If the Australian media understood theatre instead of dissing it, we might have a better chance of seeing our politics clearly. Alison Croggon explains why
Last week I read a Guardian opinion piece about the economic class war being waged by the Federal Government, written by the often smart and interesting political commenter Greg Jericho. “The real class war,” he said, “is being fought by those who seek to erase people on low and middle incomes from the debate. And too often the media are willing participants in this erasure.”
Indeed. I read on. Jericho’s thesis is how the middle class has been redefined, erasing actual middle and low income earners from the debate. As he says, quite rightly, an income of $120,000 a year is now discussed in the media as if it’s what most people earn, when it’s the income of only 10 per cent of Australians. He says that despite the nostalgic myth of Australian egalitarianism, we are run by a small handful of elites, pointing out that people awarded positions of influence – and here, oddly, he named two recent cultural appointments, to the National Library and the National Gallery – are a “small handful of names”. Again, all true. We are.
“And this is why,’ says Jericho, “I have little time for the theatre criticism that can infest political coverage…”
At which point I pulled up. Well, of course I did. I’m a theatre critic. Theatre criticism? What the hell did he mean by that?
“One thing is for sure: if we listened more to our artists and less to our op-ed journalists, we’d be in a better place right now. Journalists are often blindsided by things that artists have seen coming for years.”
The thing is, I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve spent a lifetime working as a journalist as well as an artist – I began my professional career, such as it is, by completing a cadetship at the Melbourne Herald, straight out of high school. I know this subtext from decades of witnessing it in action.
“Theatre criticism” is a catch-all phrase for partisan and shallow political commentary, the kind of commentary that’s all about spectacle at the expense of substance. I went back and reread the article, and this time wondered about his citing of cultural institutions as expressions, ne plus ultra, of the economic elite. I mean, there are so many other kinds of institutions.
Jericho’s choice of metaphor is, yes, a trivial thing, perhaps hardly worth noting compared to the vicious attacks of hard right culture warriors. But it’s also a tell. It’s shows how deeply a certain attitude towards the arts is entrenched in the news media, no matter where they place themselves in the culture wars.
It’s the Australian media, once again, using the arts as their whipping boy. A “whipping boy” was originally an actual position in the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. He was a child brought to court to be the companion of a prince, and who bore the punishment for the prince’s transgressions. It seems peculiarly accurate for the arts, which bears so much of the lashing when Australian journalism decides to attack “elites”.
Outside the playpens of the arts pages, for the most part the only culture the Australian media deigns to notice is the bit with the budget to have cocktail parties, red carpets and glamorous stars. Aside from the odd spectacular photograph or cute human interest story, the only time art is permitted into Mainstream News is when there’s a juicy scandal.
This isn’t going to change any time soon. But I’m soooooo tired of it.
Working in the arts in Australia is an exercise in cognitive dislocation. On the one hand, as Jericho demonstrates, arts culture is popularly regarded as the playground of the privileged and elite, a frivolous item which serves only as a marker of economic caste and has no place in any serious discourse about, for example, the state of the world in which we live.
Meanwhile, artists themselves are the very definition of the struggling precariat. The average gross income for a professional artist, according to recent Australia Council research, is $48,400 –$30,000 less than the average Australian wage of $78,832. Median income – a more realistic indicator of what most people earn – is even worse. Professional artists earn $22,500, compared to the general median income of $52,988 cited by Jericho: which is to say that most artists just scrape over the poverty line of $22,167.
In other words, as anyone actually in the arts knows full well, arts workers are hardly the picture of the economic elite. But I don’t want this to be another whinge about how arts workers are poor. We all know that. This is a whinge about erasure: of ideas and of realities. It’s a whinge about how the media’s lack of interest (or active hostility) is one of the biggest barriers the arts face in reaching Australian audiences.
The ill-paid labour of arts workers is the core of an arts industry that contributes around $50 billion to the Australian economy. Cultural industries generally directly employ more than half a million people, more than twice as many as the mining industry. (I outlined some of those figures in an article for Overland in 2013, shortly before the Abbott government was elected. Since arts funding has gone through ructions since then, some of them will be slightly outdated.) But again, you wouldn’t know this from the coverage the arts gets in the media.
Economic arguments about the arts do, of course, miss the point. All the same, many people have no idea that culture is an economically significant industry because, like it or not, most Australians don’t hear about the arts from arts pages or specialist journals. They see snippets on the news or television or, more often, read news sites of varying quality and ideologies on the internet. And in all these places, art is routinely represented, if it’s present at all, by a series of misleading tropes: the layabout “taxpayer-funded” fraud, the elitist wanker, the rich celebrity, the morally dubious scandal-maker.
The Australian news media, no matter what its ideological stripe, isn’t interested in the arts. When I began working as a journalist in 1985, I found that expertise in the arts, even before the anti-expert digital age, wasn’t valued: if anything, it was regarded as suspect.
According to Witness’s resident historian, Robert Reid, this wasn’t always the case. “I’ve spent the last year reading reviews and articles on Trove from the last two hundred or so years,” he says. “And before the 1920s at least, the arts were talked about as if they were part of the living colony. What artists are doing is reported on. What people think about the arts is reported. Regular people write into the newspapers criticising poetry and performance in poetic form!
“Then some time in the 19th century it swings: the arts become the plaything of the elites, and all that comes with it. And maybe that intensifies during the 40s and 50s, as the emerging upper middle class takes up ‘proper’ art as their cause celebre.”
Now, when the inexpert news media rushes in to opine on the arts, it’s usually a clusterfuck. To be fair, anyone with expertise in any area will generally wince at how it’s reported in the press: the specialist journalist with intimate knowledge of the area they cover is rapidly becoming a rarity. But knowledge industries like the arts, science and education are uniquely victim to bad reporting, perhaps because of their association with elitism. There’s no way the kind of blithe ignorance routinely tolerated in journalism about the arts would be permitted, for example, in coverage of the AFL. But it happens all the time, because arts journalism is regarded as a “soft” option in Australian newspapers. And this attitude well predates the digital age.
The Walkley Awards, the most prestigious awards in journalism, were instituted in 1956, but there was no recognition for arts journalism or criticism until last year. And even that recognition is qualified: those awards aren’t part of the “proper” awards, announced on a glamorous evening of backslapping: they’re in the second-tier Mid-Year Awards with all the other afterthoughts, like Women’s Leadership in the Media and Freelance Journalist of the Year.
For any ambitious journalist, there’s very little status or advantage to be had in being literate in the arts. Why would they bother? So the same lazy attitudes recur again and again, creating the same horrible feedback loop. Consequently, the bulk of the Australian public has a distorted notion of what the arts actually are.
The current toxicity around the discussion of “elites” – a rhetoric designed to obscure the source of actual elite power – makes this issue even more confusing. Are arts workers elite? Well, yes and no.
There is, of course, a privilege in working in the arts. What arts workers have in spades is cultural capital: the accumulation of knowledge, skills and behaviours that permit status and social mobility. But that, too, is qualified by class, race, abillity and sex. Cultural capital still looks predominantly white, male, able-bodied and upper middle class, although a good number of artists are anything but. The routine casual conflation of cultural and economic capital is now a commonplace. We’re mostly familiar with the right wing attacks on latte-sipping lefties, but it happens on the left as well.
In 2013, before Mark Latham turned into a caricature, he wrote an article for the left wing think tank, the Chifley Research Centre that attacked ballet and opera as snoozefests for the rich:
But that’s how the elites like it, safe in the knowledge that people below their station in society are unlikely to join them in the jewellery-rattling rows of the Opera House. Their abstraction from “ordinary people” is secure.
Here art is reduced to a cudgel in the culture wars. Latham is, of course, correct that “ordinary people”, or at least, people on ordinary wages, generally can’t afford tickets to grand opera, and that lower income people won’t, for the most part, feel comfortable in the plush spaces that house it. And he’s right that this kind of culture functions as a marker of social status.
Where he’s wrong about is the art itself: there’s nothing inherently elitist in the form. It’s interesting, for example, that Lenin’s idea of art for the masses was not a new kind of art – like the former Arts Minister Senator Brandis, his tastes were conservative, and he was frankly alarmed by avant garde poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky or any notion of proletarian art. Lenin just thought that everyone should be able to see the work that was previously only open to the bourgeoisie.
“Art is, at its core, an expression of human freedom. And right now, all of us could do a bit more of that.”
Many “ordinary people” on lower incomes do enjoy opera, when they can get there. They’ll scrimp and save for tickets, just as other ordinary people scrimp and save so they can see Beyoncé or Bruce Springsteen. But this audience, like the artwork itself – the experience of it, its range of possible meanings, its histories, what it is – is made invisible.
The history of art is often the history of its taming, of its being absorbed into the culture it originally attacked. Capitalism has been hugely successful at this process: often the price of popularity or respectability, from opera to comic books, is the erasure of an artwork’s original radical meanings.
Art is most powerful when it remembers its originatory vitality. In European art, the most vital work, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Romantic poetry, has often occurred when the elitist form meets the vulgate. Grand opera as we know it was forged out of the marriage of opera seria, an artform developed for the aristocracy, and opera buffa, the wildly popular comic operas created outside official sanction. By the 19th century, when opera houses opened to the public, the two forms merged in works like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Back in the day, grand opera was popular spectacle. Like, well, Beyoncé.
The kind of working class anti-intellectualism espoused by Latham, which has culminated in the wider populist revulsion against “experts” that we saw in recent British and US elections, is actually a recent phenomenon. A century ago, working class radicals saw education as the key to liberation. Many of the “difficult” (read: “elitist”) modernist poets – Hugh MacDiarmid, for example – came from working class backgrounds (as do some of our most interesting contemporary performers). And this phenomenon itself was part of a wider movement which saw the institution of trade libraries at Mechanics or Miners Institutes specifically for the working classes, themselves the fore-runners of public libraries.
Neither Latham nor Brandis are keen on contemporary or experimental art. They forget, if indeed they ever knew, that most of the artworks that they respectively despise or heroicise were the experimental or revolutionary artworks of their time. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, now a bastion of conservative culture, was based on a 1778 play by Pierre Beaumarchais which was initially banned by Louis XVI for its denunciation of aristocratic privilege. Later it was seen as a forerunner of the French Revolution, which happened a decade after it was written. John Milton was a regicide. Wordsworth wrote one of the most famous English poems about the French Revolution – “Bliss in that dawn was it to be alive!” (though he later become a stuffy conservative). And so on. And on.
For me, the most distasteful part of Latham’s diatribe (and remember, at this point he was writing for a left think-tank) is his patronising dismissal of “ordinary people”. Like Senator Brandis, he claims that our cultural heritages exist only for the rich and privileged: and maybe he’s worse than Brandis, because he insists that only the privileged can understand them.
These attitudes are widely echoed and amplified by the media and, all too often, internalised by artists and arts institutions and fed back to us as dead art. And more egregiously, they reinforce the social walls that keep people out of the arts.
The conspiracist in me sometimes wonders how much this is about repressing the radical ideas that art carries within its DNA. But for the most part, as with many so aspects of Australian discourse, it’s mostly about a common recourse to lazy default thinking.
“How can we recognize the point beyond which expression of the need for collective experience and integrating rituals becomes evil manipulation and an assault on human freedom?”
One thing is for sure: if we listened more to our artists and less to our op-ed journalists, we’d be in a better place right now. Artists are very often among the first to sense and express social change and, when they’re good at what they do, they create complex responses that add to our social and individual understanding of the larger processes that shape our lives. Journalists are often blindsided by things that artists have seen coming for years.
That’s because an artist’s job is to look at the world they live in, to think about it, to open possibility, to create connections. Art’s very existence is an argument against the atomising alienation that is the primary feature of late capitalism. Art opens contemplative spaces that allow us to step outside the routine structures that shape how we see the world. It reaches out of the diminishing present, connecting the past and the future.
Art is one of the favourite weapons of the culture wars, but paradoxically, it’s not the art that counts in these arguments, only what it’s made to symbolise. Actual artworks seldom fit comfortably into the left/right binaries of what is thought to be political (which is not to say it’s apolitical: all art is political, most of all when it claims it isn’t). Like human experience, art constantly spills over these imposed edges, disobedient and fluid, exceeding all the categories that attempt to contain it.
Art is, at its core, an expression of human freedom. And right now, all of us could do a bit more of that.
So, to return to Greg Jericho and his careless sideswipe at “theatre criticism”. I don’t mean to hold him up as my own whipping boy: the trope of politics as theatre is a commonplace of political commentary. The actual problem is not that it’s wrong: it’s that this trope is mostly employed by people with only the crudest understanding of what performance and theatre actually are. It’s used as a pejorative: if politics is mere “theatre”, then it is without meaning, a dumbshow of empty gesture that has nothing to do with “reality”.
This seems to me to be profound misunderstanding of both theatre and politics.
Vaclav Havel, playwright and former President of the Czech Republic, was a rarity: he had an intimate understanding of both realms. As he said in a 1997 essay:
Even doubters cannot deny one aspect of theatricality in politics: the dependence of politics on media. Many politicians would be helpless without coaches to teach them the techniques of performing in front of a camera. All politicians, including those who sneer at theatre as superfluous, something that has no place in politics, unwittingly become actors, dramatists, directors, or entertainers.
The significant role that a theatrical sensibility plays in politics is two-edged. Those possessing it can arouse society to great deeds and nurture democratic culture, civic courage, and a sense of responsibility. Such people can also mobilize the worst instincts and passions, make masses fanatical, and lead societies into hell.
Recall the gigantic Nazi congresses, torchlight processions, the inflammatory speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, and the cult of German mythology. We could hardly find a more monstrous abuse of politics’ theatrical aspect. And today – even in Europe – rulers use theatrical tools to arouse the kind of blind nationalism that leads to war, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and genocide.
So where is the boundary between legitimate respect for national identity and symbols, and the devilish music of pied pipers, dark magicians, and mesmerizers? Where do passionate speeches end and demagogy begin? How can we recognize the point beyond which expression of the need for collective experience and integrating rituals becomes evil manipulation and an assault on human freedom?
In a 2011 review of Julius Caesar I said that, at its most basic, politics (derived from the Greek for “citizens” or “city”) is the means of making collective decisions. It is the complex mediation of power, the process of deciding who decides and who is at the mercy of decision, a web of intensely complex interactions through which power is produced, attacked and defended.
As Shakespeare can demonstrate, theatre is a powerful simulacrum of the political. … There is a profound relationship between politics and theatre: theatre, as a conscious simulacrum of reality, mimics how politics itself is a show of simulacra, a series of simulations. Politics is a primary maker of simulations that stand in for reality, claiming to be the thing itself, and which at last infect the real with their own reality. Another is art.
The tension in politics is not between the authentic thing and its forgery, so much as between warring simulacra: those that have invaded the previous reality and themselves become “real”, and those which have yet to realise their reality. (As an aside, I invite you to examine the close etymological relationship between the word “real” and “royal”. Or that the real was once a unit of Spanish currency. Facing “reality” is not as straightforward as it might seem.)
There is, in this vision, no authentic “real” in politics, only a series of simulacra that stretch back through history, producing the reality that will in turn be usurped by the next simulation. In other words, it’s elephants all the way down. If you follow this thought, it becomes clear that theatre is as real as anything that occurs in Parliament. It’s certainly much truer.
It seems to me that the media could do with more people who are skilled at sceptically parsing the meanings and techniques of political performance. What we have instead is a media that scorns those skills, and which consequently ends up constantly mistaking the simulacrum for the real.
The difference between politics and theatre is that politics has massive effects on the lives of real people – and even here the difference dissolves on closer inspection, as it’s not a difference of quality, but of scale. Theatre also can change the lives of real people, but not in the ways that political authorities, backed by massive bureaucracies, budgets, police forces and armies, are able to.
Perhaps the advantage of theatre over politics is that we know it’s not real. We can leave the theatre, measure what we have experienced against the realities of the worlds in which we live, and weigh its truths and meanings. As audiences, we are active, critical players in the realities that theatre produces.
In the pressure of the 24 hour news cycle, the age of Tweet Politics and factless op eds in which PR spin is torqued to an unseeable blur, politics has intensified to a kind of panicked neurosis. Political commentators themselves are (to use another commonly misused trope) part of the whole circus, unable to gain any perspective outside it.
In this political moment, we need people who can see the boundary where “passionate speeches end and demagogy begins”. You might say we need …theatre criticism.
For what it’s worth, that boundary is crossed a lot earlier than many people think.