Saturday, September 15, 2018

What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture

What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett.  Monash University Publishing, Melbourne 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

What Matters?, a product of Laboratory Adelaide in an ARC-funded Linkage project based at Flinders University,  is an academic work of inestimable value to critics in the arts.  To explain why requires me, to be consistent with the book’s approach, to provide you with an anecdote, titled

The Parable of Being Fair to My Lady

In 1956, a teenager named Frank, already enamoured of the work of George Bernard Shaw, heard Julie Andrews singing Eliza Doolittle on his newly acquired original Broadway cast LP and fell in love again – with both the performer and the character.  He even learned to play all the tunes on his Hohner chromatic harmonica in the manner of Larry Adler.

Though My Fair Lady was a commercial success and has continued to be so to this very day, Frank had a niggling feeling through all those years.  Did Julie Andrews, he worried, feel satisfied with Eliza Doolittle’s ending?  He knew, of course, that Bernard Shaw sent Eliza off at the end of Pygmalion to run her own life in her own way regardless of Henry Higgins’ self-centred feelings – in fact, maybe because of them.  But in My Fair Lady, Eliza returns to her ‘creator’ as if at least to say sorry, or even to live with him.  Maybe she might do no more than manage his affairs and put his slippers out for him.  But surely Shaw’s point in using the ancient tale of Pygmalion was to expose male chauvinism and emphasise women’s independence and human rights.

Some 50 years later, young Frank finally got see Sydney Theatre Company’s Pygmalion on stage (reviewed here February 4, 2012) and was pleased to see that Peter Evans understood Shaw’s intentions, using clever video at the end.  But Julie Andrews still niggled – until just last year when I had the chance to review Julie Andrews’ directing of My Fair Lady “adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion”.  What would this mean?

Reviewing on August 30, 2017, I was fairly sure Julie Andrews had been niggled too, because she found a way of satisfying commercial sentimentality by having Eliza re-appear, but with a nodding recognition in Shaw’s direction.  I wrote:

Just before the lights dimmed on that final image, Charles Edwards turned his face away, towards the audience, and put his head down – to do what?  Hide Higgins’ embarrassment, when he had never been embarrassed before?  Hide his tears, as he realised he has lost her forever?  As a kind of joke, pretending to be a little boy?
I followed this observation with considerable discussion, rather in the manner of Shaw in his prologues.
And the point of the parable?

To quote Meyrick et al: “For now, what matters is that the ambition to turn all that we do and have into ‘an asset’ of one kind or another is extremely contentious.…it places all phenomena on a plane of theoretical equivalence.  A native forest could be valued ‘the same as’ a local golf course, or a family friend ‘the same as’ a family home…Actuaries and insurance brokers regularly put a price on objects, persons and relations we would regard as irreplaceable but which are treated as things that can be weighed and measured in standardised units, and thus compared.”

Since My Fair Lady has surely made far more money than Pygmalion, and is therefore a much greater ‘asset’, should I – as a critic – treat them as ‘equal’, or one as better than the other artistically?  Is it fair of me to say that Julie Andrews seems to know what Shaw meant, but sold him out just a bit to keep the show popular?

This is the sort of question What Matters? raises, about my role as a critic through to the role of politicians as funders of the arts. 

Let’s take the use of numbers to decide on funding:

“Used where context is understood, and subject to robust interrogation, numbers can be worth the trouble.  However they can also be a distraction from more important but less measurable purposes, and:
1. They provide little security from external blows, because funding decisions are always political and not really based on the sorts of evidence they claim to want.
2. They quickly generate internal targets that work to the metrics and not to reality, so they distort internal practice.
3. If they escape into the public realm, they become targets and rankings in next to no time.
4. And the targets have to be exceeded every year because growth is the constant expectation.”

And let’s consider the effects of ‘digital disruption’, where technology is applied to these numbers:

“Open access may make the inequalities in society we have not yet resolved more extreme.  There’s no app for that.  The age of FAANG brings with it challenges that evaluation strategies must learn to deal with.  As Julianne Schultz points out:
    “we are seeing a massive redistribution of wealth from the cultural sector, where meaning is created, to the technology sector, which has figured out how to market, distribute, reach and make money out of it in ways the cultural industries never imagined possible.”

Reminds me of the good old days when there was no budget for Drama, but the Principal insisted the Drama teacher put on a musical each year because it made the school look good.

You may have noticed in these couple of quotes that What Matters? reads differently from what you may expect of an academic publication.  This is where parables come in.  Instead of standard academic format and style, the authors interpolate short stories between sections of factual statement and argument.  They even justify this approach by pointing out how successful Jesus of Nazareth has been, for some 2000 years, by telling creative stories which demonstrate his rational argument.

“There is considerable overlap between academic researchers’ use of case studies and our conception of parables of value. Any competent case study will have a parabolic dimension to it, as it must tell a story exemplifying a wider set of relations or conditions.  Such an approach is not an exercise in make-believe, but a discipline of framing evidence meaningfully and holistically so readers get a sense of what is at stake in human terms without being in a particular situation themselves…. Jesus set an impressive standard in the Gospels that few organisations today can equal. Parables should draw their meaning from the context around them, and not spend much time in scene-setting. They need to be graspable in a couple of minutes, and might reasonably be given strict word limits in official assessment.”

For example, “David Marr tells the story of White and the critic Geoffrey Dutton meeting in Sydney on 24 August 1960” in which we learn how to interpret the numbers, such as audience subscription bookings and single ticket bookings, and the reception of Patrick White as a playwright (and even his decisions about whether to write plays or not) over the decades after 1960.  “The reception of White’s plays in the 1960s was not ‘wrong’. Perhaps the high position we now give them will be seen as ‘wrong’ in 50 years’ time.”

This is quite a lengthy instructive parable, but a fascinating reflection on a creative writer’s career, showing how fine detailed interpretation of numbers recorded by box offices make a nonsense of politically puerile use of simple numbers, like attendances, to inform funding decisions by government on a nation-wide basis.

I’ll leave you to read the parable of the Farnarkulator, so named, of course, in memory of the comic genius, John Clarke.

So, if numbers are problematical, where do we go instead – or at least, as well, since numbers carefully and fully understood can sometimes be useful?  Here is where we critics come in:

“The aim here, it is important to remember, is not to agree about culture, but to get better at disagreeing about it. All participants, professionals and ‘mere’ citizens must learn to talk better as enthusiastic and well-informed amateurs: as non-experts. To bridge the personal and the political, culture talk needs a robust pluralism of positions and tones.  This requires language skills as arduously acquired and profound as any expert talk.”

So now words become What Matters – like ‘excellence’ (ref George Brandis) and its replacement ‘innovation and participation’ (ref his replacement Mitch Fifield).  In the parable Buzzword Bingo, about bureaucratic language, Don Watson’s book Death Sentence is quoted:

“No doubt in the place from which these words came they
were judged competent. But they are not competent in the
world at large. They are not competent as language. They
represent an example of what Orwell calls anaesthetic
writing. You cannot read it without losing some level of
consciousness. You come to, and read it again, and still your
brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try. You
are getting sleepy again."

“Watson points out the problem, and we all laugh. But the objects of ridicule refuse to melt away.”

Thus we reach textbox 7: A Guide to Writing about Value to be used when presenting your case for funding, when words is all you have, because (ref Beatles) words, like love, is all you need.

1. Good writing skills are not peripheral to the provision of evidence: they are the key to it.
2. Because writing is part of making a case, it should not be entirely outsourced.
3. Write to communicate not to obfuscate.
4. Be specific.
5. Carefully attend to the story you are telling.
6. Keep bullshit to a minimum.
7. Be truthful.
8. Be credible.
9. Read as carefully as you write.

“This list sounds like no more than useful health advice (eat well, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep). Yet in Laboratory Adelaide’s view, communicating well about the value of culture is overwhelmingly a matter of clarity and honesty.”

And so we come to Narratives of Value; Reporting of Value including the Charter of Cultural Reporting: Six Principles of Meaningful Communication; and Conclusion.

“Over the four years of Laboratory Adelaide’s life we have followed debates about value wherever these have led us. We have talked to artists, academics, economists, CEOs, consultants, statisticians and artists again. Our conclusion is that government policy has reached a strange moment when quantitative measures have achieved dominant power over the least quantifiable area of human endeavour – culture.”

The Conclusion is made up of four Thoughts, with accompanying textboxes and parables – the story of Laboratory Adelaide’s life.  For me, as a critic, What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture places what I write in context in a much more down-to-earth way than any of my previous studies of the nature and purpose of criticism.  Maybe I’m the only one who needs it, but I recommend What Matters? to any practitioner in the arts, remembering that ““The aim here, it is important to remember, is not to agree about culture, but to get better at disagreeing about it.”

The Three of Us