[Paleopsych] The Age (au): Curiouser and curiouser

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Thu May 12 00:43:29 UTC 2005

Curiouser and curiouser

    Robyn Archer, former Melbourne festival director, spoke on art and
    curiosity on Saturday night.

    The arts must ask its audience to throw out a lifeline to curiosity in
    all things in order to survive and prosper. By Robyn Archer.

    In my essay "The Myth of the Mainstream" (Currency Press, April 2005),
    I talk about curiosity being amongst the finest virtues of humankind
    and how this was revealed to me when I looked back trying to recall
    the first symptoms of my father's frontal lobe dementia: I eventually
    felt that it was this ever-curious man's loss of the vital stream of

    The curiosity factor has become a potent metaphor for me. I can't help
    thinking that once the blinkers are on, there's only one road
    ahead-and that leads to death.

    Anyone who approaches art, or virtually anything, only wishing to
    defend their own tastes, anyone who won't look at something because
    they fear it won't be to their liking, anyone who bags something
    before they've seen it, might as well be dead already. They've lost
    their sense of curiosity. They're winding down.

    One of the most powerful, and perhaps accidental, foes of the
    preservation and stimulation of curiosity is that all-pervasive factor
    of contemporary life - marketing. I say "accidental" because at the
    start of the 20th century, and at various peaks throughout that time,
    when waves of social reform produced increasing numbers of citizens
    (first in the developed and then the developing nations) who
    experienced a phenomenon at that point only known by wealthy, that is,
    leisure time and spare cash, marketing itself was a new and exciting
    tool that existed precisely to stimulate curiosity.

    But as early as the mid-19th-century snake-oil merchants were derided
    so thoroughly that their profession entered the vernacular, and in the
    1950s the same happened to used car salesmen.

    These days, when marketing is a career, one still sees the altruistic
    basis of the trade in the very best of the advertising branch of
    marketing, when the skill of art directors, graphic and video artists
    and especially concept developers, grab our attention and stimulate
    our curiosity enough to take the next step and try to satisfy that
    curiosity about an available product, be that new technology, food,
    insurance, entertainment or art.

    The difficulty for art, unlike entertainment, is that it is hard to
    commodify and therefore hard to market. And the very art most likely
    to stimulate the sense of curiosity is always the most fragile.
    Marketing when applied to the arts is at best crude and at worst
    destructive. Hype may get your audience to the shimmering waters of
    art, but the audience will not necessarily drink .

    In precisely the same way as one needs to address the people at this
    time, not the politicians, the arts must go outside the segmented and
    ultimately blinkered nature of targeted marketing, and ask its
    potential audience (which I believe knows no bounds) to throw out a
    lifeline to curiosity in all things.

    If ordinary people are scared of the arts, a highly disputed piece of
    parochial, reductive and selective marketing research, then our job as
    artists and commissioners of new work is not to try to persuade them
    to enjoy a particular piece of art, or even art itself, but to ask
    them to live again fully in all things, and put an end to lives which
    are driven madly by the false ideals, objects, and icons which
    marketing itself has created.

    This achieved, audiences would come thirsty to art and ready to drink
    deeply. There would scarcely be a need for marketing in the arts.

    Finding the means to achieve that is the challenge.

    Until that renewal is complete, the parallel universe of the small
    symbolic following for art must be maintained, and new works from
    artists vigorously commissioned and nurtured in the knowledge that the
    ripple effect of the creative lightning bolt will always remain an
    important part of what artists, their commissioner-presenters, and the
    informed critique that broadcasts these actions, always do when that
    tripartite cultural activity is in a state of grace and good health.

    This is an extract of Robyn Archer's Alfred Deakin Innovation Lecture
    "Imagination and the Audience: Commissioning for Creativity" delivered
    on Saturday at the Melbourne Town Hall.

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