Still holding the mirror to society

By Associate Professor Kim Cunio 

I would like to explore the myth that creative artists cannot play a part in the major debates of our society. For years we have been writing, talking and presenting on what the creative arts are and how they can work in the university system. We have shown that practice led doctorates can train a new generation of academics, who can make art at the highest level, yet also find an underlying set of meanings from artistic practice as it is being made. We do this through rigorous self-examination, strong methodologies and an ongoing relationship with the literature. We have seen a new generation of academics flourish in the academy, breaking the myth that those who “can do” will have a professional practice and those who “cannot do as well” will become teachers or academics. Although there is much more to do, we might be able to change course a little. I believe that we do not need to justify ourselves as much now and that we should instead address the pressing issues of our world to fulfil one of the historical roles of the creative artist, to hold a mirror to society.

One of our roles as artistic researchers is to tell truth to power, or to be more precise, to help others to question dogma in all its forms and allow our collective intelligence to make up its own mind about the telling issues through a combination of intellectual rigour and direct experience.

I think about this a lot - about what it means for the arts to enter society’s larger debates. Those with vested interests may often prefer that we do not, for artists routinely get in the way. It might be Beaumarchais making meaning out both his own chaotic life and the changes in society in the Le Marriage [de Figaro] play, banned by Louis XVI in 1781, or Sting writing Russians in 1985 to both make both a sensational pop record and give voice to a generation that was tired of the Cold War and the lunacy of the mutually assured destruction (MAD), meme that underpinned it. It might be Pussy Riot or Tim Minchin, or countless other examples, for artists will always have something to say. In all of these cases artists gave voice to something larger, something that history confirmed after a tide of social and cultural change that could not be ignored. The French Revolution came with a force that even Beaumarchais may not have foreseen, the destruction of the Berlin Wall showed many of us who were alive at the time that even the most impregnable edifices can crumble in an instant, the Catholic Church has been deeply shamed by its condoning of child sexual abuse, Putin like all demagogues will pass. Art has and will play its part. While most of the politicians of our past have turned into cultural dust, the great artists still burn us today.

One of our roles as artistic researchers is to tell truth to power, or to be more precise, to help others to question dogma in all its forms and allow our collective intelligence to make up its own mind about the telling issues through a combination of intellectual rigour and direct experience.

I would like to give an example from the ANU School of Music that occurred during the week of the writing of this article. We are hosting a UK visiting visual artist / engineer, Diana Scarborough. One of the projects she is working on with us is a response to the forthcoming Adani mine in Queensland. This is not that easy to do in a university. Universities sometimes (rightly) have an expectation that their employees should not be directly involved in politics, unless they are qualified to do so. Despite holding strong views, I personally would not enter a public political debate on the Adani mine. However, at the same time many of our staff and students at the School of Music feel that we do have a role to play in examining and unpacking the complexities of the Adani mine -  that we should play our part in this national debate.

We make ... inter textual works that do not tell people what to think, but allow them to process the complexities of our world and be a little refreshed before they enter the contest of ideas again. We allow unconnected threads to meet and take a stand for what we believe in as part of the process of being an artist, yet still write in the discursive realm as needed.

Hence a new creative work about the mine. This is a work that has contains images of similar mines, so that we can see what these massive mines actually look like. These images were processed by Scarborough and combined in a multi-speaker set up with sounds that I obtained (at some considerable personal risk) from a coal processing plant in West Bengal India so that we might hear the sounds of coal being processed in India, the place where “Adani coal” is destined to end up. The music for the work is a choral setting of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon in Hebrew, a masterful Psalm that talks about the great loss of exile and culture that seemed at the time irreversible, symbolic of the depth of conflict in this issue more than two thousand years later. These disparate elements very quickly became a cohesive whole.

In my opinion this is not particularly remarkable. We make (and train other to also make) inter textual works that do not tell people what to think, but allow them to process the complexities of our world and be a little refreshed before they enter the contest of ideas again. We allow unconnected threads to meet and take a stand for what we believe in as part of the process of being an artist, yet still write in the discursive realm as needed. When we do this we have the intellectual rigour to back up our ideas. As such I would like us to encourage all our researchers, artists and students to take on the large issues that surround us. We can do this without fear or favour, to make those that believe in absolutes uncomfortable; to make artistic works that transcend politics and the binary opposites of envy; to make works that do not have the answers that reductionism craves, but instead prompt us to ask better questions. If you would like to think more about this then please listen to a recent podcast I made with the Crawford School at ANU about music as an instrument to amplify unheard voices: https://simplecast.com/s/1b201830


Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the ANU, is an activist composer interested in old and new musics and the role of intercultural music in making sense of our larger world. A scholar, composer and performer, Cunio embodies the skills of the exegetical artist, showing that writing and making art are part of the same paradigm of deep artistic exploration. The ANU School of Music is entering a new renaissance, again valued by the university and the community of Canberra due to the work of its academic staff and the fearlessness of its students.