Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Case for Supporting the Arts

Chinese contemporary artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei once stated, ‘If there is no freedom of expression, then the beauty of art is lost. Participation in a society is not an artistic choice, it’s a human need.’

When Geoffrey Rush was named Australian of the Year in 2012, he talked about the responsibility that came with this title. His gong was not only recognition of his achievements but would, importantly, boost the visibility and credibility of the arts in Australia. We are a country that has traditionally been very good at acknowledging and supporting sports and celebrating sporting success but is trailing behind in giving equal recognition, and by extension funding, to arts training and creative expression.

There are many varying perspectives and opinions of what constitutes art and its value in society. Some consider art to be the things that make life richer, more indulgent and colourful. A night at the theatre, a beautiful vase and painting in the living room, a perfect haiku – the components of life that make you smile and inspire creative thinking. Some see those same things as luxuries one can ill afford for need of food and a roof. Buskers, mimes, those taxidermists who position poor dead animals in disturbing poses with questionable costumes – art or just wrong?

The truth is we experience the arts in myriad forms every day. It is almost impossible to imagine a world devoid of artistic expression and consumption. For most of us, there’s music on the radio, comedy and drama on television, the cinema, comedy festivals and stand-up, shelves and shelves of stories in libraries and bookstores, fashion and design in clothing, jewellery and homeware shops, architecture in the buildings, bridges and structures that surround us. If we just look around at any cosmopolitan city, we discover how much of it is shaped by expressions of art.

The National Gallery of Victoria is a well regarded art institution and is custodian to arguably Australia’s most extensive collection of artworks through the ages. Yet, few would know about a brilliant program that they offer called Art and Memory. This program brings into the gallery members of the community who live with advanced stage Alzheimer’s and dementia. In the presence of trained facilitators, these visitors experience an interactive tour of the NGV collection. As a result of the creative and visual interaction and mental stimulation, the overwhelming response from carers and families has been that they have witnessed more alertness and awareness from their patients and loved ones, not to mention the greater quality of life.

More and more, we’re beginning to understand that maintaining good health and wellbeing is more than simply diet and exercise. Being mentally stimulated, inspired and feeling socially connected is equally important to a person’s wellbeing and ability to prevent illness. Stories told through the medium of books, plays, art exhibitions or music can take the audience to a place they’ve never been before, or to see the world through a different pair of eyes. Equally, they can tell the stories of marginalised peoples, whose voice might not otherwise be heard in mainstream media. Indigenous Australia, refugees, migrants, people who are homeless, disabled or live rurally and are poorly represented. To belong in an under-represented group and to see your story being told or someone in your community telling their story can be an empowering movement and can lead to social change or softening of opinions or prejudices. Expressions of art have the capacity to humanise political issues; they add life, dialogue and emotion to the otherwise black and white images seen in newspapers.

There are some truly inspiring champions for the arts in Australia, and particularly in Melbourne. Last year’s Australian of the Year Geoffrey Rush is one of many artists, philanthropists and major supporters for the arts who get its importance and relevance. Having worked in philanthropy in both the arts and non-arts sectors, it is evident to me that often when people think about giving to worthy causes, it is uncommon for the arts to spring to mind. This world in which we live is far, far from perfect and there is so much that we can do to make it safer, fairer, kinder, more democratic, equal, sustainable and liveable. As a people, we want to cure cancer and eradicate poverty. We aspire for our great grandchildren to have healthier and longer lives than ours.

This piece isn’t to position the arts in competition with all the important causes that deserve our attention, support and empathy. Simply, it aims to get people thinking towards the arts from a different perspective and to realise that art does not simply enhance life, rather it is life. We need ample space to create art and we need to give people access to experience the arts. And we must remember that every day, our art institutions from galleries to theatres are inspiring the next generation of designers, architects, writers and thinkers.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma

I’ve never been good at book reviews. That whole style of writing irks me and I never know where to start. What I am much better at is writing adoring fan letters to people I admire – writers, performers and one particularly splendid tram driver. So, having just finished reading Kerry Hudson’s debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, this is what I have to say.

Dear Kerry,

You had me at ‘hello’. Well, your book did – I’ve never encountered a more irresistible opening line than that uttered by Iris Ryan as she gave birth to our protagonist Janie. And what followed, so vividly, is this dark and grimy world of “homeless hostels an’ council estates an’ moonlit fuckin’ flits”. It is grey, chaotic and tragic yet never devoid of love and humour.

I loved getting to know Janie Ryan who, had I run into her or her ma on the bus, I probably would have misjudged. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much going for her – she is a council estate kid, not great at school, short temper, hard and rough. Yet, you can’t help but like her. I adored the quirky narrative voice of infant Janie, I bled for the little girl who bore witness to violence, addiction and scummy men, and I was inspired by the teenager who lived by her own convictions as best she could. From and early age, she loved being at the library and reading and when she "cried because none of us was as good as people in books," I cried with her.

All the Ryan women are flawed, but I guess who among us isn’t in one way or another? Of course, you wish that Janie’s mother could have given more to her children, got away from the men sooner, swallowed her pride every now and then. As she crushed the dying birds with the weight of her feet to put them out of their suffering, instructing Janie that sometimes you do things even if it hurts you more, that’s when you see who she really is. The people in the book are all complicated, bruised and scarred in their own ways, and you understand how it is possible to be both fierce and fragile at the same time.

We all know that no two lives or families look alike. This book taught me that love can also take myriad forms, or be expressed in unconventional ways. The best stories take you into someone else’s skin and allow you to feel with them, not just for them. I still ache for Janie but I’m hopeful too.

Kerry Hudson, you are a sharp, unpredictable and brilliant writer. I hope Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma comes to Australian bookshops soon. I can’t wait to see what you bring to us next.

Yours Sincerely,
B x