‘Boiling the Pot’, by Ellena Savage

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Image by Joeri van Veen. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License

This is a response to Luke Carman’s essay ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle: Thoughts on Australia’s Writing Culture’, which was published in the most recent edition of Meanjin.


One of my granddad’s paintings hung on our wall forever – grey smears in place of far-off mountains (background), an oil-green lake with mist rising off it (mid-ground), and a tugboat modestly swimming (foreground). I loved the painting, nostalgic and visually soothing as it was, though it would be fair to all parties concerned if I named it what it was: trite. Not ‘trite’ in a mean way, more in a way that acknowledges that art is not pure and artists live their lives making compromises, sometimes in aesthetically obvious ways, and sometimes with poise. When, eight or nine, I told Mum how much I admired the painting, she dismissed it with a little laugh: “that was just one of his potboilers”.

I thought of him and my grandma and their potboilers—they were both working artists living in Sydney their entire lives, both now dead in a stack of different ways—while reading a passage in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. Kraus’s narrator Chris writes about a photo exhibition documenting the Lower East Side’s artist population in the 1950s:

The photos were meticulously captioned with the artists’ names and disciplines, but 98% of them were names I didn’t know. … Where are they now? … What’s the ratio of working artists to the sum total of art stars? A hundred or a thousand?

Kraus quotes Eleanor Antin on the topic: “Studios were cheap, so were paints and canvases, booze and cigarettes. All over the Village young people were writing, painting, getting psycho-analyzed and fucking the bourgeoisie.”

Studios—in Melbourne at least—are no longer cheap, nor is booze, cigarettes kill, and more artists seem to be marrying the bourgeoisie than they are fucking it. But young people continue to live in squalor in order that they can drink, fuck, and make art. Most of them, working artists, regardless of their talent, patience, and work, are unremarkable in the sense that their work will not significantly influence anything or anyone – more likely they will be subjects of the next generation’s photo exhibition documenting forgotten artists.

This soft-focus facelessness, this erasure of everything these artists might make, is as bracing as it is heartbreaking. Do you make art to be loved? Good luck to you.

I don’t entirely get why people are upset that a moderately under-known Sydney writer wrote a deliberately gratuitous attack on the City of Literature’s even lesser-known arts administrators. The essay amusingly and cruelly aggrandises some conflicts that concern a small professional circle in Australia, and it withholds the name-naming from the readers who want that most. But it also brashly articulates the simmering rage felt by many, if not most, working artists in Australia.

The crux of Luke Carman’s essay ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’ is this: that the writing world—typified by Melbourne’s literary scene—is constituted by “wannabe arts dreamers, desirous of making themselves part of this picture but indifferent to its meaning” who navigate their way to the pinnacles of cultural institutions, where “anyone without a shred of originality or integrity can be holding court and dictating terms for an art form to which they contribute nothing but their lordly presence.” Of the “arts dreamer”, he writes:

Rather than fiddling about with the ephemera of fictions, they are busily revising cultural institutions; rather than the piddle of obsolete publishing fancies such as novels, they are pulling the strings of funding decisions; forget revolutions of thought and consciousness, these visionaries are drawing together the next generation of writers from the dust of our collective cultural vacuum.

Ouch.

But the sting of this is familiar. I too have felt privately, painfully contemptuous of decisions made by people I didn’t see as artistically qualified to judge my potential. This is a conceited feeling I tenderly indulge in private. Likewise, I’m certain that other people see me in exactly those terms. Power is relational, not absolute.

The accusations Carman makes point to a fundamental problem artists face: the world does not facilitate the production of their art, yet their art produces surplus value for people other than them. This is, for me, most acutely articulated by Anne Boyer: “writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.” Carman’s profiteer is imagined as the “arts dreamer” embodied in the form of a tyrannical-yet-mediocre arts administrator. If we follow his argument, though, we could side-step the arts worker for a moment and speak directly to the problem: that art and capitalism are largely incompatible. The arts worker is a mediator between the artist and the cruel universe that constitutes a paying, ‘legitimising’ audience.

Of course I know, as everyone knows, why Carman’s accusations hurt. There are overt power imbalances and creepy social hierarchies in the ‘lit world’ just as there are in other scenes and workplaces. The difference with our ‘workplace’, though, is that it has no grounds, no union, no set working hours, wages, or, really, any way of quantifying or qualifying what work—if any work—is ever being done, which makes certain that there are no support systems nor adequate ways of addressing the injuries that this sorry state produces. “Don’t like the poverty of being an artist – get a real job!” is not an adequate response.

For the most part, artists and their support workers—festival coordinators, academics, producers, and editors—are symbiotically entangled (sometimes in the body of a single person), and this strange closeness, always underscored by the horror of their work’s possible total irrelevance, can be nourishing and erotic. Sometimes, though, these relationships are difficult, or disappointing. Sometimes arts workers take credit—along with full- or part-time salaries—for the work of unpaid artists. Sometimes arts workers make nepotistic funding and hiring decisions. Much more commonly, though, arts workers are themselves unpaid artists picnicking on a ravine, tasked with the most hideous form of invisible labour there is – managing and nurturing the egos of every individual with a stake in every aspect of their institutional and non-institutional work. The bulk of this labour is undertaken by women without much professional mobility.

Something I rarely see addressed is the possible class difference between arts workers, whose work can be salaried, and artists, whose work largely cannot. This key difference often means that arts workers are held accountable: they are beholden to stakeholders and subsequently to modes of behaviour appropriate to the middle-class audiences. By contrast, artists, if they are crabbily protective enough of their time and work, are able to retain enviable independence. I have met artists who detest arts workers for their perceived adherence to conservative, or boring, artistic ideals, and likewise many arts workers are perennially frustrated by the specialness of small-time prima donnas. The most interesting problem, for me, is not this rift itself, but how it speaks to the economic context, where two lowly-paid art types perceive the other as a threat to the production of work that will, presumably, be ‘consumed’ (we’re not allowed to say that, but that is what it is) by a bourgeois audience that is oblivious to this tension.

Where and when does the existence of an audience (with particular values) enter the artist’s conception of themselves and their work? And to what extent is an artist’s independence materially achievable? Consider, if you will, the artist’s dependence on the arts worker, who is dependent on the approval of governments that are hostile to art, who are accountable to a nation of taxpayers who, probably, quite contentedly enjoy Australia’s artistic output without calling it art, blithely unaware of the assembly line that produces it: those artists schlepping their sadness through the streets of the City of Literature. Who consumes art, and why, and is the artist ever independent of the consumer?

Carman’s essay stakes a claim on his independence—Carman will not pander to the soft egos of his enemies—and for that alone I think it needs to be taken earnestly. But the meanness of it (amusing to some and cutting to others) betrays an injury that draws a visible line around the assumption that this independence can be truly attained. We want to say what we want to say but feel we can’t, and this censure causes injury, then when we find a way to say what we wanted to say the substance is lost to the enormity of the injury – whatever it was we wanted to say is subsumed by the need to acknowledge this wound.

Carman writes that the arts dreamer will “do whatever it takes to make it” (as I suspect even some serious, ‘pure’ artists might do), and then, “Not all of them will make it – exposure, if it comes, will kill more of them than it makes.” In light of Kraus’s forgotten artist lineup—and that’s in the States, where it is said that it’s possible to be an artist, somehow—the question of what it might mean to ‘make it’ as an artist in Australia is curious. The bulk of artists are unknown and unappreciated throughout their lives and in death. Therefore to remedy the deep-seated knowledge of one’s artistic irrelevance, one figures meaning in her closed-circuit exchanges with her peers. One builds a practice that is, in certain ways, enabled and mitigated by the so-called ‘gatekeepers’, and for this reason, to ‘make it’—to find an audience, financial solvency, peer acceptance, and critical legitimacy—one must have many fingers in many pies, tepid and scalding alike. In this sense, taking arts admin jobs are strategic potboilers for lots of artists, and ways of becoming familiar with institutions they want and need money from. Maybe they stay in these jobs long enough to become failed artists. But, honestly, who can say they’ve ‘made it’?

I will speak more directly.

When debates like these flare up in the small pool of literary culture in Australia, I shrug a little. I am tired. Out of necessity, I divvy up my days between a vast number of projects and professional duties, which means I am presumably embedded in the lit world that Carman detests. In fact, most people involved in the production of Carman’s essay—from its author to its editors and the names that it names—are people I know, who sit somewhere on the scale between ‘pleasantly acquainted with’ to ‘lovingly entwined’. This social reality is not a function of ruthless social calculation – it is a function of working on projects that need more than one person to materialise. And because there is so little money, these bonds are often felt deeply and crucially.

Unless we afford it, financially, psychologically, our ability to do the work we do as artists (and administrators) is tethered to the esteem of our peers. It’s not kosher to make a scene, nor to seem ungrateful. But also, if you’re an artist, it’s not your job to be kosher. But also also, when your peers are your readers and your friends, how can you betray them? Art is not a licence to hurt people.

But I’m also aware that my position—for example, co-editing this very journal—gives me some ‘gatekeeper’ status, and this potentially puts me in the line of Carman’s fire. I could easily be figured as one of Carman’s “wannabe arts dreamers”, but I’m not, and this self-categorisation protecting me is solely a product of my self-respect.

If there’s one critique I’d level at my peers it’s that self-respect is scarce in this industry. More artists and arts workers should say no to more things. They should take pride and care in their work and not belittle it, but likewise they should feel no shame in potboiling when they need to. And if they are beholden to someone who is abusing their professional power, they should not surrender to them.

The battles fought here can be frivolous and cruel, and if the only consolation is a flute of champagne at an opening you don’t particularly want to be at, but it’s free, and it’s Veuve, and your friend is over there: take the flute.


Ellena Savage is a Melbourne-based writer and a co-editor of The Lifted Brow.