[Sarah Ward] I’m having an artlife crisis!


[Sarah Ward] I’m having an artlife crisis!


We all have our own idea of what defines art, it’s very subjective. I won’t be precocious and dictate it’s parameters but I do like a good rigorous discussion between friends because I’m passionate about it. At the moment it’s a very tender subject. What defines art? What defines ‘excellence’? Who deserves funding? Where is the line between fringe and mainstream? Where is the line between art and entertainment?

I am having an artlife crisis! I have had bad dreams for days. I want to turn away from the media so I don’t feel overwhelmed, but I don’t want to be ignorant. I want to be more active, but I don’t have the energy.  One thing I know is that I don’t want to be passive. Not about the cover up’s and the corruption, the bias and the direction that this country is heading in under the leadership of this most un-liberal of Liberal parties. People might say ‘You’re too sensitive’ or ‘You’re overreacting or ‘Look at the positives’ but I feel as though our government is dancing with dictatorship and the only place we’re heard is on our Facebook updates.

This is a part of my artlife crisis because my art is a reflection of my experience of the world I live in and at the moment I am furious and scared. Not just at the Government but at the direction art is moving toward in this country. In general, those who create provocative and radical art are relegated to the fringes and those who create easily digestible work are in the flagship venues and festivals, supported with marketing campaigns and with production support to realize and actualize their work without compromise. What’s even more tragic is that most fringe festivals are now dominated by big budget entertainment leaving no audience for the independent artists because their marketing campaigns cannot compete. Some producers, artistic directors and programmers might argue that there isn’t a place for provocative art in the mainstream because not enough people would be interested. How would they know? They’ve never supported this work with the same financial backing as the others in their program.

Yes, there are a handful of artists like Ash Flanders who have made that transition from fringe to mainstream which is encouraging and the evidence is that audiences love it! So, why not book more contemporary, cutting edge, provocative work? I know so many talented artists who are itching for the opportunity to present their work on the main stages of this country and if you don’t break through at some point you become as Nicci Wilks so beautifully puts ‘a submerging artist’. When does an artist stop emerging if they were never given the space to crack through? We all deserve the opportunity to define our culture, to speak for the majority and the minorities we represent.

There is currently a trend in the mainstream, on tele and on stage of men defying and playing with gender, I applaud this celebration of queerness. You look at any program these days and you will see at least one man in a frock smashing gender stereotypes. However, where are the queer women? We would like the chance to smash our gender too on the main stages of Australia and the world, we would like to redefine what it is to be female, to be gay, to be queer, to be trans. We would like to win Eurovision wearing beard and pants, we would like to strap on a dick and perform a song cycle, where is our voice?

Today I saw the ad for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, curated by Barry Humphries. He is kissed by a young, blond, cabaret performer who is dressed in a traditional burlesque outfit, his tag line ‘Cabaret Is Sexy’. I found this ad so depressing and disheartening. The program itself is full of great cabaret, but it is oh so white and hetero normative. Who decides what is sexy? We’ve got George Brandis on one hand telling us what ‘Excellence’ is then we have Barry Humphries telling us what ‘Sexy’ is and really I don’t want to be either excellent or sexy, I don’t want to be defined by either of those categories and I don’t want to be funded or programmed based on these entirely subjective ideas put forward by older, heterosexual, white men.

If you were to ask me what art is I would tell you what inspires me. Art that inspires me is human not droid, political not apathetic, subversive not divisive, odd not ordinary. I like to be surprised, challenged, moved, shaken, transported, overcome. I’ve witnessed performances with three juggling balls or a dance with repetitive simple movement that were utterly captivating. In particular I love performances that present the personal as universal, the performer puts something of them-selves into the work, there is an honesty and intimacy, they share an aspect of themselves, a part of their humanity. I like it when art imitates life and life imitates art. I like authenticity. If the performance tells a story, no matter how linear or abstract and there is a vulnerability, I will be engaged. If at the core of the work there is a desire to communicate something or transport people, not just to show off or make money, that is my version of art! That’s why I’m loving Theatre Works, Dark MoFo, FOLA and other venues and festivals that are not afraid to commission, produce and present radical works.

I was asked to write about Circus and Physical Theatre but found I couldn’t do so without talking about my artlife crisis, it is relevant because circus and physical theatre stretch from community and social performance, to art and entertainment. I have seen all three and the works that inspire and engage me are those driven by the concept, a story, a theme. I find shows that rely solely on the skill or the trick bore me. I like it when the tricks become incidental, almost a surprise, they are second to the meaning. The most exciting circus and physical theatre I’ve seen is when I don’t know where to clap or if it’s even appropriate to clap, because there are no deliberate indicators in the routine or show.

To be honest this wasn’t always my experience with circus and physical theatre. When I was 21 I saw contemporary circus for the first time when I watched Cirque Du Soliel. I was absolutely captivated by their skills, but now it bores me. Why? Because I’ve seen these skills and tricks now. Most of us have because circus, like cabaret and burlesque have become commodified. Where once these art-forms housed the freaks, queers and outsiders who created work that challenged the society which condemned them and celebrated difference and diversity, it has all become so mainstream and safe. Isn’t that what happens when people with money carbon-copy and homogenise an art-form because there’s big bucks in presenting an apparently risqué show where the only risk is the profit line?

The general public can now see Burlesque, Circus or Cabaret on TV in shows like X-factor or Australia’s Got Talent or at their local nightclub, pub, theatre or tent near you. Yes even Speigeltents are now mainstream. These days anybody can get up on stage and remove their clothes to raunchy music and call it burlesque, sing songs from their favourite musicals and call it cabaret or learn some tricks and put a show together with a French title and call it circus. I bet some of the most polished cabaret, burlesque and circus routines are performed on stage in a g-string, with microphone in hand on a Chinese pole at the Rhino Club in Melbourne. So for me it’s not enough anymore to see a skills based act the likes of which you can see in Cirque Du Soliel. The face paint and the wacky costumes represent that homogenising where the artist is just another faceless face in a multi million dollar company told to move and present with the style expected of the product. Nor do I want to see the safe and tired programming in most flagship venues and festivals in this country.

It is true that I have enjoyed my fair share of entertainment, there certainly is a place for that in the world, sometimes I actually need to escape, watch something safe, something fun. But the fact is, that work will always be presented, it will always find funding because it appeals to the masses and will almost certainly be a risk free venture for the producers. That is why what George Brandis is doing is a crime. His decision directly effects so many wonderful visual artists, theatre makers, dancers, musicians, film makers, directors, writers, puppeteers, physical theatre practitioners, circus artists and cabaret artists. It effects our cultural identity because it is very dangerous to only create work that the people want, popular work. It is the artist’s job to be brave and sometimes create work the people don’t want, or don’t know they want. To say things the audience don’t want to hear or expect to hear. To say the things the media aren’t saying, that our schools aren’t saying, that our government is not saying. To represent minorities, to tell stories that aren’t told on Channel 9, to challenge popular opinion, to challenge the status quo, to celebrate difference and diversity.

So yes I am having an artlife crisis because my work fits into the later, as does the work of so many of my colleagues and friends. But we won’t stop, we can’t, we love art, we live art. We must more than ever see ourselves as part of a community and support each-other the way other communities and industries are doing, the communities and industries being shut-down, silenced, moved-on and condemned. There is a strength in standing together. I personally want someone to send Brandis a giant clear jar filled with the combined flatulence of all the artists who spent all their money and time on the OZCO grants that just got cancelled and call it ‘F-art’.