By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
Back in February I published a piece called Sometimes Pessimism Is All You Will Feel. The title says it all. I’d like to think I am a naturally hard-working person who is capable of using a positive mindset to get things done. But shit, sometimes pessimism is all I feel. The piece was predominantly focused on many reasons the performing arts industry in Australia can be a hard place to thrive (scarcity of jobs, funding, etc, etc).
Unsurprisingly I’ve found it hard to shake that feeling lately, to the point where I find myself experiencing bouts of frustration and anger where I feel like I could scream. After all, there’s a lot to be angry about. For the sake of thematic cohesion, I will be limiting my discussion to the performing arts industry (rather than the countless disasters- economic, environmental, racial, cultural- plaguing the world in 2020).
Sometimes I truly feel like giving the middle finger to those who post relentlessly optimistic statements on social media, talking about their hope that the performing arts will emerge out of this global pandemic more valued than ever before. I really want to entertain those fantasies, but I don’t. I think if you’re posting something like that you must either be intentionally putting blinkers on for the sake of promotional cheeriness, or completely deluded.
On one hand, we have the systematic undermining and unconscionable price-hiking of arts degrees by universities and the government. After years of being told that humanities and performing arts-based careers aren’t legitimate contributions to society, we’re also being told that we’ll have to plunge ourselves in thousands of dollars of debt in order to pursue them. This doesn’t square well with universities pocketing this money while simultaneously paying lecturers peanuts and hacking away at student resources. Monash University recently announced plans to cut over 100 subjects, including its entire Musicology and Ethnomusicology specialisations.
On the other hand, we have the questionable behaviour of directors of major arts organisations such as Opera Australia. OA has historically received a lion’s share of government subsidy, but in recent years has drawn criticism for consistently out-sourcing lead roles to international singers. This became so flagrant that in 2017 there was a government review of OA’s finances and practices (along with Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera). The review found that this hiring practice resulted in a significant reduction in opportunities for Australian singers, and proposed a $200,000 fine if these national opera companies could not “produce an appropriate balance in the employment of Australian versus non-Australian artists”. That’s embarrassing.
Over the past month it has been revealed that OA is being taken to Fair Work commission by a number of former employees, after making 40% of its permanent and contract staff redundant. This happened despite OA receiving Job Keeper, a government payment with the express purpose of preventing staff cuts during the pandemic.
This pattern of profit-driven, short-sighted behaviour has been contributing to the atrophy of the Australian performing arts industry for years.
For the record, I’m not completely disdainful of an optimistic approach. I think there is a real time and place for it. Just like there is a time and place for the ‘uglier’ emotions on the spectrum. Feeling anger or even fury at the state of the world is not only valid, but it can teach you something. Obviously, it’s not healthy if it begins to overwhelm your life. That’s the balancing act.
In this age of buzz words, one has emerged that touches on this concept. ‘Toxic Positivity’. Like all buzzwords designed with attention-grabbing in mind, it’s a tad heavy-handed but the behaviour it refers to definitely exists.
‘Toxic Positivity’ is the idea that a positive attitude is a shield you can never take down; it takes ‘good vibes only’ to its most extreme conclusion. There comes a point where this approach is not only unhelpful, but actively counter-productive. Studies have shown that emotions are like inflatable pool toys; trying to suppress them will only make them pop up again even stronger.
If you’ve gone through something distressing or painful, you might have noticed that people can become incredibly uncomfortable when they don’t know what to say. Many revert to the default setting of trying to be as upbeat as possible. Perhaps it’s a sentiment about ‘moving on’ or ‘needing to look on the bright side’, or reminding someone that bigger problems exist. While this can be well-intentioned, minimising or dismissing someone’s pain is harmful.
The response that angers me the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. This motto neatly sidesteps the fact that shitty things happen to good people who work hard and do all the ‘right things’.
I suppose what I’m getting at is, as sensible, tough-minded and hard-working as you want to be, there is nothing wrong with letting yourself feel the full range of ‘icky’ human emotions. It’s completely normal and often the quickest path to getting through it and moving on. Wallowing sometimes is a great idea! (Ice cream and pajamas optional)
In regards to my newly persistent pessimism condition, I’m trying to remember that moments of anger can help you work out the things you really care about, and give you the kick up the butt to try and make those things happen.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt I stumbled across recently from Madelene L’Engle’s novel The Wind in the Door:
“With my intellect I see cause for nothing but pessimism and even despair. But I can’t settle for what my intellect tells me. That’s not all of it.”
“What else is there?” Mrs Murray’s voice was low and anguished.
“There are still stars which move in ordered and beautiful rhythm. There are still people in this world who keep promises… That’s enough to keep my heart optimistic, no matter how pessimistic my mind.”