There is something wrong with the arts in Australia.
At a party several months ago I met a fellow public servant, to whom I admitted my dream of tossing in the constraints and comforts of a ‘real job’ and of adopting a more carefree existence as an artist.
‘Oh,’ said my companion, ‘you’re destined for a life of living off grants.’
This was news to my somewhat naïve self. Is this how artists are perceived? But grants are like presents from the government—essentially, welfare, or institutionalised charity. And we all know how Australians feel about welfare. They like to say things like this: ‘Fucking lazy fuck, get off yer fucking arse and get a fucking job, piece of hippy shit.’
(This extends even to my usually charming uncle, who, upon learning of J’s scholarly pursuits, said, ‘I never knew much about study. I know the part where you do grade twelve, and then the part where you get a job.’ Fortunately, J didn’t know this was a dig, but if my uncle used words like ‘fuck,’ he would have said something resembling the above).
I’ve tried to think of reasons why art should be considered not to be work. I thought maybe it could be because its enjoyable, and work should be unpleasant. This seems a flimsy reason, not least because it precludes people from enjoying such things as making coffee. Far be it from me to deny people whatever pleasure they derive from doing other peoples’ taxes. But aside from this, we pay other people plenty of money for doing things that they enjoy—especially those of the violent and muscular variety, usually referred to as sportspeople. I’m not even going to try to dissect the rationale behind this. I do not understand sport, and don’t expect I ever will. However, I suspect that even if sportspeople weren’t paid extravagant salaries, the old Wilt Chamberlain rule would result in every fan paying them 25c (probably $60 in today’s money) for the sheer thrill of seeing them do their thing, and they would inevitably get rich, even if all they do is toss balls around and get involved in sweaty dick punching.
No, I don’t think art is punished because it is fun.
But perhaps it has something to do with it being so subjective. The thing about art is, on the whole, people don’t really understand it, nor are certain about whether or not they personally like it. Was Matisse good at life drawing? I mean, he scribbled some stuff, and there are two eyes and a nose, and it doesn’t look like a cat, so it must be good…? I can tell you whether or not I like Matisse, and the answer is: I don’t. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t do art. But I suspect that for some people, it means he perhaps ought not to have been entitled to remuneration.
For example, here we have Leonardo da Vinci: painter, inventor, all-around rad dude, being better than you at everything. People admire him, and consider his output to be the true work of a genius. Over here, we have Trent, TAFE-going, stoner, unemployed dole-bludger, who paints red squares in not-so-neat lines. Trent has pit bulls that kill his neighbours’ cats, he smells, and he enjoys belittling women. Do you see what I’ve done here? I’ve added some other disreputable things that have nothing to do with Trent’s occupation. This is what Australians like to do. If your art is something inexplicable, like strings of red squares, then it’s probably a symptom of you being a DOLE-BLUDGING PIECE OF HIPPY SHIT—do you see what’s happening? I didn’t understand you, so I wrote in capital letters all the reasons you’re not entitled to live. Art appears in different manifestations, and can be hard to swallow, but we should not get hung up on artists’ other traits in writing that art off.
Perhaps there’s a fear that if people get paid money for being shitty artists, no one will have any incentive to work at all, and will just stay home and ‘paint’ something every month or two. This is quite clearly false. Everyone can get paid to sit and home and do NOTHING, and most people still have jobs. Welfare exists, but it’s unsatisfying—people want to occupy themselves with something.
I think this is the crux of the problem. People don’t think of art as a real something with which they can be occupied. It’s a nice thing to do, like having tea with your aunty, or reading a nice easy novel. It’s not much different from being on the dole, it’s sort of like drinking beer in front of the tv while your nephew cleans out your boat so you can spend the afternoon fishing. Of course you shouldn’t get paid—you’re doing a thing that’s fun for you, easy, and doesn’t benefit anyone else.
Now, I acknowledge that art can be a terribly personal pursuit. It does sound absurd to think of corporations hiring people to paint all day, and amassing truckloads of paintings. But do you know what is equally absurd? All the stuff that people with ‘real’ jobs have to write—truckloads of repetitive documents, guidelines, business rules, values, CEO’s instructions, occupational health and safety principles, project plans, FTE estimates, work breakdown schedules, risk appraisals, training manuals, tool kits, on and on and on. Is this worth anything? I’m strongly inclined to think it is not. All this behind-the-scenes rubbish obscures the real work to be done, where people interact with other people, provide them with a service, help them in their need.
Art gives people something tangible, it provides people with a physical occupation, it produces a physical result. It takes time, effort, thought, skill, practice and facility with tools. I defy you to assert this is not work.