aside “As artists who want change, we are propagandists”. Thomas Kent

Thomas Kent
Thomas Kent

Thomas Kent, 59, from Melbourne, Australia has a myriad of artistic disciplines; such as: journalism, creative writing, visual art, photography, music composition, video and performance art. We at Art Saves Lives International are pleased to have Thomas’s voice in this issue.

Please tell us about yourself, Thomas?

I was born in a part of New Zealand (NZ) that was poor when my father, a scientist, moved there. But then it became gentrified, so I was lucky enough to have the best school education available.  Although I was among NZ’s top students in English at school and university, I couldn’t see any career path in the arts, so I worked in the public service, just following the arts as a hobby, but also politically active in migrant rights and as a union leader.

I moved to Australia at the age of 24, so I have lived far longer in Australia than N.Z., but still followed the same career and activities path.  Then I left the Public Service.  and went through a period of extreme poverty.  I was doing volunteer work; helping refugees – as a political and human rights leader suggested that I had skills that were valuable, so I worked in that area for seven years,  finally unexpectedly becoming disabled at the age of 55. Paradoxically, the pension freed me from money worries, so since then I’ve taught myself music and worked across most artistic fields with a large number of fantastic people.

What is your artistic/creative background?

It’s been all hands on. My English extended family or even clan are very working-class and most left school early, and arts was not an interest for them. My father was exceptionally smart and got a navy scholarship, moving to N.Z. after the war.  He had no interest in the arts, but my mother was musical, and a sister who later became a significant musical figure in NZ encouraged me in the arts.

At the age of 12 I became Buddhist through my own reading.  It was years before I met other Buddhists, but then had 40 years worth of teaching by monks and lama, who taught me chanting, logic and other topics.  I was so, so, so lucky to have that!  And at Uni I studied English and Psychology; lucky to have excellent teachers.

I study my art obsessively.  I put in at least eight hours a day absorbing and critiquing art, and I study and practice the technical skills of, for example, poetry, and the arts of logic and rhetoric.  It’s very important to keep that professional side.

What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?

I was always passionate about human rights, for as long as I can remember.  At school I led strikes and started clubs that improved the system.  So I grew up knowing that one can create change.  At the age of 15, I started working for an underground magazine, Earwig, learning how to pull apart and maintain the old offset press we used in the Vietnam War protest days.

Since then I’ve been active in many ways, so I’m a politics junkie, and a very accurate election forecaster.  That’s made my skills useful to some leading human rights figures.  I’m also a natural organiser.  But mostly, I don’t create political art.  My politics is factual – articles, essays, reports.  The politics in my creative art is between the lines.  With a deep practical involvement in human rights causes, I can find much political writing naive.


Rise, rise up little flowers
Push your soft black pistils into
The stone threads of the night
Breathe the sweet, harsh, black 
Unexpected air of freedom.
Forgive us, strange children
For raising you to be mirrors.
How circular is our motion
Our eyes open but we see nothing
Only the past projected on a movie screen.
Beloved slaves born into a broken system;
How sweet is the smell of your lingering doubt
How sharp the knives of experience
How beautiful and strange your rejection of false prophets
How true and lovely your pure perception.
Take back what should be yours, what was claimed to be bestowed;
When we gave you our dreams, they turned out to be nothing.

14/April/2016   –  By Thomas Kent

Tony Abbott is, to me, a dangerous and repellent figure.  I had followed his career for 23 years and was horrified when he became Prime Minister, a post no-one considered him suitable for. So this poem uses the tools of rhetoric and satire to try and paint him as a human figure.  It’s in some ways based on Francis Bacon’s ‘Pope Innocent X Screaming“. And I’m proud of the accuracy.  During the following years it became clear how isolated Abbott was, and this  eventually cost him his position as Prime Minister.

And so here we are
In that conflict the writer prophesied
There is no Dark Mark to alert us
But those who have eyes can see.
The elected man’s madness revealed, deposed
Ranting like a gibbon on the margin of the page
Swinging his arms and still shouting for the spotlight
And they have found a new puppet to jiggle on their strings
Jerking plastic smiles and pretending to represent
While all the while implementing the plan of a hidden cabal
And exuding the sickly, rancid perfume of fraudulence.
While we, wands drawn, look for the invisible enemy;
Our servitude long plotted by the servants of dark lords
All control is fallen out of our hands, and those who claim to serve
Conspire to enslave us and overthrow our freedom.
They change the laws at their whim.
And yet the situation is not unsalvable
In every land and clime, through every place and time
The powerful seek to control and bring all to them
But the system we have inherited from the wise of the past
Is not fallen and can still be used to depose the straw men
Our voices not yet silenced, we can take back what is ours.
It starts by True Sight; knowing and seeing what they are
These fraudulent strutting buffoons mired in pretence
Participate; persuade; look for those who truly serve
Rejecting tainted mammon and accepting the gifts of the small
Believe, believe, for the solution is within our grasp
For true prophets merely see and tell what is
Just as a small cabal has seized power, so can we.

14/April/2016  –  By Thomas Kent

What is your process when creating?

Much of my creativity comes from dreams.  I am a lucid dreamer, so can consciously explore images and write within dreams.  That comes from meditation. And I create through inspiration and at the edge of sleep.

It’s easy to believe that our creations that flow or that come from inspiration are better than those made through pain and dogged effort, but it’s not so.  Sometimes very uninspired work turns out to be among our best.

Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?

I read very widely in the fields of art, though I’m not up much on the latest figures.  That’s because I read a lot of old materials – right through from the Renaissance up to the 1950’s.  Those old-time folks were fantastic.  From school, I loved the Pre-Raphaelites, the Surrealists, the Gonzo Journalists.  Those continue to inspire a great many young people.  I also have a lot of influence from Buddhism, Asian history, thought, and art.  There’s incredible richness and depth in that Asian study.  My favourite book (and the best novel in history), is the 14th C. Chinese ‘The Water Margin’.  A leading Chinese translator said there were a lot of Chinese echoes in my work.  I also find that other Buddhists can understand my art more easily.  There are  so many Buddhist figures in art – Kerouac at one stage, Ginsberg, Glass, Scorsese, a legion of poets and actors and directors.  The Buddhist influence is very strong in what we can call an artistic renaissance from the 1950’s through to today.

Who inspires you in general?

That’s a really long list, you know!  There’s that whole great swathe of Buddhist thought and art – Chandrakirthi, Vasubandhu, Longchenpa, Basho – there are so many.  In art, all sorts of people from Durer through to Bacon.  The prominent essayists – Bacon (the old one), through to people like Chomsky and Vidal.  In music, Purcell, Dowland, Glass, Nyman, Ligeti, Stockhausen – the ancient and the modern.

But in one way, I consider myself a horror and fantasy writer.  Not the modern things so much, as all of the great short story writers that flourished in the first half of the 20th century.  Chekov, Bierce, Blackwood, Leiber – there were so many of them, ranging from limited but fascinating writers like Lovecraft, through to people with very high literary ability, such as Tolkein.  I read Lord of The Rings at least once every year and get more out of it each time.

What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?

I care about all human rights issues, so I work for whatever is there at the time.  I spent seven years working within the Horn Of Africa refugee communities.  That was unheard of – a Buddhist accepted by and working for Muslims.  Now I’m associated with the Sex Party in Australia, so LBGT rights, sex worker’s rights, those things.  But overall, what mainly moves me is the continuing battle to see that the rich and powerful do not oppress the poor and weak.  The defence of freedom never rests.  I’m basically an anti-Corporatist and fight for that.  Freedom is something that has to be fought for continuously throughout history.

What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?

They are perfectly literal.  This is the example I use. There was a pampered daughter living in her special room in her parents’ house.  Poetry was her passion, but mostly she was not all that good.  A friend talked her entering into a competition.

Emma Lazarus won the competition for a poem to put on the Statue Of Liberty.  Now, the Statue was not supposed to be about immigrants.  It was about the American revolution.  But because Emma was moved by the story of her immigrant parents, suddenly it became about acceptance.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me”.  It influenced the whole policy and attitude of the USA.  In 2008, I helped some immigrant workers  raise awareness of the 22,000 refugees in Shimelba camp in Ethiopia.  The USA then accepted 15,000 of them – people who would have mostly died early there.

Who we are as people comes from artists like Homer, Whitman, Tu Fu, Banjo Patterson.  Poems and books and paintings and photos and movies.  These are the people who define and develop our cultural identity.  They are far more lasting and influential than kings or presidents.  Art goes straight to the heart.  The head follows.  We are all the creations of art.

As artists who want change, we are propagandists.  We mustn’t forget that.  We have to engage and change, persuade our audiences.  Overtly political art becomes didactic, and that is boring.  Vonnegut wrote a very interesting essay on why dictatorships fear and oppress artists and our system doesn’t.  Vonnegut also wrote that all of the artists in the USA were against the Vietnam War, and it had no effect.  But it’s a matter of time scale.  Our governments are there for three years: dictators are there for thirty years.  So we have to understand that art changes things but it may be slow.  The politicians of today are all influenced by, even programmed by, the art they absorbed while growing up.  Now we accept that Vietnam was a mistake.  That affects their attitude to conflicts now.

Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?

Hmmm…saved my life?   They are my life, the essence of my being, even during my long days as a public servant.  I like the image of the Muses.  They grab us, whisper into our ear, then we must drop everything and create.

I know very well I have changed the world!  Or at least, the laws and policies and practices of Australia and NZ, if in a small way.   I’ve been a part of so many fights and efforts since the Vietnam War protest.  The latest thing was helping friends gain control of the local council, which has made the suburb where I live a much better place.  So some efforts I’ve suggested and led, others I joined in.  But they all worked: they were all successful.  So believe that art can create change.  Those Facebook Followers you have – they’re listening.  You just need to work out what is appropriate, find out what works.

What are your present and future goals for your art?

I’m going through a period of intense ill-health – heart attacks, pneumonia, that stuff.  It’s left me very weak and vulnerable; this has given me a new awareness of what that feels like.  For this reason, apart from articles, essays and poems, I have to retire from political activism.  From 2011 to 2014, I organised a series of readings, koLABorAYshun, that focussed on collaborative, experimental and multimedia work, that got us national attention.  When I’m fitter, I will start that again.

I want to create more multimedia.  To get my various arts – poetry, music, photography, design – all working together to try to create experiences to involve and move the people.  As artists, we are the voice of the people: we can inspire and move them.  That is why we are given the privilege of a relaxation of societal expectations and rules.

In your opinion, is capitalism the best system in today’s world? 

No system is best. As a Buddhist, I believe in the Middle Way.  Communism and Capitalism are seen as the same, and both are extremes.  When I grew up in NZ, our Prime Ministers called it a Socialist country.  I’m a Social Democrat.  What works best is a mixed economy.  Capitalism is a necessary part of that, but it needs to be controlled.  It’s our responsibility as citizens to make sure that is so. At the moment, one branch of capitalism – coal and oil – enjoys political influence over emerging branches – renewable energy.  So we mustn’t think of capitalism as one monolithic entity. Capitalism is competitive.  Different sectors want different outcomes.  For example, we have the military industries, who profit from suffering and death, as against the retail sector, which always suffers during war, so is against war.

What are your opinions on how capitalism serves those who are born without the wealth and opportunities enjoyed by others?

I’m a follower of John Ralston Saul and Robert Reichs on this. Capitalism, expressed as Neoliberalism, sees countries in economic terms.  If you define things economically, then such people are a liability.  I was lucky enough to enjoy free higher education.  That is because my country at that time defined ‘Wealth’ as empowering people to achieve what they wanted in the belief that would benefit the whole country.  Since then I have watched Corporatism, which is increasingly bizarre, increasingly disconnected, gain power.  So this balance has been lost.

If capitalism rewards only ability, what are your thoughts on those who can’t compete? For example, to people with physical or mental disabilities?

Empowering people means giving them a chance to contribute, to give what they can to society.  We are herd animals.  We’re not solitary, like tigers.  So the first thing is free or cheap medical treatment.  I am physically disabled, and couldn’t cope without drugs that cost hundreds of dollars.  But in Australia I enjoy cheap prescriptions and free medical care.  Access to education is the vital tool for empowerment.  Then next is the needed therapy and training.  If we think economically, as Neo-liberal Corporatists, such people are a drain and burden on society.  You may as well put them all in extermination camps.  But if we see society as an organism, then protecting and including even those who are so disabled they require total support even to live, is a positive.  It benefits the whole of society.

What are your views or suggestions on an alternative economic system?

What we see historically is that there is a lag.  The system changes, and after thirty or fifty years or so, the form of government also changes.  Our economy is entering a new era, so the government will change too.  But we can’t predict what that form will be.  We can’t control it, we can only watch and guide it.  Every attempt to impose a system involves force, and always makes the lives of people worse.  So we have to see what emerges, trim the bad parts and encourage the good.

Has capitalism affected you in any way in your life?

Yes, since I have been a union leader and involved in many actions, some ground-breaking at the time.  Later, returning to work, I was a call centre operator.  I found that the conditions had changed and deteriorated a great deal and that management had all the power, so I know the challenges faced by young people today. I wouldn’t call that capitalism so much as corporatism which, as Mussolini pointed out, is identical to Fascism.  That’s very much something that has to be, and can be, fought against.

In your opinion – who benefits from poverty, and how?

Well, slumlords do, militarists do.  Poverty means disempowerment, and some Neoliberals and Capitalists believe they benefit from disempowerment.  It makes it easier for them to do whatever they want.  But there is increasing support for the long-term view which accepts that to empower and strengthen the whole country profits everyone.  We also now see a movement where the new capitalists give away their money.  Gates and Zuckerberg and many other billionaires are giving, not just small amounts for tax breaks, but 90% of their wealth.  So I hope that movement grows – but that wealth came from monopoly in the first place.

How do images/videos/news reports of people in poverty influence society in different countries? What is your country like?

I grew up in NZ which is a small island.  You know the guys who run the country, they live next door.  It’s an early adopter, so new movements catch on.  Women first got the vote there.  Then later, they completely accepted Neoliberalism, then were one of the first countries in the world to totally abandon it.  But now I live in Australia, which is also quite liberal and atheist. Though the Right has temporarily gained power, the mood and history of the country greatly restricts what they can do.

Reports are most effective when people are involved, can influence things.  If a company badly mistreats its workers, media reports and images make people stop buying its products.  Reports of for example the Thai Tsunami made Australians give millions of dollars, more per head than any country in the world.  Social pressure, mass pressure, can accomplish things.  But you must convince and persuade people first.

To what extent does stigma contribute to the experience of living in poverty in your country, and in your opinion what could be done to address this?
Stigma greatly affects things. For example, there is a very high suicide rate among gays.  But the majority of population now accepts and wants LBGT rights.  That is a slow product of art and protest: it’s been nearly half a century since the Stonewall riots.
Working among the African community, I’m greatly aware of stigma.  Australia has a history of oppressing black people, and they constitute a small enough percentage that for many people, they are exotic and strange.  That’s why there’s a 50% unemployment rate among their young people.  But those are sins more of omission than commission: the populace wants equality.  It’s a matter of working out the means.  Working against this is a slow process of making people aware of the problem, and also engaging with people like ministers and senior police.
There are many charities working for rights, but the skill to write media releases and reports that are effective are rare.  Creative writers and other artists can aid this.  They have those skills, and know how to engage and convince people.

Protest and protest movements have a place.  But the fact is, that back room negotiations also can accomplish a great deal.  There are many friends in the corridors of power, but they need to be given a path and the arguments to follow.

What in your opinion works in reducing the negative impact of growing up in poverty on a child’s life chances?

Education, education, education and education. Education empowers people, creates change. This is why the oppressors are trying to limit universities to the children of the rich by raising fees.  They try to cut pure research, and the liberal arts that teach people how to think and reason, and divert money from state schools to private schools.  The result is that Australia is beginning to fall out of the top leagues.
What has happened is that the Right-wing Christians have stacked the Liberal Party (= conservative) branches.  The figures show that the moderates have been forced out.  They have put conservative figures at the top of the Senate tickets so they are sure to be elected, whereas the voters would not support them in lower house seats.  But, as you can see happening now in America, the populace rejects this.  The Liberals are only in power because Labor also has a Neoliberal program, so the voters know that there is not a big difference.  The Westminster System that Australia uses is in effect an oligarchy, so change comes more slowly than the USA.  But parties like the Greens and the Sex Party are gaining ground.  Change will gradually come if it’s worked for.

Nearly 1/2 of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day. How does this make you feel and is this something you think about and actively try and change, and if so how?

A great many less people in developing countries are under the poverty line than fifty years ago, so internationally, poverty is gradually falling.  Capital constantly moves its manufacturing base as wages rise.  So, it moved to Japan in the ’60s, then to Korea, then to China, and now it is going to other places like Indonesia and Vietnam.  Although these workers can face harsh conditions, this process does gradually bring wealth, although it also creates environmental destruction.  Capitalism needs end users, consumers, to create wealth.  In developing counties, this means workers must be paid enough and be free enough to buy.  In developed countries, publicity and investigations stigmatise the most exploitative industries, and consumers react to that.  A recent example is the publicity over slaves in Indonesia fishing shrimp that then went to Thailand to be processed and ended up on our tables.  A documentary investigated this process and two thousand slaves were freed.  So gradually, light is thrown on these abuses, and the consumer has power to react to and alter that.

Do you think war is ever necessary and why?

If we look at history, we can see rare examples where a war or revolution has improved things. One case is the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, which overthrew the Pol Pot regime. In the middle case, we have war that results from political change.  The old order resists, or there can be competing ideologies.  Examples are the First World War, which overthrew monarchical and imperialist systems, and the Second World War, in which the corporatist ideology of Fascism was overthrown.  But this ideology, softened and renamed, now dominates our governments.  Finally there are useless wars. They can arise from popular pressure or for corporatist gain, or just from nonsense and stupidity.  So we can say that in general, war is unnecessary, but we have to judge case by case.   There are instances in which violence is necessary for people to increase their freedom.

Who profits and gains in general from war, in your opinion?

It is useful here to read Mary Kaldor’s ‘New Wars And Old Wars’.  Kaldor’s basic thesis is that the nature of wars have changed. Formerly, they were fought between armies.  Now they are essentially genocidal attacks on the civilian population, in order to gain resources and slaves.  This has been prompted by the governments of the USA, Russia, Britain, France, and Australia, becoming committed to the arms industry.   It is a bit similar in Australia to the government’s addiction to poker machines, which create revenue but also, many societal problems.  This glut of weapons in turn finds its way to bandits and organised crime.  They badge themselves as freedom fighters, build teams led by criminals and composed of disempowered and unemployed youths, then attack the civilian population.

In your opinion what motivates war? Is it capitalism, patriarchy, the standing of a country or revenge etc?

Except for some cases as noted above, war is essentially a criminal activity in which lawlessness creates murder, slavery, rape and theft. There are many causes for war.  It is important to look at the specific pressures and circumstances that lead to any given conflict.  Any unmixed political system, whether capitalism, communism, patriarchy, matriarchy, imperialism or hegemony, can create war and has done so in history.  Politics, and war, are quite simply competition for resources.  They can be led from the bottom or the top.  That is, a population can force a government into war, a disempowered minority can see gains from war, or, the government can condition the population for war.  This last is the ‘old war’ system, which has been largely replaced by the ‘new war’ system started by organised crime.
In capitalism, the main gains from war go to the military-industrial complex, which is established in power.  But their power is challenged by other sectors.  Retail, travel, internet, infrastructure and other industries do not profit from war, which completely destroys economies.  Though the conflicts in the world are horrific, their number is decreasing.  Under monist systems such as post-communist repressive societies, the leaders use war as an excuse to extend their power and to distract the populace from internal problems.
The mainstream population can also benefit from war.  In this case, war is a gamble, an attempt to grab resources.  In Germany during the preparation phases of the Second World War, military spending essentially bankrupted the government.  But as territory was taken, the populace benefited from resources.  The dispossession of minorities was essentially a theft of money , land and houses.  Those of the population who supported the war expected to gain status and wealth as Germany became the world’s leading country.
Minorities can benefit from war.  An example is the Tamil Tigers in the Sri Lanka insurgency.  In this case, the Tamils feared losing the privileges they had enjoyed under the British government.

The others who believe they will benefit are a small number of the poor and disempowered.  The recruits who leave the West to go to Isis, numbering in the tens of thousands, know more about Hollywood and Bollywood and rap music than they do of Islam.  They are fed false promises of status, fame, big guns and cars and sex slaves, just as in America, immigrants fresh off the boats were promised food and warmth and money to fight in the American Civil War.  These benefits exist but are enjoyed only by the warlords and their cronies: the fresh recruits are cannon fodder only.

Do you think enough is done by the global community to help the people affected by the ongoing occupations and wars globally?As well as the aftermath; leaving people with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, homeless, and often completely destabilised in general.

No, of course not. In Australia foreign aid is used as a cash pot that can be raided whenever the government decides to waste money on F-35s.  But the emphasis must be on trying to find solutions in the home states.

How do you feel about the media’s use of propaganda when discussing war and the rhetoric of the “good guys and bad guys” being fed to the masses?

I like what Chomsky says, when he says that although there is not actually any conspiracy by media to present a certain picture, if you made predictions based on that hypothesis they would be correct. At the moment the traditional media are folding.   For example a recent study by the MEAA (the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, including the Journalist’s Association to which I belong) concluded that there would be only one free-to-air TV and one newspaper in Australia by 2020.  So then information is carried by the Internet and becomes fragmented.  It’s vital to keep a free Internet.

Lastly we would like to know of your own experiences with either war or poverty or both. Have you or anyone in your family been affected by them and how are you now or are you still affected?

My father was affected by PTSD as a result of his experiences in WW2, and that meant I grew up in a very dysfunctional family, which had a huge effect on us. I was affected by my political activities.  You can’t expect to do this work without taking some harm from it.  So I was unemployed for a long period, and was on the streets for a short time.   My health has been severely affected by poverty.

Noam Chomsky Quotes

For more information on Thomas Kent and his work please follow these links:


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