This is the text of a speech I gave for Agora (based in Cyprus) on 24 November 2021
“From an Ivory Tower”
When I first proposed to speak on Arts and Culture, I had the implicit, unthought view that the two were, in substance, the same thing. If there was a difference, it was that “Art” was confined to visual art, and that “culture” picked up the rest.
Having thought about it, I think I was wrong.
In fact, I think it is useful to start by recognising how wrong that view is. As I am a “word-nerd”, the Oxford English Dictionary definitions are a starting point.
The OED defines “art” as:
“5 The application of skill to subjects of taste, as poetry, music, dancing, the drama, oratory, literary composition, and the like; esp. in mod. use: Skill displaying itself in perfection of workmanship, perfection of execution as an object in itself.
6 The application of skill to the arts of imitation and design, painting, engraving, sculpture, architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice, and results; the skilful production of the beautiful in visible forms.
10 A pursuit or occupation in which skill is directed towards the gratification of taste or production of what is beautiful. Hence the Arts”
It defines “culture” as:
5.a absol. The training, development, and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners; the condition of being thus trained and refined; the intellectual side of civilization.
5.b A particular form or type of intellectual development. Also, the civilization, customs, artistic achievements, etc., of a people, esp. at a certain stage of its development or history. (In many contexts, esp. in Sociology, it is not possible to separate this sense from sense 5 a.)”
As in many other things, Australian English has drifted away from Oxford English. It is not unusual in Australia these days to hear, and think, of culture as referring to a particular sub-group of Society.
For example, the people who are captivated by football are the Football culture; that group of people who think Covid vaccination is evil are referred to as the Anti-vax culture; that group of people who consider rock music as the highest form of music are, unthinkingly, described as the Rock culture. There are many other examples.
A cultural norm codifies acceptable conduct in society; it serves as a guideline for behaviour, dress, language, and demeanour in a situation, which serves as a template for expectations in a social group. Accepting only a monoculture in a social group can bear risks, just as a single species can wither in the face of environmental change, for lack of functional responses to the change. Thus in military culture, valour is considered a typical behaviour for an individual and duty, honour, and loyalty to the social group are regarded as virtues. In the practice of religion, analogous attributes can be identified in a social group. So, if a person shares the beliefs of a particular religious group or sub-group, they can comfortably be described as part of that culture.
After all culture, like Art, is ‘created by people,’ and evolves due to human activities and is passed on to succeeding generations. The impact of cultural influence is both tangible and intangible. People’s basic attitudes and values are a direct result of their cultural environment.
In short, my initial view was wrong.
That said, when I refer to the “Arts” I intend a reference to all forms of Art: visual arts, music, poetry and so on. When I refer to “Culture” I intend a reference to all cultures, including those I have little or nothing to do with (including anti-vax culture and rock culture).
But in assessing the Arts and culture, we have to be careful to recognise our own place from which we are judging. The fact that I do not see myself as part of rock culture inevitably means that my approach to the arts is inherently limited. Who knows, future ages may see rock music as the peak episode in the development of music generally. (That assumes that we survive into future ages: there is a sub-group, big enough to be described as a culture, which denies that climate change is happening, and therefore does not see a risk that the human race will perish. That view was loudly expressed at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow).
The Arts are profoundly important. The playwright Tom Stoppard once said: “In any society of 1,000 people, there will be 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, nine doing good and one lucky person is an artist.
In recent memory, the artist has been, for the most part, a highly romantic and much-admired character.
It’s likely that current attitudes to art probably trace their origins to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and to the French Revolution which began when Kant was 65 years old.
Kant was the first philosopher since the time of Socrates to emphasize the importance of subjective response as part of the process of perceiving the external world. In this, he turned his back on the French rationalists, and significantly qualified the views of the British Empiricists.
The French Revolution was a wildfire which swept across continents and generations. It changed forever the relations between State and citizen. It redefined the nature of individual identity. It marked the beginning of the romantic era, and it marks the birth of the artist as Artist, with a capital A.
At least until the French Revolution, those skilled in painting, sculpture, music or literature were valued for abilities very different from those we now admire. The musician’s function was to entertain the rich, or glorify God, or tell the stories of a pre‑literate society.
The painter’s function was to provide decorative objects for the rich or powerful, to record and embellish stories, historical or moral. Technical skill was the principal virtue. Self-expression was not part of the transaction.
After the French Revolution, all that changed. It made possible the personal and subjective overlay seen in the paintings of Goya, David and Gericault, for example.
And while, during the 19th Century, French society retreated from the beachhead established by the French Revolution, the shift of emphasis from artisan to Artist pushed ahead.
Only in a post-revolutionary world could tortured geniuses like Byron and Shelley, Beethoven and Schubert, van Gogh and Cezanne find a place.
We have inherited the philosophy which made the French Revolution possible. We have inherited the idea of artist as creative genius.
Unfortunately, most of those who started the Revolution were put to the guillotine eventually, and most of the tortured geniuses had short and miserable lives. Beethoven was the foremost composer of his time, but was chronically short of money; van Gogh , whose paintings have set world records at auction, only ever sold one painting himself.
More recently, Shostakovich lived in constant danger of denunciation on the ground that his music was “ideologically unsound”. His moral stamina has left us with a musical legacy of incalculable value but he suffered for it.
Perhaps Stoppard was a bit optimistic.
Artists making their start today can be proud to take the torch once carried through adversity by such as Byron, van Gogh and Shostakovich. It is they who reflect the very soul of our society.
But how are we treating our artists?
Support for the arts in Australia is divided haphazardly between government, philanthropic trusts and private individuals. That division, and the importance of philanthropic support, has been more than usually evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a profound and damaging effect on the performing arts and venues which specialise in producing or showing the performing arts.
Because a work of art is more than just a physical thing capable of being bought and sold. In important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and that fact gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.
The arts are profoundly important to our society. Rewarding artists adequately is not only morally right, it is essential if the arts are to flourish. Supporting artists is bound up with the importance of the arts.
The case for the importance of the arts is not difficult to make, but it is not often made. There are at least two arguments which, in my view, demonstrate that the Arts, in all their forms, are profoundly important.
Economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable. Sadly, 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. During the recent Covid crisis, performing artists have had a shocking time.
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: does art actually matter?
Van Gogh sold very few paintings – arguably, just one – and 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 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.
Imagine this: a wealthy investor buys Mona Lisa, and announces that he intends to destroy it, privately. Most people would feel a sense of … loss.
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.
The poet, John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) died 200 years ago. He lived in poverty and died of TB aged just 25. (The article is here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/feb/23/john-keats-five-poets-on-his-best-poems-200-years-since-his-death). In 1819, he sat in a friend’s garden listening to a nightingale. He was 23, and trying to live by poetry though reviews so far had been woundingly critical. He had just watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis, which he now had. His Ode to a Nightingale starts with the immortal lines:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past,…
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 we see the result of trading the valuable for the priceless. We leave our footprints in water, but artists leave something for future ages.
Art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms our relationship to the rest of humanity.
The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes. This might be what Stoppard had in mind.
Art is valuable, in and of itself.
Major arts organizations in Australia are increasingly dependent on government funds and corporate sponsorship. Corporate sponsorship, needed and appreciated as it is, is not the same as patronage.
A commercial sponsor rightly expects, and gets, a commercial reward for sponsorship funds. This is generally in the form of targeted advertising, corporate entertaining, and the prestige of good corporate citizenship.
This form of arts funding should not be confused with patronage. Ideally, the patron receives no return on their generosity, beyond the satisfaction of knowing they have helped an artist or group in a material way. The ultimate satisfaction is the knowledge that you have helped the Arts succeed: by helping a particular artist achieve success which, but for your support, they would not have been able to achieve in their lifetime.
The second argument is a reflection of the first. Take a group of people of fair intelligence and average education and give them a list of names from each of the past 5 or 6 centuries and see which names they recognise. Although this is only a thought experiment, I guarantee you that, overwhelmingly, the names most people recognise are those of writers, composers, painters and sculptors; one or two tyrants perhaps, a couple of scientists and explorers as well; a few (very few) politicians and sportspeople. No lawyers or economists or accountants. Go back a century or so and my instinct is that no politicians or economists or accountants or lawyers will be recognised. Prove me wrong if you will.
Virtually everyone has seen Mona Lisa, or heard the music of Beethoven or read the work of Tolstoy. But can anyone name a lawyer, an economist or an accountant who lived and worked at the same time and in the same place as Leonardo, Beethoven or Tolstoy? I have never met that person.
The extent to which artists are recognised in an experiment like this is quite striking. While artists might represent less than one percent of any given population at any given time, they will represent 80 or 90 percent of the names recognised, and the further back you go, the greater the disproportion in the results. What this demonstrates is that almost everyone acknowledges implicitly the importance of our received culture, the value of the inheritance we all receive from generations of creative artists. We cannot do anything to repay our debt to past generations of artists, but we can try to see the present generation properly rewarded for their work.
But who will advance their cause? Most creative artists struggle to make a living. Some well-meaning people go to auctions and buy second-hand art by dead people. That may generate a profit for the original collector and for the auction house, but it does nothing for the artist, and nothing for the Arts.
Some people buy works by the current “big name” or they think they can pick the next “big name”.
Buying art with a view to making a profit is not about supporting the arts, it’s about supporting the people who will inherit your estate. Apart from being the wrong motivation, it is probably doomed to failure.
The point is that you should never buy a work of art in order to make a profit: you buy it because you like it.
You want to pick a winner? You will fail.
In 1874, two significant exhibitions were staged in Paris. One was the annual Salon, at which the leading artist was Franz Xavier Winterhalter. He is not widely remembered today, except for a full-length portrait of the young Queen Victoria, painted in about 1842. It’s a good portrait, in the style of its time. But otherwise, if you mention his name, most people won’t remember him. In the same year the second Salon des Refusés, was held.
A rather snippy commentator called Edmond Le Roy went to the Refusés and wrote an unflattering review. He gave the artists a derogatory name. He drew it from a painting in the show: ‘Impression, Sunrise’, by Monet. As a sneer he called them “Impressionists”.
Of course, the smart money of the day was rushing off to the Salon and buying Winterhalter, and joined the chorus of abuse of the Impressionists.
Presumably their descendants did not thank them for their choice.
Support the artists whose work you like. Consider the case of J.S. Bach. He died in 1750. By the early19th century, his reputation had sunk: he was regarded as a hack. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) recognised Bach as a remarkably gifted composer. Mendelssohn tried to revive interest in Bach. He arranged a performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829.
Mendelssohn wrote just two piano trios: they are both superb. The final movement of his second piano trio has two extended quotations from a Bach cantata. Felix Mendelsohn was in large part responsible for the revival of Bach’s reputation.
And remember Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Everyone has heard his “Four Seasons”. Not everyone appreciates that for almost 200 years after his death, Vivaldi had been forgotten. His reputation was restored, and a great deal of his original work was revived, from the 1920s on. In the late 1960s the Nonesuch recording label produced the first recording – on vinyl disk – of the Four Seasons.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Not all art is collectible. Composers can only make a living if their work is played and people go along and listen to it. Commission music if you get the chance: it’s not hard. If you aren’t up for the price of a commission, join together with some friends and commission a piece jointly. It is astonishingly satisfying, whether or not you like the music which is composed.
The more people support the work of people whose work they like, the better will be the lives of creative artists. If collectors go to shows and buy the work they like, they will enrich the environment in which artists work, and that will enhance the possibility that artists who are genuinely great will have a realistic chance of survival as artists. If music lovers go to hear the music of contemporary composers and commission work by composers whose music they like, the environment in which creative artists live will be … friendlier, less hostile.
The need for patronage of the arts in Australia is plain. Most Australian artists (by which I mean creative and performing artists in all categories of the arts) occupy the lowest income group in Australia. All but the very established and most successful artists in Australia earn very little. Artists survive by teaching, or washing dishes, or by the help of friends or relatives: you can change that.
If the health of a society is to be judged by the condition of its artists, Australian society has some major problems.
The reason for this is that existing forms of support for the Arts in Australia are inadequate.
In saying this, I would exclude the State of Victoria, which, especially during the Covid pandemic, has done great things to support the Arts.
Apart from Victoria, additional government funding is a pious hope: there are not many votes in the Arts.
Corporate sponsorship is increasingly drifting to popular art forms, or away from the Arts altogether in favour of sport – more bangs for the sponsorship buck.
Private support for the arts is, to say the least, an underdeveloped idea in Australia. There are some notable exceptions. However, we have no cultural tradition of private philanthropy in the Arts.
This is probably a function of 3 things: first, it is generally thought to be the province of the super-rich, which provides a ready-made excuse for those of more modest resources.
Second, it has an air of elitism about it which is thought to be un-Australian.
Third, it does not readily attract tax-deductible status, which would otherwise make a contribution easier, especially for those who are not super-rich, but pay 50% of their income in tax.
The solution, I think, is to encourage private philanthropy among those who are comfortable rather than rich. As much good can be achieved by a large number donating a modest amount as by an exclusive few donating large amounts.
More immediately, we should all recognize that living, working artists need sales. Admiration of their work is good: but the sincerest form of admiration is buying their work.
But why? Why support the Arts? As I said before, most Australian artists occupy the lowest income group in Australia. All but the very established and most successful artists in Australia earn very little each year. Artists survive by teaching, or washing dishes, or by the help of friends or relatives.
As I mentioned before, most of us: lawyers, economists, accountants – leave our footprints in the water. Artists leave something that later ages can appreciate.
It has always struck me as dreadful that many visual artists make very little during their lifetime, but their work becomes increasingly valuable on the secondary market after their death. As a recent example: in November this year, a van Gogh watercolour landscape sold at auction in New York for $A49.3 million), a record for a watercolour by van Gogh.
He sold just one painting during his lifetime, the Red Vineyard, which sold in 1889 for 400 Belgian francs (that’s about $15 in today’s money). Can anyone name a lawyer, an economist or an accountant who lived and worked at the same time and in the same place as van Gogh (1853-1890)?
Of course, he had to survive and it turns out that he would trade his paintings for food or art supplies. He probably never dreamed that his work would sell at auction for vast amounts just 130 years after his death.
These days, it is the view from an ivory tower that makes us equate people like Leonardo, van Gogh, Beethoven and Tolstoy with “culture”. But that is a mistake we need to avoid, especially if we are considering how to support the Arts.
For every Leonardo, van Gogh, Beethoven and Tolstoy there are many artists at work, but they may not achieve the success (even the posthumous success) of those people. The crucial thing is that an arts culture helps the greats as well as the not-so-greats. Unless all artists are supported, the culture will not support those who are later recognised as great.
And when attention turns to culture, the problem is magnified. I said earlier that I am not part of “rock culture”. In holding that view, I face the risk that I will be assessed as having judged the matter from an ivory tower: just as people wrongly assessed van Gogh during his lifetime. Perhaps they saw him as part of the European, 19th century, equivalent of “rock culture”.
Some cultures, in today’s assessment, concern matters of fact: whether Climate Change is real; whether Covid-19 is real; whether vaccination works to diminish the risk of Covid-19, and so on.
Some cultures, in today’s assessment, concern matters of opinion about the future: who are the great artists; what is the great music, and so on.
For the first group, I think the only way to assess the matter is by looking at the facts, and assessing them in accordance with what is known.
So far as Climate Change is concerned, the facts are pretty clear, in my opinion. The underlying science – that carbon-based molecules in the atmosphere block the escape of infra-red heat – is clear, and has been known since an American scientist, Eunice Foote, published a paper on the subject in 1856: about 170 years ago. Incidentally, Foote was born in 1819, before van Gogh was born, and died in 1888: the year before he sold The Red Vineyard. She is not as well-known; perhaps because she was not only a scientist: she was also a women’s rights campaigner.
The impact of Climate Change is a matter of science, and the culture which opposes it should be assessed by reference to science.
The culture which challenges whether Covid-19 is real and whether vaccination works to diminish the risk of Covid-19 is also a matter of science and should be assessed according to the current science. Of course, the science relevant to Coronavirus has shifted and will probably continue to shift. But the vaccines which have been produced to combat it have been tested rigorously and, on any view, they apparently do no harm and they dramatically reduce the risk associated with Coronavirus. Right or wrong, I think the cultures which deny the science are simply wrong.
Other cultures are a reflection of aesthetic assessment: Rock culture is a perfect example.
In our assessment of these, it is useful to remember the assessment, in their time, of van Gogh and Cezanne. It is important to recognise whether we are judging the Arts from an ivory tower.