“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable” — George Bernard Shaw
In case you hadn’t heard, last year the Federal government’s arts funding body, the Australia Council, had its funding cut by $104 million (over four years). The upshot has been a $12 million cut in the latest round of operational funding grants to the small to medium arts sector.
About one third of these 62 small to medium arts companies have effectively been crippled for the sake of some small change. Many of them were poised to deliver, or were already delivering on the long term investment the Australia Council had made in them.
Those companies should take some credit for this dazzlingly efficient garroting because after years of submissive belt-tightening at the behest of successive governments they have proved themselves one of the most cost effective arts communities in the world.
And in a moment of inconceivable stupidity some of the companies that had their day to day funding withdrawn have received one-off grants from the new “Catalyst” ministerial fund — for projects that they might not be able to complete. Brilliant.
And in keeping with the rootless competitiveness and impulsive thoughtlessness that characterises too many of my colleagues’ actions, we’ve already gone into damage maximisation by throwing hand grenades at ourselves.
The director of the Brisbane Festival, David Berthold, opened a recent blog post by cheerfully asserting that there is actually more funding available to the small to mediums than ever before. He implies that the cuts were implemented not by necessity, but by reform-driven peer assessment.
That is just nonsense. It’s so ludicrous that it begs the question: how is it that we have gone from a cultural revolution less than 50 years ago to having senior artists finding glib ways of justifying our own execution?
Berthold’s comments are a symptom of a disease that has rapidly infected the arts over the last decade; a disease that now has us on life support. It’s called “Creative Industries”.
In a blink we went from being an intangible ‘something’ contributing to the public good to becoming an industry.
Ten or 12 years ago someone at the arts bargaining table begun to spruik the view that in order to justify itself, the arts needed to pay their own way. That same person also asserted that it wasn’t fair that only artists made art.
So our advocates, rather than doing some serious thinking and pausing to realise just how antithetical that was, jumped on board and began to roll out economic modelling.
It showed how much value we added to the Australian economy; how much we could improve our export market; how we could make arts practice more equitable and so on.
In a blink we went from being an intangible ‘something’ contributing to the public good to becoming an industry. It has always been a poor “industry” where 90 per cent of its primary producers — the artists — are unemployed, but it’s called an industry nonetheless.
Which begs another question: Do industries make art? No, they make things for people to buy. Art is antithetical to industry unless it can be made into a commodity to sell. And so our intrinsic value, which is everything that doesn’t appear on a spread sheet, has very rapidly been tossed out the window.
And organisations like the Australia Council and other peak bodies representing artists have done nothing to slow this disease. Instead they have inflamed the condition by adopting rhetoric that reinforces it.
The head of the Australia Council, Tony Grybowski, should be one of our staunchest advocates but champions organisations that find “inventive ways to expand their audiences and markets”.
The Australia Council’s chairman, Rupert Myer reiterates the view:
“There is a rich conversation still to be had about the connections between the arts and community, technology and innovation… connections that are shaping the way we’re now thinking about national prosperity, gross domestic product, national income and international exchange.”
To be frank, the most innovative thing that has happened in the theatre in the last 150 years is the invention of the light bulb.
My lord. When you read it you realise just how ridiculous it is. Read an arts website and it’s worse. You’ll find we now have to create either innovative art, excellent art or unimagined art, and preferably all three.
To be frank, the most innovative thing that has happened in the theatre in the last 150 years is the invention of the light bulb. To say we need excellent art is like saying I need an excellent marriage. I can’t imagine what unimagined art looks like.
But it isn’t just rhetoric. There have been some Machiavellian moves in the background that can’t be ignored. When the cut to the Australia Council was announced a year ago there was conspicuous silence from all but a few of the major 28 arts companies — and only once their positions were secure did they decide to speak out.
It does appear that the sector has been sold down the road by the major companies that now consume over 70% of the Australia Council’s budget. Bye bye Arts; Hello Australia Council for middle-class entertainment.
So where have the artists been during all this? In hiding.
In a short space of time this shift to a “creative industry” has torn the heart out of arts practice in this country and within the next political cycle it could easily mean there will be nothing left except the major companies, a few committed amateurs and big home-grown circus spectaculars.
And what have we artists said? Bring on the soapbox harridans screeching the same tired messages and let’s have yet another parade of Hollywood stars reminding us of how important this all is “because it is”.
In the short term they may help to overturn this wrecking ball of a cut but we urgently need to root out this industrial disease before they switch off the machine. Artists must end their silence, pull their heads out of the sand, rethink how they engage with their livelihoods, get informed, get political and work together to find a cure before it’s too late.