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Needing a cheer up, we await the return of our healers: the artists


There was often a spare seat in the first car that came by, a flag fluttering from the vehicle’s aerial, the space inside shared with balloons, streamers and restless excitement.

Here, then, was a quest for the most compelling performing art in our windswept little world.

Through the warm months, there were buckjump shows — called rodeos now — trips to the beach and agricultural shows with ferris wheels, stunt drivers, boxing tents and prize bulls. Occasionally, there were concerts in wooden halls. Once in a while, the circus came to town.

Trapeze artists in action for Wirth's Circus in the 1940s.

Trapeze artists in action for Wirth’s Circus in the 1940s.Credit:Age archive

Wirth’s Circus arrived by steam train, elephants swaying on open wagons, lions roaring. Squads of sweating circus hands armed with sledgehammers raised the big top. For weeks after, those of us fortunate enough to attend held the playground goggle-eyed with tales of trapeze artists flying without so much as a safety net below.

It is verging on painful to recall such regular and simple old-time gladness as our state shuffles to this grand final weekend without a single game on a Victorian field from the MCG to Paynesville and Patchewollock.

Richmond and Geelong, of course, will go at it on Saturday night. But they will be at the Gabba in Brisbane, and those of us tethered to Victoria will be socially distanced before our TV screens. And that’s about it.

The ancient Romans knew, albeit cynically, that the people needed bread and circuses if they were to be content. This COVID year, there has been little more than bread.

Our circuses have amounted to Dan Andrews’ daily media conferences, our hearts in our mouths as he intones the number of new infections; or the latest televised performance of Donald Trump, the demented clown in the biggest big top in the world.

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It is the absence of live performances by artists capable of lifting the heart that has been hardest to bear.

Long ago, I graduated from hitch-hiking to footy grounds, discovering that art extended beyond footy and that a life lived without exposure to theatre and music and dance was barely a life at all. Great performances went beyond entertainment and offered revelation.

Until this bleak year, no physical calendar could cram in all the events that set Melbourne’s heart beating and made it among the most satisfying cities in which to live on Earth.

Comedy? Literature? Stage productions? Film? Music? Dance? And yes, tennis, football of all permutations, Grand Prix racing, horse racing carnivals, food from every culture. On and on, this great city delivered.

It was happening everywhere. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has totted up figures showing that in purely economic terms, the performing arts, music, film, TV, literature and the visual arts together contributed $42.7 billion a year to the Australian economy, or 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product.

Yet from February 1 this year, the Morrison government chose to abolish the Department of Communications and the Arts, merging its functions into a new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The word “arts” was tossed to the wind.

At exactly the same time came the virus that would change everything.

A mural in Hosier Lane of comedian Celeste Barber, who raised millions for bushfire relief through a social media appeal.

A mural in Hosier Lane of comedian Celeste Barber, who raised millions for bushfire relief through a social media appeal.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The government, unsurprisingly, has struggled ever since to argue that its assistance for artists and performing companies shuttered by the pandemic has been anything but piecemeal, or that it even understood what the arts really meant, though it is currently launching a parliamentary inquiry to find out.

And yet, in the wake of every emergency, it is society’s artists who are called on to lead the healing.

No sooner have “first responders” finished their work at the fire front or the flooded landscape or the cyclone-ravaged towns than musicians and performers arrive to lift spirits — particularly those of traumatised children — and to raise funds.

But this time, of all the entertainers, only the top level of the major sporting codes had the money or the government support to form “bubbles” that have enabled them to keep performing live during the pandemic.

This weekend, we may be thankful there is a game to watch, even if it is on TV, and even if there is no ground in the entire state where we could attend.

But in the broader business of cheering up and inspiring and revealing truth, we await the return of the real healers — the artists, too many of them abandoned to starve in their garrets, metaphorically or otherwise.

Right now, who wouldn’t hitch-hike 1000 kilometres to witness some first-class live comedy? Or a song?

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