Uncreative politics

At this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which are, as the assembled audience was reminded of, the most financially lucrative of any literary awards in Australia, there was a palpable sense of putatively Leftist bonhomie. Under the watchful eye of newish Labor Premier Daniel Andrews each recipient of a prize made reference to the failing Coalition government in Canberra. It was, after all, held only a few days after Prince Philip’s knighthood when the first ructions of a leadership spill against Tony Abbott were making headlines. What was remarkable was the ad hominem, shrill tone of the attacks. Only Jill Jones, winner in the Poetry category for her remarkable volume The Beautiful Anxiety was adept at raising an issue – climate change. There was though a self awareness at the awards, and a humorous one at that, with Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams jovially surmising towards the close of the ceremony that it was a rather ‘Bolshie’ affair.

I do not want to challenge what constitutes leftwing activity in institutional Victoria, nor do I want to focus on any of the recipients. I did most definitely enjoy myself. I was though struck by Martin Foley’s speech, which asserted that he was not the Minister for Arts but the Minister for Creative Industries. What was sinister here was how art, in this case literary expression, was being yoked to the market without a thorough thinking through of what that might involve. How else do we know what the value of the arts are if there is no money to determine it? On several occasions Foley made it clear that we need to make the arts economically viable. We were being told in no uncertain terms there would be no sit down money for artists. Artists, of course, do not need to be starving to make good work. We see this most obviously in the reverse – the starving do not a priori make better art than those who are sated. But what does the Creative Industries mean for those of us who exist in the gift economy? And, for those of us who may want to work uncreatively?

Poetry exists, for the most part, outside the market. This is not to say that there is not market logic in a lot of poetry, but that poetry does not lead to material riches. There are no Jeff Koons in the poetry world. Superstar poets are tenured academics, which is an upper middle class socioeconomic position at best dependent of course on dependents. Some poets who are nationally well regarded and have an international publishing record and good qualifications still struggle to make ends meet without dependents. For the most part this is because poetry is a gift economy – very little money changes hands. One sees this in the administrative burden of poetry. The curators, reviewers, bureaucrats of the poetry world are poets and they all work hard to keep poetry going without being paid. If you go to a poetry reading as an audience member there is very little chance you will pay. This is not Australian pub rock in its early days when bands made hand over fist by getting a cut of the entry takings. Poets are doing it for love not money. It is then about status, about honour rather than material. We could reflect on why this is the case, but we could also ask people like Minister Foley how he intends to make poetry pay and what that involves for poets. Are poets expected to come up with creative lines of copy to sell new products? Are poets expected to charge their large and wealthy audiences admission prices to listen to them live as if a reading were an elite sports-match? How are people expected to make a financial living from their art when the market itself does not value the activity? These questions are even more acute when we consider both the proposed deregulation and withdrawal of funding for many departments in universities. Universities are only the most obvious place to look for poetry, but people who write poetry and are based at universities are teachers and critics, academics foremost, rather than poets. We could highlight too the reluctance to provide grants for poetry ‘start-ups’. Poets it seems must work heteronomously if they want to survive. The resistance to the market is futile we are told. Join now! It’s free!

The term Creative Industries is also indebted to a particular aesthetic idea of what counts as art. If Foley wants to be minister for that department, perhaps we need a counter position in a Ministry of Uncreative Industries. What I think we need to encourage is the re-contextualisation of poetry, including its marginalised kinds, so that it exists in situations that might at first seem to be indifferent, perhaps even hostile or inimical, to it. We need residencies for poets in various autonomous economies then rather than as apparatchiks within Creative Industries; not as a form of corporate social responsibility but its antithesis. For that we could turn to the examples offered by many small scale endeavours from bike co-operatives in West Philadelphia where each worker is also an ‘owner’ to factories in Argentina that are run on communalist lines after the collapse of the economy there due to big business to the global activist network Blockadia that has encouraged the occupation of land slated for fracking. Perhaps then we will actually be approaching a ‘Bolshevik’ state in the best possible way.

Robert Wood

Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. He has previously been an Overland intern.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Hiya RD,

    Can I ask what your experience is of the creative industries as an academic field? You seem to be offering a fairly confused sketch here – which is understandable, given how new and underdeveloped its ideas area.

    However, the fear that the creative industries idea is about crucifying ‘art’ upon the cross of market forces is itself shrill.

    I’m the last person to suggest politicians think about anything thoroughly – but the creative industries as an academic project are just that: thorough thinking. And not just about the arts as classically understood, but also a bunch of other realms (exactly what and how many is open to dispute, but an early definition involved the exploitation of copyright – not something I agree with, but illustratively broad).

    There is, indeed, a strong market fetish among many creative industries theorists, but this tendence isn’t inherent within the field. Indeed, its axiomatic realisation (that the most vibrant and important segments of society are changing from raw materials and physical services to ideas) can be mostly aligned with progressive movements everywhere.

    Personally, I find the desire to ‘make creativity pay’ empowering. If nothing else, it acknowledges the unavoidable reality that we all need to eat somehow – and no solutions are without sin. Whether artists receive government handouts, work for an academy, live off their inherited wealth and advantage or (gasp) sell their product in some way to the market, ultimately those pristine, Platonic forms must come into contact with the rest of reality.

    Why should it be any different? And how could it possibly be wise for artists to ignore all of their options – to quarantine experimentation off, as something that only happens on the page?

    Is a poet who works 40 hours a week at Subway somehow more true than one who sells tickets? Which is really more compromised? It obviously depends on the individual – that’s their choice to make, and the creative industries field is only trying to suggest answers, not pick them for anyone.

    The ideal of art as something not to be sullied by commerce is also profoundly 19th century and tedious. It sanctifies those whose advantage means they can afford an expensive hobby on the side, and casts stones at anyone daring to hope this could be their job some day.

    The perfect example, of course, is the managerial class you mention. Who’s to say they don’t deserve or need financial returns on their work? If volunteer internships are the new distinction of class (which, yes they are), then a sneering disdain for art that pays the bills merely keeps away those with bills to pay.

    More than anything, though, you’ve simply misunderstood what the field is about. A desire to connect with market forces is just one of the ideas at play – and generally a far less sinister one than it’s framed in your piece.

    I’d personally define creative industries as those involving a qualitatively significant element of uncertainty – at any organisational or personal level. In this sense, bike co-operatives and socialist factories are a prime example of the field.

    That experimentation and risk is exactly what the creative industries field can be about… but only if artists don’t leave it to the bean counters, abandoning yet another field of human knowledge to the self-appointed conservative experts.

    Anyway, I’m not sure who you’re arguing against, but it certainly isn’t the creative industries field.


  2. Why would universities be the most obvious place to look for poetry? Whilst they may be the place to look for the study of poetry, they are not necessarily the place to look for poetry. The study of poetry and poetry are not necessarily the same thing. Poetry may not even reside in those who claim to be poets – or even in the Wheeler Centre, or even in the Premiers Literary awards. Poetry may have disappeared, vanished, been banished from the entire Australian Literary landscape. It may have been replaced by the fancys of Arts Administrators – that is the under narratives of PC drivel about animals and the hatred of humankind. Poetry may have been consumed by the ideology rampant in universities. Poetry may be nowhere – gone, disappeared down a hole somewhere and will not be enticed back with money and wealth. Not with government grants nor prizes. It could be that poetry no longer lives here and that we have not heard it for some time.

  3. There is always Million’s Poet, a sort of Middle East Poetry Idol, with huge prizes for the top five poets in Arabic Poetry, and a television viewing audience well in excess of 20 million, and a hoot to watch. Should Australia go down that road? It’d be creative, it’d be an industry, it’d be poetry, but would it be poetry? Who’s to judge?

  4. it’s always tricky when speaking on behalf of an activity in which one is deeply involved, but at the risk of being written off as ‘self-interested’ I think it is possible to say a few general things about the field as a whole – R D Wood’s account strikes me as being entirely accurate about the individual poet/artist who has no institutional ties or support, or who is not employed by any of the many art industries in our community – if we look to the media to tell us what’s going on in the field of the arts, nearly all of what we read & hear comes from activities produced by companies, those organisations which employ staff and which include major orchestras, film companies, theatre companies, ballet & dance companies, regional & national art galleries, publishing houses and so on. Yet even in even these locations, we hear of volunteers, poorly paid workers, and the operation of a gift economy at some levels of their operations. When it comes to individual poets (whose publishers get funded while the poet does not), then our society has no mechanism at all by which a person can be a poet and earn a decent living. There are a few who have been known as ‘career poets’, but these earn their living by teaching, giving readings, editing or being publishers’ readers of the work of others, writing reviews, visiting schools and so on – activities which take up a lot of time away from the specific practice of one’s craft. As a society, we have not caught up here with the fourteenth century’s Chaucer’s “the lyfe so short, the craft so longe to lerne” and the consequences this has for the time anyone has available in order to reach the highest standard. The craft of poetry takes time to learn and time to continue to learn. That learning never stops, and as any poet or potter or weaver or glass-blower will tell us, they never get their money back on the investment of that time. In financial terms, poetry, as T S Eliot once tersely put it, is a mug’s game. In this country, it is standard practice to see the term ‘literature’ being defined as ‘fiction’, and to witness discussion after discussion of literature only mention novelists and their supporting genres (memoir, autobiography, biography, history and so on). If poets are to receive almost any mention in the media, there is nearly always another angle, like a recent book of poems reviewed in The Age Spectrum marked out because of the poet’s interest in animal rights & welfare. There is, in fact, a lot of poetry published in Australia, and nearly all of it is published under the radar, or, as we used to say, underground. In the face of poetry’s general public invisibility, and the media’s general understanding of literature as fiction, it’s little wonder that politicians and bureaucrats have little grasp of what the term ‘artist’ or ‘poet’ might mean outside of membership of a company or business, or the support of major institutions. Statements that propose that poets should somehow ‘get out there’ and make a proper living may be well meant, but they are actually naïve in the face of the sheer impossibility in our culture of a poet making a living by their craft alone. Mr Wood’s careful mention of the ‘gift economy’ is apt and accurate to the case. Most books of poetry do not make royalties or any other form of payment for the poet. Poetry book contracts often contain a clause which expressly states that no royalties or financial payment will be given, but that the poet will receive a number of free copies, which they can distribute as they wish in lieu of sales.

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