The arts is an industry that’s widely misunderstood in Australia. Why is that? Maybe for the same reason it got a bad rap in my house growing up: maths and science were considered categorically more important. But for all the maths and science geniuses out there, should we not also strive for an equal amount of arts and humanities scholars?
Just like yin and yang, society should value both in equal measure, but over the past year we’ve confirmed our values as grossly uneven: Art schools have (almost) merged, funding bodies have lost funds and many commercial galleries have shut up shop.
Maybe our collective apathy for the arts explains why there are still so many soul-destroying, mass-produced prints from Ikea or Freedom Furniture lining walls across th country, despite the thousands of local practicing artists we could buy work from for a similar price. And let’s be real for a moment: do you really want to look at that oversized Gerbera print from Ikea every day for the rest of your life?
(This should be entitled ‘Send Help Immediately’ )
My theory is that the arts faces these challenges because it is neither enforced nor celebrated at school. Instead, our government seems to inject its time into promoting STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – as ‘critical drivers of our nation’s future success’.
It’s a shame that as kids we’re pressured to prioritise the things that fill the gaps in our economy over those which shape us to be independent thinkers and explorers. I recall this type of pressure well. Like most aeronautical engineers, my Dad dreamt of me one day becoming an accountant or physicist. Admittedly, he gave up on that pretty fast when I diagnosed myself as completely unfit for either. Instead, I thrived on history, English and visual art. I remember with fondness the hours I spent sitting idle in the hallway after being ejected from class by my frustrated maths teacher, a hyper-sensitive Norwegian Guatemalan man who unsuccessfully took it upon himself to try to make me love maths.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that maths and science aren’t important, or even absolutely critical to civilisation as we know it. I’m just saying this: Can’t we make a bit of space for the arts in our lives too?
It would really do us a world of good, because learning how to look at art is the one of the best tools we can arm ourselves with to question (or make sense of) the world around us. Art takes the things we believe to be ‘real’ and ‘true’ and dismantles it into tiny parts, so that we can build new realities that make more sense to us.
The Ancient Greeks and the people of the Renaissance knew what was up.
Not only did these people boast some of the most sophisticated civilisations in history, they also held enormous respect for the arts. In Ancient Greece, a statesman called Pericles almost single-handedly elevated Athens to the artistic centre of the world. His support for artists in his community empowered them to discover new techniques in painting, sculpture and architecture, which planted the seed for future innovation.
Later, during the Renaissance, the Italian elite would commission artists to make now-infamous works like The Last Supper, but also family portraits to hang casually in their dining rooms.
Sadly this type of philanthropy is now almost unheard of among our own pool of elite. Aside from the Judith Neilsons, David Walshes and a few other noteworthy individuals in Australia, the vast majority appear to take more pleasure from other pursuits, like watching themselves slide higher up the rich list, or adding to their portfolio of holiday houses.
But unlike these civilisations before us, we do have one thing working in our favour: the democratisation and affordability of art. And no, I’m not talking about the artworks you might see as you stroll through the Venice Biennale. I’m talking about the emerging artists who might be decades away from showing at these international fairs. These are the local, emerging artists, who are working right under our nose, inside our own city. Their artworks are the ones we should be engaging with and talking about. And when we support these artists as they’re emerging, one day we just might see them when we’re strolling through Art Basel or on the wall of the Guggenheim. And even if we don’t, at least we’ll be able to surround ourselves with thought-provoking and wonderful artworks made by practicing artists, and never need to settle for a Gerbera print ever again.
So go on – make like Herb and Dorothy and buy yourself some local art! In doing so, not only will you give your walls a little more character, you’ll also be supporting something worthwhile, sticking it to mass consumption and be well on your way to becoming a true patron des arts.
Don’t know where to start? Over the coming weeks we’ll be speaking with some of Sydney’s art community who will share their favourite local artists, galleries and ways to buy art on a budget.
(The Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538)