Comment: Art is a river
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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There is a phrase in the Wagiluk language, spoken in south-east Arnhem Land, that means, among other things, “What I am giving to you is a part of myself”. The words, “Gumurr-gadnymirr galpu”, are accompanied by the placing of the speaker’s hand over the heart of the listener. The phrase occurs in a manikay, or song cycle, that evokes a place, an ancestor figure and a journey. The song sings of the interconnectedness of things: its words, the haunting melody, its visual translation into complex paintings, its dances, poised and precise, the physical settings – these are all one. The arrival of new material in the cycle, says Benjamin Wilfred, a custodian of the song, comes to him via visits from his late grandfather, the painter Djambu Burraburra, in dreams. This, for Wilfred, and for his people, is the creative moment.
The origins of the practice of art as a gateway to another consciousness where past and present merge are implicit here, a reminder, perhaps, of what we are missing when we line up for blockbuster exhibitions, take our seats at the opera or finally find time in our busy lives to read a book. The very point of art is that it speaks across time and space, continuing to reach out and remind us that our narratives are long, deep and wide, that our lives in a sense are not limited to the dates that define them, but are joined to those who came before us, and to those yet to come. This is the nub of the human experience, and Australia is home to some of the oldest expressions of this understanding in existence.
In our public discourse, our nation building, our projection of ourselves as an entity, the idea that art might be a builder of social cohesion is not often tabled. We have preferred to look to sporting metaphors to understand ourselves, to see the progression from football field to battlefield as an aspirational arc, and to applaud competition, sacrifice and mateship. It’s part of a forward compulsion driven by politics and markets. The artist’s world of interior narratives, requiring empathy and compassion to communicate its messages, sits uncomfortably within the land of dust and dollars. And yet the combination of ingenuity and humanity that leads us to pursue dreams not necessarily designed to make us wealthy, but certainly collectively richer, should be at the heart of the story of a nation still very much in the process of becoming.
The understanding of art’s centrality to life needs to start early. If we are to be a nation of creative thinkers, dreamers and doers, the process must be embedded in early childhood and primary school, and continued well into secondary education. Any reform of our education system will be wasted if it does not allow for significant improvement in music and art learning. As a musician who has worked on numerous projects with masters of non-Western musical cultures, I have experienced again and again music’s ability to mediate a free and frank exchange of knowledge; the result, apart from the work itself, is an empathy that remains long after the last sounds have rippled away. Empathy is a quality we can scarce do without; but it would seem to have been mined out of us along with more tradeable commodities. Art teaches us to look for ourselves in the other. We will seek it because we are curious, our curiosity replacing the default scepticism that hovers around the national psyche.
All art is latent until the moment it is received by the viewer, listener or reader, at which point it ignites, catching fire in the atmosphere of the mind. The work and its audience only really exist in relation to each other, in a kind of transcendental feedback loop. A work is never the same twice: no matter how many times we encounter it, our experience is dependent on circumstance. Art is also an offering; the artist rearranges our dreams, our deepest hopes and fears, serving up the smoke and foam of our subconscious in surprising combinations.
It should therefore be a gift to everyone that the results of our arts practices are available and affordable. If public money is spent on allowing artists to create, we should ensure that the greatest number of people have access to their work. Surely the private sector should be the primary source of funding for areas of the arts that, because of high overheads, demand high ticket prices. Only then can adequate resources be made available to those areas where experiment, fearlessness and risk drive the agenda. Too often our funding decisions result in anxiety rather than fulfilment as artists face the possibility that they are being set up to fail.
It has never been easy to live, and dream, on this continent. Our first nations again and again demonstrated an ingenuity that ensured their survival over tens of thousands of years, and this spirit of applied improvisation could be said to apply to the best of Australia’s achievements since 1788. It took ingenuity and a certain improvisatory flair to create a functioning polis in this most remote of locations; when imagining our future, we will need to regard this collective creativity as our most precious natural resource.
We can learn much from our first nations, but perhaps the most important thing is that sense of unity of people and place, space and time, expressed through the creative act: that we are one, not rhetorically but in fact, and that this oldest of knowledge should inform our better selves.