Speaking up for theatre ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 06, 2006

Speaking up for theatre

I just did something unprecedented, and closed off the comment thread to my post on the threat to La Mama's funding. TN had swum into the purview of the right-thinking wingnuts, and suddenly they were swarming in like Darth Vader's TIE fighters to do a bit of arts bashing.

The comments included the recommended dose of abuse, personal smear and innuendo (a couple of which I removed) laced with the proud sentiment that they don't know anything about art, but they know what they hate. The argument, which is sufficiently outlined in the comments and elsewhere on the net, is that those pinko / commie / poofter / parasite artists (or is it rich, possibly French, aristocrats?) are stealing money from honest hardworking joes to finance their nefarious, leftoid and morally dubious activities. If only it were not all so predictable and boring. Thanks to those who weighed in or emailed me, and heartening also to see a guest appearance from Joe Orton's alter ego, Edna Welthorpe.

I do wonder why these tender-hearted anti-arts activists are not more exercised by straight-out corporate theft than by the tiny amounts of state money which are given to generate the well-documented benefits - employment, tourism, urban revitalisation, creative thinking, pleasure, even health - that the arts give to the community. Though perhaps the real problem is an uneasy suspicion that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time.

Being a parasitical and lazy arts wanker, and consequently having a 500 page novel to write, I don't have time to deal with politico trolls with irony bypasses. Frankly, my feeling is that if you think that artists aren't worth 0.02 per cent of the GDP - what the Australia Council actually costs - you can go jump. Any more trolling comments will be deleted forthwith. This is a blog for debate about theatre (see above). If any of those commentators are actually interested in theatre (say, if they go to see an actual play) they are welcome to contribute. Those who think that theatre ought not to exist at all can vent their spleen elsewhere.

However, as Lao Tsu recommends, perhaps we should embrace our enemies. A couple of local bloggers, alarmed by the argument here, express concern about the reluctance of the arts community to defend itself. Supernaut has some stern words for artists remaining quiet out of the fear that speaking up may affect their funding:

So this in a country where largely the very people and organisations being lined up for the abattoir are too afraid to speak out because they may lose funding, Dance Works gone, Sydney Dance Company, La Mama on notice, and I've lost track of the number of remaining companies also with that noose around their necks. It seems like all of them.

The last thing the arts in Australia needs when Australia Council is busy trying to work out how to not fund anyone, and Neil Jillett, Andrew Bolt and assorted other colonial trash are basking in the right-wing anti-arts thuggery of Australia today is for the artists themselves to be too pathetic to even respond. It's in no small way ironic the voice for survival of performing arts so often comes from journalists who aren't concerned with self-protection so that we artists can have our freedom of speech.

And at Minktails, young artist Ming-Zhu Hii talks about the necessity of speaking up for what we believe in:
I do not in any way shape or form advocate silence, and I believe that there are many of these such arguments out there that we are showing only our silent backs towards. As artists and supporters of a rich and diverse culture, it is time that we spoke a little more loudly. In general. Perhaps we would not have to waste our breath on defending our totally justified exasperation towards issues such as the threat to La Mama's funding. Perhaps, just perhaps, then, we wouldn't be exasperated in the first place, because the livelihood of the theatre would not be in jeopardy.
UPDATE: A wonderful post from Ben at Parachute of a Playwright speculating on why these attacks on the arts are so vitriolic:
As I type, the thought occurs to me that perhaps the reason that the thug-wits go after people who write like Alison, who point out that the arts is not a luxury add-on to a lifestyle but an essential element of coming to understand and to navigate our lives... well they go after such ideas because the ideas remain powerful. The facts are powerful. And there is something so unsettling about the idea that human beings MUST express or we will be walking dead that provokes the zombie attacks.

And Ben also points out the absolute necessity now for all of us who value the arts and what they stand for to speak up against the libels and the smears and the lies, to negotiate our own differences and to create spaces where difference and debate is actually possible:

It's too easy to listen to abusage of the arts and roll my eyes and think that the person doing the abusing won't change, so what point is there? Sometime I wonder whether I've been simply rolling my eyes at concepts I find uncomfortable and don't want to do the work of engaging with. But we have to engage. Of course, we have to pull the plug on anonymous threats and smears, but we mustn't expect them. We have to talk. If there's one thing that characterises the Howard era it's that, under attack, we've become silent even amongst ourselves. Say something. Every voice adds nuance and richness. Let's stop believing, too, that disagreement within our circles implies that we want those who disagree with us destroyed or humiliated. Let's take it as a starting point for finding out more about one another. Enough of the silent simmering - it has only let the scum rise in the public sphere.

Of course, well-known arts connoisseur Andrew Bolt dishes the dirt as well. It seems I am married to the playwright Daniel Keene!!! Deep investigative journalism there - he just has to read the sidebar on this blog. And clearly, my poor pathetic husband needs my support to ensure his future staging at La Mama! Why else would I think the damn place mattered?

And obviously my huge influence as a poet and freelance journalist swings him those stages at Theatre de la Ville, Theatre de la Commune, the Theatre du Rond-Pont, the National Theatres of Bordeaux and Toulouse, the central stage at the Avignon Festival (some of the most prestigious theatres in France, btw) and all those other productions since 2000... which, little does Andrew know, add up to thousands and thousands of tickets sold. (A little googling might have enlightened him, but we all know that Andrew never lets the facts get into the way of a good smear.)

Like they say on Dragonball Z: I'm more powerful than I ever imagined...

And another PS: while we're at it, let's not forget the Sedition laws, which are a crucial part of the mix that is targeting free speech and impacting on artists. The whole Anti-Terror Act, which contains these laws, can be downloaded here. The Australia Law Reform Commission's reports and recommendations on the Sedition laws, rejected by the Attorney General, are available here.


Freeman said...

Read all these threads and whatnot. Must say, it amazes me how pervasive the view that the arts are somehow an elitist leisure activity, unworthy of "taxpayer money."

It's ironic that those that value their money so much, don't know what exactly the term "value" means.

Paul Martin said...

As you know, Alison, cinema is more my medium (though I'm tempted to go see a Red Stitch production, having seen their flier last night at the Westgarth Cinema, with Laura Gordon and Kat Stewart from Em 4 Jay). Very little Australian cinema would get made without government assistance. There really is no mature argument against the support of the arts. A government chooses how to spend it's money. If a fraction of what is needlessly spent on sending troops to illegal and immoral war zones.... well, you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that the fearless Ming has deleted her posts after soundly bagging Short & Sweet, and at least one independent theatre company that allegedly treated her friend badly.

I'm guessing she has heard only one side of the latter story, as I know a person who works for the MTC (therefore having some importance I'd imagine in Ming's world) and works with the independent theatre company - while they are a new company and therefore not hugely experienced, he speaks very highly of them and their professionalism and enthusiam.

All companies have their critics, but I have to question Ming's judgement to name and soundly bag a new theatre company on a blog. If she is so concerned, why not complain to their board or patrons, as my friend said? I suppose it's easier the blog way isn't it? The right of reply makes vitriol so much harder.

I also question her judgement in bagging Short & Sweet, which she is taking part in. I can't imagine what the organisers, other participants will make of her.

To me she seems to focus on two things - money and lack of quality.

In her fixation with money grubbing commercial theatre types, she forgets that theatre is perhaps the most uncommercial of modern art forms. Anyone who is doing it for the money is insane. But anyone who tries to run a commercially successful operation, BOO HISS from Ming.

And as to quality work, well they may not be doing it to her lofty standards, but at least they are getting out there and DOING IT. Is that so terrible? Are we such elitist snobs that we can't tolerate theatre, unless it is in our eyes perfect? Isn't that a very subjective view anyway? Is Ming the most qualified person in the world to judge the quality of theatre produced? And if they are only doing it for the passion of it, what in goodness name is the problem? Oh yes the money.

Perhaps the most amusing thing I've heard today is that one of the Short & Sweet participants intends to write a play about Ming for the 2007 season. It's a comedy.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmmm. Strange that you chose this post to comment on, Anonymous. I notice that Ming-Zhu had the courage to speak under her own name, which you, Anonymous, did not. I am personally extremely sorry that Ming-Zhu felt she had to do that, and that she attracted what she describes as "vitriolic" attack for daring to ask questions.

There is quite a difference between critical engagement and ad hominem attack. And I am personally sorry that what was an interesting debate turned into an unilluminating shitfight. Too much the Australia I know, rather than the Australia I hope for.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison

I posted the 11.53pm comment last night, and apologise for doing so anon. My name is Nicole Rhys, and I am a lawyer, would be actress, and regular theatre goer who recently moved back to Melbourne from Sydney. I'm not sure if that qualifies me to comment on Ming's blog.

I was personally appalled by the vitriol in her post, which I read for the first time last night, after it was widely circulated amongst the wider theatre community.

I would argue that by making a number of defamatory statements, Ming was leaving herself open for ad hominem attacks (whether or not these attacks are appropriate).

Ming could have posed questions about the structure of the festival, and suggest alternatives, without dismissing out of hand the hard work done with comments like "The general public, theatregoers, Arts Centre patrons, and professional (and aspiring) artistic community do not need to see 30 half-hashed, swiftly rehearsed, unpaid poops."

Whether right or wrong, surely Ming was inviting an unilluminating shitfight?

She said "My intention is not to offend, but to question. Please know that it is not a personal indictment". I'm not sure how the 30 participants could interpret being described as "half-hashed, swiftly rehearsed, unpaid poops", other than as personally offensive.

If I accept your point that ad-hominem arguments should not be tolerated, do you accept the argument that Ming in exercising her right to free speech, should have stuck to attacking the point, not the people?


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nicole

Thanks for coming back, and identifying yourself, and extending your argument. It's hard to go back and look at what Ming-Zhu said, now she's taken it down: which is one big disadvantage of doing so. I am wondering now if she took them down because someone threatened to sue?

The difference between critique and ad hominem is: was Ming-Zhu talking about the work, or about the people who made the work? As I recall, she was talking about the work, and took a bit of care to distinguish that from personal attack. In my reading, Ming-Zhu was clearly talking about the plays and the structure of S&S. Her comments about the work were, yes, tough. I don't recall her attacking the characters of those who made it, however. And if they are defamatory, don't you think, as a lawyer, that it's a little dicey putting them on my blog and thus exposing me to possible legal action as well?

For my part, I don't see how these comments, however rude, were defamatory: they would come under the defence of "fair comment", from my memory of studying defamation law. Though I acknowledge that it is a messy area. Not unincidentally, defamation has often been used in this country to close down critical dialogue.

Not having seen S&S myself, I have no opinion on whether her comments apply or not. But yes, I do think she has every right to say those things without being subjected to what I assume was very personal attack (and for an actor, a vulnerable place to speak from, to speak out like that shows how close courage and folly are). I know it is often difficult for artists to separate themselves from their work, but there is a difference, and that difference is (a) what makes it art and (b) what makes it possible to talk about it. And I think it's a real shame that Ming-Zhu has been attacked in this way.

Far better to use words to counter with words, argument with argument, than to fling around accusations of defamation, which, quite frankly, concern me deeply.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison.

I kept the post and am more than happy to send it to you privately if you wish. I apologise for publishing the words on your site, but as you didn't consent to the publication,you can't be found guilty of defamation.

You may be interested to know that the actor referred to in the part of the post about the independent theatre company was unaware that a post was made on "his behalf", and to his credit, on finding out it had, immediately requested the section of the post about the company be removed. Hours later the whole post was removed.

I believe people like Ming use the safety of blogs to argue their cases without confronting people in a more constructive way.

She did not speak to either the actor or the theatre company about airing her allegations on her blog, giving neither a chance to respond.

I also undertand the Artistic Director and other Short & Sweet staff members have not been contacted by Ming with regard to her concerns. She could have written to them / spoken to them easily - their contact details are readily available on the Arts Centre website. Instead she uses a public forum, where her methodology is attack.

To me, this is one of the saddest and most discouraging things about the arts today. Without seeing the worst in everything, where is the real effort to constructively discuss and engage, if not celebrate effort made?

We'll have to agree to disagree.


Alison Croggon said...

Just to be clear, Nicole: as you should be aware, legally I am responsible for all comment on this blog, whether or not I consented to its being posted and whether or not I am even aware of it, and can indeed be sued over it. This is why the Guardian, for instance, makes you read and agree to some complicated disavowal policy before you post.

I don't know the ins and outs of that particular spat on Ming-Zhu's blog, and don't even recall that post. I was referring to the S&S spat. But asking bloggers - or anyone - to say nothing at all if we can't we say something nice is precisely what I've always found very difficult about Melbourne.