Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Less is more

One of the great challenges for us today is dealing superfluity and information overload. The industrialization of information production has meant that we face a constant bombardment of information that cries out for our attention. The result is that as a society we have lost the ability to see the wood for the trees. Information is power, or so the saying goes. But wisdom is information on steroids. And yet wisdom - the ability to analyze, understand and organize information - has been pushed into the background by our fascination with information.

Here is another way in which the arts can help us. The sculptures of Constantin Brancusi or Alberto Giacometti, haiku poetry or the carefully crafted words of a great novelist show us what can be achieved by focussing on the essence and cutting away the superfluous. The creative process is often about going from the raw block of marble to the core truth. Artists can spend inordinate lengths of time refining their works, usually be removing, refining and cutting back in the knowledge that it is easy to be verbose but a great achievement to be able to reduce an idea or expression to its very quintessence. If our public and political life displayed a similar desire for cutting through the superfluous, the irrelevant we be a lot closer to being able to deal with some of the other great challenges facing us today.

Image: Alberto Giacometti, Standing Woman I, 1960 (photo: Dick Heiser)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cultural overflow?

This afternoon I listened on CD to a symphony by a Russian composer. In the evening I went to my favorite Indian restaurant and enjoyed a fiery vindaloo. Later I got home and watched a great new documentary on the Baroque period of art history on TV. That is a fairly typical Sunday for me and probably pretty standard for many people these days. But in human and cultural history the consumption of such a range of diverse cultural experiences is anything but typical.

We have never had such easy access to the cultural expressions and practices of humanity. For around $500 you can build your own collection on DVD of, say, the 25 greatest films ever made. The same could be said of most other artforms, even if you would have to make do with prints of the great paintings.

This wealth of art and culture at our fingertips is fantastic. But what if it also reduces our ability to really get into one particular culture or artform? Are we becoming jacks of all cultural trades and masters of none? Have we also lost intimate and thorough contact with our own cultural roots as we jump from Russian to Indian and on to Japanese or American culture with apparent equanimity.

Image Balouxmix

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The aging arts

Last Saturday I spent the day handing out how-to-vote cards at two polling booths in suburban Melbourne. Apart from the long hours standing outside, it is always a great experience. Because everybody in Australia has to vote it is a great way to do your own little social experiment and form your own impression about the Australian population. You take on a particular role that brings you into direct personal contact with hundreds of strangers from all age groups, economic and social groups and every type of political persuasion.

This year I was struck by the number of frail elderly people there seemed to be in my little survey cohort. We all know that most western societies are aging rapidly as birth rates drop and we all live longer, but to get a glimpse of this trend with your own eyes really brings it home.

It got me thinking (again) about the impact this demographic development will have on our arts and cultural life. It is accepted wisdom that most people become more conservative in their artistic taste as they age. The readiness to explore the new and to take risks often wanes in indirect relation to our delight in reliving the familiar and tried and tested. What does this mean for arts programming? Many arts companies today place great store in their innovation, creativity and novelty. But the audience for that is quite possibly diminishing in number. How will the arts look when half the population is over fifty?

Some would argue that the effects of this trend are already emerging with "heritage" artforms and "heritage" programming increasingly dominating our cultural landscape. Are the arts headed for a future as frail and aged as the people who I seemed destined to meet last weekend?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Walls of the mind

Today is the 49th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall. The beginnings of the Wall date from 13 August 1961. Back then few thought the hastily-constructed barrier would stand for over twenty-eight years. At the time it was conceived as a way of stopping the flood of East Germans out of their dysfunctional country and into the more promising West. For a while it seemed to have the desired affect and the East German economy began to stabilise. People settled in and began to find a way to co-exist in the shadow of the Cold War.

Almost fifty years later, and over twenty years after the fall of the Wall in November 1989, the division of Germany is still present in many respects. Surveys show that only 61 percent of former East Germans are pleased with today's unified Germany. In the former West the figure is 71 percent. Economic differences remain pronounced. Progress toward the reduction of wage differentials between the two former states has been slow.

The continuing after-affects of the Wall is testimony to the power of mental barriers, the walls in people's minds. Many conflict zones around the world still have walls and there are many other more (slightly) subtle barriers that are designed to keep poor people out of wealthy western countries. The East Germans government built its wall to keep people in. Today most western governments are building virtual (and real) walls to keep people out. Either way, the most inhibiting walls, barriers and boundaries are in the heads of politicians and their short-sighted supporters.

Photo: one of the few remaining sections of the wall in its original location. Taken in January 2010.