CULTURE: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Whoever pays the piper calls the tune
, October 26, 2013
Actor: “What’s my motivation?” Director: “Getting paid.” — an old gag.
There are a great many strange ideas about what it means to be an artist. They would be really funny — okay, so they are quite funny — except that when they’re taken seriously they do real damage to anyone of an artistic bent, and go on to have a disturbing effect on the whole of society.
To be human is to be a maker. To consider the act of making, i.e., art, as an optional extra is to consider the human being as little more than an animal, or a machine made of meat. The end result is the radical dehumanisation that we see around us every day and the triumph of those forces that consider every life as expendable.
The culture war is not about left vs right or revolutionary vs reactionary. The culture war is more fundamental than that. It is the duel of the human against the inhuman.
In keeping with this I’d like to suggest another catchphrase: “Artists are people too.” They may wear funny clothes, spend long periods of time staring into space, say odd things, and have an incredible capacity to debate the relative merits of celluloid and digital, or method and technique acting; but this just means they’re doing their job.
Job? Huh? Splashing paint on a canvas isn’t a job. Playing make-believe isn’t a job. Jobs are nine-to-five things where one is paid to do boring stuff — or, in the case of the office that publishes News Weekly, nine-to-nine the following day to hold back the apocalypse. They certainly don’t involve dancing with beautiful women or handsome men. Or, at least, that’s a common complaint about artistic sorts.
While the arts may look more like play than work, that simply shows a lack of imagination, or perhaps envy. Art-work is hard work. It is also specialist work that definitely does not suit most people. Ernest Hemingway remarked that he write the end of Farewell to Arms 27 times to “get the words right”.
I rather suspect that those reading this column need not to be told this. Anyone who’s learnt a musical instrument knows how gruelling it can be. The effortlessness of the pro comes after an enormous amount of practice. It requires a huge investment of one’s self to pursue a career as a creative artist. And that is an investment that deserves to be repaid.
One of the funniest ideas about artists is that they don’t actually need to be paid. Apparently, human beings can live on the warm glow that comes from a job well done — and even support a family! Maybe we should tap into this feeling of satisfaction — it could be the solution to the energy crisis.
You may think I’m being too harsh and that no-one would seriously believe that; but if that’s so, why does the main income for artists come from government grants — aka handouts? Why do talented hard-working actors spend an awful lot of time working for nothing? Why can very few artists, of any field, actually make a living from their art?
This is most definitely a recent phenomenon. I’m pretty sure that Michelangelo didn’t work at a corner store while painting the Sistine chapel, or that Shakespeare paid the bills by moonlighting as a barman. Errol Flynn was not a tour guide when he made The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I’m willing to bet that Joan Sutherland wasn’t working as a receptionist while performing at the Opera House.
Pray forgive my sarcasm, but something’s really rotten in the state of the arts. Traditionally, if an artist was any good, they’d be able to make enough of a living from their art to support themselves and their families. They weren’t going to become mega-wealthy, but they would be able to survive, without relying on government handouts.
This situation is not terrible solely for those poor fools who are artists. It’s terrible for the rest of society as well. It can’t be good for culture if the folk that make the culture are unable to have a family, or if family is seen as an obstacle to creative success. What sort of culture would such people make? Oh wait, we can see that played out on a grand scale around us.
To fight for the human, we need to provide those who can fight it with the means to do so. I’m working on possible solutions, and I look forward to your company as I do so.
Cowboys or knights? We’ll need the right clothes while we stare into space working on this.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).