Sunday, May 22, 2005

Curiouser and curiouser by Robin Archer

The arts must ask its audience to throw out a lifeline to curiosity in all things in order to survive and prosper. ByRobyn Archer.In my essay "The Myth of the Mainstream" (Currency Press, April 2005), I talk about curiosity being amongst the finest virtues of humankind and how this was revealed to me when I looked back trying to recall the first symptoms of my father's frontallobe dementia: I eventually felt that it was this ever-curious man's loss of the vital stream of curiosity.

The curiosity factor has become a potent metaphor for me. I can't help thinking that once the blinkers are on, there's only oneroad ahead-and that leads to death.

Anyone who approaches art, or virtually anything, only wishing to defend their own tastes, anyone who won't lookat something because they fear it won't be to their liking, anyone who bags something before they've seen it, mightas well be dead already. They've lost their sense of curiosity. They're winding down.

One of the most powerful, and perhaps accidental, foes of the preservation and stimulation of curiosity is thatall-pervasive factor of contemporary life - marketing. I say "accidental" because at the start of the 20th century, and atvarious peaks throughout that time, when waves of social reform produced increasing numbers of citizens (first in thedeveloped and then the developing nations) who experienced a phenomenon at that point only known by wealthy, that is,leisure time and spare cash, marketing itself was a new and exciting tool that existed precisely to stimulate curiosity.

But as early as the mid-19th-century snake-oil merchants were derided so thoroughly that their profession entered thevernacular, and in the 1950s the same happened to used car salesmen.These days, when marketing is a career, one still sees the altruistic basis of the trade in the very best of the advertising branchof marketing, when the skill of art directors, graphic and video artists and especially concept developers, grab our attention andstimulate our curiosity enough to take the next step and try to satisfy that curiosity about an available product, be that newtechnology, food, insurance, entertainment or art.

The difficulty for art, unlike entertainment, is that it is hard to commodify and therefore hard to market. And the very art mostlikely to stimulate the sense of curiosity is always the most fragile. Marketing when applied to the arts is at best crude andat worst destructive. Hype may get your audience to the shimmering waters of art, but the audience will notnecessarily drink .

In precisely the same way as one needs to address the people at this time, not the politicians, the arts must go outside thesegmented and ultimately blinkered nature of targeted marketing, and ask its potential audience (which I believe knows nobounds) to throw out a lifeline to curiosity in all things.If ordinary people are scared of the arts, a highly disputed piece of parochial, reductive and selective marketing research, thenour job as artists and commissioners of new work is not to try to persuade them to enjoy a particular piece of art, or even artitself, but to ask them to live again fully in all things, and put an end to lives which are driven madly by the false ideals, objects,and icons which marketing itself has created.This achieved, audiences would come thirsty to art and ready to drink deeply. There would scarcely be a need for marketing inthe arts.Finding the means to achieve that is the challenge.

Until that renewal is complete, the parallel universe of the small symbolic following for art must be maintained, and new worksfrom artists vigorously commissioned and nurtured in the knowledge that the ripple effect of the creative lightning bolt willalways remain an important part of what artists, their commissioner-presenters, and the informed critique that broadcasts theseactions, always do when that tripartite cultural activity is in a state of grace and good health.

This is an extract of Robyn Archer's Alfred Deakin Innovation Lecture "Imagination and the Audience: Commissioning for Creativity" deliveredon Saturday at the Melbourne Town Hall.******************

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