Friday, March 20, 2009

Michael Costa, Ars longa, vita brevis, the Archibalds, and the shortness of neo con squawks

After veering dangerously off into the jock world of beer drinking songs, time to get back onto the straight and narrow, and mention that the Archibald Prize 09 is now well into a run which will take it up to the 24th May, before it goes on tour.

I didn't think much of the range on view - portraiture is a tricky business,  and someone should ban hagiographic portraits of Bob Brown, lovely feller I'm sure he is, as a matter of principle (it reminds me of a dreadful portrait of Peter Garrett looking saintly in a previous year, which would look even funnier now he's become the minister for striped suit tedium). 

It was hard to get excited about the winner, Guy Maestri's portrait of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, though he executed his idea with technical skill, and it has a certain monochromatic impact and intensity. But then I'm always perverse when it comes to art, and enjoyed more Robert Hannaford's grumpy, defiant self-portrait (above), while also finding first timer Peter Hanley's ambitious homage Remembering Titian (below) bold, even if bold gambles like it tend to make you think more of Titian than the work in front of you. 

That said, the Archibald has become a noble institution, a reminder the actual arts and actual artists do attempt to exist in Australia, alongside the more attended to, and praised art of, chasing a pill around a paddock.

The title for Michael Zavros's piece is particularly striking (more so than the modernised skull joke it involves), as he references a long standing idea - ars longa, vita brevis, which comes down to us from Hippocrates, via Seneca, and which literally means life is short, art long, though the original intent is life is short, but to learn an art (or profession) is a long business. Longfellow took it and turned it into a depressive paen:

Art is long and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still like muffled drums are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

My own riff on this is that political life tends to be brief, and largely irrelevant, and if it lives on at all, it tends to live on in art or not at all. You'd be hard pressed to remember the names of the state politicians who set in motion the Sydney Harbor Bridge, or the city rail loop during the depression years, or the tribe who got involved in the Opera House over its many years of construction. 

The works live on, the names retreat to plaques at some foundation point (and yes, let's not get into the question of whether architecture is an art, since to say it isn't would establish you as a fool, and to say that Sydney's underground stations aren't art would mean you haven't experienced the joys of the late night Edward Hopper vistas to be found in Museum and St James stations).

And so we turn reluctantly from ars longa to the vita brevis scribblings of Michael Costa, one time treasurer of NSW, and now rapidly turning into the John Hewson of state labor, as he writes one dull hysterical right wing tirade after another about the failures of his former comrades (and to be fair to Hewson, he at least retains an ideological connection to his past).

Yep this week Chicken Little's concern is that once again Kevin Rudd is going to make the sky fall in with his industrial reforms - Unions may yet rue Rudd's IR reforms.

The title, which suggests Costa might actually care about the fate of unions, is of course a con. And to give you an idea of our own worries about Costa's scribblings, from where we sit the most important, and exciting development, is that it seems Costa has got over using "neo" somewhere in a column. While a literary tragedy, it's also a relief, as we can leave neo humor to one side. (But maybe we can save up his notion of Pyrrhic victory for another day, involving as it might George Bush, Dick Cheney, the Republican party, the NSW Labor party, and Costa himself).

So cutting to the chase - please let's cut to the chase - what's the ultimate point of Costa's tirade:

Alarmingly for unions, they have not captured the hearts and minds of young people and continue to be over-represented in the public sector and declining industries. By making the basic system fairer and removing the Work Choices ogre, unions may have removed any reason for workers to become members. The passing of the Fair Work Australia Bill may reduce the incentive for workers to join unions ...

Well there you go, it seems the bill might be fair and takes care of workers' rights. Funny, I didn't have a clue about that after reading the entirety of Costa's article, until it spurted out as some kind of afterthought.

 So what's the downside? ... (it will also) restrict employer flexibility and national economic competitiveness at a crucial time.

Oh woe, collective bargaining will bring to an end the wonderful productivity currently being experienced in Australia, which mainly seems to involve shipping jobs offshore and shipping Sol Trujillo back home with a fortune in his pocket and Telstra so much worse off for the pleasure of his company. 

Yep, it worked so much better when one employee entered into meaningful contractual negotiations with a behemoth company that simply said take it or leave it, and get the heck out of here if you give us any cheek.

Now, moans and squawks the Costa, we're facing unmitigated economic disaster if everything the Ruddster has devised comes to pass. We'll be back to arbitration and rigidity and stiffness in the spine, and greater business and job uncertainty, and CEOs worried about their bonuses.

So let's get down to a specific example we all know and love, at a time when the tabloid sister of The Australian, the Daily Terror, is whipping up hysteria about the NSW government exporting jobs to China, and that symbol of the digger, the slouch hat, is going to be manufactured by exotic orientals in strange faraway places. Yep, that's right, the decision of Pacific Brands to manufacture dinkum jocks and singlets in China:

The real sticking point will be on the issue of operational reasons for unfair dismissal. As the Pacific Brands outsourcing demonstrates, this could be used to frustrate productivity improvements.

You could argue that it's unfair for workers to be dismissed because a firm chooses to outsource its production overseas but it's another thing to claim the dismissals themselves, as a matter of business strategy, are unfair. The Government needs to clarify this quickly.

Huh? Ever see a columnist dancing on a pin. You might say its unfair, but it's altogether a different and dangerous thing to say its unfair. No wonder the government needs to clarify things quickly, because reading Costa is like peering through muddy water in a desperate attempt to see the bottom.

But if I read it right, it seems that the best outcome for sensible business strategies is to shift everything offshore, or failing that, have people here work for the wage rates of Chinese peasants in Guangdong province. What a noble and exciting vision of our future.

There's a lot more of this kind of two edged twaddle, but let me give you the long and the short of it - employers, flexibility and competitiveness and two legs are good, government and Rudd and everything Rudd touches and dinosaur unions and four legs are baaad.

Things are going to get worse in the economy, and the Fair Work Bill will be held accountable even though it's just a gleam in the Senate's eye at the moment as they tussle over the definition of small business. 

Truth to tell, it's actually a bill of compromises and failed intentions, and the unions will go on declining, and cleverer business people will be able to go about their business of ensuring they get decent bonsues for screwing down employees. So it was and so it will ever be, and whenever you hear a Chicken Little neo neo-conservative tell you things are an unmitigated disaster, remember that their advice produced the current unmitigated economic disaster (and let's give credit where credit is due, ex-treasurer Costa, for the state of the state of NSW).

So it goes, and so, since the sky won't actually fall in this week, if you live in NSW you have, for a modest charge, the chance to see working artists, and revisit the notion that art is long, while the squawking of Michael Costa is very short.

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