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  • Alan Cook

Art Biting the Hand

Since the beginning of the pandemic, artists and arts organisations have complained vociferously about the apparent neglect of their sector by the government when distributing stimulus. As an artist, I can see their point. The performing arts were the first and hardest hit sector after the sudden closure of all performances, leaving thousands without work and income overnight. I am a professional freelance classical musician and I can testify to the difficulty of having practically every booking that I had for 2020 cancelled in a matter of days. It was distressing, and six months into the pandemic, it is no better. However, speaking from the point of view of an artist, I can also look upon my own sector and colleagues and see that the apparent antipathy of the government to the arts may be, at least in part, due to artists biting the very hands that feed them. They have embraced a philosophy and zeitgeist that has decayed and debased the arts, and consequentially, alienated itself from its public and patrons alike; not only those of conservative governments, but also the many wealthy capitalists on whose philanthropy they depend.

Over the course of the 20th century until present, artists have trashed their own profession, brought it into disrepute, and exposed it to mockery and ridicule. Generally, the public, even those who have no understanding of art, hold a certain reverence or respect for people who have spent their lives dedicated to refining their artistic skills to produce works that leave the average person in amazement. Who has not watched a concert pianist or violinist and stood in awe of their precision motor skills and beauty of sound that they create, or seen a painting and been astonished by the expressiveness of the artists palette? Who has not seen and heard such works and not felt that a deeper truth was portrayed here than is able to be expressed in words? A deeper truth about Humanity. However, a great deal of contemporary art just leaves people confused and wondering what skill is involved in producing such monstrosities of sight and sound. In 2018, I attended a contemporary opera performance with a colleague (also a musician). When it ended, we both turned to each other and said, “What just happened?” (In much less polite terms). The plot was nonsense, the music ugly, without form or substance, dissonant like nails on a blackboard, and with no apparent connection to what was happening on stage (as far as that was even intelligible). As someone who is frequently in the arts precinct of Melbourne, I am regularly exposed to the latest output of the younger generation of artists in dance, drama, music, and plastic arts. It is, to say the least, dismaying. There is little there that is intelligible or beautiful. Certainly, none of it generates the kind of awe that one feels seeing works of Da Vinci or hearing music of Tchaikovsky.

The Fine Arts also undermine their own existence by promulgating an ideology that seeks to destroy the very profession which they have chosen for their life’s work. The very concept of Fine Art is antithetical to the philosophy of the Left. Left-wing Australian political parties are fundamentally opposed to any art and culture that seeks to rise above the kitsch and mundane. They see all such pursuits as the domain of the ‘top end of town’. The Left has no regard for excellence and skill in the arts and their ‘democratisation’ of art, is defined only by the artist and thus, is above criticism. Art pragmatically serves their Socialist identity politics.

Art, for the Left, should represent the ‘oppressed’. This ideology is taught ubiquitously in arts institutions today and asserts that art should prioritise representation over quality and excellence. Historically, art beholden to any ideology produces banal, uninspired works and today’s art works, dedicated to identity politics, are no exception. Such art leaves audiences running for cover, and for those who are regular consumers of the fine arts, feeling alienated and as if they are being berated. Instead of feeling uplifted and inspired by an evening at the theatre or a walk through an art gallery, people are left feeling guilty, confused, and accosted. Even Australia’s most famous playwright, Malcolm Williamson, has said,

“I do think that some middle-class audiences at the theatre are finding it a little tiresome to get yet another play from yet another minority group, that tells them that they are unconscionable, and beats them about the head, and tells them that they have caused great problems for minority groups….. Some sections of the audience are sick of being told they’re horrible.”[1]

Quite naturally, in the face of such feelings, audiences and patrons are less inclined to support such ‘art’.

The commonly heard charge of ‘elitism’ in the fine arts is an accusation with its basis in the belief that Western artistic tradition is the progeny of the upper classes, and is to be rejected by, or radically redefined for, the working class and minorities. The idea that the fine arts are for the ‘elites’ and not accessible to all classes would be nonsense to the artists and public of earlier times. There is nothing inherently inaccessible or alienating in the great art of the canon of the Western tradition. Nothing that a little cultural education will not cure anyway. As a classical musician myself, I often hear from colleagues the internal conflict of spending many hours a day and many years of one’s life to attain the required skills to play highly complex art music only to have to admit that the teenager who picked up a guitar last week and wrote a monotonous three-chord song for his girlfriend has created something as artistically valid. It is insulting to artists; but speaking out will expose you to the charge of ‘elitist’. I recently experienced this myself when an article of mine was rejected by a classical music magazine because it appeared to be saying that classical music was ‘better’: all because I had the impudence to state that classical music requires much more skill and refined musical instincts to perform. This charge of elitism is apparently reserved only for the fine arts. Such accusations are unheard of when referring to elite sportsmen and women. The term ‘elite sportsperson’ is perfectly acceptable, but ‘elite artist’ is snobbery.

An unfortunate consequence of this preference for representation over excellence is finding major performing arts organisations platforming this or that ‘artist’ from a minority with some kind of ‘victim’ status and presenting their banal work of little quality or talent. Meanwhile, connoisseurs and artists, who dedicated their lives to excellence, politely applaud, all the while quietly nursing their disdain for fear of being branded racist or intolerant.

Opera has become a particular target for revisionists. Calls for opera to be ‘updated’ – removing gender violence, changing plots, characters, disallowing black-face or white singers to play Asian or coloured roles in favour of authentic casting. Proponents seek “a reframing of women's voices and stories away from victimhood.” [2] And they claim that proportionately, women are more often portrayed as victims of male domination and violence.[3] I have worked in opera for over twenty years and serious opera (as opposed to comic) usually ends up in the death of many people. A lot of men die, too, and they often die violently while protecting a woman. Modern productions are made to ‘deconstruct’ traditional stories. Beautiful music, sublime accompaniments to timeless stories are presented with squalid sets and costumes, and graphic acts of gratuitous sex and violence. These productions are specifically designed to shock and create dissonance between what the eyes see and the ears hear. Stories are ‘updated’ to remove things which have become unpalatable to ‘woke’ sensibilities and of potential offence to special interests, often depriving the plots of the very elements that give them meaning. For example, some people, citing gender violence, have wanted to remove Carmen’s murder at the hands of her lover, Don Jose, at the end of the opera, defeating the very point of the opera as a tragedy. Don Jose’s psychological decline to the point of murder in a jealous rage is not in any way condoned by the libretto, it is precisely there to demonstrate the horrors of the jealous human nature and desire to control another to the point of violence. No one in their right mind views this kind of theatre and walks away thinking that murdering a woman in a jealous rage is acceptable or deserved. These operas, like many stories, call us to better ourselves, they connect with our very human fallibilities and through Beauty, seek to lift us to a higher plane outside the brutality of reality through the inspired and skilled representation of ideals that the real world cannot express.

On another front, attacks on respected music institutions have come to the fore for not providing gender balance in programming despite the lack of repertoire from female composers. Criticism of ‘dead white men’ dominating the programmes of major orchestras is a common refrain. But with what exactly should it be replaced? Few contemporary compositions by women or men have the substance or beauty to be embraced by audiences. Attempts are made to resurrect the few works by a handful female composers of the 18th and 19th century despite their inferior quality. To be sure, they do not lack quality because they were composed by women, but precisely because the women of that period did not have the chance to develop their skills and career as composers to produce lasting works. This is an unfortunate reality which cannot be undone. If a professional orchestra were to begin programming with a quota of 50% female composers, they would soon have to resort to repetition of a tiny body of works or performing substandard works of little merit. Both of which would result in audiences taking flight.

Additionally, the Left has become the gatekeeper of funding via the Australia Council and state government bureaucracies such as Creative Victoria. These expensive instruments of bureaucracy have the added unfortunate effect of keeping government at arm’s length from the funding, leaving it to the arts community itself to allocate funding according to its own priorities and social agenda via ‘peer group assessment and review’. I have been on the list of peers to assess the artistic merit of a grant applicant before it moves on further through the process and, despite measures in place to assure no conflict of interest, the majority are given to one particular ideology and their ability to perceive their own bias would be seriously impaired. This is a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Funding at both a state and federal level is assessed via criteria like ‘community benefits’, diversity, and inclusivity of minorities. Needless to say, classical music and other fine arts, are overlooked unless you can demonstrate that you are following their agenda.

The arts community in Australia is predominantly leftist, often extremely so, much to the detriment of the art and the economic well-being of the artists themselves. It perpetually bites the hand that feeds it while complaining of the lack of government will to support the arts. Its ideology turns out art that is inaccessible and undesirable, and its patrons and artists find themselves alone in a barren landscape of self-referential work that berates and alienates. Art in Australia is locked into a vicious circle. Governments are reluctant to fund artists who appear to be creating for themselves and not for the wider community. Artists rightly want to explore and develop new styles and techniques, art pushes boundaries. However, it has truly lost its soul and purpose when it becomes beholden to ideology and alienates those for whom art was created.


[1] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/not-dancing-hurting/news-story/5612ccfc15f2ed1ae28ec26b2d2e951a [2] https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/opera/arts-leading-lights-join-opera-anti-violence-push-20190625-p52134.html [3] https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/singers-speak-out-about-operas-abused-women-20160712-gq47un.html


© 2020 by Alan Cook

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