An actor’s lament: the arts is not an ‘industry’

“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And in a moment of inconceivable stupidity some of the companies that had their day to day funding withdrawn have received one-off grants from the new “Catalyst” ministerial fund — for projects that they might not be able to complete.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.

Image by Wolfgang Sievers (1913-2007) Rayon loom turner, Bruck Mills, Wangaratta, Victoria 1950 (printed 1959). Collection of Art Gallery of NSW.

11 responses to “An actor’s lament: the arts is not an ‘industry’

  1. The entire concept of arts industry/creative industry/arts business is nonsense because industries and businesses only produce things for which they know there is an already-established demand, whereas this cannot apply to art – real art – because no industrialist has yet seen the product before it is produced.

  2. I agree with Neil and believe the size of the “arts industry” is often enlarged to create substance and meaning by the inclusion of the media, architecture and the like. Then there is an ask for more support as if this industry is all interconnected and this does not always make sense. The creative practices in need of public support should make their claim on cultural grounds alone.

  3. I’m not a creative,(oh, I wish I was) but I’d like to see the arts “industry” to start churning out works of art I the style of the works sanctioned during the Starlinist or Mao eras. Or even the sanitised works approved by the Nazi Party.

    This would demonstrate the difference between works produced industrially by the same cookie cutter stamp processed and those produced individually by real artists.

  4. Without putting words into Mr. Pigot’s mouth, it may be fairer to interpret his plaint as a lament for the marketisation of the Arts rather than a call for a separation of art practice from an industrial model.

    Arts and the market will never be a good fit, and the expectation that the market will sort out good art from bad is entirely untenable. That’s why we have patrons, and the government of every country has to be the number one patron of the arts.

    The feature film industry has to be the most highly industrialized arts practice anywhere and yet every national feature film industry, including Hollywood, is heavily reliant on government subsidies, both direct and indirect. Filmmakers depend on the government subsidies because although thousands of films are made every year, only some hundreds achieve a return on the original investment.

    On the employment side, workers in the feature film industry don’t fare much better than any other worker in any other arts sector. The current Australian film industry was created in the 1970s by government policy intervention and massive injections of cash. Without that sort of policy foresight, we have no arts industry.

  5. Vincent Burke, arts supporter
    I agree with Richard and believe Neil is living typically in the world of arts wank! The arts industry (employers and workers) is its own worst enemy, believing that working in the arts is more like a vocation and a spiritual offering than a job. In any other industry – I’ll continue to use this term – there would be an outcry from all and sundry if investment funding was withdrawn so peremptorily and capriciously as the dilettante former arts minister, George Brandis (and his successor), did to satisfy his own vanities, handing out grants to a favoured elite. Artists have themselves to blame for not joining or forming an effective trade union which was capable to fight these arts cuts. Leave aside the industrial workers, in recent times doctors and farmers have shown how to achieve results through collective action. Look at the impact of online campaigns like Get-up. Artists should unite and stop whingeing, for God’s sake, before it’s too late.

  6. Oh baby! You remind me of ancient times when I landed the job of my dreams: doing press relations in a record company (we’re talking vinyl here) and being so shocked when I discovered that a record was called a product! Arguably a lot were…but… That was 1978 in RCA (Paris). Years later in another company, I heard I was working in the “music industry”!!! So you see the merchants invaded the temple a long time ago and the beginning of the end for me was when “accountants” started making artistic decisions…

  7. Sorry Neil, you are so wrong. ‘Art’ is most definitely an industry and always has been. Your conception of industry is way too simple. Industry embodies ‘work’ and creating art is most certainly work. The Greek dramatists were paid by the state to support important social rituals, Michealangelo had a tense relationship with his employer the Pope when he was comissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, Shakespeare was a moderately wealthy and successful theatrical entrepreneur … I could go on. It doesn’t mean that art isn’t also important as a social and spiritual good but don’t try to pretendthat it is not linked to business and commerce – that is the bigger marginalisation than trying to sell the notion of ‘creative industries’. I agree this current government’s ideas and execution of them have been conflicted contradictory and stupid but don’t go down the dangerous path of separating ‘art’ from ‘society’.

    1. Richard your words make so much more sense than Neil’s and I trust people will heed and not blindly move forward with spin.

    2. Don’t confuse patronage Richard which is the model used in all your examples and the one on which the Ozco is based with free market economics.

    3. Somehow I get the idea Richard that your not an artist. A worker in a factory accepts he is part of an industry of product lines that are manufactured. Art is not “manufactured”. Artists are driven to create without a thought of “industry”. Some of our best art and greatest artists survived through patronage, which you describe above, not through being paid a wage for their work or seeing their art as just some “product” which could be commoditised. That notion devalues the intrinsic qualities that art transcends, the notion that everything has a price tag and the more expensive something is the more valuable it is to society. Perhaps even more of our greatest art and artists died penniless and alone. I’m sure Van Gogh, Poe, Modigliani, Gauguin and many others didn’t want to die poor, but if you know their stories they would have utterly rejected the idea that their art was just part of some sort of “industry model” and the ultimate use of it was to make as mush money as possible from it. Trying to constantly merge commerce and industry with art is like trying to get a bird to believe that the mechanics of flight is more important than flying itself.

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