoon. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, however, that the material conditions of artists and arts workers nationally, and globally, are being destroyed by this pandemic. An industry that relies on people being able to gather is wholly vulnerable in a time when no one can gather. And yet people find a way: one of the few gladdening stories to emerge in recent days has been the knowledge that quarantined Italians are singing and playing music to each other from their balconies.

We gather even without being able to gather. Such feats of solidarity and creativity are essential during this crisis.

What does singing matter when so much is at stake? Who cares about art when people are dying? Art matters because it is one of the most ancient ways we have of forming community: telling stories, singing songs, and making sound and images, are acts that bond us together as human beings. More than this, these acts can teach us something about our place in a complex and fragile ecosystem, a web of life. In an essay for [The Monthly] last year, which detailed the long-term damage done to Australian arts by decades of funding cuts and political neglect, Alison Croggon wrote: “It feels fatuous to talk about Australian art and culture amid such overwhelming global crises – and yet it also feels impossible not to note this context.” That observation is just as applicable now.

From Monday, March 16, “non-essential” outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people were temporarily banned by the federal government, and the list of cancelled arts events and festivals in Australia is growing rapidly. Sydney’s annual Vivid Festival, scheduled for May, was cancelled last Sunday. Byron Bay’s Bluesfest is cancelled for the first time in 30 years. Sydney Writers’ Festival, scheduled for late April, was cancelled, after having only announced its full program last week. Arts venues in Victoria, including the National Gallery of Victoria and the Arts Centre Melbourne, have closed their doors. The Melbourne Comedy Festival is cancelled, and the Melbourne Theatre Company has cancelled all remaining performances of its current productions, as has the Sydney Theatre Company. Sydney Film Festival, scheduled for mid-June, was cancelled on Wednesday. Now that the ban has been extended to indoor gatherings of 100 people or more – as it needs to be, if we are to avoid the scale of public health disaster that has been taking place in Italy – that list of cancellations will only get longer. All but the smallest of arts companies will be prevented from public performance and exhibition under these rules, and even the smallest, as our public health emergency deepens, are cancelling their schedules, out of caution and social responsibility.

Hundreds of thousands of arts workers are going to lose, or have already lost, sources of income because of all this: actors, musicians, writers, comedians, visual artists, programmers, producers, event managers, copywriters, box-office staff, front-of-house staff, technicians, road crew, arts critics and arts journalists, and more. Not to mention those workers employed by hospitality and tourism businesses that rely on venue contracts, or festival visitors, to stay solvent.

The cancellations mentioned above are just the big-ticket, big city events and organisations. Along with them are ranged all the medium to small arts companies – particularly regional arts companies – and individual workers, who are already operating in conditions of precarity, pushed there by long-term funding cuts and widespread casual labour, both within the arts industry and outside of it. The website I Lost My Gig, where arts workers can self-report cancelled employment due to COVID-19, had, by Tuesday, already tallied $100 million dollars of lost income, and counted 380,000 affected workers. The gig economy now so prevalent across different employment sectors, from food delivery to tech, has been the default arts employment mode for a long time, but when there is so little funding available to bolster artists’ wages or production costs, and when the industries that arts workers often turn to for a secondary or even primary income – low-paid industries like hospitality and retail, or tutoring – are also based on casual and contract labour, there is no financial buffer for people to rely on when the shock of a crisis looms. Australian arts has been in crisis for years, so what do you call a crisis on top of a crisis? A catastrophe?

Even in the best circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic would have done enormous damage to Australian arts, but these are far from the best circumstances. As Croggon detailed in her essay last year, part of the long-term problem with Australian arts has been its two-tiered funding model, by which major companies receive the lion’s share of Australia Council funding, while the scraps are left to small organisations and individual artists. Many receive no funding whatsoever. I want to stress that this is not the fault of the Australia Council, which after all must take direction from federal government. And governments both Coalition and Labor have shown a historic tendency to fiddle with the Council’s make-up, its funding models, and the money available to it, as in 2015, when the then federal arts minister, George Brandis, under the prime ministership of Tony Abbott, took $104 million from the Australia Council’s budget to divert into a new ministerial arts fund, Catalyst, while ring-fencing some major arts companies from the Australia Council’s consequent funding cuts. The Catalyst fund, in turn, was axed in 2017, but the money taken has never been returned to the federal arts budget.

Again, it’s not the fault of major arts companies that the arts sector in Australia is so inequitably funded. Every arts company, large or small, is vulnerable in this crisis. But when small organisations and individual artists have no monies whatsoever to spare, the result is likely to be permanent wipe-out for them, in a sector that has already felt the damage – especially the cultural damage – of an economic landscape in which sustaining a long-term arts practice at a small scale, or on a not-for-profit basis, is already close to impossible. My fear is that a federal arts stimulus package – should there even be one – will reinforce this unevenness of funding. And funding matters so much in the Australian context in part because we have nothing like the scale of private philanthropy that bolsters arts organisations in, say, the United States. Now is the time, more than ever, for all arts organisations and arts workers to argue for a significant, widespread and equitably distributed stimulus package.

The virtual roundtable convened by the federal government on Tuesday, and hosted by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher, “provided”, in the bloodless words of the minister’s press release, “an opportunity for Minister Fletcher to hear directly from the arts organisations on the ways they are responding to the challenges they are facing as a result of COVID-19, as well as their suggestions for support measures”. But no support measures specific to the arts have actually been announced. Instead, the minister referred back to the assistance measures outlined in last week’s general stimulus package, through which small to medium businesses can apply for up to $25,000 to cover the cost of employee’s wages. This will do nothing to assist casual employees or contract workers in the arts, and $25,000 will hardly be sufficient to make up for the cash-flow shortfall to small arts companies, whose entire operating budgets are now in jeopardy. Nor should writers be forgotten here, though they are often left out of such discussions because their work is done alone, as if this magically protects them from the labour conditions that affect the arts industry as a whole. There are plenty of writers now wondering if their scheduled books will be published, their newly published books bought, their teaching gigs scrapped, and so on. The cancellation of writers’ festivals, book launches and book tours will have a deleterious effect on authors, who depend on the publicity generated by these events to boost their sales.

In an article for The Conversation on Tuesday, arts writer and Monash University lecturer Ben Eltham outlined some ideas for how an arts stimulus might be put into effect, including by making payments to artist sole traders through the Australian Tax Office. This is the crux of the matter: money needs to go directly to arts workers themselves. It’s no solution if the federal government’s best suggestion, as it has been so far, is to direct all affected casual workers – in the arts sector or otherwise – to Centrelink, there to await the slow administration of a manifestly inadequate unemployment allowance, or a short-term sickness benefit. Forgive me if I have little faith in the Morrison government’s willingness to help arts workers to any degree, when the same government, in December, abolished the federal arts ministry.

In a situation where the global spread of COVID-19 underlines, once again, that an economic system based entirely on profit-making and commodity production will quickly spiral into crisis when things cannot be bought and sold, art matters precisely because the value it creates is never wholly measurable in terms of profit. Art matters now because it demonstrates, as it always has, that there are ways of being in the world, and things we can make in the world, that might be an alternative to commodity production. Meanwhile, we live inside of capitalism – this enormous global commodity system, its parts intermeshed – which means that arts workers, along with everyone else, have got to sell something to survive: their labour or art, or both. And all of a sudden there is precious little to sell. May this crisis make us think more deeply, more urgently, about the need to organise together; about the fact that when workers, including arts workers, bear all the risk in a labour market, we are all acutely vulnerable when the risks multiply. This vulnerability is not inevitable, just the way things are; it is the result of politics. I think again of Bertolt Brecht, and the motto he appended to a section of his Svendborg Poems cycle, in 1939:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

Reposted from The Monthly.

Image from Italy Magazine.

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Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.