Kim Williams on creativity, Australian culture and education

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Edited text of his speech:

The richest and most energetic societies acknowledge the centrality of creativity to their health and wellbeing. Creative endeavour has never been more fundamental to developing a modern society. One open to change, flexible, energetic reinforcing and celebrating the intellectual capacity, capability and originality of its citizens. From a national commitment to creative endeavour; invention, employment, debate, national confidence and good social values follow. History provides the body of evidence.

In a set of impressively argued recommendations, the Gonski report said that funding for schooling must not be seen simply as a financial matter but, rather, about investing to strengthen and secure Australia’s future. Good education develops a capacity and confidence to think. Thinking begets thinking, encouraging a capacity to observe and offer comment and criticism, and to become a capable citizen.

Finland is a pretty good example of a remarkably well educated society. Ours increasingly is not. The Gonski Report demonstrated many alarming trends which have been extensively described in the media.

I think our society is increasingly governed by several sustained characteristics which are each profoundly unhelpful, indeed destructive of committed improvement and clear direction in national public policy formulation. Consequently that much abused term the public interest is serially disrespected – no more than in education at all levels. And major negative beneficiaries are literacy, the arts and sciences.

There are four dangerous trends with manifest impact on policy formulation.

First – Money is treated as the measure of value in all things rather than as one of many measures. This creates weird misalignments which result in simplistic thinking.

Second – Politicians and their bureaucracies increasingly through neglect and disengagement, debase creativity and intellect as the vital crucibles of the national future. Too much policy is a cut and paste of disparate unrelated contributions with little internal logic or coherence.

Third – the media often is unable to disconnect discussion of science and the arts and their centrality to national innovation and expression from rigid ideological positions and populist or personal ranting.

These three elements coalesce in a fourth where our society is adopting a perilous course to celebrate the anti-intellectual resulting in the triumph of ‘general ignorance’ over considered respectful debate aimed to test ideas and assumptions and arrive at evidence supported outcomes.

These forces are readily apparent in the two arenas which empower creativity and innovation like no other – the arts and pure science. Support has declined, policies are malformed on the altar of populism and ‘dumbing down’ to an ever lower common denominator, and short term devotion rules the policy day. This is allied with a fearsome trend which denies and rejects considered knowledge based debate, replacing it with dogmatic assertion.

I would describe this process as the ‘infantilisation’ of Australian cultural and science policy. Unless a different, informed, caring and activist policy stand is adopted then stagnation, declining education standards and a marked talent drain will inevitably result. Without early correction we will have a poorer society and it will become ever harder to rebound.

I would contend that in this century a society which loses contact with and commitment to respecting and appropriately resourcing pure science and the arts across many domains, will decay.

Science has been waning in Australia for way too long. Maths and science streams in schools have seen alarming declines in normative performance levels and there is a dysfunctional challenge in policy and funding in research and scientific direction. The three word slogan rules policy formulation. Needs analyses with carefully defined priorities, backed by durable tested refinement, are distant memories.

The performing arts, our galleries and museums and our education system central to their health are in real decline. Resourcing is compromised and no longer a priority reviewed with forensic care.  Theatre and music companies have little room for experimentation as the financial stakes are so finely balanced. Film and television drama and documentary also have severe issues demanding change.

There are so many examples that demonstrate this era of passive neglect that I could never summarise them adequately in this timeframe. However they are changing the aspiration and destination on the part of our creators in the arts and sciences in profoundly unhealthy ways. The national impact on a culture of innovation is serious. …

We are a small country at ‘the bottom of the world’ (notwithstanding the internet). We have many parochial pillars which whilst ‘cheerful’ to some, are venomous to national ambition and achievement.

A nation of 23 million which speaks English is either profoundly advantaged or potentially disabled as a result almost entirely of its public policy settings and the outcomes they achieve and reflect.

Take arts policy as an example. The ALP has an (no doubt well intentioned) arts policy which tries to accommodate all comers. As a result it has little durable essence or meaning other than providing a recital of modern clichés. The federal Coalition has no published arts policy at all. None. …

The failure of political agendas in creative life is, I suggest, our collective failure.

The absence of fresh, relevant, compelling approaches, reflects a failure to renovate thinking where many working settings are in a time capsule – frozen in space and time from three, even four decades ago in their policy frameworks.

The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu urged audiences to listen with ‘clean ears’. It is great counsel and reflects one of many reasons to embrace changed approaches.

Learning to listen requires focus. Listening is increasingly a diminishing skill. Music study is in my view, the best way of getting there. After all music activates more of the brain than any other human activity and music demands concentration.

It is one of many reasons to abandon passive neglect and become active for education reform. Selfishly I think music and science should be at the centre.

We need to change thinking and direction. Our future demands it.


My addendum: never start with the problems (a way of ‘thinking’ that comes so ‘naturally’ to Australians – ‘Our population is too small’, ‘We’re too far away’, ‘Australia is huge, mainly desert and the distances between population centres are too great’, ‘There’s not enough money’, ‘The economy’s fragile’, ‘Our internal markets are too small’, etc., etc., etc.), start with what has to be done (i.e. what is your vision? The Americans understand this and have always drawn on it, advancing from cannibalism in their first settlement to global domination.).


Models of heroism: the beachgoer and the Pioneer

Charles Meere, ‘Australian beach pattern’, oil on canvas, 1940, Art Gallery of NSW; ‘a tableau of beach goers whose athletic perfection takes on monumental, heroic proportions…the myth of the healthy young nation symbolised by the tanned, god-like bodies of the sunbathers.’

Charles Meere, ‘Australian beach pattern’, oil on canvas, 1940, Art Gallery of NSW; ‘a tableau of beach goers whose athletic perfection takes on monumental, heroic proportions…the myth of the healthy young nation symbolised by the tanned, god-like bodies of the sunbathers.’

Nikolai Yakovlevich Belyaev, ‘They are Happy’, oil on canvas, 1949. ‘A scene of joyous, patriotic children, the work is full of life and colour.’

Nikolai Yakovlevich Belyaev, ‘They are Happy’, oil on canvas, 1949. ‘A scene of joyous, patriotic children, the work is full of life and colour.’


Images: top/bottom

The battle for art – part four: capitalist ideologues and Cuban hip-hop


‘…in 1932 in his book Kampf um die Kunst (The Battle for Art) (Paul Schultze-Naumburg wrote): “A life-and-death struggle is taking place in art, just as it is in the realm of politics. And the battle for art has to be fought with the same seriousness and determination as the battle for political power.”

This statement, which at first glance seems exaggerated and, indeed, absurd in view of the actual importance of art in the overall social structure, assumes reality only if art and art criticism are used as weapons in a political struggle.’

Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, Trans., Robert and Rita Kimber, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1979, 45

*   *   *

‘Secret US plot to swing Cuban hip-hop’ The Weekend Australian, 13-14.12.14

A US agency’s secret infiltration of Cuba’s underground hip-hop scene to spark a youth movement against the Castro regime was “reckless” and “stupid”, Democrat senator Patrick Leahy said yesterday.

On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program. They also confiscated computers that in some cases contained information that jeopardised Cubans who likely had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine US operation.

“The conduct described suggests an alarming lack of concern for the safety of the Cubans involved, and anyone who knows Cuba could predict it would fail,” said Senator Leahy, chairman of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Sub-committee.

“USAID never informed congress about this and should never have been associated with anything so incompetent and reckless. It’s just plain stupid.”

The plan called for contractors to recruit scores of Cuban musicians for projects disguised as cultural initiatives but really aimed at stoking a movement of fans to challenge the government.

They filmed TV shows and set up a social network to connect about 200 musicians and artists on the island, who would be encouraged to start a social movement. Artists were flown to Europe ostensibly for concerts and video workshops but the real aim was to groom them as activists.

The hip-hop operation was conceived by one of USAID’s largest contractors, Creative Associates International, using a team of Serbian music promoters.

The Washington-based contractor also led other efforts aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government, including a secret Cuban Twitter text messaging service and an operation that sent in young inexperienced Latin American “tourists” to recruit a new generation of activists.

The collection of USAID missions, which were all undertaken over the same period and cost millions, failed.

“These actions have gone from boneheaded to a downright irresponsible use of US taxpayer money,” said Republican senator Jeff Flake, a longtime critic of the USAID’s programs in Cuba.

To keep their Cuban targets in the dark, Creative Associates used a front company in Panama with directors in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands – and a lawyer in Liechtenstein to head it.

Contractors used codenames, encrypted email and cover stories to fool Cuban authorities.

A mountain of evidence is revealed in hundreds of pages of contractors’ documents obtained by Associated Press that detail the hip-hop project. Nevertheless, in a statement, USAID said, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false.”

Creative referred questions to USAID.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki yesterday said Creative Associates provided USAID with assurances that it had “security protocols in place” for “operating in a closed society and would strictly employ those protocols for all professionals travelling to Cuba”.

But Aldo Rodriguez, the front man for the group Los Aldeanos, was detained on at least two occasions, spending a night in jail. A Serbian contractor was detained coming into Havana with equipment, including a potentially incriminating memory stick that worried the contractors. He cut his trip short just weeks before Alan Gross, a US citizen working on another secret USAID program, was arrested.

In 2011, a Cuban knowingly working for the US program was detained in Havana after a meeting with a Creative manager in Miami. Computer equipment was seized with documents linking him to USAID.

In the end, the USAID program accomplished the opposite of what it intended, compromising Cuba’s vibrant hip-hop culture. When the program started in 2009, it had already produced some of the hardest-hitting grassroots criticism since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In August 2010, Los Aldeanos took the stage at Rotilla, one of Cuba’s largest independent music festivals. Before a crowd of about 15,000 people, they lacerated government officials by name and taunted the police.

Within months, a USAID contractor told his handlers that the Cubans said USAID had infiltrated the festival, and soon enough the Cubans took it over. In the end, Los Aldeanos moved to South Florida after complaining that the Cuban government made it impossible for them to work in their own country.

In a statement yesterday, the organisers of the Rotilla festival said they expected a “storm” in reaction to the revelations, one that could severely damage Cuban artists unknowing targeted by the USAID program.

“The destruction that it will bring won’t be seen in homes, structures or property. The whirlwind will drag away names, reputations and even history itself,” the group wrote. “The events to come will transform or extinguish independent art and culture in Cuba.”

Part four/to be continued…



How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization

I have re-blogged this article because, as one of the commenters under the article processed, it raises so many questions. The thoughts by SelfAwarePatterns on the article are a good lead-in.


Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article at IO9 on early neolithic societies: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization.

Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.

…The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group…

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Making Goodluck Look Good

Juju Films

President Goodluck Jonathan President Goodluck Jonathan

Nigeria is painted with the same paintbrush as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia by mainstream media, religious leaders who pedal fear in exchange for riches, and misinformed Nigerians in the Diaspora who trumpet everything wrong with Nigeria.

It is assumed that America can effectively fight terrorism within their borders, yet there was the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, Boston Marathon bombing and several mass murders of children in schools. Gov. Rick Perry high on Texas tea announced how prepared Texas was to effectively fight Ebola yet many costly mistakes were made.

I have no doubt that Nigerians are exceptional professionals and the men and women of Nigerian Armed and Security forces are no different. What we have always lacked is real leadership. Nigerian politicians spent years ignoring the threat of Boko Haram due in part to a mix of ignorance and arrogance in Aso Rock and the fact…

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