This week, the Greens announced an arts policy that would help provide artists with living wages – a minimal guaranteed income that would allow them to work on their art, unburdened by the pressures of finding the money to pay for rent and food.
This is a remarkably positive and progressive initiative – one that other parties with a strong focus on the arts, such as The Arts Party – are right behind. The initiative is also with precedent, as similar initiatives are working effectively in parts of Europe. In Denmark, for example, a couple of hundred artists are able to access stipends to support their work, as long as they remain actively working artists.
But wander into the comments sections of websites that covered the Greens’ announcement (I know, you’re not meant to read the comments, but I’m a masochist), and you’ll encounter complaints about this plan. The argument is one we’ve heard over and over: that the Australian taxpayer should not subsidise the creation of art if it’s not enough to sustain the artist him or herself.
That attitude is driven by those who clearly haven’t had much to do with the arts.
An enlightened society understands that the arts are not beholden to commercial pressures. That’s not to say that artistic artefacts should not be commercially successful where possible, but there is space to respect, preserve and celebrate great works of art that are not commercial successes.
This goes to the very heart of what art needs to be able to do. Commercial demand does not allow art to offend or to challenge. Commercial pressure mandates populism; the film makers plugging away on the Marvel films, for example, have little room to break boundaries or take risks with their work, because they’re sitting on a film that needs to make a few hundred million in the box office to justify its existence. Commercial art conforms to capitalist values and acts as its propaganda; and without counter-argument from non-commercial art, that propaganda is unchecked.
These works of entertainment are valid and valuable in themselves — and none of this is to suggest that they’re “inferior” to less commercialised works of art. But what of the poet or playwright, who is very unlikely to be able to support themselves based on the raw commercial potential of their work?
Do we sacrifice these artistic mediums because they can’t generate the backsides on the seats that the next Captain America film will? Are we really going to deny the cultural and academic value of plays by Shakespeare through to Tom Stoppard by telling theatre actors that they’re only allowed to survive if they join soaps on television? Do we pretend that ballet has been “replaced” by kumping, and opera holds no value because we’ve got Beyonce now?
It’s dangerous thinking because it ignores the role that the arts has in developing the intelligence and culture of a nation. It argues that art should not challenge or encourage people to think critically about what they are observing. If art is only popular society is left as as a passive and consumerist one; comfortable in its sterility, and increasingly hostile to creative and innovative thinking.
Some think the arts are distinct from the other academic disciplines but that’s nonsense. An appreciation for the arts teaches critical thinking – the same skills that talented scientists, educators, academics, politicians and business leaders use to be innovative in their own work.
Think about the superb new ABC superhero series, Cleverman. As an artistic endeavour, it is communicating values and perspectives of indigenous Australians. Would it have been made were the ABC not able to support it, unburdened of the need to make money back from it? No. Because in a raw form it’s not as exciting or commercially “safe” as the next Daredevil series will be.
The moment we mandate that artists produce products purely for the purpose of sale and consumption is the moment we degenerate into a society so unenlightened that it doesn’t even understand the purpose for which art exists.