Marshall Sahlins on culture, part 1

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I am no anthropologist, I freely admit. In fact I am often left agog by the radical multiplicity of contemporary anthropology, such that I feel in no way qualified to write intelligently about it. Of course, this is the fate of any intelligent human who wishes to extend her reading into fields she is not intimately familiar with. So I shall write about it none-the-less.

I have come to Marshall Sahlins ridiculously late, insupportably late, really, given the contribution he has made to his field, and, indeed, to the social sciences in general. It is not unreasonable to posit Sahlins as one of the genuine intellectual giants of our time, which makes it a little difficult to presuppose any meaningful assessment of his influence.

There is, for instance, a lively academic debate about the validity of Sahlins’ view on kinship, which are entirely vulnerable to some quite elementary criticisms. Can it not be true that at least some role must be inherent in biology in the formation of kin relationships? Surely biology plays a role. How far can you coherently press the idea of social construction? (In Sahlins’ case: all the way).

And yet this is the position Sahlins takes in his recent book What Kinship Is — And Is Not, and a remarkable exercise it is too. There is something almost Berkleyan in his anti-realism. As Andrew Shryock points out in a review of the book:

The idea that phylogenetic and other material constraints on human reproduction (defined as “biology”) do not, per se, have anything to do with human kinship systems is language designed to send us to battle stations. As Sahlins masterfully deploys it, the idiom is binary, winner take all, and it has the virtue of being utterly predictable in its analytic consequences. Since we are dealing with strong doctrinal positions, I should confess (apt word) that I also believe that human kinship is cultural. But I do not think that culture—of the discursive, internally constituted, symbol laden, and highly structured kind Sahlins has preached for decades—is enough to explain what kinship does, how it works, why it varies, or, least of all, how it develops historically and has evolved, as a discrete range of behavioral and interactive tendencies, over millions of years of primate evolution.

Sahlins is of course no stranger to controversy. Indeed, he is one side of one of the more famous skirmishes of the 90s culture wars — that strange period of academic ferment that, for a time, made scholarly disputes seem relevant to the politics of their time, in a way that hasn’t been the case in subsequent decades (although perhaps we are again returning to that situation with the influence of thinkers like Piketty and Graeber). This was the so-called “Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate”, in which Sahlins squared off against a fellow anthropologist, Ganath Obeyesekere, over the historical facts and meanings around the death of Captain James Cook.

The debate was sparked off by Sahlins, who in a series of books and papers (see for instance 1981’s Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities and 1985’s Islands of History) had developed a very powerful analysis of the events leading up to and including James Cook’s death. For Sahlins, the circumstances of Cook’s death are a kind of cosmic jigsaw puzzle, in which a bizarre series of coincidences conjoin to create the exact conditions for Cook to appear to his Hawaiian hosts as first a god, and second as a fraud worthy of dismemberment.

Sahlins’ thesis is remarkably well worked out, and backed up with copious evidence, including from the primary sources, both Hawaiian and English. It runs like this: Cook turned up in 1778 at the height of Hawaiian makahiki festivities — Hawaiian New Year. Makahiki is a time in which any war or hostilities are typically suspended; priests are temporarily in charge. Cook arrived, of course, in a rather impressive ship, but a particular quirk of the tall ships’ sails made them look remarkably like the Hawaiian symbol for the god, Lono. Lono was meant to turn up on that particular day of the year; Cook’s timing was almost hour-perfect. Just to make the resemblance to the myth even more convincing, Lono was meant to progress around the big island during the makahiki celebrations. Cook’s squadron also took a meandering course around the archipelago that seems to exactly mirror this progress. When Cook landed on the big island for a second time, he was taken ashore and made the central figure in a priestly ceremony, in which he was acknowledged, ceremonially at any rate, as Lono. He appears to have played along convincingly. Cook then sailed away, to all intents and purposes a Hawaiian god.

But fate intervened. Cook broke a mast sailing away from the big island, and was forced to turn back and anchor for a third time. Now, everything was rather different. Makahiki was over. The king was back in charge, and Cook was no longer sticking to the script. In contrast to the celebration and deference of his previous visits, now Cook seemed like an interloper, a fellow who had pushed his luck too far. Perhaps Cook was no longer in on the joke; perhaps he was mocking his hosts? Hawaiians started to swim out to his ships and steal things, culminating in the bold theft of the Resolution‘s long boat. Cook made a fatal error in reaction. Rowing ashore with a detachment of marines, he kidnapped the ruling chief of the islands, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and attempted to take him back to the ship. But one of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s wives raised the alarm, and Cook and his soldiers (still holding the king) were soon surrounded by thousands of islanders on the beach. After a scuffle broke out, muskets were fired and Cook was knocked to the ground and stabbed. The British staged a fighting retreat, leaving Cook dead on the beach. After a number of reprisal raids, the two sides made peace. Cook’s “hindquarters” were returned to the Resolution in tribute.

Space prevents me from exploring the intricacies of Sahlins’ argument in greater detail, or the considerable scholastic debate over his historical accuracy. But perhaps the most important aspect of Sahlins’ account is that it is structural. Sahlins is a symbolic structuralist, very much a follower of Boas and Levi-Strauss, and a contemporary of Geertz. (Adam Kuper gives an fine account of Sahlins’ intellectual development in Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account). Sahlins posits that Cook/Lono episode is a wonderful example of cultural structures imposing upon, perhaps even creating, historical reality. To quote Kuper, “Sahlins’ argument is, in short, that people enacted their interpretations of the past.” What we have here, in other words, at least i Sahlins’ exposition, is a convincing historical example of “mythopraxis”: of cultural determinism in its most pure form.

Some were not convinced. Foremost among them was Ganath Obeyesekere, who assailed Sahlins’ acount in a biting 1992 polemic entitled The Apotheosis Of Captain Cook : European Mythmaking In The Pacific. Obeyesekere took Sahlins at his word, examining what might have been going on Hawaii in 1779, and decided that the real myth-makers here were not the Hawaiians but the British. Was Cook really considered by the islanders to be a god? Of course not, Obeyesekere argued! What had occurred was the clever manipulation of historical custom to frame the European interlopers for reasons of pure realpolitik. Cook arrived at the helm of a powerful squadron, with soldiers and trade goods that could be extremely useful to the elites engaged in Hawaiian power politics. What’s really going on here is the paleo-imperialism from Sahlins, who has fallen for the myth of the noble savage himself. Obeyesekere, a Sri Lankan, knows a thing or two about the British empire. Sahlins is simply repeating Rousseau’s old fantasy: “the Western idea of the redoubtable European who is a god to savage people.” Coming, as it did, at the height of the culture wars then engulfing the US academy in he early 1990s, Obeyesekere’s book aroused considerable interest. Sahlins was so enraged by what he saw as a gross misrepresentation of his position, that he wrote an entire book in response. Disciplinary godfathers such as Clifford Geertz wrote it up. Ian Hacking devoted a chapter of his wonderful The Social Construction of What? to the controversy.

How can we adjudicate the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate? Ultimately, as both Kuper and Hacking concede, the nitty gritty of the history must be debated by the specialists. This is difficult. The primary sources are patchy and plagued by mutual incomprehension: the British had little or no Hawaiian, the Hawaiians little English, and the Hawaiians did not even leave written sources at the time — these were in fact written a generation later by British missionaries. The priesthood that mediated the Lono ceremonies had dissolved in the years after the British arrived. So, in common with so much history, we can’t really be sure. So, while Hacking ultimately sides with Sahlins, Kuper does not.

But fear not! Sahlins has another move to make, which is to displace “history” and “what really happened” from the debate by insisting that they actually add up to culture anyway. Thus, history is radically and indivisibly cultural, and can’t be separated from the cultural preoccupations and symbolic architecture of the historians writing it. And this, in turn, becomes a fascinating demolition job of much of what we might call “historical realism”, or “realist historiography”, or, let’s face it, “international relations.”

And it is to Marshall Sahlins’ view of history as itself fundamentally cultural that we will next turn.





Economics imperialism and its discontents

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 3.26.23 pm

Flyer for George Stigler’s 1984 lecture, ‘Economics – the Imperial Science’. Reproduced in: E. Nik-Khan and R. Van Horn (2012) ‘Inland empire: economics imperialism as an imperative of Chicago neoliberalism.’ Journal of Economic Methodology 19(3): 259-282.

In his widely-read blog, Noah Smith has a post today entitled, rather bluntly, “A new age of econ imperialism is coming.”

While not quite as triumphal as the title makes out, the thrust of his post is plain enough: economics will continue to try and invade and occupy the other social sciences.

Much of the discussion about econ methods these days revolves around the “credibility revolution”, and the broader rise of empirics in general. Despite scattered protests from various quarters of the discipline, there looks to be no stopping the transformation of econ into an empirical, evidence-based field.

But the shift isn’t just healthy – it’s also a golden opportunity for economists to do what social scientists love best, which is to go on a giant raid and conquer the other social sciences! The new empiricism is the amphibious assault ship that will carry hordes of Econquerors (heh) to the vulnerable shores of sociology.


Leaving aside Smith’s colourful and amusing language, there seems little doubt that he is expressing a pretty common trope in the attitudes of many economists towards the other social sciences. This is the view that economics, equipped with superior tools of mathematical and empirical analysis, is simply better than the social sciences it might supplant. Continue reading

Responding to Steve Kates: more zombie shuffles

RMIT economics lecturer and weird Australian defender of the Romney 47%-thesis Steve Kates has a new blog up called Law of Markets, which is unsurprisingly devoted to Kates’ laissez faire economics and far-right political opinions.

You might recall that I wrote a post a few years back entitled “Don’t study economics at RMIT”, a rather tongue-in-cheek critique of Kates’ baroque views about economics, and the apparent concentration of libertarian economists at that institution.

The original post was in reaction to an op-ed by Kates in the Australian Financial Review, in which he argued that Labor government’s 2009 stimulus package was crowding out private business activity, and therefore causing inflation:

The RBA is continuing to raise rates because the government is taking up domestic savings more rapidly than we are able to generate those savings through productive activity.

In this economy at this time it is the government that is the single most important cause of rising rates. The RBA is only doing what it can to ensure the resources available for investment are properly priced.

As I argued in my original post, Kates’ ideas are highly neoclassical. Dr Kates is a well-known proponent arguing for the resurrection of Say’s Law, a largely discredited economic theory that suggests that demand and supply, by definition, are essentially always in equilibrium.

I criticised it at the time by pointing out that:

One of the implications of Say’s Law is the crowding-out theory of investment, namely, that government investment necessarily diverts the investment in productive capacity of an economy away from private firms. This is why Kates argues that “it is the government that is absorbing our national savings and raising the cost of capital.”

I further argued that there didn’t seem to be much evidence that the government was raising the cost of capital. I pointed out that the government was largely borrowing foreign money through sovereign bond issues, and that Australian firms were having no problems getting access to foreign capital via their own bond issues. So we should expect inflation and therefore interest rates to stay low.

So let’s just fast-forward and ask ourselves: has government stimulus in Australia crowded out private savings and raised the cost of capital?

No. Since Kates’ article, and since my response, Australian inflation has stayed remarkably contained, and interest rates have been lowered, not raised.

But how does Kates react to this reality? By denying it.

Here is his argument:

For me, schooled in the classics as I am, it was as obvious as a cloudless day that the stimulus could never achieve its ends. For virtually the rest of the profession it was not. Why the difference? I base my understanding on the classical theory of the cycle; they base their understanding on Keynes. That’s it. Nothing else.

Kates is so reflexively anti-Keynes that he simply can’t admit that a) stimulus can stimulate, and b) austerity can contract. This means he keeps getting things wrong. In 2010, for instance, he thought stimulus must lead to higher inflation and interest rates. Of course, it didn’t. Now, he believes that austerity is not really contractionary. Of course, it is.

It would be pretty funny, really, if it wasn’t so serious. Basic textbook IS-LM has been remarkably predictive in the current crisis. Pre-Keynesian neoclassical theory has been remarkably useless.

I tried to respond to Kates’ blog post, by the way. He binned my comment in moderation. Classy.

New art is popular

This article appeared in Crikey on April 8th.

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot "From here to ear (v. 13) 2010". Mixed media, exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery.

Your correspondent was in Brisbane last weekend, where he was able to spend a couple of afternoons at the Gallery of Modern Art’s latest contemporary art exhibition, 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

The gallery was filled with people from across the demographic spectrum: young hipster couples, tourists, senior Australians, and families. So many families. This is an exhibition that seems to to capture the imagination of kids, as well as those who refuse to grow up.

And who can blame them? This particular vision of art in the 21st century could be criticised for many things (some have even used that most devastating of artworld barbs: “safe”), but one thing you can’t fault is its sense of sheer, innocent joy. GOMA’s take on the art of the past decade is filled with the interactive, the relational and the funny, from Martin Creed’s room filled full of purple balloons (Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple)) to Carsten Holler’s signature slippery dip Test site, and from Rikrit Tiravanija’s key relational work — a Thai meal for four — to Olafur Eliasson’s giant Lego play pen, The cubic structural evolution project.

Martin Creed, "Work No. 956" (2008), exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery / Natasha Harth

Of these, Holler’s Test site is something of a signature work of the show, dominating the gallery hall over two levels as visitors enter the space. Crikey’s correspondent was struck by the long stretching lines of kids queuing to go on the slides.

Two of the most popular works at the show were interactive and tinged with a sophisticated play of emotions: Rivane Neuenschwander’s wall of ribbons with wishes printed on them, I wish your wish, and the indoor finch aviary of Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s From here to ear (v.13). Neuenschwander’s work knowingly winked at the unattainability of so many of our hopes and dreams (Crikey particularly enjoyed “I wish I was a famous cricket player”), while Boursier-Mougenot’s work echoes some of the best installation work of the past two decades, such as Hirst’s 1000 Years, and takes it in a sadder, quieter and more sublime direction.

The exhibition certainly has several potential flaws. As a show substantially built up from the gallery’s own collection, it has an unashamedly Asia-Pacific focus; many of the works chosen to represent important artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Julian Opie and Chris Ofili are far from the best examples of their ouevre. On the other hand, this Asia-Pacific collection is the gallery’s obvious strength, and has taken on a chilling importance with the recent imprisonment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose Painted vases are a part of the show.

A show such as this is something of a risk for a big gallery — or at least once might have thought to have been — especially in comparison to tried and tested blockbuster exhibitions of old masters. Hence, it must be gratifying for the gallery to mount such a well-attended show, despite the devastating floods of summer. Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery complex is now themost popular art gallery in the country, according to recently released figures.

It’s indeed interesting that two of the most exciting recent exhibitions in contemporary art in this country have occurred at Brisbane’s GOMA and in Hobart, where the Museum of Old and New Art, or MOMA, continues to wow Australian contemporary art lovers with a collection whose breadth and vision is unmatched in the country (for a recap, have a look at Andrew Frost’s episode of Artscape for ABC-TV).

According to Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Elwood, speaking on a panel discussion as part of 21st Century’s talks program: “We are a soft target because we are innovative and because we are in Brisbane. We work twice as hard to get half the recognition because we are in Brisbane.”

Pointing to criticisms that the exhibition is something of a “fun park”,  he answers: “It’s just disappointing that … by demonstrating just how much we want to reach out to whole ranges of audiences, that we then become a target. Contemporary art is always going to be the most critiqued and the most misunderstood of all the different art histories.”

As a result, Elwood says the gallery worked particularly hard on the ancillary aspects of the exhibition: its didactic panels, itscomprehensive blog and the handsome catalogue. The catalogue is notable for a typically clever essay on the theory of contemporary art by the inimitable Rex Butler, who canvasses the Duchampian nature of the exhibition in a few stylish paragraphs, before declaring, in a wonderful double movement, that “the new motto for art in the 21st century should be ‘Please don’t touch’.”

He means that, as art “increasingly heads towards a condition of total immersion, of a psychedelic or even neurological model”, it also embodies a contradiction: “It would be something of the hand … in an age of digitality.”

Of course, you don’t need to understand the history of modern art to enjoy 21st Century — and that’s precisely the point. In its large-scale installations for children, in particular, the exhibition demonstrates just how vibrant and enjoyable a commitment to new art can be. This really is living art.


Elif Batuman on the double-entry book-keeping of writing

Elif Batuman. Image: ecu essays.

I must be the very last person in the literary world to discover the complex delight of reading Elif Batuman, but this piece of writing by her really did my head in.

It’s the first chapter of her doctoral dissertation, and it’s quite possibly the most erudite, dextrous and fleet-footed jaunt through the literary theory of the modern novel I’ve read since … well, since Borges:

The time of writing is not problematic for all novelists; only for 1) professional, full-time writers, who 2) maintain a strict allegiance to the raw material of lived experience.  The time of writing is not problematic for Casanova, because he takes up writing only in his retirement: far from scribbling his memoirs in the fear that he would die before completing his work, he actually tried to draw out his writing as long as possible, to fill his remaining years.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, metaliterary gamesters like Sterne or Diderot feel no epistemological responsibility to base their works on real experiences; to the contrary, epistemological self-sufficiency becomes for them a point of pride.  A much-cited passage from Tristram Shandy, for instance, testifies equally to a vivid awareness of the time of writing and a complete indifference towards “research”:

I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got… almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write… so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work… I am just thrown so many volumes back.

Shandy delights precisely in his own ability to keep writing with no new material at all.  Life does not interrupt Shandy’s writing; Shandy interrupts his own writing, congratulating himself on the inexhaustible nature of his new amusement (“I shall lead a fine life out of this self-same life of mine”), and on its capability to stimulate the “manufactures of paper.”  He is not battling an inescapable condition, but inventing a gratuitous obstacle, protracting his “Life” with digressions, deferrals and ruptures.  That Shandy himself  sees these obstacles as voluntary is borne out by his claim that they were “never applicable before to any one biographical writer since the creation of the world,” and would “never hold good to any other, until its final destruction” (198): engaged in willful play, he has no idea of having stumbled onto an inherent novelistic problem.  In similar fashion, Diderot gleefully protracts the story of Jacques’s loves:  “What is there to prevent me from marrying off the master and having him cuckolded?  Or sending Jacques off to the Indies?  And leading his master there?  And bringing them both back to France on the same vessel?  How easy it is to make up stories!”37  “Qu’il est facile de faire des contes”: for Cervantes or Boswell or Proust, it is not so easy.  The artificial hurdle becomes, in their works, an organic barrier.  Play becomes work—or at least a more arduous game, with a stringent new rule: the epistemological obligation to “make up” stories from something, some real material.  “Faire des contes” becomes, in this way, “faire des comptes”: each narrative element—each obstacle, separation and reunion—is a debit which must be balanced, in the credit column, with some experiential knowledge.  To introduce the central metaphor of this dissertation, I propose that this balance can be construed as such an account in the style of double-entry bookkeeping:


Debit Credit
The time of research, lived experience The time of writing
Material for a book Unhappiness, knowledge, experience
Ginés’s crimes Ginés’s terms in the galley
Marcel’s experiences; the dinner invitation Marcel’s solitude; the writing notebook

If in this light we reconsider Boswell’s metaphor of reaping no more than he can sow—living no more than he can record—we see that it is essentially an economical one: if his experiences are too numerous to write about in the remaining time, Boswell will have misspent his life.

A major new talent.

Arts journalism is in a sorry state … which is no surprise

The following post appeared in Crikey on January 21st

Crikey recently carried an article by Lucinda Strahan on the dire state of Australian arts journalism. Strahan reported that “a two-week sample of arts journalism in Melbourne newspapers The Ageand the Herald Sun found public relations activity at 97% in The Ageand 98% in the Herald Sun”.

The shoddy state of the profession is disappointing, but hardly surprising for those who have actually worked as arts journalists. Arts journalists — and let’s throw in their even more neglected brothers and sisters, the critics — are a motley crew, to say the least. But what they generally share are precarious, insecure and lowly paid working conditions.

Indeed, it’s getting harder and harder to be an arts journalist in this country, in the sense that you can be a political journalist or a business reporter. The troubles faced by newspapers are felt most keenly in sections such as the arts pages, which are routinely cut back in hard times (probably justifiably, as they are not stellar performers when it comes to advertising revenue). Australia’s arts and creative industries are growing, but are still minnows compared to the giants of banking and mining. In any case, who wants to read about the back office when you can read about Cate Blanchett? The cultural sector contains stars and celebrities, and this is about whom audiences want to read. The only true creative industries reporter in the country is the Financial Review’s Katrina Strickland, and the Australian media is scarcely rushing to provide her with competitors.

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful.

Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money. Nor should we be surprised that arts writers have jobs outside journalism, often in the same industry they cover. As Strahan noted,  “subjective and even crusading advocacy … is considered proper practice in coverage of the arts, something that flies in the face of the cool impartiality of the fourth estate”.

If arts journalism is tough, criticism is even tougher. As a series of talks demonstrated last year at the Wheeler Centre, knowledgeable and passionate criticism again has become an essentially amateur phenomenon. It  flourishes in the blogosphere, for free.

Part of the problem is that no one really likes a good critic in the first place. Artists who pour their heart and soul into a performance get understandably miffed when a critic pronounces their latest masterpiece a dud. This can make the work of a critic lonely and unrewarding. And Australia’s cultural institutions are largely run by arts administrators and former artists, most of whom get quite uncomfortable whenever a critic gets, well, critical.

Nor is there much funding to be an arts writer. While the federal and state governments, through their funded cultural institutions, directly employ thousands of dancers, actors, singers, musicians, administrators and crew — even publicists — there is vanishingly little support for critics or journalists to write about culture and the arts.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect the highest standards of investigative reporting and critical appraisal from our arts writers. Realistically, though, we’re not going to get it as often as we’d like.

All of which sounds like a bit of whinge. But it’s not. Despite the adversity, quality writing about arts and culture continues to thrive in Australia: in blogs, in the small press, and in online publications … such as this one.

The comments at the bottom of my original Crikey piece are well worth a read too.


Ben Davis on the rise of art news and the crisis of art criticism

Clement Greenberg. Image: Chicago Art Criticism

At, Ben Davis has a thoughtful and I think largely accurate description of the rise and rise of news media about the visual arts industry over the past decade – at the expense of art criticism:

The expanding market for “art news” coincided with the ballooning of the more commercial side of the art world in the ’00s: the explosion of art fairs (Art Basel Miami Beach debuted in 2002, Frieze in 2003), the rise of the “ego-seum,” the hunger of corporations to tap high-culture cachet (Takashi Murakami’s team-up with Louis Vuitton was in 2003), the triumph of art-as-investment, and the “emerging artist” wave that saw galleries harvest kids fresh out of school (Alex McQuilken’s “Fucked,” a video of the 19-year-old artist having sex made while she was at NYU, famously sold out at the 2002 Armory Show). But everything about “theory-crit” requires the reader to buy the idea that the academy is the most important tastemaking center. Thus, the commercial explosion created a space where all the stuff about the market and the social scene, institutional moves and their political ramifications, actually feels more relevant than the most “serious” criticism.

And there’s the rub, of course. Art news is more relevant than art criticism in the year 2011, because almost no-one reads or takes art criticism seriously. What mattes in the art world nowadays is the money, in the way that what matters in publishing and in Hollywood are best-sellers and blockbusters. Critics will remain interesting, insightful and even incisive, but the days when a powerful critic such as Clement Greenberg could effectively ignite and then police an entire art movement are, at least for the foreseeable future, probably over.

The heritage wars heat up

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler in 2007. Source: Victoria Anderson

Well well, who would have thought an essay about cultural policy would generate so much heat?

A book chapter for the Centre for Policy Development by Marcus Westbury and myself has started to gain some serious attention in the high arts in Australia. I’ve already covered Richard Mills’ reaction to it here. But today in The Australian, there is a long article from Rosemary Sorensen about the debate, which includes the first formal response from Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele:

Australia Council chief executive Kathy Keele agrees that the dichotomy is unhelpful. “It’s not either-or,” she says, “it’s about doing it all.”

While she welcomes the debate, Keele does say that Westbury, who has created festival events under the Australia Council’s banner and also helped write one of its arts guides, has not done his homework well enough.

“He’s talking about an Australia Council that does not exist,” she says. “This whole conversation about heritage is not relevant: it’s really that we need more funding for the arts across the board.”

Keele laughs off the idea that an orchestra playing Bach or a theatre company performing Shakespeare is somehow out of date because the composer or the playwright is no longer with us.

“The people going to see it are not dead,” she says.

“Those performances are still about today.”

Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that this is in turn a misrepresentation of Marcus’ arguments, and I humbly suggest Keele should have a careful read of our essay. In it, we don’t actually say that Shakespeare or Bach are “out of date” because they are “no longer with us”, but we do point out the Australia Council’s overwhelming funding bias towards a small number of cultural organisations and a narrow range of cultural expressions.

As we point out in the essay, while there is substantial funding for organisations to perform works by Bach or Shakespeare (including funding for an entire company devoted to Shakespeare), only 2% of Australia Council music funding goes to contemporary music, only 5% of the arts funding in this country is devoted to living artists making new work, and the Australia Council gives five times as much funding to one opera company as it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

The debate is set to continue, so stay tuned.

Richard Mills tries to defend the heritage arts; fails

I couldn’t let this one go … distinguished composer and WA Opera Director Richard Mills had a wonderful defence of the heritage arts in The Age last week. Sounding like a critic trampled in the riot on the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mills thunders on about the new media arts in a tone that would be shocking if it were not so risible:

Some recently emerging mumbles in the national conversation appear to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding to various enterprises seen as exemplifying greater diversity of engagement, relevance (to whom or what is never stated) and, of course, innovation. I suppose I should begin by nailing my colours to the mast through making this confession.
I was a member of the Australia Council for the Arts in the 1990s when the New Media Fund was set up. I opposed it vehemently – and in vain – as it seemed to me just another example of meretricious, self-serving claptrap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak-minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds might happen to drop from the perch of government.
To educate and enlighten my misguided ways, I was taken to an office in Melbourne by an earnest, believing colleague. This office was the hub of revolutionary “new media” enterprise. I was ushered in and shown, in an atmosphere of hushed reverence, some examples of “new media” which, so far as I could tell, consisted of pictures of yellow flowers changing and moving about a bit on a TV screen.
“Humbug,” I exclaimed, “this belongs to the visual arts” – only to be howled down by the entire clutch of councillors of the day (except, if my memory serves me correctly, Christopher Pearson).
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.

Apart from the important new revelation that we can sheet home some responsibility for the abolition of the New Media Arts Board to Jonathan Mills, the article is an amazingly short-sighted defence. I’ve responded over at Inside Story:

Like the best satire, Mills’s essay skates close to the ridiculous. (When was the last time someone cried “humbug” in a policy discussion?) As spoof, Mills’s essay is a near-masterpiece. As sincere argument, it’s a train wreck. Mills gloats over the destruction of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board in 2004, as though it were some victory in the culture wars. He advances factually wrong statements – for instance, that grassroots music depends on musicians trained by symphony orchestras for the supply of expert teachers. He makes frankly embarrassing comments about jewellery and computer programming. More generally, in his rage against the dying of a light, he reveals himself to be as reactionary and ill-informed about other artforms as he is proficient in his own.

Mills’s essay is destined to become an important source document for those studying the current shape of Australian cultural policy. Sadly, one of Australia’s finest living composers has shown himself to possess a narrow critical mind. But Mills has also done us a favour, because he has been honest enough to reveal a widespread attitude among influential decision-makers in the Australian arts: the attitude that some forms of art, particularly their own, are more meritorious than others.

David Mitchell

David Mitchell. Source: New York Times.

David Mitchell is amongst the handful of living novelists at the very top of their game right now. Many will know Cloud Atlas, a dizzyingly brilliant meditation on the darkness of the human soul; Mitchell’s latest novel, his fifth, is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and returns to his peerless writing about Japan that we last saw in Number 9 Dream (my favourite).

Now the New York Times has a handsome feature profile on Mitchell:

“About 30 pages into the manuscript of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ” David Ebershoff, Mitchell’s American editor, told me in his office in Manhattan this spring, “I came to a page that ends in the middle of a sentence. At the time I had an unreliableassistant, and I thought: She can’t even make a decent photocopy — she messed up the pagination! I was out of town for the weekend, and I really wanted to read it, and I figured I’d work out what was missing. And so I kept going and,” Ebershoff said, laughing, “I saw what he was doing.”

What Mitchell was doing was writing a novel not quite like any that had come before it, and one that defeats tidy summary. “Cloud Atlas” consists of five false starts, a sequence of unfinished novellas, each set in a different place and time, each with a distinct form: the South Pacific in the 1850s, through the travel journal of a notary out of Melville; Belgium in 1931, in a composer’s letters to a lover as if by Christopher Isherwood; California in the 1970s, via a detective story told in the styleless style of an airport thriller; England of the present day, in the voice of a crass publisher who wouldn’t be a stranger to a Martin Amisnovel; and, in a nameless state in a dystopic future, a transcript of testimony given by a most unusual slave. As the five narratives unfold chronologically — each a story of betrayal and theft, of manipulation and deceit, of human opportunism in its most base and basic forms — each breaks off at some brittle, cliffhanging, character-revealing moment, whereupon the next novella begins, until it, too, breaks off, and then the next. . . .

This is an excellent first introduction to Mitchell’s work. Read it, but better still, read him.