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What good are the arts?

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Monday 5 December 2005

Katharine Brisbane, founding publisher, Currency Press


What Good Are the Arts?  


My question is what good are the arts? It’s not a question one asks often, usually only when the media complains about their cost. But what is the point of them? 


Here is one good reason for the arts to exist. It’s not what they are that matters. It’s what they do. They teach us fellow feeling. And we need fellow feeling today very badly. Imagination and curiosity are two great gifts that determine whether or not our life can be contented. But today’s climate discourages ‘What if?’, or ‘What would it feel like?’ conversations, that stretch the imagination and open the door to different ways of seeing. These gifts teach us consideration, how to foresee the consequences of our actions, how to bring down the barriers of self-interest and exercise our better judgement.  


But such skills demand exercise and discipline. I’m not talking here about emotionalism, a chaotic state of mind of which we have seen a deal lately in this rush to re-define our moral rights. At times like these we need cool heads, but not ones that deny the validity of genuine emotion. I am reminded of a moment in Parliament in 1997 when Ronald Wilson’s report on the stolen generations, Bringing Them Home , was tabled The barely controlled emotion of those speakers affected by the tragic evidence contrasted sharply with those whose responses were simply rational. All these men and women still had to make a considered judgment. Good decisions are made by rational argument but the reasons behind them are always emotional. 


I’ll give you another example. Remember Peter Reith’s alleged order not to release photographs that disclosed the faces of the asylum seekers rescued by the Tampa? That was a considered judgment—but not an ethical one because it was not based on fellow feeling. 


Mass emotion is a powerful force and it’s important to distinguish between that which incites anger and that which celebrates fellow feeling. Unbridled incitement divides community; communal celebrations unite us. The difference between the two is transparent. Music and storytelling are communal activities and, like sport, they need exercise. Good art is more than pastime; it gives us access to the ideas and feelings behind the faces about us. It strips the stereotypes of cultural difference and reveals our common humanity. It is not something to be mocked or feared. But it takes work.  


Good art is also surprising. Writers often talk of how their characters assume a life of their own and run away with the story. That’s because the imagination has a life of its own and the writer, for a time, becomes its servant. But unbridled imagination does not necessarily make for good art. What is it that writers say? Writing is ten percent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration.  


But when government talks about the high cost of the arts they are not talking about that struggle of the individual but about institutions and product. But art is not product, it is about process, about a way of life. The skills of the artist are exploited by every part of our society. TV daily blurs fact and fiction by employing performers in news items. They employ their skills in training workshops for emergency services, they rehearse politicians and corporate executives in public speaking. They perform for fundraisers, they tell stories to children and old people. They read books for the Royal Blind Society and teach new skills to the disabled. 


They are part of our society but they remain among our poorest. Some have the security of a working partner; most pay their way by working part time at a low level in the hospitality industry; or on contract as web designers or copy writers. And find that, if they take time off, their job goes too. It is a wicked waste of a skilled workforce. 


Other artists earn magical salaries working internationally. But years of personal struggle and public investment have gone into that achievement. We would not have a film industry without the other arts; and those artists who work beside them. The new Industrial Relations Act will increase competition for that important casual work that supports the profession. So next time our funding bodies make a plea for the arts to be recognised beside the dairy farmers, the health workers and the teachers, just remember that our artists are there to raise our curiosity, to criticise our absurdities, to feed the imagination and show us how to better understand our neighbours; in short, to keep some balance in our lives.  


Guests on this program:

Katharine Brisbane  

Founding Publisher 

Currency Press 


Former Theatre Critic