Wednesday, 10 November 2004

What to do with an elitist stinkbomb?

What to do with an elitist stinkbomb?

What to do with an elitist stinkbomb? Bat it back quick to where it belongs.

'Tis true. Many of us did close our doors that bright, hope-filled sunny Saturday of October 9 to watch the election results on television; only to re-open them the following morning upon a day that had forgotten to break, a sun without shine. The view was terrifying: a mean and nasty landscape of people treading on others, pushing them down, while running late to mass to praise all that is uplifting (do you believe!). No wonder we turned about-face, quick, and bolted the door in fear of there being nowhere to go until the next election. But Phillip Adams is right (Saturday opinion, The Australian). The present political landscape needn't appear as bleak as all that. The decency of unprejudiced reason and fair measure may still reside amongst those elected in the coalition: compassion may not have died on October 9.

So he has coaxed us out, that Phillip, to have another go. Let's see where it will take us.

We are a group of visual artists seeking proper acknowledgement. Today, in Federal Parliament's House of Representatives, our THE STARVING VISUAL ARTIST put the cliché to rest PETITION will be delivered by Tanya Plibersek MP, the Member for Sydney.

This petition asks the coalition government to redress the mistake it has made in ignoring the basis of the Myer Report: artists. We say no to the nothing the government has given by ignoring the report’s Recommendation One, but yes to the acknowledgement we need.

When the coalition was first elected to government in 1996 the mandatory fee that visual artists had until then received when they exhibited at publicly funded art galleries, ceased. We call for the reinstatement of a mandatory fee at a rate of no less than $2,000, at a rate no less than proper acknowledgement.

Without this acknowledgement the plight of visual artists will worsen when already it is significantly alarming (hence the Myer inquiry). Is this what the coalition wants? Is this what the coalition intends?

This can't help but lead one to question: Why is the coalition government so bothered by visual artists to the extent of sanctioning their starvation - their disappearance from existence?

Remember that stinkbomb the prime minister threw in our corner some years back when he was first elected? You know, that stinkbomb blazoned in capitals with the inscription 'the elite' that sent out one almighty stench and has had people run from us starving artists ever since. Meanwhile, over in the other corner, this word 'elite' seems to have inconspicuously crept out of its own odour to be branded all over the t-shirts of our fine female-mongering Bulldogs (what a group of great fellers they are - really fine dads no doubt) and gold-digging Olympian athletes, with a round of applause from our Prime Minister wolf-whistling in front row. This is a highbrow / lowbrow play-off between opposites that don't actually exist. This is what is so menacing of the Prime Minister's conduct. Yet I regret to admit that I have resorted to the same low tactics as a means by which to describe them: not all in the Canterbury Bulldogs were involved in unsatisfactorily resolved rape allegations, most no doubt make brilliant dads. And many an athlete tests the bounds of what is conceivable, as do artists.

So how does the elite damned in one corner become applauded in the other, irrespective of attributes? This deft double-handling of a single word by the Prime Minister has outstripped reason over and over again to paralyse nearly every argument.

For please, tell me, what is elite about this typical art situation:

In 1993 I was one day looking at an exhibition in the then National Gallery of Victoria's Murdoch Court when a large group proceeded towards me. Tourists, I wondered, a guided tour for sure - annoying either way for my quiet contemplation was soon to be drowned by a guide-book reading. Instead, I was thankfully reminded of all that is valuable about contemporary art. Once the group was safely marshalled in a woman spoke. Firstly, she explained how a couple of days ago she had seen an ad in The Age and decided to spend her lunchtime looking at this exhibition to see what her tax money is spent on. Uh-oh, I thought, this isn't going to be good.

'Well, I came down here', she said, 'in my lunch break and was outraged. Thoroughly and furiously outraged. All the bric-a-brack, all this weird stuff placed everywhere [it was a contemporary artwork, remember], but no art, no paintings of people or landscapes, nothing that we know as art, no skill. I could have done it, a three-year old could have done it - anyone could have done it - so why the hell should I be paying for it? The artist must think I'm a fool.' Wow, did she sound furious!

Thankfully, she continued. 'I returned to work determined to write letters of complaint to every politician I could think of, and I started. But that night I had the weirdest dreams, scary dreams. Forgotten thoughts came back to me, as well as questions I'd long ago given up on - all mixed up with the objects in this exhibition. I was plagued all the next morning by the dreams, they were worrying. So I returned to the exhibition yesterday lunchtime and just couldn't believe it. It was exactly the same room, the same work, nothing had moved, nothing was different - but something had changed. I had changed. The artwork now made sense to me. I can see it, and it's brilliant. Each time I questioned the work, it answered. I looked for my dream's questions and found links between objects that lead to new thoughts and understandings. So that's why I've asked you to come here today during your lunchtime. I work with you everyday, and this place is just around the corner. I hope you might see what I have.' And with this she began pointing out various aspects of the work to debate with her work mates. All this because she was prepared to see through her initial prejudice, take a second look, then a third in tow with others to share her wonder and amazement, the very opposite of her first visit.

So what is so elite about this? Is it the struggle to see what prejudice at first makes us blind to? For this is the story of art. Or is it elite to extend an invitation to work mates to talk about an artwork during lunchtime, to debate what one sees? Or worse, is it elite to co-ordinate what one sees with one's feelings, thoughts and words just as an athlete co-ordinates their eye with their hand, their cricket bat with the ball? This co-ordination is the task of artists and viewers alike, we are in the same boat here. So just what part of all this is elite?

No part, of course. Yet the art industry has run a mile from itself given the pervading stench this classist portrayal of the Prime Minister's has engulfed us in. Few have stood ground and publicly fought for us due to the destructiveness being branded 'elite' brings, unless, of course, you're an athlete - then it brings gold.

Which leaves us to ask: is it fair for our Prime Minister to say derogatorily that art situations such as the one described above are elite? Is it fair to set such a foul stench upon viewers who find well-being in crossing personal thresholds when viewing art? Is it fair to ridicule, as our Prime Minister does, those who seek to explore and express their imaginations as viewers? Is this condemnation of imagination and the industry steeped in it - visual art and its thousand offshoots - fair? No, especially when the government's attempted annihilation of imagination is crippling our ability to see and think for ourselves. The last election was a measure of this, a sad one.

For how is it possible that after the election voters explained their choice again and again by saying, 'If it ain't broke, then don't fix it'? How could they possibly not see how broken Australia is? How can we stand amidst Aboriginal Australia and the pain it is in and not see that we have not yet acknowledged it - that we have not said sorry for whitewashing its history, stealing its children, murdering, raping and displacing its people. This knowledge, while the coalition has been in government, has become a suppressed knowledge - a suppressed Australia - an Australian unconscious that is unspeakable and is to be avoided for being so riddled with guilt. But this guilt only gets worse the more it is denied by the Howard government. Acknowledgement here, really matters. Acknowledgement gives a person their place. Why continue to deny Aboriginal Australia its place? Is this not a disastrously broken Australia?

And yet the electorate chose not to see this and many other things. When did our imaginations become so stunted so as to make us blind? When did our imaginations fail the force needed to break through prejudice to see? This is what is most frightening - the power this government has to stop us from seeing what is right in front of us, what we are surrounded by.

But what of its 'elitist' claims of late - who is throwing the stinkbombs now?

You have to say, this government is pretty powerful. It has even managed to convince us in the last election that the left is truly the right and the right the left, so if you want the values of the left you must vote for the right. Now how crooked is this? It's a logic certainly helped, however, by those such as Bill Shorten, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, who has decided of late to denigrate educated workers who spend time thinking about others by isolating them as a so-called left-wing intelligentsia, an elite. But this group of workers include himself. Why is Mr Shorten telling Labor not to consider him while asking Labor to consider him? This contradiction doesn't seem helpful.

This bizarreness was repeated yesterday on the ABC's Insiders programme when a Tasmanian forestry unionist (Michael O'Connor from the CFMEU) complained of mainland workers who drink coffee (cafè lattes, in particular, it seems). Because of which, these workers have strange visions of saving what is irreplaceable: old-growth forests. Well millions of coffees must have been downed October 9 - how else to explain the millions who voted for Labor's forestry policy. Of course, the coalition is ridiculing Labor for not ditching this and accompanying policies - because these policies will eventually work no matter the number of coffees one drinks on the mainland. That's why the coalition is worried. But not even they would go so far as to call drinking coffee elite in that double-handed way they have.

So please, put the elitist stinkbombs down as they are being thrown in the service of the coalition government, only. Instead, let Mr Latham do as Jenny Macklin suggests, 'capture the imagination of the Australian people'.

Gail Hastings for SASS

posted Monday, 29 November 2004