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?
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.