A matter of art: Henson and Mills ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 06, 2010

A matter of art: Henson and Mills

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves. If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun....

Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, 1949

Everyone agrees that this has been the most insipid election campaign in recent memory. (It’s telling when the most illuminating television commentary on the election campaign comes from a comedy program about advertising.) It's hard not to think that we’re watching contemporary democracy play out its reductio ad absurdum. Or, more likely, that the sham debate of democratic choice is the entertainment that diverts the masses, while the real business goes on in boardrooms and plush hotels hermetically sealed against public scrutiny.

Instead of policy, we have slogans: “Moving forward” (at least until mockery silenced the line); “Not a big Australia, a sustainable Australia”; “Stop the boats”. We have interchangeable cartoon figures – Rudd, Gillard, Abbott – whose only aim is to wrongfoot their opponents. We have scare campaigns from interest groups like the mining industry and trade unions. Where in all this is the sober discussion of actual issues that we face, as citizens of this planet? What does it all mean? Who can possibly care?

Between the lives people actually live and the glib phrases of campaigning politicians there is an abyss. Public language is so debased that its meaninglessness becomes the whole of its meaning, with political commentary reduced to an analysis of the gestures and tics of its impoverished rhetoric. But this is no accident: it's a deliberate strategy, in which language becomes a simulacrum of reality that bears no relationship at all to truth. Public language is about striking a series of generalised attitudes, teflon-coated against meaning, which can be changed at will with impunity. Politicians don't break promises: they make them in the full knowledge that everybody knows they won't be kept. Our public language is amnesiac, alienated, half-conscious, and it's designed to keep the electorate the same, diverted from real problems by a parade of concocted fears.

This made two events early this week deeply interesting. On successive nights, there were major public lectures delivered by significant arts figures. I can't helping feeling encouraged that there's the public space for these events, although thinking about them also makes me wonder about their potency in the wider discussions in our polity.

On Monday, photographer Bill Henson delivered the Melbourne Art Foundation 2010 Lecture, while on Tuesday, Edinburgh Festival artistic director Jonathan Mills gave the Wheeler Centre's inaugural State of the Arts lecture, which is planned to be an annual event. Both events were packed out and widely publicised; Henson's talk, in particular, was widely spruiked as the artist "speaking out" after his long public silence since the nationwide controversy that engulfed his work in 2008.

Henson and Mills represent very different sensibilities, yet what is most striking about these lectures is their common ground. Both strongly assert the centrality of art to human life, its crucial importance at the core of lived experience and knowledge, in the face of a society in which it is most often claimed that art is a luxury, a kind of optional add-on that is extrinsic to the serious business of reality. Both attacked the utilitarian mindset and language of politics, claiming that its very language constricts our human perceptions and possibilities, making us smaller than we are in a time when we need more than ever to reach beyond ourselves to cope with the challenges that constitute our future. And both called for art to be fundamentally integrated into the education of our children, as a matter of urgency: for their individual and for our social good.

I know they're both right: the achievements of civilisation - the definition of civilisation itself - is unimaginable without factoring art into the equation; what we are as human beings - our conception of the sacred, our longings, our intelligence, even our erotic being - has, for centuries, been conditioned and shaped by art. Yet I can't help wondering how much this message can be heard. I can't help fearing that our public discourse is too stunted, too frightened of the uncertainties and generosity art embodies, too spiritually deadened to even hear what they're saying.

Henson's description of art's "moral truth", the "dumbfounding" power that emerges from the struggle of its genesis, will chime with anyone who has experienced something of what he is saying. But what of those who have no idea of what he's talking about? Mills's urgent plea for a way of thinking that encompasses reason and feeling, which incorporates all the senses in a higher ratiocination that perhaps will help us to imagine a way through our challenging future, is sheer uncommon sense: but how can those ideas even begin to enter the utilitarian discourse that for our society represents the locus of real power?

In the course of a discussion which references a dizzying range of art, from Bellini to Ovid to Blake to Scorsese, Henson offers a privileged peep into his imaginative world. He discusses the demonology that has often attended discussions of art - the romantic idea that the artist is possessed, the untamed wildness that drive its truths - in defence of the "terrible beauty" that infuses both life and art. Art is, says Henson, the means by which we have made our civilisation, and the expression of our human history. And yet, when we experience its power, we step outside history.

He calls this experience "millennial slippage", the sudden breathtaking epiphany when we understand, through the work of an artist who died decades or centuries or millennia ago, a sense of its presence in our contemporary lives that illuminates both the art and ourselves. It's an experience Henson characterises as, most centrally, an evocation of tenderness or compassion, in which a simultaneous perception of the futility and potency of human endeavour makes us understand acutely our own mortality. And, contradictorily, in doing so, we access the realm of the divine.

This is central to Henson's idea of the moral truth of art, which is its simultaneous invitation into the worlds of the imagination and the real. Its risk exists in the eternal tension between its license, its Bacchanalian freedom, and its Apollonian discipline and form: the artist transforms what she perceives, and what we perceive, when we experience this art, transforms us. As Rilke said after seeing Michelangelo's David, art's message is that "You must change your life".

And this is what, says Henson, we can most profitably give our children. Instead of a "regime of pandemic fear", we should open for them the mysteries and beauty of art. "I think that this can give our children that tremendous gift: some glimpse into the world of the gods. What we have a moral duty to bequeath to our children is an apprehension of the spiritually radiant landscape of history, as art has illuminated it and given it truth."

Mills, on the other hand, opened with George Steiner's warning, in his 1971 book In Bluebeard's Castle, against the perils that attend the dominance of the technocratic mind. "Technical advances, superb in themselves, are operative in the ruin of primary living systems and ecologies," says Steiner, with a prescience that echoes ominously four decades later. "Our sense of historical motion is no longer linear, but as of a spiral. We can now conceive of a technocratic, hygienic utopia functioning in the void of human possibilities.”

Arguing against that void, Mills discusses the various ways in which we value human intelligence, referencing recent discoveries in neuroscience as models for a better understanding of culture. And he speaks from his experience as composer. "As an artist, my relationships are experiential rather than theoretical," he says. "I certainly share with scientists and philosophers a desire to make sense of my existence. It is just that my approach is poles apart. It is a fragile, highly intuitive process, in which sensory acuity and memory are subtly intertwined."

This process of intelligence, which Paul Carter calls "material thought", is not abstract: it relies on a sensory, immediate apprehension of the world. Following this thought leads Mills to anthropological studies of the Inuit people, or the Kaluli in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, whose very survival depends on sound: in environments where the visual sense can be misleading or useless, hearing becomes crucial.

As contemporary urban citizens, these sensitivities are mainly lost to us. Mills suggests that it is only through art that we can expand our consciousness to access these other kinds of intelligence, and in so doing attain a wider and more profound understanding of the world in which we live. Intelligence is, he says, best understood as an "evolving entity", more plastic than we imagine, and its potential is barely accessed. And yet we have never had more need of it, in dealing with the challenges we face today - the problems of increasing and mobile population, environmental destruction, international instability.

Here Mills turns his attention to Australia, and to our increasing population in particular. As India and China become dominant economic forces, how is it that we have so little cultural engagement with them? As Australian society becomes more and more diverse, why do we know so little of the cultures that make up our population? He names culture as the means of finding common ground, of expanding mutual curiosity and understanding, and seeks to replace "multiculturalism" - a term predicated on "the strangeness of the Other", and suggests replacing it with "Cosmopolitanism". Here he quotes the sociologist Ulrich Beck: "Cosmopolitanism, then, absolutely does not mean uniformity or homogenisation. Individuals, groups, communities, political organisations, cultures and civilisations wish to and should remain diverse, perhaps even unique. But to put it metaphorically: the walls between them must be replaced by bridges."

This bridge, says Mills, is culture. It's through culture that we can find common ground, a reciprocal interest that can translate our differences into a dynamic and positive relationship. And yet, he says, "in preparing this lecture I read a number of official documents, as well as speeches, comments and interviews with a variety of government ministers, I struggled to find the slightest mention of culture."

Like Henson, Mills urges a closer relationship between the arts and education, which he sees as increasingly inadequate in preparing young people for the complex world in which they live. He imagines an education system rather different from what now exists. "Alas, where there might be potential for learning about the Mahabharata or understanding the subtleties of kun opera, or appreciating Shia religious ceremonies through exposure to a Taziyeh performance along side the symphonies of Beethoven or cantatas of Bach, we rely instead on a diet which is exclusively comprised of adolescent, self expressive rock eisteddfods. There is nothing wrong with fun and frivolity, unless it becomes an overwhelming controlling metaphor for absolutely everything that occurs in a classroom." Worse, "integrating and assimilating the work of schools and universities with that of professional ensembles is only the first step. It is sadly a step Australian governments have yet to take."

Henson's insistence on the crucially subjective experience of art, in uniting the individual with the wider spheres of history and contemporary society, and Mills's call for a conception of culture that creates a common ground out of which we can shape our differences as enriching and valuable, meet in an insistence on a different view of education. Both imagine a world of wider possibility inspired by curiosity rather than fear, a society in which the self sees itself in positive relationship to the other. And both see the key to this possibility as art.

So where do these ideas enter into Australian social discourse? Henson's lecture was mostly reported as an unapologetic speech that merely defended his right to photograph nude children. Mills's lecture fared rather better: it was run in full in the SMH and the Age printed an edited extract. Yet I don't know how these important assertions of meaning will resonate, how they can be translated meaningfully to those who most need to hear. I don't know how they will mitigate the wider hostility to art that exists in Australia, a hostility motivated by fear and ignorance, and fanned by the attack dogs and the plain apathy of both the right and the left. The very utilitarian language criticised by both Henson and Mills makes it impossible to communicate widely the substance of what they say.

Meanwhile, the election campaign runs on in its breathtaking banality, with not one hint anywhere that there might be other ways of speaking or thinking about the challenges that confront us all. Somewhere, in this seemingly unbridgeable gap, we're all being cheated.

Update: George Hunka responds on Superfluities Redux, in the context of the "Adornonian nightmare" of another argument about corporate sponsorship of the arts.

Bill Henson's lecture, The Light and the Dark and Shades of Grey, can be watched in full on Slow TV. Jonathan Mill's State of the Arts lecture is available for download (pdf) on the Wheeler Centre site.


Eric Sykes said...

thanx al..good to have a report on the two together.

i think we have to just accept that australians don't like art (and all that goes with it) very much at all ;-) and while there are always exceptions that prove the rule, we could just stop worrying and get on with making it for people who do.

we spend so much time being disappointed that art is not closer to the centre of the culture here. but it just isn't, it just won't be. i really think we are wasting our time – like trying to open a tin can with a banana.

better to move on and put all that energy to better use. and i really don't mean to be flippant or dismissive or superficial here. i’ve been at it for 40 odd years across three continents, i have a large audience and i have deep discourse about my work and the work of others, some of my work is used in universities in asia and the u.s. for example, (to speak of the bridge with education) but not here, not in australia...it’s just too ephemeral for australians to get a handle on all this art stuff.

Alison Croggon said...

There's more to it than just worrying about whether people like art or not, as Mills in particular suggests. He gives some real reasons why we should be concerned by this apparent apathy.

I'm Australian (sort of) and I like art. My kids are Australian too, and they do, and so do a lot of their friends. I know lots of Australians who like art, in fact, not all of them part of the so-called "arts elite". And given that the arts industry (eek, I hate that phrase) apparently employs 400,000 people - more than the mining industry - and Australians go to more art events than they do to sport, I'm not sure that this dislike is as widespread as is often claimed. It shouldn't be underestimated, but it shouldn't be overestimated either.

But those who don't like art are often vocal and often powerful, and for them contemporary culture becomes a scapegoat for misplaced and uninformed resentment, thus diverting attention from deeper, legitimate grievances and alienations. And often they work in the media, thus shaping the representation of the arts to the wider public.

I'm not sure that I know the answer to these difficulties, which are also deep-rooted. Spending time with culture is hardly compulsory - in fact, I tend to think the reverse - but its misrepresentation is something that ought to be addressed, since culture is a resource that must be available to everyone (look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights). And while the public conversation remains so limited, it's hard to see how that can happen. It's hard not to notice either how little cultural policy figures in this election. Still, like Wittgenstein says, one has to begin somewhere...

George Hunka said...

Perhaps the question needs to become more specific. It's doubtful that anybody in Australia -- or North America, or Europe -- "hates" art. We all like art, just like we all like a healthy environment, justice, etc.; even those who stand accused of "hating" art will never admit doing so. And that's because they don't hate art. Certain kinds of aesthetic disciplines, ideas, forms, content, yes, certainly, they don't believe that art (such as they believe it is) is the place for them. And it isn't merely a matter of something as seemingly innocent as "taste" -- after all, taste too is a socially-nuanced construct, and it's impossible to conclude that these conflicts are a matter of taste and there leave the matter. Wittgenstein also said "That of which we cannot speak we must remain silent," but there is plenty to speak about here.

Then where to do so? It seems to me it's the proper place of editors, critics and writers, not governments or politicians (or perhaps even artists, who after all have a vested interest in the matter), to begin and continue this discussion. Critics and writers then have an obligation to demand from their editors a space in the public press for this discussion, and then to call them out on it if it's not provided.

I used to think that the blogosphere might be a place for it, but recent years have disabused me of that notion. (I'm in good company here; on a panel discussion last year I found myself agreeing with Mac Wellman that it had become a lost opportunity, the blogosphere becoming largely an amateur hour of criticism and analysis not that much different from the mainstream press.)

The problem is that, the more specifically we talk about art, the more we marginalize ourselves: we are charged then with being academic or theoretical, certainly less popular or entertaining than the discourse about art (if it can be called that) we're currently experiencing. We create enemies, open ourselves up to charges of elitism, which does no good for our readership (or for that of the editors and publishers who always have an eye on circulation figures and advertising revenue from theatrical producers and their display ads). When I was writing reviews and listing upcoming projects of others, I had a healthy readership; now that I'm writing other work, my readership has been literally decimated.

It's not enough to say -- with the UN -- that culture is a resource that must be available to everyone. What is culture today? Who is everyone? What does that exactly mean, and who determines the definitions here?

Is there a solution? I don't think so. Which makes me think that John Whiting's observation that "in these circumstances we shall have to give up what we call art," as he mischievously put it. Not a cheerful thought. But not all true thoughts are cheerful.

George Hunka said...

(Since I argue for greater precision, it's only right that I myself be more precise. I wrote that my readership was "decimated," which is not true: it is 10% of what it once was, not 90%. I stand corrected by Webster's. In which case it seems that the blog has become a somewhat foolish endeavor: a bit of a folie shared only by myself. But I am a happy fool.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - as a certain other happy fool said, if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise!

A lot of things to respond to there. One, that there ARE people in Australia who have no problems in saying, loudly and clearly, that they hate art. For them it is a pretentious, elitist (meaning privileged) and morally questionable activity, practised by social parasites and consumed by a decadent bourgeois. Though they tend not to put it that way... And it's by no means an uncommon feeling. Though as I said earlier, it shouldn't be overestimated either. I am often touched by the hunger people feel for this kind of expression. As WC Williams said, "It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there."

I agree that the media has a central place in this discussion. I was thinking of an awareness that goes beyond the arts and entertainment pages. It's easy to say that arts editors should do more: but in practice they are constantly defending their space, and powerless to stop decisions that, for instance, abolish that space (as happened recently in the Herald Sun, where they simply sacked the arts editor). Those decisions aren't, ultimately, up to them: they're up to the editor and the corporate managers of the publication.

The blogosphere here is quite lively and does provide an alternative space. A smaller community here, maybe, that means that bloggers can more easily feel empowered? I don't know. It's not perfact, but I rather treasure the amateur here - people writing thoughtfully out of love for the artform. No, it's not perfect, but there are some jewels.

The other point is that because the arts are publicly funded here (which I believe is a good thing - it certainly permits a lot of good art to happen - the other slightly frustrating side of this is that Australian produce some amazing work), that discussion does need to be had by politicians, because they are responsible for the policy of that funding.

Certainly the question of culture - what is it, who gets it, etc - is the subject presently of lively debate. I'm not sure there's a lot to be gained by defining and confining it... But why not aspire to be like civilised and tolerant and above all gifted societies like 11th century Cordoba? The alternative is, after all, to turn our planet into a toxic desert.

Eric Sykes said...

I love art, I am Australian. Many people in Australia love art. I am sorry but that's not my point.

I am not talking about people. I am talking about a national identity. It is hard to talk about without being seen to call Australia..stupid or something, and that is not what I mean either.

Art is not in, or even part of, the frame that shapes Australian identity. I would argue we are not at all shaped by our novels or plays or our visual arts or our music(however brillant some of these undoubtably are at speaking about us). Our indigenous art is powerful and beautiful, but it does not frame us anyomre than Nick Cave does.

What frames us is lifestyle. As High Mackay puts it...Australians take "the search for the perfect bathroom tile" more seriously than any other nation. I do not mean to belittle that search either, because that is what frames us - lifestyle.

I could go one and won't. I am writing a much (much) longer piece on this. But I will say that I don't expect a "cultural policy" that has any broad cultural meaning soon.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Eric - that's hard to argue with. My daughter just finished reading Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children - one of the GREAT Australian novels - and last night we were wondering why Stead has been so forgotten here. Why is she not lauded, read, discussed? There was an article recently which discussed this book, but it was in the New York Times, for godsake. So many stories like that.

To be fair, Melbourne does frame at least part of its identity through its artistic life. That may be problematic in many ways, but it does make it a good place to live.

Eric Sykes said...

Yes I love Melbourne for that, and the food, and I miss it terribly. I doubt I'll ever be able to afford to move back!!! I should never have sold that little terrace house in North Fitzroy for $150,000 (gulp). Even if it did buy me a 4 bedroom veranda circled Queenslander in Bris Vegas....where the search for the tile goes on and on and on and on and on....and the back deck frames the culture, the back deck and the seafood and fruit bats....and the tile warehouse. Once it was the bush and the search for a home, now it's the home and the search for a car park.

More people in Brisbane go to the Asia Pacific Triennial than nearly any other event. They go to see quite confronting contemporary art (from somewhere else). I doubt very much that this really "means" anything in terms of who they think they are. If you know what I mean....

George Hunka said...

According to Beckett's Endgame, the planet became a toxic planet some time ago! Perhaps we're merely the embers.

Anyway, I'm still going to defend my thesis that nobody in Australia really "hates art," even if they're talking about galleries and opera houses, and in part this is a product of the evolving definition of popular culture as art. If we're going to defend such things as episodic television, or comic books, or rock-and-roll music as art (as we in our fuzzily democratic way are happy to do, no elitists we), then we can simply respond that as critics we believe that this is art as well. Which should gladden the hearts of all those arts-haters, not unlike the happiness which sprang upon the title character of Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman.

Well, if you're not going to persuade arts editors to open a place for this debate, I find it doubtful you'll find news and opinion editors who will do so. I pity arts editors, but not very much; they are just as much parts of the journalism industry as the news editors and their corporate managers. But certainly at least a little of the blame for the marginalization of the arts in the culture should be placed with them, who make their editorial decisions based on fear and favor. If they deny their deeper instincts of what the arts can mean to a culture, well, that's all the worse, for us and for them.

George Hunka said...

Re Moliere: that is, the title character who finds he has been speaking prose (rather than liking art) for 40 years.

Alison Croggon said...

What's the chronology of imagination? Beckett imagined out of the realities he witnessed - which included WW2 and the destruction of Europe. Seeing that become a literal reality is pretty chilling tho.

And again, yes, people will say they like entertainment, but hate art - ie, anything that's a "wank", that is perceived as elitist or difficult or exclusive, and that's considered to be part of a traditional Australian egalitarianism that rejects these attributes (though, I have to say, it's appropriated). Though there's no problem with "elite" sportsmen, as artists are fond of pointing out. That's just a fact, and like all these things, is double edged. No Australian - except perhaps in swank hotels - says "Sir" or "Ma'am", it would be considered demeaning. I was very taken aback when I heard people routinely using those modes of address in the US! But the flipside is a distrust and even hatred of pretension that can be utterly inward-turning and self-defeating, and at its worst is an anti-intellectualism that can be turned into something else by the malicious misrepresentions of the politically interested.

(Phew, long sentence there).

Did I say anywhere I wasn't prepared to "persuade arts editors to open a place for this debate"? That's the easy part. I said rather that I wished for a wider parameter for cultural debate, outside the arts page ghetto. Flogging arts journalists - some of whom are committed and informed communicators - isn't going to solve the wider issue, which ripples out into the whole knotty and seemingly impossible problem of asserting more generous and intelligent and just ways of being in a global world in which everything is measured through neoliberal economics. And in which real power is largely invisible, exercised through extra-territorial corporations etc.

Alison Croggon said...

PS If we're going to defend such things as episodic television, or comic books, or rock-and-roll music as art (as we in our fuzzily democratic way are happy to do, no elitists we), then we can simply respond that as critics we believe that this is art as well.

Well, if such forms reach levels of expressivity concomitant with what one expects of art - as indeed they can - why not? Have a look at Shaun Tan or Art Spiegelman or Marjane Satrapi, maybe...

George Hunka said...

Well then, why not? Though why not also include Two-and-a-Half-Men, Superman and Lady Gaga too? And I do indeed enjoy these (no elitist I, either). Whether that's the kind of art we're talking about doesn't really matter, does it?

I imagine that news and opinion editors and journalists are just as informed and committed as arts editors and journalists, by the way, and if that's the case certainly they -- who also have pressures, deadlines, limited space for their individual pages (and pressure from their corporate masters) -- can't be flogged either. Which brings us right back where we started, I think.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - I'm beginning to feel a bit schizoid. I've been having the same conversation elsewhere on the interwebs...

You missed my qualification, which stipulated that something becomes art if it reaches "levels of expressivity concomitant with what one expects of art". Which those three graphic artists/story writers, in very different ways, to my mind do. Two and a Half Men is one of the most grindingly insipid sitcoms on television: but why equate the best with the worst, simply because it's a popular form? Dante used the contemporary equivalent of pulp novels - lurid stories of St Paul travelling through Hell - as the structure for the Commedia, and Shakespeare reached into all sorts of vulgar forms for his plays. Artists still reach into mass and popular entertainment for forms. So? The argument that any form can't a priori qualify as an art reminds me of the early 20C arguments that film could not be an artform, and now the same argument that games can't be (usually posited by people who don't play games and don't know what they can be). All forms hold the possibility of art, though that isn't the same as saying they are (or want to be) art all the time. It is all in the manifestation.

I repaste my thoughts from beneath my Wheeler Centre piece here, which talks a little about art vs entertainment, which cross over their contested boundaries all the time, although they are not the same:

There is a strand of thinking about art that enjoyment or pleasure or delight is a secondary or unimportant or even decadent effect. I confess I've never understood it. But aside from the derogation of pleasure, that seems to me to take a very narrow view of pleasure itself. Engaging with a difficult and challenging work can be among the greatest pleasures - I often think of my first encounters with Paul Celan, whom I found both baffling and beautiful. The only way to work through that was to keep reading him, and I still remember how it felt when those poems began to flower into comprehension.

The art/entertainment divide is vexed, for sure. I'm not sure why it's a line that needs to be policed - not all entertainment is art, to be sure, but that needn't mean it has to be mediocre or stupid; and at the same time, not all art is, or should be, entertainment. I'm not sure the rewards I can get from Beckett at his most stern come under the heading "entertainment", but they are certainly rewards; the demand that art be entertainment can turn into a kind of tyranny, just as much as the other way around. I just wonder why it's always presented as if one can only have one or the other, rather than both.

George Hunka said...

I confess I was being a little mischievous when I mentioned Two-and-a-Half Men, but rather less so with the others.

The prejudice against film as an art form didn't last long -- and neither did it for popular music or comic books (Gilbert Seldes, where art thou?). I'm sure video games would find their way into a centenary 2024 revision of The Seven Lively Arts.

Anonymous said...

I have absoloutely nothing to contribute to this conversation other than to say how much I'm enjoying it.

Lately I've been very unfaithful in my lurking and have been spending alot of my time at various climate blogs. I was wondering what it was that I was missing...ah yes...civility.

All the best

Theatre Queen