Use Your Words, by Lucy Nelson


Writers and artists are used to being dismissed and patronised when we explain what we do and why. The creative arts are often characterised as a decorative extra, a nice-to-have, a playground that’s good for our children to explore and promptly grow out of.

I remember the art and music rooms of my school years as enticing anomalies. In colourful contrast to the faded maps and orderly rows of chairs in geography and maths rooms (where the “real work” happened), those classes were filled with papier mache heads, thick thwocks of cheap bright paint and beat up old guitars to fall in love by.

Recent moves by Australian policy makers reflect this image of art as novelty. It’s a puppy to be trotted out for visitors; after having performed the two guest-appropriate tricks it knows (namely ballet and opera), we become terse when it tries to get on the couch and complain about the price of Pal.

This icing-on-the-cake approach upholds a false idea that art lives at two ends of a spectrum. At one end: art is virtuosic and lofty (your Baryshnikovs). And on the other, there’s the myth of the starving artist: alcoholic messiahs who can’t afford underpants and who gain further respect by virtue of having demonstrated suffering (your Bukowskis).

Most art, however, lives in a broad and temperate space between these two extremes. It is a common way to earn or supplement a below-average wage. In fact, art is a remarkably ordinary thing.

I have experienced prolonged periods of guilty reflection about having studied and worked in the arts. Why didn’t I ever make myself “useful” as a teacher or counsellor? Who the hell was I to do something playful and explorative with my time, just because I could? And is loving something a good enough reason to stay?

In response to this guilty reflection I sometimes ask art to defend itself. I ask it for examples of what it’s good for, in the hope that it will convince me to stay. Here are a few:

  • It offers stories, metaphors and images that illuminate my own privilege, previously dormant and unchallenged, at least by me.

  • It diagnoses my long-term blindness to systemic disadvantage and to some of the more insidious ways that hurts people.

  • It teaches me that a goal to upend systemic disadvantage is assisted both slightly and significantly when artists, writers, producers, performers and creative leaders place it at the crux of their creative decision-making.

  • It offers me a community that knows this too.

  • It prepares me for the fact that confronting and challenging disadvantage and the incremental changes that can afford is not supposed to feel good. It’s supposed to feel like hard work. It will only get harder. It will get harder forever.

We know that it generates $50 billion annually, we know it’s one of the most effective driving forces in the move towards reconciliation. We know there are many tangible benefits on a national scale that are overlooked.

But I mean to be more specific. What has art done for you lately? I mean besides enriching your life and offering entertainment or beauty. I’m not discounting the value of these things but they are easy answers. That is not where our fight is. It is not the work we have to do.

What book, play, song or film made your own privilege visible and stirred you to confront it? Whose physical and mental health have you seen drastically improve as a result of creating or engaging with art? Has it ever been life or death? Have you witnessed art avert disaster? How is it beneficial to you and your community in ways that are measurable?  

Madeleine Laing,  Show + Tell,  Noted Festival 2016. Image:  Dream Pieces

Madeleine Laing, Show + Tell, Noted Festival 2016. Image: Dream Pieces

This festival is a safe house for conversations just like these. For the next five days, Canberra will fill with the voices, ideas and interrogations of diverse writers and thinkers. I will be listening and watching intently, to arm myself with compelling opposition to the misguided notion that art is merely decorative. Let’s stock the arsenal.

LUCY NELSON is the Artistic Director and Co-founder of Noted Writers Festival.