untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

Creative Australia?


Because I’m disinclined to let you off with the ‘executive summary’, here’s a link to a pdf of the Gillard government’s new cultural policy in its entirety. While I’m on it…why is it always assumed that executives want nothing more than a digestible and condensed version of a complex document? It’s always struck me as akin to the mummy-bird regurgitating pre-digested worms for the baby bird. If I were an ‘executive’, I’d want to be the mummy-bird.

The Gillard government is summoning the shades of two great Labor leaders of years gone by and pioneers when it came to cultural policy. In the document, Julia Gillard writes: ‘It is now 40 years since the Australia Council for the Arts was formed and almost two decades since our first cultural policy, Creative Nation, was launched. Its successor, Creative Australia, continues the spirit of engagement with the arts embraced by my predecessors Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.”

Yes – Gough Whitlam, who established the Australia Council, and whose government held its collective head high and bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for the National Gallery of Australia in spite of general consensus at the time that “my five-year-old daughter could’a done that!”; and Paul Keating, whose Creative Nation is credited with inspiring Tony Blair to initiate the ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign (does that mean we can hold him personally responsible for Oasis and Patsy Kensit?). Shame Keating didn’t get some good copywriters on the job – Cool Britannia stuck. Creative Nation? Little too ‘blah’, unfortunately, although the principles it promoted were certainly worthy. And it does carry a fair deal of currency in the Australian arts sector.

So it’s no accident that the new arts policy doffs its cap to its predecessor – from Creative Nation we now have Creative Australia. Given the prognosis for the ruling party, any straw is worth grabbing at this point. Still. I really think they could have wrangled a name for the policy that was far catchier, and a little less public service.

But what about the details?

First thoughts…

The principal goal of the policy warms the cockles… to ‘recognise, respect and celebrate the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to the uniqueness of Australian identity’. This is a wonderful ideal. But money, meet mouth. To celebrate and recognise is all well and good. But the Aboriginal visual art sector is facing a fairly bleak horizon at the moment. Without significant investment in restructuring the industry, things ain’t looking great.

The emphasis on the inclusion of arts education in the Australian Curriculum is also very reassuring. As is the funding allocated to the establishment of an Indigenous Employment Strategy in collaboration with Screen Australia, and to assist contemporary musicians establish career pathways.

But the one impression I took away from my (admittedly fairly rapid) read of the policy, is that the visual arts don’t seem to get much of a look-in. Any time there is a list of art forms, visual art appears at the rear end of the queue; for example, from p. 14, under the heading ‘Creative Expression and the Role of the Artist’: ‘Whether it is through live, interactive or recorded media or whether it is through drama, documentaries, comedy, music, dance, design, visual art, writing or traditional cultural practices…’ I just picked this at random. The pattern recurs at such a frequency that it is difficult to dismiss it as an accident.

What does this mean? The document seems to be promoting ‘participation’, ‘audiences’ and ‘community’. I need to think more about this, and read the document again more closely, but my first impression is that the principal focus seems to be on our diverse cultural heritage, and the many layers of social fabric that comprise the delicious mille-feuille that is contemporary Australia.

But…and I hesitate to say this, because I do want to read it again more carefully… most of what I absorbed tells me that this is about using public money to give The Australian People (caps used advisedly) what they want. There is far less talk of innovation and excellence in this document than previous iterations, which makes me suspect it’s leaning in a far more populist and community-oriented direction.  The shift in emphasis concerns me. A great deal. When it comes to the arts end of town, quite often the most visionary work doesn’t find an audience when it’s made… and that’s what public funding for the arts has often been about. The People don’t always know best. And if an artform or particular artist has already attracted public acclaim or community support, they are in a better position to generate funds from their practice as a matter of course.

Luckily, Mr Whitlam didn’t take public sentiment to heart when he listened to his expert advisers and made the call on Blue Poles. Thanks to his audacity and vision, the Australian public now owns one of the acknowledged masterpieces made by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

As for the news that every federal MP will be given $23,500 a year to ‘help students pursue their artistic dreams’? Given how small the pot is already, this would seem to be a rather futile, misdirected and somewhat immoderate use of available funds – the total of $8.1 million for the project is 3.5% of the total amount of the policy package of $235 million ($75.3 million of which is going to the Australia Council). Take OzCo’s cash out, and 5% of available funds will be distributed willy-nilly by standing MPs to artistic causes they deem worthy. Grab for cash, anyone?

But I reserve my right to withdraw this statement if you see me lining up at my local member’s office to share of the Gillard-given bounty.

3 Responses to “Creative Australia?”

  1. redearthbluesky

    Is there really any value in a top-down arts policy? Artists only get 1% of the money allocated to the arts and 3 out of every 4 that apply for funding are rejected. Those who are not the darlings of the public service find themselves competing for opportunities with those who are.

    Then we come to Whitlam. Yes he listened to his advisors and those advisors perhaps inadvertently listened to the CIA who positioned abstract expression as a soft power weapon in the cold war. So instead of art schools producing the likes of Sidney Nolan who may make icons out of a bushranger, or who may make people think, we have art schools producing abstract expressionists that produce the visual equivalent of a Big Mac.

    As for Keating, the Australian film industry was going great until he changed legislation that removed tax concessions for producers and replaced them with funding for distributors and marketers. Basically, this gave equal freedom to create, but not equal freedom to promote. The industry then bombed.

    Yes, its nice that politicians seem to value the arts but don’t ever confuse a public line for a private attempt to use art for a politician’s own advantage.

    • Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios

      The thing that makes me a little nervous is the ‘every-man’ approach to arts funding. If an artform is popular, then it could, and perhaps should, be supporting itself through normal market forces of supply and demand. Not to say that public dollars shouldn’t also support the popular arts. But there has to be some love for art practitioners who make art that is hard to sell, but has something important to say.

      As for politicians and the arts? There’s always something else going on in the background there.

      • redearthbluesky

        Firstly, I think you argument tends to produce a bias towards art that alienates the public because public alienation then becomes the justification for public funding. Truth be told, just because something is rejected by the public doesn’t mean it is good or has value.

        Secondly, I’d argue that there is no such thing as an artform that is popular and easy to sell. There are artists with names that find it easy to sell, but there are not artforms.

        Probably the closest there is to a popular style is Abstract Expressionism, which is why it ends up in boardrooms and hotel rooms. Ironically, the style seems to get a great deal of public funding, especially abstract sculptures. It’s understandable really. Public servants are, by nature, conservative even if they identify as being progressive. Abstract expressionism is safe. Not only wont it offend, comparisons of quality are more difficult to make so cronyism is easier.

        I know an artist that exhibited three mummified carp in an art work that juxtaposed social xenophobia with environmental xenophobia, but this artist will never be funded and neither will that kind of art. It just isn’t moral enough nor does it affirm the art community values.

        The best art culture I’ve seen was 798 in Beijing, which was private. It had a lot of art that was daring, confronting, controversial and non-commercial. Sometimes public engagement brings out the patrons and sometimes evoking a reaction, even if it doesn’t lead to a direct sale, can still enhance the profile of a gallery.

        If we could have genuinely talented decision makers funding the arts, and people who were honest with a true passion for arts, then public funding could do some great things, not only for art, but all of Australia. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the talent or integrity is there. Maybe you are different. You seem to know a lot so unless that is a great start, but as you pointed out in another blog post, there are a lot of people in working in art who don’t know much about Australian art. I would go further to say that they don’t talk about art, and quite frankly, I don’t think they even like art.

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