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.

The outrage on Hosier Lane and who has the right to the city

When a crew descended on Melbourne’s Hosier Lane using fire extinguishers to paint the walls, condemnation was swift. While the lane is celebrated for its street art by the City of Melbourne and punters across the globe, the reaction of property holders and city authorities to this latest installation demonstrates their appreciation of street art stretches only to the extent it increases tourism and bring buyers into shops.  When they can co-opt street artists as unpaid labour to paint unchallenging images, it will be celebrated, but upset the establishment and they will criminalise you.

Referring to Melbourne as the ‘street art capital of Australia’ and noting the ‘ephemeral and forever changing’ nature of street art, Lord Mayor Sally Capp – with zero irony – stated that the latest installation was the work of ‘vandals’, ‘unacceptable and not in keeping with the spirit of Hosier Lane’. She indicated an intention to treat the artists involved as criminals. Property owners and others weighed in on the artwork. Chase Joslin, who manages Culture Kings, a street wear store that capitalises off the street art culture, said in a statement to the ABC:

In a matter of minutes it was destroyed. It’s a real shame. … Coming through and destroying people’s art, I don’t think it’s part of the culture. … There’s not much art to it.

These statements are astonishing if you accept City of Melbourne and Culture Kings’ support of street art culture, but to most street artists they’re unsurprising.

The line between what is classed as vandalism, which is widely condemned, and street art, which is tenuously celebrated, is vague and requires examination. Both refer to artworks that occur in public. Melbourne City Council delineate the difference as to whether the artwork is ‘unwanted.’ I suggest it is more useful to think in terms of whether the artwork is authorised. Authorised may mean explicitly commissioned, tacitly encouraged – as exemplified by Hosier Lane – or a more vague form of authorisation, such as areas which become known as ‘street art spots’ where council and property owners seem not to take action to criminalise artists or remove artworks. Unauthorised works also fall within a spectrum, from where no attempt is made by the artist to gauge consent from an owner, to putting up works in areas known as ‘safe zones’ such as Presgraves Place or Hosier Lane in Melbourne. Whereas ordinarily artists would have to seek explicit permission from the property owner in order to avoid possible criminal sanction, in these areas very few do so on the tacit understanding that artwork there is encouraged or at least, accepted.

The recent ‘painting over’ the large mural-esque images that make up much of Hosier Lane’s artwork was an important critique of the co-option of street art and a commentary on who ascribes value. Its point was missed by the very people it sought to critique. That Melbourne City Council is now seeking to criminalise those artists demonstrates that their appreciation of street art dissipates when it presents a challenge to their authority.

Everyone is required to engage with public space, but few have the legal right to impact it. The appearance of, surfaces within, and images in our cities articulate our socio-political, legal and cultural make-up. Blank walls, locked gates, neat lawns, paste-ups, tags, murals and advertising bollards are neither aesthetically nor politically neutral. Unauthorised street art makes an important and politically charged contribution.  It is direct democracy exercised over the appearance of public space and changes both the appearance of a wall or building and the experience of the society in which it is encountered. It creates radical possibilities for new ways of existing. If the appearance, function and experience of the city is understood as an expression of the law – what Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos refers to as a ‘lawscape’  – then street art shifts the law, and hence power dynamics,  in profound ways.

Much of the art in Hosier Lane is shaped by the tacit approval of Melbourne City Council. To distance themselves from ‘unauthorised’ street art and controversial genres such as tagging, many artists utilise realist imagery and make palatable murals designed to be widely shared on social media, using terms such as ‘aerosol art’ to describe this practice. Authorisation co-opts street art culture and nurtures an inherently different form of artwork, as the impact of putting up work without authority is removed.

Last Sunday’s incursion critiqued this culture of co-option, and the images that predominate in Hosier Lane.  It provoked questions of value and who gets to define whether something is art. In doing so, it thoroughly annoyed the political establishment. More than mere annoyance, Melbourne City Council has indicated its intention to criminalise the artists.  This indicates both the threat unauthorised street art poses to the political establishment and the contempt with which artists are held.

Melbourne City Council are unlikely to begin criminalising every artist who paints in Hosier or other ‘safe spots’ around the city. When they realise the importance of this latest piece, and its appreciation by street art enthusiasts, they may soften their approach. They may also seek to further articulate their policy on street art and further control it. If they do, they can expect more pushback from artists who understand that the right to the city is theirs.

Reposted from Overland.

Video by deansunshine.

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Erin Buckley is a Melbourne-based lawyer, academic, and sometime artist, who lives and works on Wurundjeri country.