Julian Burnside

I plan to make a few comments about the arts. I want to talk about why art matters, and why it is important that we support the arts.

Art is a curiously ambiguous word: some people take it as a reference only to painting, others understand it as referring to the whole range of human expression beyond the domain of pragmatic communication.

Since I am speaking to an audience of musicians – or at least people whose primary interest in the arts is music – let me make it plain that when I refer to art, I mean to include music, painting, sculpture, photography, writing and all other modes of expression which can fairly be thought of as falling within the realm of art.

But why do we bother with art? Does art matter? It is tempting to say that our belief in these things is a matter of faith: it is axiomatic, and we use this assumption as a starting point for arguments about support for the arts.

By contrast, economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable. That is true. Creative artists generally have miserable incomes from their art, and survive by teaching or waiting on tables. Performing artists do not have it much better; depending on their speciality, they may have just as difficult a time as creative artists.

Economic rationalists would argue that pouring money into the arts makes no sense unless the consumer considers the transaction to deliver a nett benefit to them.

The economic rationalist will buy the painting which delivers them the greatest pleasure for the lowest price, even allowing that a part of the pleasure might derive from the conspicuously famous name of the artist.

The economic rationalist will not be tempted to provide philanthropic support for the arts, because that produces no saleable return.

So let us explore briefly the assumption that art matters.

Vincent Van Gogh sold very few paintings, and those for very little money. Cezanne was once booted out of his lodgings and the angry landlord hurled some of his paintings out of the attic window into the courtyard below. Similar examples can be multiplied endlessly.

Would the world be poorer if Van Gogh had never painted Starry Night, or if Cezanne had not painted Les Grandes Bagneuses; or if van Gogh and Cezanne had never painted at all?

Would the world be poorer if Michelangelo had never painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or designed the Duomo in Florence; if Leonardo da Vinci had never painted; if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?

Would the world be poorer if Shakespeare and Balzac had never written?

If we suspect that the world would be poorer without Beethoven and Mozart, without van Gogh and Cezanne; without Shakespeare and Balzac, we acknowledge the value of art for its own sake.

None of those people created material wealth. None of them derived great material wealth in their lifetimes. The price of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities: the value of the works is spiritual.

Few people would accept that a person who buys an iconic painting could withdraw it forever from public view.

No-one would accept that the purchaser of a great work of art was entitled to destroy it. The reason this is so is that we all acknowledge that a work of art is more than simply a physical thing capable of being bought and sold.

In profoundly important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and it is that fact which gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.

The destruction of the library at Byzantium in 1204 and the looting of the national museum of Baghdad in 2004 represent losses which not even the crassest economist has tried to measure in economic terms, because the calculation would be seen by everyone to miss the point completely.

In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man who, early in his university days, abandoned a hopeful career as a poet for the much more prosaic career of a lawyer. He prospers in his choice and is eventually appointed to the Bench. Upon his appointment, he has to vacate his chambers and this leads him to the bitter-sweet task of going through the accumulated papers of decades to decide what may be disposed of and what should be retained.

“He had quite forgotten about his adolescent poetry and was astonished to come across a batch of it at the bottom of a cupboard. He smiled – golly! – at the sight of it and took it out and started to read, for a laugh. He expected clinching evidence of the folly of youthful pretensions. His whole happy life had been founded on the assumption that he had been right to abdicate before his wife’s gentle, unmistakable judgment. He sat on the floor of his chambers, boyishly grey, and prepared to be embarrassed by those unburnt embers. Instead, the poems passed sentence on his life. At last, he closed his eyes to escape their indictment, but the unblinking eye in the centre of his forehead gazed and blazed with unique and undeniable vision. He cowered on the floor of the dusty cave and saw that the years of his life had escaped, like Odysseus’s men under the panicky sheep of the blind, deluded Polyphemus. ‘Who are you, who are you?’ he cried. And the voice of the man who had blinded himself replied ‘No-one. No-one.’”

In that short, compelling paragraph the author shows the result of trading the valuable for the priceless.

I recently heard an enchanting story from a friend of mine called Mary who works in a large Melbourne bookshop. She told me about a middle-aged Melbourne woman who ventured shyly into the bookshop. Noticing her bewildered hesitancy, Mary approached her and asked if she was looking for a book. “Yes” she said, “I’ve never bought one before.” This startling comment turned out to be literal truth. She had never bought a book in her life, and was unsure how to go about it. My friend helped identify a book she was likely to enjoy, and the transaction was settled. A couple of weeks later she was back and bought another book. And so it went for some months and as Christmas approached she confided in Mary that she had suggested to her friends that books would be welcome Christmas presents. Mary asked her how she felt now that she had begun reading books: “It is wonderful” she said, “I no longer live in a one bedroom flat in Kensington – I live in the world.”

There is great force in that comment. There is great force in the notion that art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms and reinforces our integral relationship to the rest of humanity. The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes. I think this might be what Stoppard had in mind when a character in one of his plays says that in any society of a thousand people there will be 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, nine doing good and one lucky person will be an artist.

Art is valuable, in and of itself.

* * * * * * * * *

Tom Stoppard probably overstates the benefits of being an artist. I have spent much of my life hanging around artists. Their lives, while not necessarily conforming to the Hobbesian threat of being ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’, are generally marked by self-doubt, insecurity and poverty. This is not a good way to live. It is largely our fault: we do not treat artists well in Australia.

From my teenage years, I was attracted to artists because they made things which were arresting, or engaging or (dare I say it) beautiful. They were delightfully carefree or divinely damaged; they drank a lot. They seemed to contribute far more to Society than they got in return.

But I was not one of them. I had planned to be an artist – more accurately, I had toyed with the idea – it was only by the merest chance than in my second-last year at University I was told by an important person that I should become a barrister. A dozen words of flattery altered the direction of my career. This was an extraordinarily careless way to design a life, but was an immediate gain for the world of art. Nevertheless, I was always conscious that there was a gap in my life which only art could fill.

One way and another I continued to hang around with artists – respectable musicians touring with Musica Viva; less respectable painters; very naughty writers.

After I had been in practice for some years as a lawyer, and in a relationship for some years with an artist, I could not avoid the harsh facts: I was doing my work well, or at least competently, and being paid at exorbitant rates. My artist friends were doing their work well, or brilliantly, and were lucky to make the basic wage. The unfairness of it was obvious.

One response was equally obvious: buy their work. So far as my budget allowed, I started to collect paintings and sculptures. In particular, I concentrated on buying the work of people who were struggling or unknown. I know from long experience that, for anyone who makes anything, a sale is the sincerest form of flattery – it is far more appreciated than a gift of the same amount. After all, we all need to think that our lives mean something, and a sale not only helps pay the rent, it validates the artist.

I resolved that I would concentrate on buying young unknowns. This became a rigid rule for me, so I only break it a couple of times a year.

When I buy a painting or sculpture on the primary market, the transaction is simple: the artist gets money they need and I get a work which I like; but I also get some quiet satisfaction from knowing that in a small way our living culture is being nourished.

My regular contact with musicians was another reminder of the gap between skill and reward. A few musician friends pointed out that they would be glad of an extra gig. I had noticed that many of my lawyer friends were overpaid and enjoyed music, and that my musician friends were underpaid and played music.

The rest of the idea naturally suggested itself. I proposed an annual series of concerts at home: my friends give money to come along; I give the money to the musicians and provide the wine and food. It makes for thoroughly enjoyable concerts, very relaxed and low-key, and it seems to be successful for everyone involved. It is interesting when you reflect on the economics of staging concerts, that a concert for 30 or 40 people can work successfully and to everyone’s benefit.

I know several people in Sydney who do a similar thing. The trick seems to lie in having no expenses other than the musicians. The only difficulty with doing this is to make sure they are not called ‘soirees’, with all the pompous baggage that word brings. It frightens people off, or else it makes them behave strangely.

Through my involvement in Musica Viva, the possibility occurred to me of commissioning a work. I had no particular reason for this, other than a vague sense that it seemed like a good idea. I think the idea might have been suggested by an enterprising member of Musica Viva’s staff.

I knew the composer slightly, and liked him, so it was an easy idea to embrace; but it had not occurred to me before and I would not have known how to approach it but for Musica Viva’s help. There is a lesson here for composers: there may be more people willing to commission music than you realise but they simply don’t know how to go about it.

The problem is, commissioning music is not like buying a painting: you can’t just go to a gallery and order a string quartet. When buying a painting you know exactly what you are getting; when commissioning music you cannot know what the end result will be like.

Furthermore, whatever the end result is you will not able to hang it on the wall and appreciate it every day. Depending on the nature of the work, you might never hear it played. If you are not able to read music, you may never know what the work is like.

And then there is the risk that when you hear it you may not like it. Some modern music is the dread of many concert-goers: inviting the suspicion that the catgut is still attached to the cat – and the cat is not really happy about it.

Arthur Koestler once devastatingly commented that a particular piece of modern music reminded him of the existence of a nerve which directly linked the ear-drum to the anus.

All of these are serious obstacles. I do not play an instrument myself, nor can I read music. If the end product of a commission is music I do not like or an unplayed score, the transaction is a little bleak. Let me speak plainly: to spend $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 for a piece of music you hear only once, or not at all, is a transaction which depends heavily on a belief in art for its own sake. Perhaps I can offer a few hesitant words of advice, as a consumer.

There is a fragment of the human soul which values art for its own sake. However some artists over-estimate the size and strength of that fragment, or they do not accurately estimate its durability and patience.

If a piece is commissioned but not performed, the composer is understandably upset. So is the person who commissioned the work. Unfortunately, some composers fail to recognise the musical limitations of the person who commissions a piece, and the composer’s concern that the piece is not performed is more an expression of vanity than of empathy.

By contrast, when I commissioned Shaun Rigney to write a guitar quintet, he had the wit to create an electronic version of the piece. It was not a perfect way to hear it, but it gave me a better sense of the piece than I gained from staring blankly at the score. Happily, the quintet has now been performed publicly several times, and has now been recorded by the Flinders Quartet with Slava Grigoryan.

What I want to say next runs the risk of being misunderstood. Those few people I know who have commissioned music did not do it for public adulation, or to draw attention to themselves.

Neither is that my purpose when commissioning music. Frankly, if you want to spend money to draw attention to yourself, there are far more effective ways of doing it than paying someone write a piece of music.

It would be unfortunate however if composers thought it unnecessary to acknowledge the fact of the commission. If we are to draw on a simple belief that culture matters for its own sake, it is not unreasonable to hope that the fact of the commission might be acknowledged at the first performance – possibly by the musicians, or by the composer.

This is emphatically not a request for flattery – just acknowledgment. Such a simple gesture will help prop up the fragile hope that commissioning music is worthwhile. It might also spark a similar idea in other minds, and encourage them to commission something.

Another form of acknowledgment, which borders on flattery but is still effective, is a dedication. A dedication, if it reflects a genuine feeling rather than a commercial imperative, is a priceless compliment. If our culture is the immortal soul of our Society, a dedication confers a small portion of immortality.

Sollertinski was a Russian architect. He died in a Concentration Camp in 1944. I know nothing about him, but I think of him from time to time and think he must have been a fine man. His memory lives on, years later and far away, because he is the person to whom Shostakovich dedicated his marvellous piano trio, op. 67.

* * * * * * * *

Some years ago I saw a magnificent piece of writing; it was a mocked-up time and motion study of Schubert’s unfinished symphony. It pointed out that the violins were mostly playing the same notes, and that their numbers could be reduced by at least 75% without much reduction in overall output; likewise the violas and cellos; it noted that the piccolo did very little, and then only when the conductor looked in his direction: they recommended firing him; they identified a number of places where passages were repeated, and drew attention to the obvious fact that this simply extended the duration of the work without adding any information whatever. In summary, they suggested that restructuring the symphony in accordance with their observations would allow the performance to be completed 17 minutes sooner, would reduce the wages bill by almost 40%, and would give each musician a sense that their individual contribution was really significant. If Schubert had adopted this approach to the symphony from the outset, they reasoned, he would have been able to finish it.

The time and motion people who would prune Schubert’s 8th Symphony would probably insist that, if we are to have art, let us just have good artists and put the rest of the artists into real jobs. This view seems to be shared by some funding bodies and many politicians.

But whether we like a particular modern work or not cannot matter. Time will tell what cultural works of our time will survive.

There is immense danger, not to say arrogance, in supposing that we can decide now what art will be valued in future ages. Who would have dreamed, in the 1860s, that the painters who showed in the Salon des Refuses would one day outrank the Salon so decisively? Who could have foreseen that the term “impressionism”, originally coined as a calculated insult, would come to mark the most important and revered movement in 19th century art?

Imagine the surprise of Eric Satie if he saw how popular at least some of his music is now, and how highly regarded.

Now try to imagine this country if all practising artists perished overnight.

Try to imagine this country if, for the next generation, there were no new paintings made, no new novels or poems written, no new music, no new sculpture.

Try to imagine our ancestors, looking back on that bleak and wasted generation in 50 or 100 years time. Like a layer of ash in the archaeological record it would stand as a silent marker of a period of desolation.

But if the arts are not economically viable, how can we ensure their survival?

In outline, there are five possible sources of support:

State support

Commercial sponsorship

Corporate philanthropy

Private philanthropy

The market place

The Australia Council does a good job supporting flagship companies, and some individuals of proven worth, but reliance on government support can never be a complete answer, because governments have their own agendas, which inevitably skew the way money is spent on the arts.

Soviet Russia was an extreme example of this. Artists were wholly supported by the State, but this brought with it a measure of cultural control, and even the least enlightened of us might think art criticism should stop short of execution or banishment to the Gulag. Dependence on government support in the Soviet Union was absolute, so the collapse of the state means that a generation of Russian art will be lost, as its best practitioners leave the country in the wake of social implosion.

Commercial sponsorship is extremely welcome, and a vital part of the current fabric of art in Australia. However it is important to recognise that commercial sponsorship is exactly what its name says: it is sponsorship, not philanthropy; and it is commercial. Commercial sponsorship in Australia today is ferociously reciprocal: will a dollar spent return at least a dollar’s advantage?

It is unfortunate that commerce is so pragmatic. Business leaders are constantly reminded by markets and courts that they must strive to produce the greatest advantage for their shareholders.

One business leader said recently that the problem with a string quartet is that you can’t tell who won. This blinkered approach means that it is much easier to get corporate sponsorship for popular sports than for the arts. Good corporate citizenship is still not seen as extending to efforts which will preserve and enrich our culture.

We should try to educate the corporate sector that they have a stake in our culture just as much as the rest of us. Their role as good citizens places on them the same responsibility all of us have – a duty to support our culture as best we can.

In America, it is universally accepted that corporations are obliged to help support the culture of which they are a part. Only a few companies in Australia have reached that state of enlightenment.

Business leaders should be reminded that good corporate citizenship involves more than not killing too many employees and not making products which are demonstrably ruinous to consumers. Good corporate citizenship is more than taking business colleagues to the football and the Grand Prix.

I am told, by people who are much wiser than me, that it is impossible to persuade business that corporate philanthropy is a good idea. I do not accept that. I do not understand why good corporate citizenship should not mirror the characteristics of good private citizenship.

Nothing worthwhile is impossible: it just takes a bit longer. In any event, it is worth trying. Whilst we work on it, let me offer a few modest suggestions for things which are possible, and easy.

First, as Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ own example suggests, make free or cheap accomodation available to artists. There are many people in our community today who own more houses than they can live in. To make a spare house or flat available to an artist is probably the easiest, and most valued, gesture imaginable. You will still own the thing; you will still get the capital gain; but you will make the difference between grinding uncertainty and the chance to create what the heart can imagine.

Australia has hundreds of thousands of citizens who own investment properties. Even if you take out of account those properties which have to be rented out in order to service debt, and those owners who care nothing for the arts, there will still remain enough spare real-estate to make a vital difference to many practising artists.

Second, it seems to me that a defining Australian characteristic is that our spending habits can be skewed by the possibility of a tax deduction. I would propose a system which allows a tax deduction for the first $5,000 spent by a tax-payer on the arts in any one year. This would include the purchase of an original work of art; purchase of tickets to a concert, a play, the ballet etc; purchase of a book by an Australian author; a donation to a creative or performing artist; in short, a tax deduction up to $5,000 for any money spent on anything we would fairly consider to be ‘the arts’.

A $5,000 deduction is not enough to encourage rorts, so the scheme is not risky. If there were 100,000 households in Australia whose spending patterns were influenced by such a scheme, the result would be an additional $500 million into the arts sector, and into the pockets of the very people who most need it.

With a little thought and (especially) a little goodwill, it could transform the economics of the arts sector. If you need to be persuaded about this, consider the recent history of Ireland which has undergone an economic transformation in the past two decades partly because of its active program of tax concessions for the arts. It is true that Ireland has also actively courted the electronics industry. However it is clear that places which value creativity tend to attract people of intelligence and creativity in all fields: a vibrant economy is usually associated with a vibrant arts sector.

Third: if you commission a piece o music consider doing it through one of the major arts companies: Musica Viva or one of the orchestras. This will probably guarantee that the work will be performed.

If you hear a piece of contemporary music which appeals to you, bear in mind that it may not be performed again in your lifetime. Consider a donation which makes possible the performance and recording of new music. Whether or not this is linked to a commission, it is a valuable way of keeping our musical culture alive.

Fourth: combine resources – club together with a group of like-minded friends and contribute to a fund with which, each year, you commission music and have it performed and recorded.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Kate Neal, a young composer living in Melbourne, sent me a number of wonderful quotations about music, two of which demand to be used here:

To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable. (Aaron Copland)

That’s why we have to support new music. That is why we must find more ways to encourage others to support new music.

The second quote Kate sent me was Victor Hugo:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

It brings me to my final theme.

Human language has a vocabulary adapted to accommodate our daily needs and functions: the vocabulary of any human language maps approximately to the needs and activities of our mundane lives. But few would deny that there is another dimension of human existence which transcends the mundane: call it the soul, the spirit, that part of the human frame which responds to the call of the non-rational.

In the domain of the human spirit, other vocabularies emerge. Painting, music, poetry and sculpture are all different languages, each with its own unique vocabulary. The vocabulary of each art gives it access to areas of human experience which are not available to other sorts of language.

This is why works of art are considered less meritorious – or less interesting – as they become more literal and narrative. If an idea is best expressed in words, why bother expressing it in paint or music instead?

By contrast, some ideas can only be expressed in paint or music: the vocabulary of paint and music share little of the vocabulary of spoken language. I once heard someone ask an abstract expressionist to say what one of his paintings meant. He said “No, I can’t tell you, but I will try to hum it.”

It is neither useful nor interesting to ask what Beethoven’s 5th symphony “means”, or what Carl Vine’s 4th string quartet “means”, if the question is a request to say in words what Beethoven or Carl Vine said in music

This is the key to understanding why Art matters. Every form of art is a unique way of seeing, and at its best each form of art says things which cannot be said, or said as compellingly, in any other way.

Deny it, and you close off part of the human experience. A history of the Weimar Republic speaks of the same things which occupied Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz, but their work reaches out to us in a quite different way. The story of that time and place would be incomplete without their work.

Culture is the accumulation of all the artistic expression of a time and place. It may present an unattractive picture, or a brilliant one, but it is an essential record unless we take the nihilist view that human existence itself is irrelevant.

The nihilist would see no point in having children. If any one of us matters, then art matters and culture matters. A Society without art leaves no children; with no past it can have no future.

Art matters.