Everywhere you look, it seems, people are singing dirges for Australian culture. The apocalypse is now. The asteroid belt of cyberspace is seething. Perturbed murmurs are orbiting the water-coolers of meatspace. The sky is falling.
The government’s message is clear: culture is a luxury and it is a time for forgoing luxuries. We have to tighten our belts. There’s a bottom line to consider. Let’s get serious.
Earlier this week in an open letter in the Guardian, a chorus of Australian writers and editors objected to many of the proposed changes under the new budget, the cuts to arts funding in particular. The loss of such funding, it said: ‘will devastate … smaller organisations and practitioners, robbing Australia of a whole generation of artists, writers, publishers, editors, theatre makers, actors, dancers and thinkers.’
For these bodies and their members, the end is arguably nigh. Their absence will leave a blind spot in the Australian consciousness. This government’s attitude towards the arts will cast a long vampiric shadow. An over-dramatisation? Perhaps. Still, it is a crucial time for the creative industries. In the absence or reduction of government support we need now more than ever to celebrate Australian art, to support it ourselves, to engage with it as a matter of course, as part of our daily lives.
A recent article in the Australian suggested we take a look on the bright side of the proposed changes to arts funding, beginning with the image of Robyn Archer opening proceedings at the IETM Satellite conference with a rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, and concluding with words straight out of the Spanish Inquisition: ‘The pain could have been a lot worse.’ Indeed it could. It could be as bad as the physical pain of those affected by cuts to health spending. But we’re talking about the arts. Unrelated to health. Unless you believe William Carlos Williams: ‘It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.’ Still, the pain could have been a lot worse.
It will be difficult to convince the government that art is just as important as a bloated bank account to Australia and Australians. The aforementioned open letter attempted just that, with some astonishing public figures signing their support. And yet the powers that be are more interested in mining our natural resources instead of our cultural resources. We’re lifters not leaners, after all. A sunburnt country not an indoors-y one.
But do we need to convince the government of anything? Or rather, does its attitude need to reflect or influence our own? I mean, its views ought to reflect ours, but clearly this isn’t the case. But we can take matters into our own hands. Government funding for artists and arts organisations is crucial, it would be naive to think otherwise, but what is arguably more crucial is our engagement with our own art and culture. And this is the strongest and loudest way to deliver the message that the arts are central to our culture. By lending our own support to the arts sector. By a focused, sustained effort, financial or otherwise.
Take Australian literature, for example. Am I suggesting that we view our writers as charity cases, and give blindly without a thought about merit? Am I advocating an ‘America, fuck yeah!’-style patriotism? No. And yes. In his semi-recent response to Robyn Annear on Australia’s literary magazines, editor of Canary Press Robert Skinner wrote that he doesn’t want to be a charity case. He wants to encourage new readers. He wants you to buy the magazine because you want to read it. Because it’s good. Not to provide a shelter for the poor. He wants to compete with everything you love, regardless of where it comes from. In a similar way, editor of Island Magazine Matthew Lamb wants to replace writers’ festivals with readers’ festivals and place the focus and onus not on writers but readers. The equation is simple: the more readers there are the more money there is, and the more money there is the more time writers can spend writing, which makes the work better, which attracts more readers. The cycle continues. Everyone wins.
Of course these editors want your money; the livelihood of their magazines relies on it. And of course they want to be good, not only for self-satisfaction but also to be contributing to and reinventing a vital cultural landscape. But the whole concept of quality is relative and contextual. And in our increasingly American (and decreasingly European) world, Australian content can often seem out of context. Not part of the conversation. Even for Australians. Because we’re still taking cues from Europe and America, Australian lit is often considered lacking in some respect. Dragging the corpses of old nags. Gagging on the dust of innovators and risk-takers. And many times, it is. Australian literature is studded with middling jobbers and stuttering imitators. There are, however, meteoric exceptions. Still, the question is inevitable: Why read any contemporary Australian novelist when I could be reading Junot Diaz or Jeanette Winterson or Michael Ondaatje? I’ll get to George Johnston when I’m done with George Saunders. Who’s Gerald Murnane? David Ireland’s Australian?! It’s devastating.
The simple act of going into a bookshop and buying an Australian novel is now radical. The slightly more demanding act of reading that novel is political. This is a good in itself. This makes the work good. It stimulates the economy, not to mention your intellect and capacity for empathy. It also provides writers, editors and publishers with the means to continue doing what they do. Most importantly, it stimulates a conversation, creates a context in which other Australian novels can live. That is, it creates a culture.
Reading, therefore, is creative. Reading is rioting. It is active, not passive. Consuming Australian culture is the best response to a deplorable budget. Once a month, buy an Australian novel from a bookshop. They are not expensive. This will go some way to unpicking our culture’s pockets. Does it have to be the greatest novel you’ve read in your life? No. Does it have to contribute to the conversation? Yes. If enough people read a book does it become good? Yes.
The Get Reading program has been cut by $6.4m. The Australia Council has lost, all told, $28.2m. For some, the sky is indeed falling. The bell is tolling. The executioner is shining up his blade. But perhaps there is a bright side of all this. Though not the way Eric Idle has it. Better to gather around the old upright and bellow out that dirgy Nick Cave murder ballad, ‘Death is not the End.’