A few weeks ago, as the caboose-end of the Melbourne Festival was trundling into view, I wrote a short piece for The Sunday Age addressing the notion of artistic risk. There'd been a couple of disappointments in an otherwise strong program, and some people (non-Festival goers) had asked how these works had managed to make it into such a prestigious festival. For me it's hardly even a question – as Francis Ford Coppola puts it in this interview: “An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby.”
It's both an exaggeration and a simplification, but you could argue that the act of creation is by definition a risk – otherwise it's just manufacturing. As Artistic Director Brett Sheehy puts it, his role is one of “calculated” risk, but there's no equation that will result in a positive for every audience member every time. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, of course. But since my Sunday Age piece was in the news section I couldn't really present a few of the opinions I have on the concept of risk as it's frequently invoked in the arts world. Often it seems to bleed in from the world of business – a kind of empty buzzword that doesn't require interrogation but doesn't really say much, either. When an emerging artist and a main stage director talk of risk, are they talking about the same thing? Does risk mean experimentation, speculation, gambling, uncertainty, investment, courage? Rather than pondering what constitutes a 'good' or 'bad' risk, I've been thinking about what the term means in practice today, and how as a structural concept it can help explain the particular economy of cultural production in which we find ourselves. It would be cheap and easy to compare this economy with other modes of discourse, so that's exactly what I'll do.
In both religious and secular terms, risk might have something to do with faith. I think there's an epistemological distinction between belief and knowledge – to believe implies a corollary doubt, even if it's unstated or denied. You don't believe in a deity or a political figure or an ideology the way you believe in piglets or pencils. To say that I believe in something is an implicit admission that I don't know it. Our knowledge can be wrong, obviously, but if that possibility makes any serious inroads into our consciousness then we enter the realm of faith. We don't ask our parents if Santa Claus is real because we know the answer. To ask them is to challenge them to lie to us. This is what art is for.
Similarly, when we describe any work of art in qualitative terms, we're rarely speaking from a place of absolute knowledge. We know that someone might disagree. That doesn't make us wrong. But it does allow for an element of doubt, and it's this doubt that gives aesthetic experience its curious energy. To doubt – from the Latin duo and habitare – is to inhabit two places at once, and that's a fine place for aesthetic inquiry to commence.
But faith is never without its dangers – to deny that doubt, to claim absolute certainty, is to risk a fundamentalism that closes off possibility. Equally, doubt itself can prove crippling, preventing movement as your feet become mired in opposing viewpoints. Maybe these aren't useful terms here at all.
What about science? Can art be theory? Not absolute knowledge, but experiment based on provisional truths? I like the hypothetical method. If all available evidence points to a particular conclusion, we can treat it as likely. Given enough support, a hypothesis can become a theory. But it's still a theory, not an inviolable fact, and contrary proofs will always make these truths susceptible to revision (Newton's theory of gravity is kind of wrong, for example, but that's a headache we shan't get into here).
Perhaps art itself is hypothesis, then, and all art works test-cases. This would explain why the questions that have been asked of art – what is beauty? what is function? what is meaning? - have changed over time. Art, in this sense, is the frame, not its content.
While there's an abstract purity to this notion, it doesn't really help us down here in the muck. It doesn't get at an art work's materiality, its situatedness, but most of all it doesn't tell us what's at stake when we think of risk, and who bears those stakes.
Let's turn to the dirty world of commerce. One of the most provocative and unexpectedly moving books I've read this year was, of all things, a history of the Cadbury family. It goes by the totally sexy title Chocolate Wars - From Cadbury to Kraft: 200 Years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalries. Mmmm. Don't let the name put you off. When I picked it up I had no idea that 300 pages later I'd be holding back a tear or two while muttering “Damn you, Kraft, damn you to hell...” through teeth firmly gritted. The book itself is a hook on which its author hangs an elaborate and compelling cultural history of the past three centuries, taking in business, theology, slavery, internationalism, social welfare, war, consumption and debt (debt, my god, debt – it's virtually guaranteed to shift your opinion on debt).
The terrifying conclusion of this number is that we've created a world in which the sharemarket rules, but we've only done this by divorcing stakeholders from the corporations they support. How many shareholders have a personal involvement with the groups they financially sponsor? Even our superannuation (sorry, freelancers, don't mean to exclude you/us) are managed by hedge fund managers – we may request 'ethical' investment but most people aren't paying too close attention to what this means. That's how we got where we are. The Cadbury family founded their business on the Quaker principle that debt was a terrible moral failing, since an inability to repay a debt might well mean your creditor can't put food on their own table. 200 years later Kraft bought the company in a hostile takeover. At the time Kraft had debts of almost thirty billion Australian dollars. This is not a company you want taking you over.
What's all this got to do with art? I'd argue that little of the discourse surrounding art addresses its stakeholders. Not its audience, but those for whom the results of risk, speculation, investment, are real and tangible. It's one thing to ask “to whom does this speak,” and another to ask “to whom does this matter?” In most cases, most obviously, the makers of a work and those who enable its production hold the majority of the figurative shares. When it comes to larger performing arts companies, there's subscriber bases to factor in too – keeping these stakeholders satisfied is as essential as it is to any stockbroker. On an even broader scale, everyone holds a stake in artistic speculation since it's an economy whose capital gains aren't monetary but cultural.
But as with our financial markets, I wonder if the gap between culture and its stakeholders isn't becoming ever-wider. We can become involved in small projects, cottage industries, but our engagement with the structures that shape our sense of the artistic landscape is limited to buying a ticket (or not), liking a Facebook page, entering a competition or sitting in for a panel session. The real risks are those taken by artistic directors, season programmers, curators, funding bodies. Some of these make bold decisions, while some play safe. Despite the rhetoric, is the disproportionate funding going to opera and classical music really risk-taking with the potential for great gain, or just pouring financial capital into areas that already bear the veneer of cultural capital? Then again, why should we expect these decision-makers to take risks when so many of us don't take a gamble on work ourselves? What's in it for us, anyway?