At a time when fear governs politics rather than vision and principles, at a time when we cannot offer our hand to those in need, at a time when support for music education is diminishing but studies show that music increases our empathy towards others and that it also has positive effects on the development of neural pathways, how can we not be encouraging more artistic experience and participation? This is the time when art is most useful! – Adam Simmons – liner notes from Origami’s CD, The Usefulness of Art, 2012.
Twenty-odd years ago, as I was studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, it was reading Auguste Rodin’s views on “The Usefulness of the Artist” that helped inform my own raison d’être in pursuing a life in music. Over two and a half decades later, I believe I understand more clearly the necessity of art to our everyday lives.
In 1990, I was at the beginning of a life in the arts – I had just relocated from Ballarat to study improvisation at Victorian College of the Arts. It was a steep learning curve, and an immensely important formative time in my life. The aim of the course as expressed by saxophonist and Head of Improvisation, Brian Brown, was to produce artists ready for “the international stage”. We learnt materials and skills towards this end, including learning jazz standards, ensuring we would be prepared and flexible for work in different circumstances and for this I remain immensely grateful.
But I kept asking myself, what use was I to society? What purpose could there be in creating music, which is so ephemeral? What right did I have to pursue a personal passion with seemingly little material benefit, other than making people dance, be happy and help pubs sell more beer?
This is where Rodin came in.
Rodin on Art shares a series of conversations Paul Gsell had with Rodin around 1912. I found it in my parent’s book collection and was immediately drawn to the final chapter entitled, “The Usefulness of the Artist”.
Firstly, Rodin defines the artist as meaning “the man who takes pleasure in what he does.” 1 He then expands: “So it would be desirable were there artists in all trades – artist carpenters, happy in skillfully raising beam and mortice – artist masons, spreading the plaster with pleasure – artist carters, proud of caring for their horses and of not running over those in the street. Is it not true that would constitute an admirable society?”2
And the kicker for me was his statement that: “I call useful all that gives us happiness.” 3
This single chapter gave me something to build my own personal framework for understanding how I could be of use to society: create with pleasure and make people happy – to borrow from Michael Leunig, it is as simple and as difficult as that.
For the next twenty years or so, this framework helped guide my artistic endeavours across many different situations from cover and function bands, as well as various original music ensembles, including my own. This is not to say that I limited myself to performing music to easily please audiences or appeal to the lowest common denominator – no-one familiar with my music would accuse me of that! Performing across many scenes from the experimental scene of Fitzroy’s Make It Up Club to recording with Gotye to doing a breakfast wedding on MMM with Spiderbait to jamming with Nigel Kennedy till dawn, as well as sitting on several funding peer panels, I have developed a somewhat unique perspective on how artists and their contributions are valued. I often used to argue that what we did as artists was useful in an economic sense and that it should be acknowledged.
Then, in 2010 I became aware of research such as Throsby and Zednik’s Do you really expect to get paid?4, which helped quantify various aspects of the arts in economic terms. I thought great, at last the bean counters can be talked to in their language. But slowly my thinking shifted: the numbers had nothing to do with what Rodin had talked about. They gave an economic rationale, but didn’t explain the usefulness of it – the “why”.
Then in 2012 a confluence of news events hit me. Firstly, a news article about research showing the link between music and the development of empathy in children5, then a wave of cuts to music institutions including ANU6 and Victorian TAFE courses7, against the background of the continuing persecution and detainment of asylum seekers.8 It almost felt like there was a deliberate effort to stifle art which might develop attributes that connected people.
In searching for what I could do in response, I decided to do what I do: create some art. Two main bodies of work emerged at this time in mid 2012 – one was sound barriers, a solo exhibition of my sculptural assemblages at Catherine Asquith Gallery, and the other was the suite recorded by Origami, entitled The Usefulness of Art after revisiting Rodin’s words. The common theme between them was my attempt to highlight the qualities that art engenders, including: acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith.
As a result of developing, presenting and expanding upon these works in the years since, I have only strengthened my understanding of the importance of art in our lives, which is multi-faceted ranging from developing empathy, honing motor skills, instilling discipline, awakening creativity, forging neural pathways and more. Though, this all seems to be overlooked – one example that frustrates me is that every few years I read about a new study showing how valuable musical education is in aiding a young person’s academic development, yet I remember being aware of this when I was a teenager in the 80’s – how many papers have to be written before something changes?
Beyond the more utilitarian nature of art being for economic or personal development, it is also how art can build community. Through performances with my ensembles, especially the Adam Simmons Toy Band and the Creative Music Ensemble, and as artistic director (Festival of Slow Music, 100:25:1, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues) I have seen firsthand how music and art can bring disparate people together in shared and transformative experiences. Social connectedness has been identified as an important factor for health and wellbeing.9 I believe art is fundamental in helping us communicate and connect which other.
Artistic expression manages to convey understanding and insight via means other than language. The things that make art so powerful in this regard are the intangibles – the way it helps inspire, question, empathise and unite us, helping create stronger communities. I think that’s useful!
1. Rodin on Art, translated from the French of Paul Gsell by Mrs Rommily Fedden, Horizon Press (1971), page 233
2. Ibid, page 233
3. Ibid, page 235