“Art is a waste of time” – second affirmative, at Art Not Apart debate

Well, my eminent colleagues and I here on the affirmative, we have certainly stumbled into something here haven’t we. What a waste of time. It is after all a debate at a popular arts festival — on whether art is a waste of time.

Not only is it certain that everyone here will already disagree with us. But should we succeed in our argument, and convince you of the indeed deep and sublime truth that art really is a waste of time, what will we have given you? A smug sense of satisfaction? More like, a bad end to your day. For if we succeed, you’ll all leave think you’re wasting your time here today. Yay for us. At least you’re not paying for it.

But it’s also painfully obvious if you think about it for half a moment: what we’ll be doing is itself an act of art — in the broadest sense. So it is by its very nature, a waste of time.

this is art, and art is a waste of time. See what I did there?

But that’s the sort of the sort of atrocious logic I have to use today. But you know what? That’s art. It’s not bound by logic. It’s a waste of time. And so I can scarcely argue, from within art, using logic to argue about art. That would be a waste of time.

Indeed to attempt to try and even argue this point is a performative contradiction. It’s like saying: “I don’t believe what I’m saying”. And much of what I’m about to say I don’t believe. if you don’t really follow me, that’s fine, because this is art and art is a waste of time.

Now of course, I agree in full with my eminent colleague Angus. The whole point of art is to be a pleasant and sometimes glorious waste of time. OF COURSE.

Indeed more than this. Art makes us feel like there is value in our lives. It lifts us up. At its limit, it reflects back to us the inner essence of what we most truly are as conscious beings who find ourselves here and now. Or at the very least, stops us from being bored.

And what an amazing privilege that we live in one of the richest cities in the richest country on earth at the richest moment in history that we can afford to enjoy it – and seen from this perspective, we should enjoy it more.

That’s how things look from the perspective of art. Let’s look at it from another, more critical perspective.

Art takes some of the world’s most creative, passionate people, and ensares them and everyone around them in a trap of vacuuity and vanity and banality and trivial activity dressed up as profundity or style. This is true both at the elite and the popular end of things. Art takes up time, energy and in particular money, to promote what are in essence polite modern versions of the circuses, of our bread and circuses.
This is true of whoever designed this t shirt I am wearing today, letting me signal a certain fashionably ironic non-fashion, to the furthest crevices of conceptual art where an object becomes and comment about a movement about a person about a movement about a comment on a movement about another object and so on turtles all the way down.
It’s true of mass exhibitions were bazillions of people walk past what is supposed to be congealed genius and think “oh that’s nice” or “I don’t get it” or think about the drive home – and it is true of this sort of event where property developers invest in keeping their patch a happening place — and that’s a very nice thing to do, thanks very much for having me, I’ve always enjoyed coming to this festival — and the CBR marketing team try to make CBR not the sort of place that hipsters keep badmouthing to their friends back home.

Close to the bone ironic criticism – CBR brand values, yeah?

And it wouldn’t be me on a stage with a microphone without some political real talk. Our world is falling apart. Let me name just one, just one of the ways. We know full well that that in my lifetime, most of your lifetimes, and unfortunately for anyone who has kids, most certainly in their lifetimes, that the world is going to cook itself unless we take very very serious action pretty much yesterday to keep the world’s carbon underground.

yet we keep ploughing our money into the fossil fuel companies that cause it — including, I am sorry to say, the ACT government’s money on our behalf. 6 Australian councils and last week the capital of Norway have voted to divest some part of the sector. We can’t be the first capital, but we could be second. Hey Andrew (Barr, ACT Chief Minister – who was adjudicating), what do you reckon?

Now, given the calamities we are knowingly perpetrating on ourselves and our future, can we really justify our passion and pretension in art? Can we really justify all this pleasant stuffing around? We should be hitting the emergency buttons.

The negative spoke about the power of art to bring people together. But look at how we are together now. Passive and tranquilised. And nothing brings people together like an emergency and nothing is more urgent right now.

Perhaps we could justify art if it were helping us to internalise the despair we ought to feel and build the hope and political agency we need to feel to get us out of this mess. But I look at art – high art and popular art – and I don’t see much of this description. instead I see inward looking games, empty hedonism, narratives of denial. and too often I see patronage by the very companies whose interests should be at issue.

where is the relevant political valence now in the world of art – high or popular? where is the laconic aussie movie, the sequel of the castle, wherein the farmers and the hippies band together to tell the coal or coal seam gas company to go and “get stuffed”?

But to finish on a metaphysical note, I fear that the reality is that art is a waste of time for a perfectly general reason.

Art pretends at its best to be an expression of the point and purpose of life. It helps us make sense of life, its point and meaning. But to suppose that makes it not a waste of time is to beg the question at issue. For that is how things look like from within the perspective of art. yet that perspective is delusional.

we are alone in the universe with no guide and no way to know where we are going, much less if it’s the right way. Sorry kids – there may indeed be a santa, an easter bunny, a tooth fairy, a chance of stopping runaway climate change – but the meaning of life? point and purpose? That’s a fantasy, the sort of nonsense that art helps us tell ourselves so we carry on, the sort of nonsense that evolution has made us want and thereby helped us to evolve the many varied, colourful, complex forms of artistic expression. Like a new way for an amoeba to consume some food.

if the value is supposed to be instrumental, then I do not see it doing much for the species right now,
If art’s value is in the supposition of meaning, then given that art’s projections are clearly delusional, it is in that sense a waste of time.

Of course, on this scorched earth of nihilism, art can’t be a waste, nor can it be not a waste. neither side of this argument can be right.

And that doesn’t make sense. But this a debate at an arts festival about whether art is a waste of time. and given that art is a waste of time, that’s what you should expect.

I’ll stop wasting your time…


The debate went to the negative – unsurprisingly!

Andrew Barr dismissed my lobbying on divestment by saying it would mean he’d have to sell the ACT government’s half share, that is, privatise, the local energy retailer and distributer.

Divestment is an act of climate leadership and the ACT says it is a leader. The half owner of the local energy system can probably do a lot more to lead by continuing to own it. ActewAGL should be supporting the government’s own position and supporting the current Renewable Energy Target, not undermining it. Owning ActewAGL is not an excuse for owning shares in thermal coal production. And if divestment is not the way the ACT wants to approach this issue, there are many other portfolio and engagement strategies to lead on the issue of carbon risk and fossil fuel investments.

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