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.

1 comment:

  1. NGV Director Bernard Hall once said in a lecture entitled "ART AND LIFE AND
    CROP" 1931:

    "I have bracketed Art with Life, as a heading to these remarks, because I cannot think of them dissociated. Art is no exotic or hot-house plant flourishing only in art galleries and museums, or art schools and studios. Art permeates the whole field of human activities and is of a piece with life, being, in its highest expression, only a more individualised and highly-wrought manifestation of the same. Live as we may, we can hardly avoid Art, since self-expression inheres to everything we make or operate that appeals to our perception and aesthetic sense. It is not even a matter of funds. These only determine the measure of its exuberance. A community so well endowed with means as we are (or were) must spend a considerable part of those means on embellishment and the graces of life. Yet, if the restraints which inform good taste are relaxed, and mere display of wealth depended upon to create effect apart from the waste and futility of it all, vulgarity is the only possible result. We cannot all be creative artists, or even experts, but we can make ourselves acquainted with the general principles and purpose of Art, and the conditions and limitations of material which govern its production, and so cultivate sufficient knowledge to approach the subject with a certain amount of confidence, and enjoy it intelligently."