I have long been suspicious of Aesop’s fable in which a hungry grasshopper comes across a bunch of ants drying out their grain in the winter sunshine and asks for something to eat. In an early version, translated from Ancient Greek by Olivia and Robert Temple, the grasshopper is a cicada. The ants ask why she didn’t store up food for the winter. “I didn’t have time for that,” says the cicada. “I was singing melodiously.”
It ends with the ants mocking her: “Ah well, if you sang in summer, you can dance in winter.” There is no moral in this version, which leaves the story interestingly equivocal: what appears to be the cicada getting her just deserts might after all be a story of injustice. The translators underscore this ambiguity with a tender note about cicadas: “Many find the orchestral music of the cicadas a comforting solace, especially if they are lonely. No one can be truly alone if the cicadas are singing.”
In 1692, translator Roger L’Estrange had no hesitation in pointing the finger at the singer. “A life of sloth is the life of a brute,” he says in his moral. “But industry and action is the bus’ness of a great, a wife, and a good man.” Most of the morals drawn through the centuries are a little more measured than L’Estrange’s, but almost all of them – especially the versions for children – parse the story as an improving fable about the virtues of hard work and the woeful results of indolence.
The 19th-century wit Ambrose Bierce begs to differ. In his version, when the ants ask the grasshopper why he didn’t acquire property of his own, he answers, “So I did; but you fellows broke in and carried it all away.” In another, the ants become corrupt politicians and the grasshopper an “honest miner” importuning members of a legislature to divide their wealth with him. When they ask why he has nothing of his own, the miner answers: “I was so busy digging out gold that I had no leisure to lay up something worth while.” Like the cicada, the miner is driven away with derision.
Another – possibly earlier – version has languished in comparative obscurity. It is the story of a farmer who stole from his neighbours’ crops and was turned into an ant by Zeus as punishment for his greed. “Yet even though the man changed his shape, he did not change his habits,” it runs in Laura Gibbs’ 2002 translation. “And even now he goes around the fields gathering the fruits of other people’s labour, storing them up for himself.”
Clearly there is room in this ancient story for dispute about the nature of labour. Even as a child, I felt sorry for the grasshopper, abandoned to starve in the freezing winter. Surely, I thought, her song might be worth a grain of wheat? Wouldn’t the music have sweetened the ants’ labour? Surely it would have lifted their hearts on summer evenings and deepened the meanings of their lives?
As an adult who has spent most of my working life as a full-time writer, my quarrel with the fable has grown stronger as I’ve grown older. In that moralising, I began to sniff the erasure of the labour that makes art and the dismissal of the value of art itself. I heard it every time my father asked me when I was going to “settle down” and “face reality”, every time someone asked me what my “real job” was.
To be fair, in economic terms it’s true that the work of an artist barely adds up to a “real job”. It is a continuously frustrating fact that although the arts are multibillion-dollar industries in Australia, most artists barely make a poverty wage for their labour.
In 2016–17, the most recent figures available, the cultural and creative economy contributed $111.7 billion to the Australian economy, or 6.4 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, the median gross income for an artist in 2015, as reported in David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya’s 2017 report “Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia”, was $42,200. Of that, only $6000 came directly from artistic work. More ($15,500) came from arts-related work – administration and so on – with the balance ($20,700) being work that had nothing to do with making art.
Advocates have been making these arguments since well before 2016, when then arts minister George Brandis conducted his raid on the Australia Council’s coffers in pursuit of a dubious idea of “excellence” that was to be determined solely by himself, sparking a Senate inquiry that attracted thousands of submissions. Out of necessity, advocates pointed out over and over again that art is labour, that it does make money, that it does create jobs. The truth of those arguments – the graphs, the figures, the carefully reasoned essays – made almost no difference at all, certainly not to the 48,000 or so people estimated to be professional artists.
It’s a safe bet, after the pandemic crisis and entering a recession, that artists’ incomes have gone down rather than up. Anecdotally I know of too many who have quietly given up: the balance of work, work and work is just too punishing. It’s one thing to be putting in 16-hour days to create a tiny theatre production with no budget when you’re 20 years old; it’s quite another at 40, when even success, however it’s measured –recognition, sales, regular productions, publications or exhibitions – doesn’t add up to housing security or being able to provide for a family.
Add that pressure to the continuous devaluation of art itself – the “what’s your real job?” question, the assumption that art has little part to play in public life beyond a kind of empty cultural status, the idea that making art isn’t work at all – and it’s objectively astonishing that anyone at all practises art professionally after they turn 30.
Of course, the cicadas are not alone in having their labour devalued and dismissed. The rise of the gig economy – which in 2019 employed an estimated quarter of a million Australians – has seen the transformation of what once were steady jobs into exploitative contract labour, as a cohort of digital ants rake in billions. As so often, the working conditions of artists function as early indicators for the rest of society.
This devaluation goes far beyond the graphs and numbers of economics. Capitalism, especially in its current catastrophic mode, is a system that systematically scours all living things of any value beyond their potential for making money. The necessity for cicadas to justify their labour by the values of ants is both a symptom of the problem and a problem in itself. And as the fable demonstrates, it’s a very old argument.
What’s lost in the struggle to survive, almost beyond reclamation, is the human capacity to imagine, to dream, to simply be. When the French theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine was asked what art was for, she answered that it was to make the world better, like an orange tree makes the world better. It doesn’t have to do anything except exist, to let fall its fragrance, to soften a concrete streetscape, to offer its oxygen and fruit to passers-by, to provide a home for insects and animals. In this world, a tree is denied its right simply to be, just as a person is denied their right to be fully who they are, in work and in leisure. In this world, a tree is only its potential for pulp and planks.
“A poetic image can be the seed of a world, the seed of a universe imagined out of a poet’s reverie,” said the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, in his book The Poetics of Reverie. “The consciousness of wonder blossoms forth in all innocence before this world which has been created by the poet.”
It’s no accident that these metaphors for making art are drawn from nature. Nor that we are all too busy and fearful to imagine other worlds, even as it becomes more and more urgent that we do. The world we have made is a calamity for us all, but in the short term the ants are doing nicely. They want to ensure that this situation continues unchanged. The more they have, the more they want, and the less there is for everyone else.
Even our artists, working three jobs at once to pay the rent, are becoming too exhausted. The bureaucracy of corporations now dominates and shapes how we speak about culture, how we imagine it. Instead of contemplating the seeds of new worlds, artists are filling in compliance reports, none of which can measure the melodiousness of their song.
But this melody is always the beginning of creating other possibilities than those to which we are condemned. It is the promise of worlds that value every human being for what we are, that value our planet for its myriad beauties, our seas for their mystery, our skies for their sublime endlessness. Even in – especially in – the grasp of evil banality, we all need to remember how to dream again.
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