Art Under Control

Posted on 19 July 2016

Why We Control

Our society is very much into control. How things are valued in a capitalist culture is nonsensically topsy-turvy. Food is a necessity, but we pay our farmers negligible wages. The same is true of people working to provide us with clean water, the removal of potentially septic waste, and daily palliative care when the time comes. Worse, women are paid little to nothing for giving birth to the next generation. I sometimes joke that my family would feel more pride in me if I had taken a high paying job in marketing for a perfume manufacturer. Instead I’m in a field that can be both necessary (low status) and a luxury (high status): the arts. So buttons to do with both fear and jealousy are pushed.

Necessary jobs are low status because it is easier to control desperate people. People on the verge of homelessness or going without food are easily fettered to those capable of keeping them alive. Those who control the source of our necessities are capable of holding others to ransom. Our society is sufficiently aware of this danger to legislate against monopolies and turn certain things into public services, but not sufficiently aware to keep those laws from eroding, as everyone is trying to grab what they can for themselves with little thought of consequences.

Women in particular are commodified because their necessity is incalculable. They are necessary for your existence, they are necessary to your early survival. They are necessary for satisfying some people’s biological urges. They are necessary for the most tangible of immortality we have—a biological legacy. Any insecure control-freak is going to want absolute domination of such people. Hence women are cajoled into contracts such as “until death do us part”, without any caveats to do with ill-treatment nullifying the agreements. We no longer expect those words to be taken literally, but heavy pressure is still used to abide by them. Keeping women from paid employment, and when failing that paying poverty wages, are ways to ensure women are unlikely to escape from servitude. When they do, at least sixty percent will live below the poverty line in both Australia and the US, becoming warnings to the dangers of freedom.

Why We Control Artists

Artists are necessary to a healthy society. They provide a mirror upon which our culture is reflected and can be reflected upon. They exercise our capacity for empathy and caring. Every time we learn to love a character warts and all, we are better able to love one another warts and all. We can learn about the lives of people we have never encountered in such a personal way before: women, children, elderly, ethnic, disabled, LGBT, indigent, etc. The arts can call people to action and propose alternatives to our current circumstances—giving us an inkling of what it might be like (especially through science fiction and fantasy). They can expose wrong-doers and bad behaviour. They can lift our hearts and give us resilience—what happened to the workers who used to sing together at their tasks? The arts help us to form relationships and bond as lovers, friends, communities, and nations. The arts can be a tool for escaping corrosive cultures and dictators. They are therefore not only necessary, but subversive and dangerous.

How does a control culture take hold of such a wild and beautiful beast—a unicorn both lovely and capable of piercing you through the heart? Turn it into a luxury and create a hierarchy of art. Teach those who could be saved with the help of art to love, hate, and fear art in the same manner and to the same degree as the controllers, but for the wrong reasons.

How Australia Controls Its Artists

In Australia our conservative government has removed $140 million from our federal arts budget. What money is left has largely been given to a conservative minister, rather than an arts body, to dispense. That money is being dispensed to a few large arts institutions who mostly present old works created in Europe that say nothing of contemporary life in Australia. (I actually like much of the old European arts, but to heavily favour them over the creation of new and local art by the living is wrong) These large institutions often charge high ticket prices, so only the well-off can regularly afford to experience skillfuly produced art. The artists who manage to garner the few remaining paid positions for performance may be acquiring a living wage or significantly better. Art becomes a luxury commodity. Those working in this field are given a platform where they are admired, resented, and constrained. Where once they were offering the whole world the equivalent of healthy apples, they are now offering nothing more than fairy floss to the elite. They are our “professional” artists.

Those of us who are now struggling to offer that sort of art which expands hearts and minds have been turned into revolutionaries, however mild, and pariah by both rich and poor. Those we try to serve may at times sniff at us, “Who are you to call yourself an artist? Do you think you are better than us? Only artists making lots of money are real artists. How dare you give yourself airs that you are somehow like a rich ‘professional artist’. How dare you give yourself this freedom when the rest of use have to do real work at soul destroying jobs.” I can try to explain how hard it is to be, quite literally upon occasion, a starving artist. Nevertheless, it is seen as a trade off, a rite of passage, or just desserts for being a layabout (even though you may be working very hard). Artists suffering is seen as justified, and mythologically is portrayed as necessary. This is outright cruelty. Painter Vincent van Gogh died in penury. Poet Emily Dickinson was not recognised until after her death. The list of great artists who have experienced either poverty or obscurity during their lives is very long. Were they not “real” because of this?

How Hierarchies Divide and Diminish Us

Earlier this year I rented rooms at a Melbourne library for rehearsals. I had no grants, donations, or patrons supporting me. I usually use every penny I make from my small online services company plus ticket sales to put on festival shows. To have anything other than a personal bank account you have to have an Australian Business Number (ABN). When the person who was arranging the booking saw I had an ABN, rather than charging me the community rate I was getting previously, she charged me the corporate rate. This was the difference between paying under a hundred dollars for a group of bookings and hundreds of dollars for the same bookings. These changes would have wiped out my entire budget at that point. I was then told I could only get community group access if I could show I was a non-profit. To become a non-profit you have to pay a fee, go through a lot of legal paperwork, and form a board who can in fact be drawing a living wage from the organisation. What I do is very fluid: I may not have the same people in two shows running. What I do is also very time consuming, because you either spend time or money. A board would be difficult to form.

The one non-profit I observed rehearsing at the library was a choir made up of street people. Their leader was made famous by television. The older women on his organisation team wrinkled their noses at my actors and expected us to get out of their way before our booked time was up. The leader who is financially supported for his efforts seemed to have genuine good intentions in bringing these people together. Singing together does lift the heart. I am concerned that the street people were ultimately being used to help others feel like good people, rather than generating real empathy for their situation. When tickets were sold, did the singers receive any payment for their work? I hope so. They have been on TV and radio, sung in concerts, been on tour, and have a regular donation stream. They were given the ten dollar per hour rate at the library. Though I could have done with more polite treatment, I feel it is appropriate that they perhaps receive this help. But to cut off small community groups through unachievable rental rates because they don’t have the same access to support is abominable.

When I tried to get help to secure affordable space I was told by the library that my actors were not a community group, but hobbyists. Two of my actors were actually making a living through performance. Most of the rest had university degrees in dance, music, and/or musical theatre. This was fully intended to be a slap in the face. Hobbyists are an important part of the spectrum of art making. And people who have spent long hard years honing their skills deserve some respect for their dedication.

The Spectrum of Art Engagement

This is the sort of Catch-22 treatment that ensures a permanent underclass. A bureaucratic hierarchy is put in place and artists find themselves clawing each other in order to make it up the rungs of status and opportunity. Hobbyist artists are important because sometimes they take wing, but even when they don’t, they add depth to their lives and learn greater art appreciation. Community arts groups are critical to the emotional and mental well-being of an area, encouraging the bonding necessary to ensure people are looking out for one another. Professional non-commercial theatre is often the tattiest looking of the lot because they get the least support. However, they are where you build a national culture: where new writers, actors, singers, dancers, etc ply their trade with all the love, passion, and skill to transform the world. And despite the fact I have just labelled four types of arts groups, you cannot really separate them, because they all feed each other.

Trained performers with no practical stage experience often prove difficult to work with. Upon occasion I will cast someone with community theatre experience before someone with a degree. You are not condescending when you choose to get a little stage time with a community group. Conversely people in community theatre groups and hobbyists need to keep their egos in check if they care anything for their art, rather than just potential status. Through humility we are all more open to listen, observe, and learn.

We all can appreciate the skill and talent of a fully commercial artist. Just do not give them all your love. They are meant to be pacifying, non-challenging, and supportive of our society of control. The stories they tell are meant to make money. Once in awhile, when the zeitgeist is right, money is to be made through speaking out but more often their stories are like the lies we tell to children.

Our world is in real trouble right now and the only way out is to learn how to let go of control, respect one another, share, and learn how to set our hearts free. Change only happens when you are willing to step into the unknown, but nothing says you can’t do this while holding hands and singing songs. Go out and consider one outrageous idea, listen to one new song, support one live artist daring to stand up on a rickety old stage. New worlds are made this way.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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