In the next three podcast episodes we're looking at a new topic – the impact of art – and what could happen to our world if we no longer have an appreciation for art and culture? At times when our most basic needs are at threat, can we even afford to consider art, let alone lament its loss? How does the world look and feel without new art being created? Or do we simply need to start looking for and at art differently? In this episode we hear from Ali Alizadeh, a literary critic, poet and writer on the philosophy of art, who sees the biggest threat to art as the growing need for it to have function, serve a purpose or send a message, rather than simply existing for the sake of art.
Susan Carland (SC): In this episode, we hear from two very different experts on this topic. The artist Callum Morton, who predicts an even more difficult future for creators in a world where art is a luxury. And Ali Alizadeh, a literary critic, poet and writer on the philosophy of art, sees the biggest threat to art as the growing need for it to have a function rather than simply existing just for the sake of art.
Let's hear from Ali.
Ali Alizadeh (AA): I am Ali Alizadeh, a senior lecturer at Monash. I teach literary studies and creative writing. I'm also a creative writer.
SC: Dr Ali Alizadeh, welcome. People could make the argument that in times of absolute survival arts is something that we just have to leave behind. Imagine that does happen - the world progresses with arts leaving the public and even private sphere, what does that world look like?
AA: Well, that's that's kind of interesting in a way, you know, it may not be such a bad world for the artist, because I'm not sure if art could ever leave the private space. So you know, one of the things that I'm finding, you know, if people have to stay at home and what are they going to do? They’re probably going to end up reading books, and it's kind of interesting. I mean, when one looks at moments of massive civilisational crisis. Say, Europe at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, yes, the so-called barbarians did a lot of damage and burnt lots of libraries and so on and so forth. But the few monasteries where the monks actually preserved the books, they actually cherished the books, and they became extremely valuable. So, I guess there are a few different definitions of art. And if one definition is a very expensive, high cost activity, which depends on government or private investment, then yes, that could suffer greatly.
SC: Well we're seeing it now. So many artists are saying ‘all my shows have been shut down’.
AA: Yeah, exactly. So that could suffer dramatically, and we can talk about that as well, especially the incomes of artists who, when they are not making a living from the arts, they have to do it in other ways, often casual employment. And that's going to take a huge hit. So the lives of many people are going to suffer, including that of artists, but in terms of individual or private or subjective production of art, I don't think that's going to suffer necessarily. In fact, that could be rejuvenated.
SC: You think it could flourish in this space that's created?
AA: I think so. I mean, I think that, there were times when, If one is really poor and you can't afford books, but you manage to get a second hand copy of a favorite novel or whatever, you cherish it, you read it a number of times, and I think there's nothing, you know from my end as a literary artist, there's nothing better a reader can do than read a book a number of times because they think about it, they make the most of the use value of the literary work of another human being. I mean, I don't at all want to discount the difficulties and hardships that will come generally, but I think that the sort of serious question is where does art come from? Does it come from investment - and the kind of artistic professions that we have today, they're obviously dependent parasitically on capital - the big world of the high art dealer scene is all about investment and these people who buy these works of art for thousands and millions of dollars, frankly have no idea what art is, but they know that the value of this work will go up and they will sell it and make more money.
Then the top end work of art, especially visual arts, it’s now a site of capital occultation. They hide their money there and avoid paying taxes and so on. So, I mean, that may take a hit but again, in times of economic crisis like this, as we know it, is also a time for a disaster capitalism So it's possible that, not being able to make a profit in other ways, they might turn to the work of art again.
SC: So you think we could potentially see moving away from the pure commodification of art back to the more spiritual or creative aspect of art?
AA: That's the one thing that's a possibility, and that happens in times of crisis for sure, for sure. We can see great flourishing of art, even the Great Depression, that was a time of extraordinary artistic activity so that's definitely a possibility. I think anything that brings people closer to the question of, well, ‘do I need to make art’? I mean, this is the point. If I can't do it professionally, if I can't do it for money, then will I do it? And I think the answer is yes.
SC: And why is that? Why does art matter?
AA: That's a massive question. That's a question like philosophers have wrestled with since the time of Plato in what we know is that art is always there, despite, no matter what happens it’s always there. It's sort of it's clearly something to do with human nature and, you know, for philosophers who have, you know, thought about that, they've come up with a number of different theories. I guess they've all tried to, and I also try to as well, to say it should not have an instrumental value.
SC: What do you mean by that - an instrumental value?
AA: That means it's being used for something other than for which it was, not intended, but other than that for which it was originally made.
I can instrumentalise this glass of water. I could drink from it. It's intended to be a container for water, but I can also do other things with it. I can throw it at someone as a weapon, for example, I can buy it and sell it at a profit. These are all forms of instrumentalisation - I use it as an instrument as opposed to an intrinsic value. If something has its meaning so altered in the course of instrumentalisation, if this glass after a while becomes nothing but, say, a weapon, after a while, I will stop drinking water out of it, and it seems to me that that's what happens, that's what has happened to art.
SC: So what would you consider to be the use value of art? Is it, and, you know, this is, I suppose, a crass terminology, but is it feeding the soul?
AA: Could be, could be.
SC: Is that legitimate?
AA: I think it's totally legitimate. I mean, you know, the problem with philosophers is hat they want to keep digging deeper and deeper. So I mean, there are many very good theories of what it's for - from Plato to Aristotle, Kant, Hegel etc. and they each sort of tried to get closer and closer to what the intrinsic thing is. I mean, what you said about the spiritual value, that's Hegel’s first famous idea - that art has spiritual value because in the work of art, there is spirit, with a capital S and that can actually come to pass through the materiality of an object, be it a sculpture or painting or something like that. That's one of the only places it could be.
I would contend that that's probably sort of instrumentalisation, too, but less so than somebody who, blindly, in the art dealer market, just buys some for $5 million and next week sells it for $10 million. I mean, for that person, art has no intrinsic value whatsoever. However, for somebody who reads a poem because it gives them some sort of spiritual satisfaction or writes a poem because it gives them some kind of spiritual satisfaction, that's still kind of closer, I think.
SC: So you would still say that you think that's an instrumentalising?
AA: I think so.
SC: So what would be a non-instrumentalising use of art? When there is an audience, how do we take away the instrumentalising aspect?
AA: Well, I think that the audience can do what they want with a work of art. I mean, and they're free to spend millions of dollars on it. That's fine, but when I think about why, and you know these are the sorts of questions - there was a famous Austrian Marxist thinker called
Ernst Fischer and he wrote a book, I think it was called something like Purpose of Art. I may be mistaken, but he kind of goes back to the cave paintings. And says look, why would anyone do that? Why did they, in the midst of surviving very difficult life, you know, self self isolated in the caves, worried about stepping out and getting eaten by big, scary lions? Why would they paint these oxes and animals on the walls?
The first answer is that we don't know. The second one is they probably didn't know either. It's not at the realm of knowledge. It's much more to do with our immediate needs in the same way that, you know, I am maybeI don't know, feeling anxious. And then I will whistle a tune.
Now, why do I whistle that particular tune? I have no idea. And that’s why psychoanalysis has been a very, very fertile field for discussing precisely the question of where art comes from. But I think that my own theory is looking at why we produce something in the first place and I used some of the sort of young Marx's famous examples of stone cutting. Why would somebody
cut stone? Well they want to make it into a brick so that they can build a house with bricks. They can't do that with stones. So the act of production is a transformation of something that we get from nature, in organic nature.
And I think art is the same thing. We get something from our nature from our initial encounter with the world. Generally, we might call that ideology or mythology or alienation. These are the ways, as we grow up, our parents primarily tell us, look, don't do this. Don't touch a knife. Don't be scared of God. Whatever else one inherits from their parents, well, they create ideology. Over time, all of that could actually alienate us, fill us with fear and anxiety and all of that.
Art is a way of dis-alienating. So, I think, and I use, I quite like a passage from Marx’s the Grundrisse, this is a kind of a mature Marx, and he talks about ancient Greek artists like Homer. They used Greek mythology as raw material, and I think that that's what artists do. They use the dominant ideologies of the times as raw material to change them into something they find useful. It helps them understand the world.
So you know, for example, today, if people are listening to this when the Corona crisis is still on, write a poem about it. Write your own poem about Coronavirus.
SC: Take the inorganic material of the life you're living and build something, build your house.
AA: Exactly. I suggest writing a love sonnet to somebody called Oh Beloved Corona. Why are you so horrible? Because once you do that, you become less fearful of it and that's clearly to me… then I go back to those caves and I think, well, these cave painters, ordinary people - and that is key - artists are ordinary people, they're not skilled professionals they are, in the first place ordinary people who say, you know what, in time of scarcity, I don't know if there's going to be a big buffalo for me to hunt and feed to my clan tomorrow. But in lieu of that, I'm gonna paint a big buffalo so that people will look at it and think, ‘yep, one day we'll have a buffalo’, or something like that.
SC: What do you think is the greatest threat to art and artists today?
AA: I think the accumulation intensification of this kind of instrumentalistion. I mean, I think there are three fields where this is happening, and this could become quite dystopian. But in a way, it already is. I think one of them is, that I mentioned before, is this kind of very, very blatant commodification of art for shifting capital across borders. And that's, to me, quite frightening. And the fact that so much, especially of our visual arts scene, has been implicated in what is like, frankly, seems to be one epic tax rort. The other one might be the more sort of, if you like, the lower level of commodification, which is about consumption.
Now that to me is not immediately dystopian, that might be someplace, something we have to do. But of course, its intensification, to me, could produce a culture in which aesthetic values, actually I shouldn’t say aesthetic, actually, when I'm talking this formally, but artistic values are being erased, and, I mean, this to me, when I say this, people say ‘ oh you're being conservative’, but it's not, actually, this is one of the key points of the earlier Marxist tradition of theory of art is that for production to have an intrinsic, useful value for the maker of the work, the maker has to take pride in their work.
The third kind of dystopian possibility is when they tried to supplement that by inserting an ideological nicety. Say, ‘well, look, you know, this is a shit movie, but, hey, it's good because it combats racism’. That, to me, is actually quite dystopian as well, because that brings art under the aegis of ideology and that completely defeats the purpose of art
SC: Because you think it should always subvert or reject ideology?
AA: Well, it should alienate ideology. Yes absolutely a good work of art can think about the question of race and so on and so forth. But when it mimics and repeats the niceties that consumers want to hear so that they can tell their friends and Twitter how virtuous they are, that completely defeats the purpose of art. It’s not even marginally bad, it to me, completely erases the possibility of art, and it becomes mere propaganda. And when people hear me say this, ‘Oh your’re conservative, when they use the word political correctness, they're like, ‘Oh, my God, Andrew Bolt’. But let me say, the first critic of political correctness in art that I've seen is from a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, the great Marxist, who said it's not enough for a work of art to be politically correct, in those exact words, it should also be artistically correct. It Must be the best work that the artist can produce. The first task of a radical, in his mind, Marxist communist artist, is to improve the instrument of art-making, make the best fiction. And then innovate the art of storytelling. Not to put in some message about how poor the poor people are, we should feel sorry for them. To him, that's entirely bourgeois and reactionary.
SC: So no woke, box-ticking art?
AA: Well, no, absolutely not. I mean, before the conservatives and neocons and what have you caught on to this problem that was a Marxist problem.
SC: So then how do we tackle those issues when they have become so delightfully mainstream? In some ways, it's a good thing, we're concerned about racism and other things. But when they have been taken over by a box-ticking mainstream. What do we do then?
AA: It’s political. We let art do what it does. I mean, sorry, for the problem of racism, racism is a social problem. It can’t have an artistic solution
SC: Can it have an artistic discussion?
AA: I don’t … look, a work of art may initiate a discussion at the most. But I think that part - something else we've had certainly since the seventies and this great wave of de-politicisation in the West, we have actually stopped expecting our politicians to do their job and improve the world, which is what politics was supposed to be about. I mean, we expect artists to produce more and more ‘woke’ art, as if I, by watching an anti racist movie, I'm going to solve the problem of racism? It wasn't Uncle Tom's cabin that ended slavery in America. It was a war that cost 400,000 lives. People fought and died and killed to end slavery. It wasn't the novel that did it.
SC: So Black Panther isn't going to save everything?
AA: The movie? Absolutely not. This is reactionary, aristocratic, far right apologia for the ruling class and distort the question of race in the minds of naive viewers. Sorry!
SC: Ok, so don’t watch Black Panther [laughs]. Ok last question - you alluded to this earlier, but are there other examples of past communities where the value of art was sort of removed from society, where it was sort of stripped from society. What happened?
AA: Well, I don't think that can ever be fully done. I mean, this dystopian situation? That could be our society. I think ordinary people, in the moment who are needing to satisfy their needs, have resorted to some kind of art, whether it's personal construction of something at home, or arranging the photos on the mantelpiece in particular way. I'm no fan of the Nazis, but one has to say the Nazis did not destroy art. They just destroyed certain kinds of art, and they venerated other ones and distorted other ones. So the very same Nazis who, you know, burned so many books and shut down so many exhibitions were also advocating the music of Wagner and all sorts of other things. So they were in fact, aestheticising politics, making politics itself a big sort of aesthetic spectacle. So I'm not really sure if that has ever happened. And I think this kind of dystopian scenario that I have alluded to, which is already underway, that's not going to destroy art certainly forever. But it's certainly going to impede our immediate ability to draw in the resources of art for making our lives better.
SC: Ali Alizadeh thank you so much. I've really enjoyed this conversation.
AA: Thank you very much.
SC: Let's hear from Callum.
Unfortunately, due to Covid we've had to adapt and do a number of these interviews by phone. So while occasionally the audio isn't as great as always, we promise you the content is
Callum Morton (CM): Hello, my name is Callum Morton. I'm a Professor of Fine Art at Monash Art, DEsign and Architecture. I'm an artist and I'm also the director of Monash Art Projects.
SC: Callum Morton. Thank you for joining us today. In times like these, what would you say to the question that when we can't even manage our basic necessities when some of us are struggling to survive, can we even afford to think about art or lament it's loss when there are more pressing needs to address?
CM: Well, I would argue that this is a time when actually everyone is engaged with art more than ever. I mean, what are people doing at home? You know, when you think about it, I'm sure you've heard this observation from many people, but while we're at home and locked down, we're listening to music, we're watching Netflix, kids are painting and drawing and so on, learning musical instruments, they're turning to the very thing that we do as part of our daily practice.
So, in fact, our lives are more full than ever with art, at the moment, and in fact art is the thing that helps us to get through these crises. It's often said rhetorically, but one of art’s capacity is to connect people, but also to give themselves hope, spiritual counsel and all those things. We are living in a time where that is happening, of course, and it's happening in other ways too. I know of many artists who do great work on Instagram and Instagram is their kind of work, you know, social media, just isn’t about posting and connecting with people. But it is also… there are many artists who use that as a form to make work. And so you're seeing the proliferation of all this very interesting work in that sphere as well and so it shows that artists are always working and art is always necessary.
SC: Do you think art is under threat at the moment?
CM: I do think that we kind of loathe or hate artists. And we hate art, in a way. Art is probably perhaps sitting outside of the kind of social order that we kind of understand that most people go through in their daily lives. There are degrees of resentment, there’s a mythologizing of art practice, there's all sorts of reasons why this happens. Artists do contort themselves, and arts organisations contort themselves to fit the rather instrumentalising impulses of governments. If you say art is in crisis, it is in a kind of public mind, but I'm not sure that it is from artists, I think artists will continue to make work. . Artists are kind of the great entrepreneurs. We talk about entrepreneurialism as this catchphrase in business and so on, but actually artists are, I would say, one of the great entrepreneurs because they're always working another job to support what they do and finding ways to get what they do out into the world.
SC: If we in society continue to devalue art and not appreciate it the way we should, what does society look like in 50 or 100 years? What would the continual degradation of the value of art in society look like?
CM: Art has existed for a long time, I mean, painting images on cave which is such an important part of a galvanisation of homosapien communities. Art will persist regardless. I mean, we may devalue it, but somehow, when artists are kind of pushed further and further outside, maybe they make extraordinary things from if they're right outside, Maybe that is their comfortable place to be. Maybe the place of always arguing and advocating for the value of artists, to politicians, to whoever, to broader institutions and corporations and so on, maybe that's the thing that fundamentally devalues it, that you're arguing always against yourself, almost, and you're always trying to push it into a kind of box that it doesn't quite fit.
SC: What do you think could eventually happen to pieces of public art, the pieces of art that are out in the public sphere - what happens to them if society hasn't seen them as value anymore? Could they become sites of pilgrimage for people who still appreciate art? Do they just fall into ruin? Where do they go?
CM: Art was always public first before it was private, and that privacy is a very recent idea, actually. It's not inside a gallery or a museum, so it's not, it doesn't have the typical conventions one would have, and codes of reception, as one would have when they enter those spaces. So it’s free and it’s open to everyone so it can potentially have enormous impact because there is such a big audience around it all the time. And at its best, it can do interesting things. Like I mentioned at the top. You know, it can symbolically represent things, it can create new narratives about the world, like the best of art it can reflect the world like a mirror, it can galvanize communities, it can just add the kind of general atmosphere of a place
If you look at Clayton campus of Monash, and in fact, Caulfield, the atmosphere of those campuses has been altered quite significantly by public art. IOf course there are extraordinary buildings in these places by extraordinary architects and that has created entirely different atmospheres, but buildings don't really do what public art can do, buildings don't narrativise like public art does. So what would happen if those things weren't there? Yeah, I think that's one of the things about public art - its ruin should be as much a part of its origin, and you know how it kind of slides in the context in which it is part of, and if communities love a piece of work, and they want to keep it, like an Anish Kapoor. And they want to keep the mirror shiny and the communities will do that. That's probably testament to the fact that they value it.
And if it falls into ruin, then maybe that's a testament to the fact that they don.
SC: In what way do you think art can save society?
CM: Well, first thing to say, I suppose, is that you’re talking about art in the singular, and of course, there are so many types of art practices. There are artists that would say I'm not interested in saving society. I'm just trying to do my work and how an audience response to that is up to them. I mean, personally, that's a really powerful impulse, to kind of experience those things. But equally there are other artists that are political artists, who believe that art can change, that it doesn't simply reflect the world as a mirror, that it actually can be instrumental in changing society. And that can involve working with marginal communities, it can be working on activism around climate change, around refugees, that stuff and so on. And there are so many artists who are kind of working, you know, in that way as well and so they are producing images in the service of that and producing work in the service of that.
And I think there are many examples historically of art works that become iconic, to represent a particular shift in the way we think about the world. And the world is not entirely text-based anymore. You would argue that the world is since, particularly with the rise of social media, a kind of highly visual world now and so artists are very important to help construct the imagery for change. And there are so many different other types of practices of participatory art that works with communities and doesn't produce any work at all. And so the plurality of art practice is important to remember.
SC: Callum Morton. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
CM: My pleasure. Nice talking to you.
SC: That was a truly fascinating discussion. Thanks to our guests Ali Alizadeh and Callum Morton. That's it for this episode. You can find more information on everything we spoke about in our show notes. And if you wouldn't mind, please rate and review this show. It really helps other people find the podcast. We'll catch you next time on what happens next.
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