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Must the arts always be financially profitable?

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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.

7 responses to “Must the arts always be financially profitable?

  1. I’ve been a practicing for over 30 years and I had many many years in real poverty. I do now support myself with a decent wage (around $50,000 often less) but that’s more than welfare. BUT I rarely can make the work I would like to as that is expensive. I doubt artists should be given money. What I would want is for the Australian Arts Industry to actually start to think how to generate money to make projects AND real money. $20,000 for a grant sounds a lot but its barely a framing bill quite frankly. The people who run Australian are all Government waged so never really think about money. In fact over the years I have been belittled for complaining I can’t make what the Galleries want without proper funding and they never have enough of that EXCEPT for International art and there the floodgates open!

    The whole Australian Art system really need a proper shakeup and again I think Brandis did everyone a BIG FAVOR because now we are at least starting to properly address these issue. The Art Public Servants will just ignore any problem. I KNOW from over 30 years dealing with them.

    1. The value of the Greens initiative, Scott, is that it would take the day-to-day living burdens away from artists and allow them to focus on creating art, without the mandate that if they don’t make big dollars from each project, then they’ll be left to starve.

      Anything that takes commercial pressure out of the arts is laudible. Anything that pulls commercial pressure out of the arts is an initiative that understands the cultural and ideological value of the arts.

      What Brandis did to the arts was a horrific, ideologically-driven example of the Dunning-Kruger effect and that man should have never have been let anywhere near the portfolio.

  2. Why do journalists keep repeating that the new Greens arts policy provides artists with a living wage? This is not what it does at all. It simply means that art they make and perform/exhibit in a public capacity will be counted towards their mutual obligation requirements. Newstart is not a living wage, it is 50% below the poverty line and ammounts to $38 per day. Even if the Greens policy for a $50 per wk raise in allowances gets through that would mean $45 per day. Try living on that-housing, amenities, transport etc?What this policy actually is is Work for the Dole. Artists allowances would still be income tested, the only improvement being they would not have to come up with as many contacts with employers or possibly attend quite so many CV writing “courses”, which ( though a blessing) is in no way equivalent to a “living wage”. On the extremely negative side it runs the risk of entrenching and expanding a de facto situation that exists already to a degree, whereby organisations, venues and galleries etc don’t pay proper wages. So, a legitimisation of a Work for the Dole scheme which pays an hourly rate at slave levels.

  3. Thanks for the article, Matthew. This is a point that too few people take up. I help run a not-for-profit arts organization in North Queensland, and we are constantly asked to prove our worth with dollar figures. While yes, we exhibit and sell work, tour shows, run workshops and a lot of other things, at the end of the day the money is mostly distributed back into the community. The artists, technicians, framers etc that we use are all paid fairly (though not extravagantly) for their work, yet we are constantly questioned of the value of our work, which is judged on the bottom line, rather than the benefits (of which money is only one) that go back out into our community. It’s a sad world when a not-for-profit organization is pushed into acting more and more like a commercial gallery- something we are not, and have not been, in our thirty years of existence, and not an ‘intern’ in sight.

  4. Increasingly we live in a world and with a government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Every tank we buy from the US costs about $3 mil which would support a footy team of artists for a year or two. Do we as a society want art ? I do but what about the “big brother” watchers and other gun chewers. If you say you want to provide a base income for artists they’ll scream like stuck pigs.

    I take the guys point about that it can be a form of work for the dole, that’s cool, their money is the same colour as anybody else. Anything beats putting green pine posts in the ground.

  5. I think there is a lot of merit in the idea of changing the Centrelink requirements for practising artists, the benefits to the community in most cases would far outweigh any disadvantages or costs. I would like to add a small point, I do not consider $527. 60 a fortnight, a living wage, which is the amount an unemployed single person with no children receives on centre link.

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