By Fregmonto Stokes.
Almost a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall it is now undeniable that the Soviet Union won the Cold War. On a map of the world that great empire no longer exists, but in the map of our minds, its ideology has etched itself permanently in red ink. Not just any ideology either, not Kruschev’s reformism nor Gorbachev’s perestroika, but the core Soviet ideology, the ideology of that country at its most potent and terrifying: Stalinism.
British writer Mark Fischer calls this ideology ‘Market Stalinism’. With the erosion of the welfare state and the casualisation of work brought on by economic ‘rationalism’, we were promised a reduction in bureaucracy, in the interference of the state in our lives. Instead, according to Fischer, we have seen an increase in bureaucracy, in online form filling and grant writing and hoop jumping. This is Stalinism in mutation, spliced with capitalism and the logic of the market. It is as if Milton Friedman, patron saint of neoliberalism, copulated with Comrade Joe, and we became the spawn of their union. For the purposes of this essay we will call this phenomenon Auto-Stalinism: the modern worker does not need to be managed by a centralised state, but instead manages herself.
Nowhere can this ideology be seen more clearly than in the field of creative endeavour, where every artist is now expected to be a self-exploiting, productivity maximising Auto-Stalinist with a distinctive personal brand. In the modern art school, the art student is the consumer of a product, education. But she is also a product herself, produced by the university, who then goes on to produce and sell both her own artworks and her personality. What better example do we need of the success of Soviet-Factory-Think than the modern description of the arena of waged creativity as the Arts ‘Industry’? Creativity, the most ephemeral, chaotic and spontaneous of passions, has now been imprisoned in a factory of the mind, where Artist-Worker-Bots fight each other off to please the cultural gate keepers and snatch whatever skerricks of cash remain.
‘I will work harder’: The Self-Policing Artist
Do you remember Boxer, the loyal, dim-witted draughthorse from Animal Farm? He was based in part on the Soviet miner Stakhanov, who was celebrated by Stalin as the exemplary worker, always mining more than his quota of ore, shaming his fellow workers into pushing themselves further. But Boxer’s motto, ‘I will work harder’, is actually a direct quote from the immigrant worker Jurgis Rudkus in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a book detailing the exploitation of labour in early 20th century America. While Boxer works harder in the service of the state, as is expected in a Communist society, Rudkus works harder to serve his own interests, as is expected in a Capitalist society. Either way, they both successfully exploit themselves, and end up with no tangible reward for their efforts, besides a one way trip to the dog food factory.
What artist reading this hasn’t looked on in jealousy at a colleague’s Facebook status, announcing their latest grant or review, and sworn to herself, ‘I will work harder, I will beat them, I will rise to the top’? Each of us is now expected to grow a little Stalin in our head, exhorting us to become more productive, to impress the funding bodies, to outshine our fellow workers, to serve the industry by serving ourselves.
My first truly depressing realisation of this state of affairs was at the 2010 ‘Fresh Ink’ Writer’s workshop at Bundanon in Southern New South Wales. The setting was idyllic, an artist’s retreat overlooking a broad river valley veiled in lush misty woodlands. Every person I met there was a delight, a committed artist and a caring human being. But something wasn’t quite right. I had just come from an anti-coal protest in the Hunter Valley, where 150 people had blockaded the railway lines which transport our little black blocks of carbon out to the world. I wanted to discuss this burning issue, but it seemed inappropriate whenever I did. Instead, the conversation revolved around entrance points to the Arts Industry, to career strategies and pathways. When we weren’t discussing our careers, we were watching ‘cake farts’ on Youtube. The whole show was being run from backstage, by those little Stalins in our heads. At one point during a workshop, an older playwright, still clearly under the illusion that big ideas meant something, asked us all what passion drove us to write. There was an awkward pause, before one friendly young man volunteered the following:
‘I suppose my passion would be to expand my CV and upsize my portfolio of writing’
There in a well-branded Nutella nutshell is the problem with ‘emerging’ artists today. As we break out of our cicada shells into the buzzing night of the Arts Industry, we are each expected to listen to the little moustachioed man in our head, telling us to work harder, to build our CV, our quota of recognised works. Most of all, we are encouraged to see our fellow artists as competitors, and put them all to shame.
What’s your ‘Personal Brand’? : How the Market Colonised Language
Since then it has only got worse. When I first heard the term ‘personal brand’ in 2008, I found it so hilarious I was inspired to write a satirical song on the topic. Now there are master-classes in personal branding at universities, and you are perceived as slightly unhinged if you even question the necessity of marketing yourself or enhancing your online ‘digital tattoo’ (If you haven’t heard of that last term I’m sure you will soon).
‘It might make you uncomfortable, but you have to be pragmatic, if you want to sell an idea you have to sell yourself,’ the Modern Gurus say. I’ve even been described as having an ‘anarchist personal brand’. Describing an anarchist (or socialist) as having a personal brand is oxymoronic, it makes as much sense as saying ‘Bill Gates uses communist propaganda very effectively to promote Microsoft.’ Capitalists use branding, Anti-capitalists don’t.
That’s not to say that an Anarchist/Leftist/Progressive artist should see all attempts at spreading a message as inevitably corrupting. Far from it, communication is essential and it’s what we’re good at. It’s just the Left historically has used other terminology, such as agitprop (agitational propaganda) and the like. Obviously such terminology carries its own baggage now, and we should be striving to create new phrases to describe what we do. But this doesn’t mean just adopting the jargon of the business world. And this isn’t just a problem for self-described Socialist artists, of whom I know very few. All Artists make art and the meaning should be inherent therein, personal branding shouldn’t come into it. This might seem like semantic quibbling. But artists, writers in particular, need to be aware of the words they use. Anarchism and branding are two incommensurable ideologies and to attempt to smash the two together is a criminal act against the meaningful use of language.
Let’s just try and approach this topic with a bare minimum of clarity. A corporation has a brand. That brand is a combination of surface level images and symbols to create a certain positive association in the mind of a consumer with the product of that corporation. But now corporate jargon is colonising every arena of human activity, and emptying those activities of autonomous meaning. To describe the Essendon Bombers or the Brisbane Broncos as playing a certain ‘brand’ of football destroys the autonomous tribal life of the people who barrack for that team. To describe an artist as having a ‘personal brand’ eventually transforms all his relationships, both professional and intimate, into an attempt to sell himself. In a casualised, nepotistic field such as the modern art world, your personal friendships become your professional opportunities. The two cannot be distinguished. To think of all these relationships as possibilities for brand development corrodes both your soul and the souls of those around you.
How Did the Dream Die? : A Brief and Biased History of Australian Public Art Funding
‘Well, what’s the alternative?’ a hypothetical young sceptic might ask. The sceptic (let’s call him Cecil Strawman) might then continue expanding on his theme:
‘Before artists built their personal brand, they made a name for themselves and built a reputation by outshining their peers. It’s always been this way.’
Well, Mr Strawman, I can safely say that you are utterly incorrect, and have revealed your complete ignorance of the sweep of Australian artistic history prior to, say, your own date of birth in the ‘80s or ‘90s. So let’s cast a quick eye over the said history. For the sake of brevity we’ll focus on the Australian theatre ‘industry’ as a case study. I will make no claims to non-partisan objectivity, but I will endeavour to base all my statements on the available historical evidence.
In the 1950s, as far as original content was concerned, Australian theatre was hidebound, sterile, and almost completely devoid of support for new ideas. Asides from an occasional burst of gritty naturalism (Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll), the mainstage companies (such as they were) preferred re-runs of the European repertoire. The Melbourne Theatre Company typified this approach.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s this situation transformed with the creation of new theatre collectives such as the Australian Performing Group (the APG or Pram Factory) in Melbourne and the Nimrod Theatre Company in Sydney. The politics of the APG in particular was inspired by the revolutionary ferment of 1968, when barricades had sprung up on the streets of Paris, millions had marched against the Vietnam War and the blood of students had run freely in Mexico City. Individual egos and reputation building in the APG, while always present, were challenged by an ethos of egalitarianism and collective effort. Artists and radical intellectuals shared ideas and in both Sydney and Melbourne theatre makers dreamt of creating a national theatre which could shape the nation’s cultural and political outlook. The egos might have been big but the ideas were bigger. A campaign for public funding of the arts was launched from the city streets, culminating in the establishment of the Australia Council and other federal arts funding bodies under the Whitlam government.
But it’s also important not to idealise this era. The demand for public funding carried within it the seeds of future stagnation. As Julian Meyrick argues in ‘See How It Runs’, these bold demands were not always accompanied by a critique of the bureaucratisation that could subsequently emerge with the creation of federal arts funding bodies.
The workings of this bureaucracy have become increasingly complicated over the intervening decades. Those on the right criticise public subsidisation as a way for mediocre art to emerge, art which wouldn’t survive in the cut and the thrust of the market. Critics such as the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg warn of the censorship and ‘politically correct’ approach which can emerge from government art funding, when left liberal bureaucrats decide what art will be of social benefit. But as Australian cultural theorist Ian Burns argues, the market itself can be the greatest censor of all: without public funding, any artwork which is not perceived as profitable in a Capitalist society will not receive support. Without public funding, it becomes very difficult for artworks containing any critique of the existing order or class structure to reach anything more than a tiny audience of like-minded souls. Rich philanthropists are not likely to fund plays which call for a revolution against rich philanthropists.
But the idea that the current arts bureaucracy has a radical leftist agenda is in itself a fiction. As the Australian government embraced neoliberal economics, first under Hawke and Keating then under Howard, public arts funding steadily declined. Large scale, socially critical works which appeared in the ‘80s and early ‘90s (e.g. Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing or the work of Melbourne Worker’s Theatre playwrights such as Patricia Cornelius) gradually became harder to produce as resources became more depleted. Original Australian content became rarer, a situation which has recently been highlighted by the furore over director Simon Stone’s comments that he prefers adapting European works to producing ‘poorly written’ Australian plays.
Big picture ideas, such as the notion that Australian theatre could act as a vehicle through which to influence the nation’s cultural and political direction, seem laughable now. While there are far more theatre productions and companies now than in the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s, the proportion of original Australian work onstage has diminished enormously. The new generation of auteur theatre makers such as Simon Stone and Ralph Meyers call for the old playwrights, the Stephen Sewells and Patricia Corneliuses, to be sent, like Boxer, to the glue factory. The Australia Council subsidises this trend through its interpretation of adaptations of European works as original Australian content. Arts funding bodies increasingly seek evidence of economic outcomes or social efficacy in the projects they fund. Instead of bowing before the state, modern artists bow before the economy. Politicians have to see art as performing some quantifiable function: helping the economy, bringing in tourists, injecting the apparently bovine and placid Australian public with ‘Kulcha’.
It is not as if there aren’t exciting new voices in the theatre to support, voices of writers who are engaged in real world issues. Think of The Economist by Tobias Manderson-Galvin, This Heaven by Nakkiah Liu (which to give due credit was put on under Ralph Meyers’ watch at Belvoir) and the interactive theatre work of Angela Betzien and Leticia Caceres with their company ‘RealTV’. All these projects reveal the potential that Australian theatre currently has to explore radical and exciting new political territory. But could all this be lost, or at least submerged, if current arts funding is cut?
Max Gillies, one of the APG’s longest lasting members, said in retrospect that his preference would have been for the major funding bodies such as the Australia Council to be regularly dissolved and reconstructed, so that their power as cultural gate keepers didn’t become ossified and entrenched. But any restructuring of arts funding in the present climate would be used as an excuse for further cuts. Tony Abbott has explicitly endorsed a proposal by the Institute of Public Affairs to cut all government funding to the arts. At some point in the next two or three election cycles it is likely that he will gain a majority in the senate and come good on these promises.
The Death of Public Art: Crisis and Opportunity
We are in a genuine bind. The bureaucratic, social-democratic model of arts funding granted to us by the campaigns of our artistic forebears is dying, and may soon be exterminated completely. The Abbott mandated alternative is to be thrown to the wolves of the market, the greatest censorship vehicle of them all. Just to be absolutely clear here, I think that nearly all the most exhilarating and important art in Australia now receives some sort of public subsidy. I think it would be a tragedy were that to be lost. But that possibility is looming in our face, and we need to start developing our response. My personal preference would be for artists to be given resources from organisations that are neither entirely capitalist nor statist, such as occurred with the trade union funded ‘Art and Working Life’ projects in the 1980s. However with the union movement currently staring at decimation alongside the Labor Party, we no longer have this option. Choosing art as one’s vocation in Australia today is to choose a lifetime of financial insecurity, self-exploitation and petty egotistical backbiting. This is not autonomy. This is not freedom. We must accept that. But nor does this need to be the case forever.
One of our distinguishing features as a species is our ability to imagine alternative futures. As Karl Marx points out, unlike bees, which instinctively construct their hive, an architect visualises a building before having it constructed. Anthropologist David Graeber argues that artists in particular are in a unique position to imagine alternative possibilities in every project they undertake. Working in the theatre can expose one to the most monstrous hierarchies and megalomania. But it also contains the possibility of a radically egalitarian working environment, the sublimation of ego in the pursuit of a collective dream, a moment of shared utopia. The APG offers one striking example of how this possibility has existed in Australia, in equally as exciting a form as it has anywhere else in the world.
But what does all this matter, if we as artists currently are staring into the void of a complete loss of public funding, yet can barely raise ourselves out of our baroque little bubbles of self-congratulating apathy? Well, there is a way, there is always a way. Canadian writer Naomi Klein has developed the notion of the shock doctrine, the method by which neoliberal ideologues exploited moments of economic and environmental disaster to implement massive public spending cuts and the privatisation of public infrastructure. We will be faced with many more of these crises in the coming decades. But as Brazilian theatre maker Augusto Boal notes, in Chinese the word for ‘crisis’ is made up by two characters: ‘Danger’ and ‘Opportunity’. We should be learning from the Friedmans and the Abbotts. Instead of retreating in the wake of these disasters, we should be taking these opportunities to re-imagine our own positions as artists. Perhaps, as the American author Rebecca Solnit proposes, in these moment of utter devastation new modes of solidarity and mutual aid can be born.
Working in the arts gives one the potential to be part of great collective utopian imaginings, but also puts one at risk of vicious self- exploitation. At the moment we suffer under the yoke of the latter. This will not change unless we fight with all our strength to create that change. It will be a lifelong commitment, but it will make life worth living.
Taking the first step often feels impossible. At the National Institute of Dramatic Art, where I am currently studying, the climate is slowly shifting, but until this point a dogged, grinding work ethic has dominated. Actors, designers, directors and backstage crew work day and night to hone their craft, barely ever stopping to reflect upon why they are doing this. The internal Uncle Joes are as powerful here as anywhere, driving the students to jet off to Los Angeles, to turn their bodies into performing machines, to follow their dream.
But what if you start seeing the cracks, what if you despair as you realise that your whole ‘career trajectory’ is a meaningless self-indulgence, and that for the vast majority of artists the future will hold only disappointment and resentment offset by the occasional mediocre moment of publicity? What if you become anxious or distressed, depressed or suicidal? In Soviet Russia, if you didn’t fit into the system, you would be sent off to the Gulag for re-education. Now you just get medicated. The Gulag is in your mind.
What is to be done? : Free Your Inner Child, Kill Your Inner Stalin!
Is this what we dreamed of when we were children? When we play acted with our siblings and friends, when we built sandcastles for butterfly princesses and spoke in secret languages to make-believe lovers and dreamt up worlds without horizons?
I say No! A Thousand Beautiful Butterfly Nos!
Wake up from your slumber artists! You have nothing to lose, because your lives are already meaningless, and your funding is already gone. Nothing less than the total destruction of the entire rotten system will suffice now. The time has come to liberate yourselves. Just follow the three steps below.
1. Build a Personal Brand out of plasticine, clay or mud.
2. Then smash it.
3. Continue smashing it into tiny pieces.
You have just blown open the prison where you had locked up your inner child. Hold their hand, lead them dazed and blinking into the light. Find other Artists who also have their child-twins by their side. Gather with these playmates, collect your broken lumpy brand chunks and create a sculpture together, a hidden city or a shared dreaming. Art is a conversation, a collective becoming, a shouting match and a mutual orgasm. It is one of the few chances offered to us in contemporary life to imagine the world as something other than how it is. And if the little man with a moustache in your head tells you to stop this nonsense, to get back to work, to be sensible and think of your career and your networking opportunities, smash the little shit in the face. Because it is only through genuinely loving and working together with your fellow artists and your fellow human beings that you will find creative fulfilment yourself. If we are to have any chance of escaping our inner prisons and joining together in revolution, we must start with the childhood seed of group play, and grow that sapling until its broad trunk reaches heaven and its sinuous roots shatter the concrete death-dream of modern Auto-Stalinist life.