Wind Back Wednesday jumps 15 years to a time when newspapers, and for that matter all media, were being asked if they took arts seriously or whether it was more platitudes. Yes, I know: has anything changed? Do the metrics add up? Have page impressions and engagement time and all the other measures improved, worsened or just confirmed the status of arts in the media? What do you reckon? After all, the supposed pinnacle of the profession, the Walkley Awards, still can't find room in its awards for arts coverage and critical writing. And they're meant to be the people taking the craft and not the stats, the art and not the money, seriously.
Anyway, here's the perspective post-Sydney Olympics. Read 'em and weep.
A RIGHT PAIN IN THE ARTS
It's already happened, the ever so earnest, ever so well-spoken narkiness with a complaint as old as the Olympics. It goes something like this: Australia is an immature country so fixated on sport that we ignore the arts, science, maths (or whatever your pet project is). If we gave only half as much attention to our best pianists/biologists as we do our best swimmers, what couldn't this country achieve? Big bloody yawn. For a start, you think we're alone? Tell me that World Cup footballer Zinedine Zidane is not better known and loved in France than the leading French conductor. Argue that Marat Safin's win at the US Open didn't thrill the Russians more than the finest pas de deux of the Bolshoi Ballet. Secondly, why fight it? The arts engage the brain and the soul, science tests our minds in ways that nothing else does, and sport strikes at our passionate core, our desire to achieve one defining physical moment, even if it has to be vicariously. It so happens that it is possible for all of them to co-exist, but when pushed most of us are more likely to make an emotional connection with sport. A more useful discussion could be: how does the way we treated the Olympics open up ideas for the arts? Here's one. Every media organisation in Australia devoted unprecedented resources to coverage of the Olympics in volume of pages/hours, scale of endeavour and sheer numbers of personnel. But one of the smartest decisions several of the organisations made was to develop a corps of knowledgeable reporters, people who knew their sport, its history and its current practitioners. This was as opposed to just picking up whomever was free the afternoon of a match and sending them to a stadium, or saying, well, reporter X likes to watch Marconi play so she/he can take a camera crew and cover soccer (the way the arts often are covered). As much of the action is overseas, we just don't see many Olympic sports at high levels in Australia, so one key factor in this training was a farsighted decision to send a number of these journalists overseas to cover events. It cost money and, in the short term, many of their readers/listeners/viewers would not have been hugely interested in these competitions halfway around the world. But these journalists gained both experience and knowledge that made them better guides when they had to explain the how, why and significance of the same sports at the Games. Now consider this exchange almost a month ago when a prominent arts administrator was complaining about a critique of an international dancer performing for the first time in Australia. The critic, the administrator objected, had never seen this dancer before, had no idea what she had done in the past or of the context of this performance and his comments were shallow and wrong. Setting aside the sensitivity of this administrator to criticism (and the question of whether the dance performance had been good or not), it was a valid point. As a general rule, arts writers and critics are dependent on the relatively small amount of quality theatre, opera, music, dance and visual arts that travels here for their knowledge and context outside the local product. While a soccer writer, for example, can see the highest quality football from Europe and South America almost daily on TV, a theatre writer only has access to overseas reviews, the occasional video or TV broadcast and those sporadic visits from an overseas company. While cricket commentators used to eulogise the local product even during low periods, the fact that we can now see overseas performances on TV and not just on a tour to Australia every five years means that we, and the commentators, aren't so easily fooled. It doesn't happen in the arts. No media organisation cares enough, takes the arts seriously enough, to challenge itself to be more than a chronicler of what is happening now and here. The arguments are practised: it's too expensive; it's too far; it's only arts anyway. Why should you care? Well, if you want your arts covered as well as your sports are, you should care. If you want to know not just how, but why and who else, you should care. If you want to be challenged to think differently just as you want your opera, your contemporary dance and your rock music to think differently, you should care.