Opinion //

Poets inside the Republic: The power and protest of the arts

These are the moments, the places in which we not only exist, but truly live — in experience, art, poetry, community, connection, culture.

Photo: Aman Kapoor

After seven long months of the ‘Save USyd Arts’ campaign, it has finally been confirmed that the departments of Theatre and Performance Studies, and Studies in Religion will not be cut at the University of Sydney. This victory is the result of sustained, collective, and creative pressure from staff, students, the NTEU, and community, and is a testament to the power we have when we stand together in solidarity. 

The importance of this win cannot be understated. Amid a global crisis in the arts and education sectors that has seen one in five university jobs lost across Australia, we have not only shown University management that cultural practice and creative research matters, but also how we can win what at first seem like impossible fights when we come together. 

Despite our consistent appeals for clarity, management would neither confirm or deny what we perceived to be the specific threats to the departments. As a joint honours graduate and aspiring PhD candidate in both departments and a staff member of Studies in Religion, I threw myself into the fight to protect the disciplines in which I had found a home — and perhaps more importantly, envisioned a future. 

So, for seven brutal months my work and future, along with that of colleagues, students and our departments were uncertain. Sadly, as anyone working in the arts or education will tell you, this visceral experience of devaluation and anxiety is nothing new. But what was perhaps worse than this, was the overwhelming sense that my work, our work, didn’t matter — at least not in the neoliberal system which puts profit before education and perceives the pursuit of learning and creativity to be a privilege, not a right.  

Although ‘God’ and ‘Art’ are easily commodifiable under capitalism, questions of value and viability are often thrown back in the faces of artists, students, academics, and others who pursue something not for profit, but the pleasure or power of it. In the case of Theatre and Performance Studies, and Studies in Religion, what we do and look at operates in an economy well beyond financial terms.  To study and critically engage with creative and cultural practices such theatre and religion is central to our ability to create, critique and explore what it is to be alive. We are interested in and take seriously, the multitude of ways in which humans encounter the world and cultivate spaces in which we meaningfully dwell. Knowledges and practices that sit outside the realm of possibility, the empirically verifiable or economically quantifiable — things like embodiment, subjectivity, experience, energy, feeling, fantasy, divinity — are at the heart of what we do. We explore the possibilities of experience, the limits of the self and our relationship to others and the world around us.  

And so, while any proposed cuts to education are deplorable, these attacks were, and continue to be, ideological. After working creatively for ten years, family and friends were puzzled by my decision to return to university — a desire to learn, to deepen my thinking and expand my creative practice appeared to be indulgent, let alone a waste of time if it did not leave me ‘Job Ready’.  But the power and purpose of an Arts degree lies in its unsuitability for this world. As one colleague put it to me — it prepares you for a world that doesn’t exist yet. It’s up to you to create it. 

And so, part of our responsibility, as artists, academics, and creatives, comes with our skill set — we are radicals, critical thinkers, dreamers, testers of limits and cultivators of fantasy. Plato famously railed against the power of the poet and saw them as a threat to the Republic. Artists, and Arts graduates, are dangerous. Through our work we challenge society, speak truth to power and show the world what is possible. It is no coincidence that both sectors, the arts and public universities, were offered little to no assistance in the Liberal Government’s Job Keeper Scheme. This is in addition to the cost of an Arts degree increasing by 113% in 2020. It is staff and students bearing the brunt of these ideological attacks — those in power would see us fed and watered but kept in our place: outside the city gates. 

But we have breached the citadel. And so, as I see it, the opportunities of this moment are many. Over the course of the pandemic, we have endured the loss of our rituals, special events and community. The importance of these practices only materialise when we are confronted with their disappearance — the vastness of the space that is left in their absence. I would argue that the same can be said for the two supposedly small departments — faced with their potential closure it was beyond galvanising to witness the groundswell of support from staff, students, artists, academics, and community members from around the world. Thousands of voices came together to resoundingly support the departments, not only for their institutional and cultural importance, but for the type of knowledges, communities and practices they investigate, support and champion. As we emerge from the supposed ‘cave’ of COVID-19, we now have tangible possibilities to reimagine creative and cultural practice at the University and its place in society beyond. 

Although we are celebrating the win today, the fight and campaign continues. There are still proposed cuts to courses, casual jobs, and degrees ahead. Earlier this year, FASS Dean Annamarie Jagose remarked that the status quo was untenable. I would have to agree. The status quo is the systemic defunding of cultural and creative disciplines which are practice led. The status quo is the devaluing of forms of knowledge, pedagogy and value that sit outside of the economically quantifiable. The status quo is creative and cultural practice being considered a luxury. The status quo is gutting arts and humanities faculties for the sake of profit margins. We must carry the power and joy of this win as we continue to collectively imagine a different status quo. We must join with other universities and demand that the Group of Eight fight with and for us, comprehensively and unequivocally condemning the systemic underfunding of not only public tertiary education but also the arts sector.

After I had logged off from the all-staff zoom meeting with the FASS Dean, I was exhausted and elated. The possibility of a future had been returned to me, to my departments, to my colleagues, to my fellow students — to us. The moment of catharsis had left me overcome and unable to speak. I was called not to words, but to movement and music. I wrapped my arms tightly around my body and slow danced with myself to the stomping honky tonk of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’.  

Acknowledging that this piece will go to print fifteen weeks into Sydney’s long COVID-19 lockdown, I can assure you that your own moment of catharsis will come — I can only imagine the ways you have been existing, surviving but not living. I don’t know when, but it will come — when life will return to you, when things feel good again. That moment will not appear to you in concrete, cognitive, empirical data — there will be no 11am press conference.  It might present itself in the feeling of the sun on your maskless face, on the crowded dance floor of a rock gig, in the meeting of your skin with another’s as you are held by a friend or a lover for the first time, or in the sensation of wonder as you are unexpectedly moved by a work in an art gallery. These are the moments, the places in which we not only exist, but truly live — in experience, art, poetry, community, connection, culture. Wittgenstein was wrong — our words are not the limit of our world.  Sometimes only rock and roll and swaying hips will do.