Feature Articles

January Issue 2001

A View From Down Under
How Important is Art?

by Judith McGrath

There's enough evidence to suggest Australians share the same attitude toward art as Americans. In fact I'm willing to bet if I ask the question "How important is Art in your Life?" of urban Americans and their counterparts in Australia, they'd all answer "Very". Then if I ask "Why?" the majority would respond with a mumble and shrug. It's a difficult question to grapple with when you consider the mixed messages we receive on the subject.

For example, in my city Politicians beat the art-is-important drum to glean votes from that sector of the electorate but when it comes to art policies, they're pretty thin on the ground in this an election year. I ask, how can a State Government find money to assist in the construction of a new cinema complex (that shows Hollywood movies) when our own ballet company, theater group and art gallery are in desperate need of funds just to maintain the status quo? No doubt I'll be told it's a case of different wells of wealth and if the art well is dry it will be primed, when they're returned to office!

Then there are the Educators who tell us how valuable art is to the overall development of children. Yet somehow it's always the student with the double digit IQ that is steered in the direction of painting, pottery and wood working, while the gifted child is pushed toward science or sport. It begs the question: Why do schools place toxic materials and sharp objects in the hands of a child with a less than average intelligence? Perhaps it's because parents believe art is an easy subject that will keep children in school, out of trouble and provide a constructive hobby for them as unemployed adults.

The Community also sells the importance of art as a way of creating a 'sense of place' in a world where people often migrate between suburbs, cities, states, and countries. Adult education art classes and public art projects bring people together in the pursuit of a single goal - Organized Creativity. But if the feeling of belonging can only emerge from the homogenization of an eclectic citizenry, if art is employed to create a cultural beige rather than enhance those polychromatic qualities of diversity, then it loses originality, interest and significance.

If we really believe Art is Important, even if we can't explain why, how do we maintain its potency? What we must do is identify arts' relevance in our lives. One explanation for arts' importance is that, more than language, it sets us apart from other life forms on this planet. Only humans make art, we have an innate want and need to express ourselves beyond language, to communicate via imagery, music and movement. If that sounds too heavy, observe the child. After a trip to the zoo, 4 year old Millie will sway to a song she has made-up about the giraffe while twin brother Billy employs arbitrary colors to paint a distorted tiger. Lacking sophisticated vocabulary to explain the new or the unknown, children tell us more then just what they see, they communicate their emotional responses to the total experience, to the undulations of the giraffe or the ferocity of the tiger. It is inherent.

Art evolved as a means for humanity to communicate with the unseen, unknown inhabitants of earth and sky. Everyone made art; it was part and parcel of every day life. It included sewing a beaded motif on moccasins to protect against snakebite, telling of a battle between the gods in the language of the hula, or breaking the circle drawn around a clay pot so trapped spirits can escape. But civilization evolved, science usurped wonder and answers to questions about life and the universe were found. When the order of things became known, communication with gods and spirits was truncated into rituals, performed by the initiated to serve and preserve a political hierarchy.

Today art continues to be political and hierarchical. While boasting about the importance of art in our lives, the Powers-That-Be remove it from the reach of most people. Art deemed Important is locked up in Corporate Collections, Museums and Cultural Centers, codified, contextualized, commercialized and validated by giving it a financial value. We measure the importance of an artwork by its price and grade artists by their earning capacity rather than ability. So we have the Professional (makes a good living), Experienced (adequate income via sales), Emerging (supplements income by teaching art part-time), Amateur (few sales, teaches math full-time) and Hobbyist (gives art away to fundraisers). To reinforce this hierarchy, 'important' commercial galleries are located either at the high price end of the shopping precinct or nestled in quiet streets of up market suburbs.

As an arts writer, I receive invitations and information from Practicing artists who follow their muse because they need to make art. This is a more inclusive section of the art world where people are welcome to come in and engage with the work - not just to buy it but become involved and share the experience. The best places to find this art are smaller galleries, halls rented by artist co-operatives, private studios and university art rooms. Here you can attend in tatty jeans sans earrings and feel comfortable, no one will approach and ask "Which one are you interested in?" then ignore you when you answer "Just looking." These are venues for exhibiting real art, not artistic commodities, the work may not be perfect or pretty but it's honest and communicates with clarity. Here there is little attention paid to an artist's curriculum vitae but lots of interest in what they do and how. Prices aren't inflated, and if you 'must' own a work, a system for payment can be worked out.

Thankfully there are places that still recognize there are some artists who choose to produce highly skilled works that keep alive well-respected and much loved traditions, and patrons for this genre. Thankfully there are also places that accept there are artists who create controversial works in contemporary new media that make social and political statements to shock us to the core, and eager buyers of this edgy work too. Thankfully art is important to some practitioners, venues and appreciators because it reminds us that no matter how many barriers the Powers-That-Be try to place between us and our inner excited four year old who's rendition of a visit to the zoo is taped to the fridge door. Thankfully there are still enough people who are in touch with their innate want and need to express themselves beyond language and others who realize that even if they don't know much about art they do know it's part of our humanity and therefore very important.

Back to that original question. Ask the art academic on either continent "Why is art important" and the response will consist of a treatise in polysyllabic hyperbole that traces the socio-cultural significance of yellow anthropomorphic shapes placed within the 'golden section' of an ochre colored textural surface, complete with quotes from a French literary theorist writing in the 19th century. This translates to: "It's a philosophical question therefore unanswerable." Ask the same question of people who go to open minded art spaces to buy an original art work for their American or Australian suburban home and their Mumble-shrug answer will translate to "Just is." You see, they understand how to really communicate.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her web site at (http://www.artseeninwa.com).

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