What’s art for?

This question came up in the context of writing a cultural plan. Most people probably don’t even know what a cultural plan is, or could care less, but suffice to say most levels of government have one. *

For my sins I have recently read a few of these documents from various regions around the country. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was that, even though they were to do with culture, Art tended to be somewhat marginalised. Art, or ‘the Arts’ existed as an embellishment, the aesthetic coating over the more sober activities of general life.

I brought this up with a friend who straight away said, ‘as soon as art becomes commodifed it loses its force, it becomes no more than another aspect of commerce.’

A statement which led us, of course, to ask what art had been before it was commodified, which proved to be by no means simple to define. Clearly ritual was in there somewhere. But we also couldn’t avoid revisiting Neanderthal man sitting around the campfire after a day hunting the woolly mammoth. It has been a successful day. The beast has been felled, there is meat in the hands of the clan. Not satisfied, however, to simply fall asleep after the meal, one of the tribal members feels obliged to get up and replay the events of the day, to mime the hunt, to dance the events out, to retell. This replaying so engages the others that they demand the performance be repeated again and again.

If indeed the beginning of Art happened like that (paintings on walls both after, and before the hunt, are another example) then we would have to posit that it is this process of retelling which makes us different from the other animals; not just an awareness of our own mortality but a need to talk about it. I’m not claiming it makes us better or that it gives meaning or even makes sense of anything, only that for some reason we, as human beings, seem to need to do it and this defines us as different. In the retelling we change ourselves and our experience of the world, and there has been a lot of retelling since the last woolly mammoth was killed.

The point of all this was to say that when we marginalise art, when we make it just another aspect of our commerce we lose something essential. I, like most people in history, do not know what art is for, only that when we marginalise it we, in effect, take ourselves back to some sort of base line of existence in which all we do is reproduce, consume and excrete. We stop remaking the world.

* This business of cultural plans brings me to a curious aside: it seems that in this present age, in which we plan for every eventuality, local government both sets itself and then operates according to precise codes. These codes are presented in the form of a series of ‘plans.’ For example, an Environmental Plan, which, when it has been passed by a regional government, imposes on any future planning for that jurisdiction the regulations or even aspirations that are in the document.
Perhaps I need to make myself more clear here: these are not planning documents per se, in which a decision is made about the width of a path or the height of a ceiling, they are broader in their remit, intended to state, as it were, a ‘position’ on certain issues.
What I find worthy of note, even perhaps philosophically interesting, is that these documents are designed to ‘talk up or down to each other,’ by which I mean they exist in an hierarchical structure – a community plan might sit above a corporate plan (or the other way around) which in turn sits above a health and lifestyle plan or, in this case, a cultural plan, which, in turn sits above a whole raft of other ones.
In the field of law this has, of course, been operating for hundreds of years, under the principle of precedent. International treaties, too, operate in a similar way, whereby a country will agree to conditions which then have a bearing on their activities. But this is another level of documentation beyond that. In overarching local government plans the words themselves are often quite amorphous, leaning towards motherhood statements, and yet still have actual force, controlling the way our cities and towns shift and change.
Is this a good or a bad thing? I can’t, at this point answer that; certainly it is better that government be giving thought to its process of governance and not operating in an ad hoc manner; it just seems a curious metaphor, these documents talking up and down to each other, staking out fences, presenting imperatives; particularly in a time where personal responsibility for decisions seems to have devolved, where everyone acts within prescribed frameworks.
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4 Comments on “What’s art for?”

  1. Henrietta Says:

    The arts tell the stories about the culture and cultural change.

    The key to a good Plan is that while providing guidance for funding infrastructure it also allows flexibility so that creativity is encouraged at all levels of society and cultural change is made easier for everyone.

    Change is difficult. The arts can smooth ride. Art as a commodity is an oddity, soul-less. To me great art has a story. I have a painting by a Maleny identity who swapped it with me for my old car. It’s the story and the memory I love.


  2. Thanks Henrietta. The article I mention in the post above about the wonderfully named McGeorge Bundy has a footnote which reads:
    ‘Goldstein writes of a conversation between the journalist David Halberstam and McGeorge Bundy concerning the consequences of policy decisions. Halberstam proposed that “no matter how small the initial step, a policy has a life and a thrust of its own, it is an organic thing. More, its thrust and its drive may not be in any way akin to the desires of the President who initiated it.” “Not so,” Bundy replied.’
    I couldn’t help but think this comment about policy having a life of its own germane to what we are discussing

  3. Henrietta Says:

    Jon Hawkes, author of the Fourth Pillar of Sustainability, talked about the ‘creative/managed axis’ in a presentation some years ago. He posited that creative participation is the mode of maximum engagement but unfortunately is largely unexplored.

    My own observation is that managed participation too often equates to ‘controlled participation’ and this will never allow creativity to flourish.

    IT would be nice to think that policy could have a life of its own, but here is the challenge…..

    Creativity needs freedom. In a society that has so many constraints on engagement, participation and expression, creativity is not for the feint hearted.

    What I see is only the most assertive or disengaged can achieve true creativity.

    Some recent reading threw up this theory – ‘creativity is a not a property of individuals but a match between fertile minds and ripe times’.

    Maybe the best is yet to come……..


  4. Something like growing lettuces I’ve often thought: if there is not good soil, adequate water, plenty, but not too much, sun, then the things will go to seed straight away. But provide them with what they need, they’ll flourish, indeed will even form a heart.
    But, moving right along, you are probably familiar with the ‘8 rungs of community participation’ model. It’s shown at this link:
    http://lithgow-schmidt.dk/sherry-arnstein/ladder-of-citizen-participation.html
    if you haven’t seen it before. What I love about it is how low down the ladder consultation lies. How often we, as citizens, are placated by being asked our opinion even though those asking are not going to take any notice of it.


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