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SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Christopher Latham

Platform Paper 2

the Artist versus the Corporate World

Christopher Latham

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In the 1970s, writes Christopher Latham, 80% of all arts funding went to individual artists. Today it’s 20%. A policy of creating and funding mainstream companies has left today’s freelance artist demoralised. Now there are concerns even for the landmark companies: ‘We are facing the prospect that more than one major Australian orchestra will be shut down in the next decade.’ But, he believes, this is a time of exponential change, a time for lateral thinking and individualism. ‘The Titanics are sinking: it is time to get into the skiffs.’ Latham examines the historical causes of the present structure and sees in it opportunities for the freelance artist, particularly working in project-based collectives. The new generation artist needs to be versatile, flexible and familiar with the new technology, engaged with society and thoughtful and rigorous in their art practice. Reproducing the best of the European models is no investment in a national culture. It is time for the small producers and the individual creators to stop competing and start collaborating. Australia needs its artists to initiate change: to rethink the present in the light of the past and begin to invest in a body of work that will in turn become their legacy.

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About the Author

Christopher Latham is a singer and a violinist with an international career. From 1992 he toured with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and since 1998 has represented composers’ interests at Boosey & Hawkes Australia. He is currently director of the Four Winds Festival in Bermagui, NSW.

Capitalism and its market economy appear to dominate every part of society and if we are discarding the cultural values of the past, who will guide us in the future? Most artists question the assumption that market forces will solve everything, because the market does not care for us—it only cares for perpetual growth. 

Comments

Benjamin Marks on Survival of the Fittest

I am in strong disagreement with Christopher Latham's essay, Survival of the Fittest and wish to comment on certain aspects of his economics. What follows should be received as it is intended, in the spirit of friendly, constructive criticism.

Latham claims that the 'market economy appear[s] to dominate every part of society' (p.8), but he fails to comprehend that the market economy is synonymous with voluntary exchange and relations. Surely, this is also exactly what society is. Then, on the same page, he says: '[T]he market does not care for us-it only cares for perpetual growth.' How can a collective concept 'care' or 'grow'? And, even allowing for the fallacy, why should the market favour perpetual growth? Growth of what? If growth of profits, then so what? How would the market get 'perpetual growth' without 'us'?

He demonstrates further ignorance of economics, when he says: 'It is vital we find balance.'(p. 8) Between the market and government. Between mutually beneficial, voluntary exchange and non-mutually beneficial, non-voluntary exchange. Between what people want and what government says they want. Later, Latham is 'fairly sure' that, if more Australians recognised the 2000 Olympic Games opening ceremony 'as a work of art made by fellow Australian artists, [then] … they wouldn't resent paying taxes to support [artists]'(p. 48). The author's logic seems to run something like this: 'Australians are not smart enough to realise how good some of their artists are, therefore they need government to forcibly take money off them (through taxation), because if only they were smarter, they would support the arts anyway.' If this is the case, then Australians should surely not be allowed to vote. If they are too stupid to know what is art and what is not art, then why should they have the power to vote for people that do? Using the same logic, Latham must surely oppose voting.

He goes on to state that '[u]nchecked greed is no solution [to the arts being profitable]'. (p.8) Why not? Clearly, he has not read Adam Smith, who put the facts nicely back in 1776: 'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest.'1 Unless he assumes that nobody in their own self-interest would want to custom the arts-which I doubt. It would be like saying: 'Nobody likes the arts, so we need to steal from taxpayers to pay for it.'

According to Latham, 'Market forces will not civilise us. The market is no different from the jungle, except that the club is wielded more subtly. It is a struggle between the strong and the weak.'(p. 40) To compare the jungle and the market is misleading. In the jungle, 'the stronger overcomes the weaker. In business, the stronger imparts strength to the weaker. This utterly destroys the analogy.'2 Also, '[t]o apply the principle of the 'survival of the fittest' to both the jungle and the market is to ignore the basic question: Fitness for what? The 'fit' in the jungle are those most adept at the exercise of brute force. The 'fit' on the market are those most adept in the service of society.'3 'In the market, the fittest are those most able to serve the consumers. In government, the fittest are either (1) those most able at wielding coercion or (2), if bureaucratic officials, those best fitted to curry favour with the leading politicians or (3), if politicians, those most adroit at appeals to the voting public'.4 If art is to be a legitimate enterprise, producers must rely wholly on custom, including donations, sponsors, box office or other sales income. If insufficient numbers of people value an art form for it to be profitable, then tough titties. What you certainly must never do is forcibly take money from anyone, even if they are silly and don't value art, as you think they should. You have no right to impose your values on others.

Benjamin Marks is a hardcore Austro-paleo-libertarian theorist and activist.

1 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. by
Edwin Cannan (N.Y.: Modern Library, 1937), p.14.
2 Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms, trans. and ed. by Arthur Goddard
(Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education,
1996), p. 269.
3 Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market
(Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2004), p. 1325.

4 Rothbard, p. 890.

 

Clem Gorman on Survival of the Fittest

I am in complete agreement with the basic thrust of Chris Latham's essay. I have long argued-though not as lucidly as he does-for the arts to be controlled by artists, those coalface workers who make the art in the first place. Art is not comfort food, a means of distracting people from their troubles and their travails. It is an exploration, in which the artist leads his or her fellow citizen into realms of the imagination in the hope of discovering something new and meaningful about this life we all share. It is the most important activity humans can undertake.

Therefore, it can be argued, the artist is a leader, who needs to lead not only the art form in which s/he works, but also her/his fellow citizens toward a higher vision of the world. When they are led by people whose primary task is to scan spreadsheets, draw up contracts and schmooze politicians for funding, then the arts will start to fail in their central purpose.

Latham's emphasis upon involving the community, his assertion that Australia needs more outdoor art, his wish to involve the private sector more, and his wish to see art address topics Australians clearly love-sport, sex, money-are all 'spot-on'. Though his use of the twentieth-century Soviet term 'collective' may be dated, there is nothing wrong with his central idea that artists should join forces, help one another and collaborate. His naïve optimism is charming and, I hope, inspirational. On the other hand, he seems unaware that these solutions have been tried before, in the 1960s in US, the UK, and Australia. I myself was part of that effort. Actors' and artists' collectives already flourish in New York. We do not diminish ourselves by recognising what went before, by locating ourselves within a tradition. It does no harm to acknowledge the fact. And one generalisation at least might have been modified, the suggestion that ethnic blending will foster tolerance and innovation. Such sweeping remarks do not enhance the credibility of Latham's paper.

What's more, his suggestion that a recognisably Australian culture would result from the operations of innovative artists' collaborations goes against other evidence which suggests that in Australia all new culture, especially popular culture, is trans-national in nature. I simply cannot see how a small country like Australia can avoid the tidal wave of American culture, largely derived from and propelled by African-American culture. It seems likely that any culture created by artists working project-by-project in small, shifting groups would be overwhelmingly American in character. We are, as Latham rightly acknowledges, in a very early stage of creating our own culture.

One problem that Latham faces is that many artists may not want to cater to the tastes and interests of ordinary, suburban Australians. Artists are stubborn creatures-our choice of poverty has given us that privilege-and we tend to make art about what we damn well like, not about what we 'ought' to. He says that artists should speak with a single voice: but that's something I hope they never do.

Is Australia yet mature enough to engage with the idea of an arts rainbow, whereby a variety of messages from Left to Right (to use terms which in today's world are themselves increasingly dodgy) can be presented to the public: the cool ideas on the Right, the warm ideas on the Left? Can we imagine a school which this year stages a Rock Eisteddford musical satirising George W. Bush and next year one satirising the hypocrisy of a Chinese Communist government fostering capitalism?

What is missing from Chris Latham's vision is an umbrella organisation, itself run by artists, which could provide the technology needed by these ephemeral project groups, as well as the network of contacts from which to draw members of the groups, and of course the publicity system. Located at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo in Sydney, Parnassus' Den is an organisation which has its own ensemble of actors who stage rehearsed readings of new play and film scripts and which also operates as an agency. It is an ideal model for what Latham's vision needs.

Finally, may I suggest another model, which might inspire artists to take seriously the ideas Latham promotes? Years ago, the world professional tennis circuit was administered by an organisation called something like the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Professional tennis players such as John MacEnroe and Martina Navratilova felt that it was hidebound and not doing enough for the wellbeing of the players. So they refused to play any more tournaments-went on strike, in effect-and formed their own, new, player-controlled organisation, the Association of Tennis Professionals, which now smoothly and successfully runs world professional tennis. Anyone for … ?

Clem Gorman worked as actor, director, stage manager and administrator in the theatre, before becoming the author of eleven plays. He is also the author of nine non-fiction books and has taught creative writing at several universities.