There are some wonderful things about being far away from home – missing out on my mum’s cooking isn’t one of them. I was on my way to Canary Wharf today, sitting up top on a double decker, it was raining a little and every time the bus lurched forward to take a corner I kept thinking god I hope we make it. That same feeling has been haunting me for a long time, I have felt it deeply for the last five years in the public sector, but to be fair I first encountered it the day I left law school determined to be in the arts. I had no idea what to expect, I wanted to make myself a home in the labyrinth of excellence – it was just a step ahead, it was just beyond the point of yonder – that glorious idea of locating greatness.
Now that I have distance on my side, and enough time has passed to get the sort of perspective I used to crave for, but could never quite establish – being so close to the beast, I can finally say that I fell out of love with the arts in Aotearoa. There wasn’t enough space for everybody to be excellent, and yet – there was such an emphasis on believing everybody was excellent, and so many hyperboles of form, the complete disregard for structure – or the convenient belief (as I am finding more often in my own craft) that we are all fundamentally artists underneath it all – that if nothing else works it is there for everyone and anyone willing to pick up a pen, or a paint brush.
My head hurts when I consider how tangled art as a tool of social change – and art as one’s life purpose – have become. My head hurts when I consider that we haven’t just settled for this entanglement, we have designed and encouraged it in our part of the world, on an unbelievable scale – to a point where method trumps product, where meaning trumps output, where there are no ethics but a kind of desperation to place what is socially misplaced within a sector that does not have the infrastructure, resources or strategic perspective to sustain it.
Here on the other side of the globe, I have mixed thoughts about the ‘oasis’ of art back home. I have mixed thoughts as to whether it exists, if it’s a bad thing if it does, if it’s a failing if it doesn’t – if it’s the socially sensitive architecture of what society imagines (and therefore creates) a creative to be. If I remove the argument from a quibble of representation, who gets what slice of the pie, and I take enough steps back to see – who exactly is manufacturing, delivering, programming and funding the arts in New Zealand – my viewpoint shifts markedly.
We have brief overlaps between the public and private sector, moments of greatness (or madness) where a mixture of minds come together and invest in sustainable practice. Whether or not you can apply sustainability models to the arts is an anthology in itself, but what is truthful of this moment – is the influence of funding on the small and not so perfectly formed, scattered sector – vying for niche identities in the hope that together they will make a sort of dimensional whole. Rallying for Maori and Pasifika arts as the ethos of all else when it suits the market environment, then running to the other end of the spectrum and ordaining god-like statuses to people who have been creating longer than everyone else – that funders and philanthropists alike feel some kind of cult-guilt need to empty their pockets in lieu of a life spent dedicated to a particular craft – not necessarily destined for said craft.
There isn’t another market in the world where people just wake up and call themselves lawyers, or engineers, or classical composers or personal trainers – yet the number of people who do so in the arts is staggering. Looking at cultures where art is a lifestyle, through to markets where art is a commodity – there is no way to readily consolidate these musings, and no easy way to diplomatically assert a unified consensus. The way the private sector treats art, for all its bad media – has transparency on its side, the political motivations for the treatment of the arts within the public sector is far more elusive. Through a simplistic worldview where we sidestep inconsistencies and agree that the means justify the ends – in terms of the production of culture – if we accept a system of power based on process, not talent – if we continue to be deferred to by a handful or administrators who are well meaning but ham strung when it comes to being well doing – we are a part of the Frankenstein Art identity, we submit to identifying as a part of the monster.
The lines blur to a point where we refocus the lens with subjective ease, we bet on winners, we have decided the winners are the ones that hold on in the wind, we are yet to decide what winning truly means – but in place of truth we have written our histories into dull landscapes, decided the point of anchorage based on what is known – and not so much what is traversed, challenged and ravaged on the international circuit. We have fallen into a cycle of obedient fund-wholesome enthusiasts – too scared to see what is on the page/ stage/ screen/ wall/ floor/ surface – we see bland and vehemently purport that it means its diametric opposite – no it’s not a brown wall it’s a protest? We read terrible prose and find technical solace, we are too scared to speak out about the repetition of indigenous arts as institutional fodder to tick boxes, we have stopped seeing what we create because we are too busy bringing Frankenstein art to life: part you/ part system/ inhuman.
It isn’t easy to be an artist, to live a life that involves a level of such vulnerability that most people who ‘peak’ progress to madness or worse – plateau and numb right out of the sector altogether, sometimes on their feet, sometimes in a box. Most of my heroes ended their own lives, they had fallen into a world without walls, there was nowhere, nothing, to lean on. I have seen some beautiful experiences of the soul, what we have chosen to deem as art, what we have resolutely surrendered ourselves to – to live, to be fed, to be acknowledged as being. I can say, having been on both sides, as someone who used to fund you, as someone who wanted to work with you, what it feels like to be both artist and facilitator – how heavy it sits on your heart, all that Frankenstein art.
In a not so perfect world the sector would find a way to regulate itself that meant its loyal cogs could both eat and keep their souls. New Zealand would politely remove itself from deeming all indigenous art fantastic – let’s be honest – it’s not all mind blowing. Perhaps it’s our ‘modesty is the best policy’ culture, or more readily – our fraught conservative nature that keeps even our wildest spirits reasonably tame compared with our international peers. I think it’s great that people find peace within art, just as artists find art within peace – but being an artist is a lifestyle not an ideal style of life. I hope for a rigourous and competitive market full of hungry ambitious bright things that live in the va between what is and what could be – and somewhere small beside that rush of life a few key people sit and they are feeding, not making, the beast.