The Examined Life

“…it’s not everyone’s job to live the examined life. But it is the job of the artist and all creative thinkers … to ask the questions that others don’t have time to ask.”
Interviews and words by Jo Litson
Excerpt Issue 4 on Duty

Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director of Sydney Festival
Rachel Healy, respected arts administrator, policy maker and the new co-Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts
Kerri Glasscock, Festival Director and CEO of the Sydney Fringe
Lee Lewis, Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company
Rachael Maza, Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company


Illustration by Aurélie Garnier


Try, if you can, to imagine a world without arts and culture. No theatres or concert halls or art galleries. No dance, opera, classical music, plays, musicals, cabaret or circus.


The little bar in your suburb that hosts live bands would be gone, along with your child’s dance school. Say goodbye to novels, cinema, television dramas, radio, pop music, video games, graphic design and fashion. It’s hard to get your head around just how many things that we take for granted would no longer be there. In fact, you probably need an artist to help you imagine what such a world would be like.


But artists do more than make art. They entertain and uplift us. They tell us about ourselves and the world we live in. They allow us to understand and empathise with others. They help our imagination take flight and our spirits soar.


As society has become more secular, people are looking beyond religion for spiritual experiences. Music can express the ineffable. With dance “you are connecting the mind, body and spirit at once,” as Stephen Page, Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre has put it.


“To be honest, a society doesn’t exist unless it has arts and culture,” says Wesley Enoch, the new Artistic Director of Sydney Festival. “Societies need stories that bind them together. It happens naturally because it’s inherently human to do it.”

So whose duty is it to ensure that Australia has a rich cultural life? Does the government have a responsibility to fund the arts and creative industries? Should corporations and wealthy individuals lend support through sponsorship and philanthropy? And what of the artists themselves? Do they have a duty to society and to each other?


Enoch is a Noonuccal Nuugi man from Stradbroke Island. An actor, writer and director whose productions include Black Diggers and the original stage version of The Sapphires, he was Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company before joining Sydney Festival.


“When you talk about ‘duty’, I hadn’t thought about it as society’s duty to the artist, but that the artist needs to articulate their duty to society. If we are not doing that job properly then we distract people from their lives rather than enhance their lives,” argues Enoch.


“We are surrounded by arts and culture but it’s so ubiquitous we don’t see it. We think of it in the same way that we give time to analysing the air that we breathe. And it’s not everyone’s job to live the examined life. But it is the job of the artist and all creative thinkers, be they scientists or innovators in business, to ask the questions that others don’t have time to ask.


“I go back to an Aboriginal reference point, that the tribe always needed someone to explain the past, the future and the present… how we got to where we are now but also to explain innovation and changes in society. Someone had to paint it, someone had to dance it, someone had to sing it. Though everyone has that spark of creativity, it’s the ability [of the artist] to give time and resources to it,” says Enoch.


“Participating in stories about ourselves is something that is as primal as the camp fire,” agrees Rachel Healy, a respected arts administrator, policy maker and the new co-Artistic Director (with Neil Armfield) of the Adelaide Festival of Arts.


“If you think about going into a packed auditorium, whether it’s to hear Richard Dawkins talk, see Sylvie Guillem dance or hear Paul Kelly sing, the sense of excitement is second to none. If the same group of people were going into a packed environment like a railway station you’d think it would be their version of hell,” says Healy.


“I could watch Sylvie Guillem or Paul Kelly or Richard Dawkins tonight at home in bed on my laptop but people want to come together. Engagement is kind of who we are as a species. I think everyone does it, they don’t necessarily identify it as part of arts and culture. When people see a piece of graphic design or hear a song on the radio or take their children to a ballet or violin lesson, they don’t necessarily join the dots back to a vibrant and rich cultural ecology but, of course, all those things do join back. One would hope that the political leadership would understand that those interconnections are crucial.”


In today’s digital age, we are more connected than ever before. But ironically, since so much of it happens online, many people feel isolated.


“The connection that arts bring to a community is even more valuable,” says Kerri Glasscock, Director of the Sydney Fringe. “It gives you a voice and a commentary on what’s going on in the world, but even more importantly, it offers audiences an opportunity to gather and to share an experience with strangers.”


Excerpt from Issue 4 on Duty – for the entire article
Jo Litson is an arts writer based in Sydney. During a 30-year career she has written for publications including The Australian, Limelight Magazine, The Bulletin, POL and Vogue Australia among many others. For the past ten years, she has been the arts writer/theatre reviewer for The Sunday Telegraph.