Those who do not have imagination cannot imagine possibility.

Recently, the Australian Council for the Arts commissioned a number of pieces from four established performing arts organizations looking at the idea of artistic vibrancy.  Three of the four pieces – On Orchestra, on Theatre, and on Dance, dissected their own practices as mediums and institutions, beginning what is hopefully a longer term conversation and evolution.

The fourth, which you can read in full here, was by Richard Mills, the Artistic Director of West Australian Opera, and it attempts to explore the wider issue of heritage rather than focusing on his company’s practice.

On my first read through of this when an excerpt of it was published in The Age, I was snared by this particular line.

No-one buys a ticket to the theatre or concert hall to witness something ordinary, something that can be done by any reasonably intelligent person with a modicum of application and training – like making a computer game or designing an ear-ring.

As someone who has engaged in both the processes of making a computer game and supporting the broader culture around it, I obviously took issue with the notion that the creative energy and expended labour of craft could be so obviously dismissed, along with the idea that our audience experiences ‘something ordinary’ through their engagement with games. These were expected responses to such a statement though – it’s easy to become inflamed when somebody appears to attack the creative form you’ve dedicated your time and energy to.

As I read on though, as we are led through the role of art and the importance of heritage and its relationship to the new, I was struck by more than the indignation of a slight against a medium and slowly realised that, at its core, the piece was a coil of fundamental contradictions.

On the role of the arts, it has this to say:

The great works of art extend a hand of friendship through time; they show us the fullness of our humanity in its glorious richness and complexity, they show us the eternal questions confronting the state of humanity, console us with their wisdom and confront us sometimes with the tragic dimensions of our nature – with an enduring strength that is rediscovered by each succeeding generation in turn.

[education provides] access to the richness of a heritage that can engage them, transform their lives, extend and complete them as human beings.

[The major performing arts companies are] contributing to the national narrative, enriching our citizens and improving the quality of our civic life.

The major companies deal in the currency of delight, of joy (in the sense that Schiller uses the word), of sharing – what is marvelous, what engenders wonder, and what is enduringly enriching

And on the nature of the new, it puts forward the argument that very little in art is new, that what initially appears new is “nourished by tradition and heritage as a basis for departure into previously uncharted waters”

Opera – that new form invented by Monteverdi in 1607 – was a brilliant synthesis of pre-existing elements; Greek Drama as seen through the perspective of the Florentine Camerata, the extravagant court pageants of the Medici, the “prima and seconda prattica” of the early baroque style and the presence of the sustaining financial milieu of the Italian city-state of the 1600s – especially the Venetian one. Opera, from the beginning, was never a money-making venture.

The musical language of Messiaen was forged from clear antecedents in the forms of plainchant, the French operatic traditions of the nineteenth century, Debussy, the modes and rhythms of Indian music and – with the unpredictability of genius – birdsong. As Stravinsky said: “Nothing is likely about masterpieces, least of all whether there will be any”.

The same transforming power applied to an antecedent can be seen in Beethoven’s appropriation of the topoi of the eighteenth century style, Picasso‟s appropriations of primitive artifacts, or James Joyce’s mimesis of time in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake and its relation to the thought of the Neopolitan thinker Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Any work of art whose perceived “newness” makes or has made it remarkable and of lasting vitality (those words again) has formative elements which are pre-existing and which become the basis for invention through creative transformation by an individual genius. In other words – heritage.

The fundamental failure of this piece, its failure of imagination if you will, is that it seems unable to take the leap to the idea that emerging art-forms are capable of the same emotional resonance, the same exploration of what it means to be human as established forms.  It also misses the point that these new forms are built from the same synthesis of the old and the new as any other, but not before becoming actively hostile.

[The New Media Fund] saeemed to me just another example of meretricious, self-serving clap-trap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds that might happen to drop from the perch of government.

Thankfully, this nonsense and other things like it were recognised in their true colours some years later when my esteemed colleague, Jonathan Mills (no relation) encouraged the abolition of the New Media fund with enthusiasm – and final success.

To almost gleefully celebrate the abolition of funding for emerging artists is, in my mind, a shockingly small-minded inability to even entertain the possibility that the synthesis that gave birth to one art-form could happen in another.

As a writer, as a game developer, as a creative, I know how much effort, how much labour, how much raw energy goes into my own work, even if none of it could lay claim to being art.  My assumption is that the same amount, and I imagine considerably more, goes into other art-forms, whether or not they lay claim to being art.  To denigrate them, to actively describe them as being ‘something ordinary’ seems a puzzling stance to take.  Not only that, but it proudly strides along the opposite road from what art is supposed to do – to showcase and celebrate the better parts of our nature.

Towards the end is this rather telling line:

Those who do not have imagination cannot imagine possibility.

Imagination is not the sole right of the established performing arts companies.  We all have it.  We all celebrate it.  We can all imagine possibilities.

But maybe some of us can imagine more than others.

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