Thursday, March 27, 2014

Yesterday is the new tomorrow

Australia's conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has reinstated Knights and Dames as Australia honours for people who make exceptional contributions to the country's public life.  It is part of a raft of "initiatives" designed to roll back progress to a time when racist language in public life went unchecked, when nobody had heard of climate change, when women did not hold ministerial posts (only one does in Abbott's government) and when financial advisers giving advice that was designed primarily to boost their own kickbacks was just part of the game.

Not since 1983 has anybody in Australia been anointed a Knight or Dame. On the assumption that the early months of the Abbott government are programmatic for its future plans, it should be possible to predict its legislative program for the coming years, not by reading the proverbial tea leaves, but by looking back through the history books.

In 1983 Alan Bond's yacht Australia II won the America's Cup. Bond went on to spend four years in jail for fraud. Nicole Kidman made her film debut in 1983, in a kids film called BMX Bandits. Back then, home-grown music could still top the pop charts. The biggest selling single of 1983 was Australiana by Austen Tayshus. The final episode of US TV series M*A*S*H flashed across our screens in that same fateful year. But perhaps the most important innovation of 1983 was the debut of Microsoft Word, the word processing software that would go on to revolutionise writing around the world.

The fact that Margaret Thatcher was re-elected to power in 1983 will no doubt make Mr. Abbott think he is on a lucky year for arch conservatives. But one last event in 1983 may give Tony Abbott pause for thought in his nostalgic drive to resurrect the past. In 1983 the conservative government of Malcolm Fraser was granted a double dissolution election and lost it to the Labor Party of Bob Hawke.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Minister for or Against the Arts?

George Brandis is off to a rocky start in his new job as Minister for the Arts. His first policy statement since taking office looks like being an attack on the Australia Council's funding independence. Comments in a letter he has written to the Chair of the Australia Council Board indicate that he does not understand the fundamental premise of government arts funding. Public funding of arts companies is actually not about doing arts companies a favour. Rather, it is there to ensure that the arts-loving public sees, hears and enjoys the highest possible artistic standards and the greatest possible diversity of arts performances, exhibitions and screenings.

He has also displayed a clear disregard for the arm's-length principle at the heart of arts funding. Instead he has been sucked into an illconceived response to an individual funding problem. As Julian Meyrick rightly points out, Brandis should realise that the the arm's-length principle is there to protect him, as arts minister, as much as anyone else. The “art" of the twentieth century dictatorships show us what happens when the arm's-length principle is trashed and politically compliant artists are the only ones who get public funding. 

Brandis needs to decide if he is going to be a Minister for the Arts or a Minister Against the Arts. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Can George Brandis paint?

Let’s hope he can. Because if he gets his way there may soon be a a lot of bare gallery walls around Australia waiting for someone to fill them. In a petulant response to the recent withdrawal of the Sydney Biennale from a sponsorship deal with Transfield, Brandis, Minister for the Arts in Tony Abbott’s government, has directed the Australia Council for the Arts to find ways of financially punishing a funding recipient who "unreasonably refuse(s) private sector funding, or … terminate(s) an existing funding agreement with a private partner”.

The Minister’s dummy-spit is a reaction to the Sydney Biennale controversy when a number of high-profile Australian and international artists said they were withdrawing from the Biennale because of the sponsorship deal with Transfield, a company that has business interests in running Australia’s refugee detention camps on behalf of the Abbott government. So if the Australia Council now introduces a requirement for its funded companies and projects to accept private sponsorship irrelevant of the ethical concerns of artists, we may soon see events such as the Sydney Biennale taking place with seriously curtailed artist roll calls. Many contemporary artists hold their political and ethical views quite strongly. There are few who ascribe to Brandis’ art-for-art’s sake worldview. And let’s be honest, most high-profile international artists do not need the Sydney Biennale (or similar Australian arts events) as much as it needs them. A 2016 Sydney Biennale with installation work by George Brandis as the main attraction is probably not what many people want. Even Branids as conceptual artist is unlikely to get many punters through the doors.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The dangers of infotainment

One of the most dangerous features of the contemporary public sphere is the prominence of infotainment and pseudo-knowledge. At its most pernicious, this subtle poison takes the form of papers or books on questions of public policy. They are usually produced by think tanks with carefully disguised interests to further. They are masterworks of sophistry. They include enough facts to establish credibility and the average reader's credulity before going on to build arguments predicated on the suppression of contrary evidence. They are thus opinion masquerading as knowledge. They trade in breezy platitudes seductively packaged in smooth, trouble-free language. Over-simplification is their stock-in-trade. They usually have a short life cycle and there is a constant re-supply. These two features mean that the authors of infotainment are rarely held to account. The report or book that caused such furore five years ago and led to a rash of reviews, departmental restructures and a short-term boom in training sessions and seminars are long forgotten by the time their predictions and prescriptions have proven to be little more than smoke and mirrors. 

Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit correctly identified bullshit as a greater danger to public debate than lies. The liar knows the untruth of his or her statements. The bullshitter does not. She has convinced herself of the validity of her thinking and is set on convincing others. The real problem with infotainment begins when it is taken seriously by decision makers. Senior managers, politicians and CEOs are busy people and often not as good at critical thinking as we like to think. They glance through the executive summary of the latest breathless call to action, they watch the PowerPoint show by this or that consultant and - having been brainwashed that doing nothing or even just waiting is not an option - jump on the latest band wagon. After all, CEO's are paid do stuff, aren't they, and at least doing the latest thing peddled in that new best seller gives you a sense of doing the right thing. The result is more resources wasted chasing tails, pursuing needless and ill-founded change for its own sake. All the while, the infotainers move on to the next round never being held accountable for the long-term disappointment of their past endeavors.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A convenient crisis?

In Vienna these days the the largest, most prestigious and best funded theatre - the Burgtheater - has hit tough times. In December news broke that the theatre's long-serving General Manager had been fired after auditors had exposed financial irregularities. There is no suggestion that the manager had acted to enrich herself. Instead, her actions simply reflect the fact that accounting tricks have become necessary to balance the books while continuing to deliver the customary number of productions, maintaining fair pricing and delivering high artistic standards. The problem has been brewing for a while as public funding has been frozen for several years, resulting in cuts in real terms. Sound familiar?

In the USA a number of professional orchestras have also filed for bankruptcy in recent years. During a visit to London last month arts activity also seemed to be below pre-crisis levels. After thirty percent cuts to the arts budget that is probably inevitable. Is all this just a sign of belt-tightening during the worst financial crisis in eighty years? Or is it a sign of a general fracturing in the relationship between the public funding masters and the subsidized arts? Perhaps the great post-WWII flowering of state-funded arts activity is drawing to a slow end. 

If so, the first victim will be (is) artistic experimentation, diversity and innovation. Arts companies faced with financial cuts routinely react with a "retreat to the ramparts". The tried and tested repertoire mainstays take up ever more of the programs, new work is curtailed, reduced or cut altogether. Ultimately the arts then become less meaningful, less vibrant and less artistic! Perhaps most worryingly, I sometimes get the feeling that would suit many governments just fine.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Costume dramas or contemporary relevance?

Friedrich Schiller's play Maria Stuart dramatises the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. It is a history play in the Shakespearean mold. The production I saw last night put the actors into what might loosely be called "modern dress". There were certainly no courtiers in stockings and doublets and the two queens were not dressed in corsets and hooped dresses. This annoyed some friends of mine. For them, stage depictions of historical figures should appear in period dress. In this view, the two leading women in Maria Stuart should appear like recognizably sixteenth-century figures, Richard III should eschew pin-stripe suits, Macbeth should have plenty of fur and a garter or two about home, Julius Caesar is best in togas, and so on. But that would be the death of theatre, both artistically and commercially.

At least half of any season mounted by a large professional theatre company consists of established repertoire. This generally starts around the time of Shakespeare and runs - with national variations - to the modern classics of Ibsen and, say, Arthur Miller. This is the bread and butter of the repertoire, the "classics". The essential feature of these plays is that they are familiar to the core audience of professional repertory theatre companies. The regular theatre-goer is an interesting beast. Well might we ask why we still flock to see a new production of a well-known Shakespeare play. We know the plot. We know the memorable quotes and probably even memorised a monologue or two at school. Yet we keep coming back. Would we keep coming back if the productions were embalmed in a museum ethos of "period costume", predictable, safe, familiar and dull. I doubt it.

Film is instructive in this connection. By its nature, film embalms a performance. Some films classics have been the subject of remakes, but normally a film does not experience the constant reinterpretation that a classic piece of theatre does. So, films date quite quickly. Even in the age of the "long tail" provided by television, DVD and online releases, two to three years is a very long shelf-life for most films. Even the top cinema hits from as recently as the 1990s now seem dated, if not embarrassing. They have practically no audience appeal. Contrast that with, say, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. Four hundred years old and still going strong. Their longevity is not just a question of Shakespeare's theatrical mastery. It also arises from the fact that each generation shapes them to reflect its own tastes and interests. Re-interpretation keeps theatre alive and saves it from the fate of film's past glories.

Putting history plays into the glass case of a theatrical museum would kill the demand for them. For the vast majority of people, seeing a film once is enough. Few things are as tedious as watching a film when we know what is going to happen next. Seeing Julius Caeser, Maria Stuart, Richard III or Romeo and Juliet embalmed as period costume dramas would produce the same feeling. Why would we then want to keep going back to see the same style of production? "Want to go to Hamlet on Saturday night?", would then be followed by "No, thanks. I have already seen it." The result would be the death of repertory theatre, at least as we know it. 

Instead, we need to keep rebirthing the theatrical classics. Shakespearen bad guys need to really revolt and scare us today. The damsels must be alluring and desirable in our eyes. We need to see ourselves in the tragic characters as well as in the heroes. They, and we, cannot do that if those on stage look like figures from a waxworks museum.