That's entertainment…!

Sarah Miller

There is no doubt that the arts can seem unimportant—even trivial—in the wake of traumatic events, including September 11, the refugee crisis, the war in Afghanistan and ongoing but pressing Indigenous issues in our own country. In truth the arts have suffered for years from the perception that they are unimportant. Our news and media outlets fill their entertainment and lifestyle sections with little but celebrity gossip and box-office grosses. And if we indulge in entertainment when the hard times take hold, it is because it offers the security of escape.

However, that ill-defined thing called Art is not so easily dismissed or perhaps as easily welcomed into our lives. Yet, confronted with the equally urgent, if less overtly spectacular (because hidden) abuses against humanity taking place in this country, I found myself extremely grateful for my experiences at the 2002 Adelaide Festival of Arts. While the outcomes were compromised and many of the processes flawed, it was nonetheless, an essential experiment establishing a radical interface between art and community in a previously inconceivable context. By including many previously disenfranchised artists and attempting to speak meaningfully about issues of fundamental relevance to all Australians, the festival achieved something unique, even if many chose not to take up the invitation.

Many complaints around the festival focussed, somewhat bizarrely it seems to me, on the apparent role reversal between the Adelaide Festival and the Adelaide Fringe. In the end, I’m not sure that distinction mattered (except maybe to the accountants). By taking advantage of both programs, it was possible to have your cake and eat it. I ran myself ragged but still missed far too much. That Katrina Sedgewick, Artistic Director of the Fringe, did an outstanding job is indisputable. That the Fringe provided not only entertainment but also productions and events of substance is also true. What interests me, however, is the fact that several big-ticket international acts were able to take place in the Fringe, without apparently receiving the subsidy typically guaranteed through a major festival. Maybe they didn’t need it?

As Karen Meehan, writing in Dramatic Online (March 13, 2002) noted, “by far the most important debate around the Sellars’ ‘myth’ or ‘legacy’ (depending on whether you agree with him or not), is actually about the structure of a major festival—a debate the Australian media [and many in the Australian arts community] seems to have bypassed” , except to be offended by the very notion of community or the positioning of Aboriginal peoples centre stage (sic). Meehan, is the only Australian journalist I know who has undertaken in-depth interviews with the much maligned Associate Directors, in particular the Indigenous Artistic Directors, Karl and Waiata Telfer (March 20, 2002). Did no-one feel that the views of Indigenous artists, participants in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital program or audiences at the Parkes Community Centre, were worth canvassing? Does anyone remember the Saatchi & Saatchi Report?

Equally bizarre is the suggestion that incoming Artistic Director Stephen Page will have nothing left to do as the Indigenous stuff has already been done. A similar notion was touted following Brenda L Croft’s groundbreaking Biennial exhibition, Beyond the Pale for the 2000 festival. The inclusion of Indigenous people is not a one-off event but a way of life. And as for spending relatively big money (in arts terms) on community based (low) art events instead of real (high) art, the screams of outrage could be heard across the country.

If those who say they love the arts really believe that art can define our times and probe our societies in ways that speak across continents and even millennia, then why were so many of them ungenerous and unwilling to take the risk? Surely it is the much touted ‘universality’ of art that has been so celebrated by those who prefer their art classical and their heritage European. Of course, it’s precisely this long reach of art—so incompatible with the immediate appetite of the news machine or the entertainment industry—that may have made the festival’s aspirations so unpalatable to so many.

When I experience a unique and profoundly moving opening ceremony like Kaurna Plati Meyunna, see a film like Ivan Sens’ extraordinarily beautiful and devastating, Beneath Clouds; an oratorio like John Adams/Peter Sellars El Ninño, or visit the Parkes Community Centre where Urban Theatre Projects worked with a bunch of kids from diverse and often disadvantaged backgrounds, I am privileged to enter into other worlds of experience created by artists, offering new ways of seeing and understanding. Their content and their approach to the particular and peculiar effects of time and place, of structure, form and media, suggest, against the odds, real change might be possible.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 4

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002