The ABC has been struck again by another round of cuts. Despite the fact that another 200 jobs will go and a few more programs will be axed, the management has reassured us that there will actually be more content better targeted to the needs of “customers”.
For those of you that aren’t sure how to decipher ABC management rhetoric, I will translate: “Don’t worry shoppers, we got rid of things not enough people watched or listened to, and we will find ways to make the things you do listen to or watch, cheaper”.
There is clearly a pattern emerging here because it follows the largest ever cut to the Australia Council of the Arts’ discretionary funding pool in the run up to the last federal election. A cut that came with the similarly nonsensical, and frankly bizarre, assurances that despite there being fewer funds, there would actually be more funding available as a result.
The ABC statements replicate the mix of clever slogans and dumb things that successive governments, of both persuasions, have come up with over the years to disguise the fact that they have been slowly gutting the cultural sector.
They have removed its organs one by one. It’s as if they’re conducting some weird, sadistic science experiment to see how long art and culture can stagger on with only one lung, one kidney, and minus its spleen and pancreas.
Market forces now rule our creative and cultural policy, much in the same way they did the Australian automotive industry.
Some of my favourites include the 1984 spleen removal “Funding for Success”, when instead of increasing funding for the arts to keep pace with rising costs, they cut a raft of companies because there were clearly too many for them all to be successful. Then there was our pancreas op in 2004 “Making it New” which should have really been called “Making it Cheap”.
But the one I hold dearest was in 2007 when we had our chest opened and our left lung removed in an operation that I refer to as the Howard Government’s “creative accounting masterstroke”. It was in 2007 that John Howard’s munchkins took the orchestras away from the ABC, and then added them to the roster of organisations funded by the Australia Council. They then took the money to fund those orchestras from the ABC, gave it to the Australia Council, took a substantial sum from the Australia Council’s discretionary funding pool, and then told everyone to stop whinging because they’d given the Australia Council extra money.
The latest ABC and Australia Council cuts demonstrate that governments in this country have finally achieved their long treasured goal; market forces now rule our creative and cultural policy, much in the same way they did the Australian automotive industry.
So what? I hear some say; you lot are just a bunch of lazy, left wing handwringers anyway. And perhaps we are. And so perhaps were the men and women who used to build cars in this country. But should art be treated like cars? Isn’t Australia better off without too much art and too many locally made cars anyway?
Perhaps the only thing more depressing than hearing an economist talk about economics is to hear an artist attempt to present an economic argument for the arts.
It was against this backdrop that I tuned in with great enthusiasm, and some hope, to Q and A on ABC TV last Monday night to hear what I prayed would be a forthright discussion about art, artists and a potential repositioning of the goalposts in respect to the public discourse that surrounds Australian culture.
Sadly, those hopes were dashed as soon as esteemed theatre director and co-director of the Adelaide Festival, Neil Armfield began to clumsily answer the first question posed by a member of the audience.
Today in Adelaide, we have the Adelaide Festival under way. We have the Fringe, we have WOMAD, the World Music Festival, we have had the Adelaide Cup race we’ve also of course got the Adele concert tonight and last, but not least, here we are at the Q&A. Meanwhile, later this year, car manufacturing will finish after 100 years here in Adelaide. So that raises for me the question, are we living in the best of times or the worst of times?
Perhaps the only thing more depressing than hearing an economist talk about economics is to hear an artist attempt to present an economic argument for the arts. In fact, it is worse than depressing. It’s actually distressing. Watching Armfield ignore the substance of the question and launch into a deeply meaningful diatribe about the economic importance of the creative industries and their contribution to the national accounts was akin to watching Pauline Hanson attempting to talk with conviction about her belief in the value of racial equality,
Armfield’s answer was by no means revelatory. It was an example of the same sort of reductive, instrumentalist rhetoric that we hear each time there is a funding cut. In fact, it has become the only way we seem to talk about art whenever we get a public opportunity to explain ourselves.
Neil Armfield’s answer on Q and A was a convoluted response to a simple question, the type of answer that over time has delivered the arts to the place where it is now. Lost.
And it is not the language of art or artists, but a rhetoric based firmly in the “creative industries” ideology, an investment paradigm that speaks to the arts solely as an object of monetisation. It’s a rhetoric that fails to articulate the distinction between art and entertainment, and one, it would seem, that fails to see that there is a difference.
Armfield’s answer was a convoluted response to a simple question, the type of answer that over time has delivered the arts to the place where it is now. Lost. No longer an agent of social change, no longer a functioning part of our democracy, no longer a defender of the public space, the arts is now just another thing with no apparent social value. As such, it is now subject to the whims of Treasury, just like any other thing.
The journey of the arts in Australia from a nothing to a something was a long time coming but it happened in a blink. By contrast, its journey from a something to a thing has been slow, painful and inexorable.
It began in 1984 with the aforementioned“Funding for Success”, a policy that first articulated a view that bums on seats was a valid measure of the arts’ intrinsic value. It was coupled with a more businesslike approach to arts funding. This thin wedge of distortion, this idea of a reduction of value to price, gathered steam in 1987 following the McLeay Report into the Arts.
That’s when we saw the size of the Australia Council arts grant application forms swell from three pages to nine. The focus shifted from one that struck a balance between the creative concept and budgetary accountability to one that leaned heavily towards providing a justification for the public expense. This audit explosion brought with it a new level of managerialism to make sure we spent the money the way we said we’d spend the money.
The result was a shift in the language that surrounded arts practice and the triumphant rise of a rootless competitiveness within the creative community. When only a few years previously we’d collectively had nothing much except ideas, there emerged a creative class system as artists and arts managers slowly began to adopt social attitudes to work of lesser ambition.
There was the Big End of town (the 28 major state subsidised arts companies) where the best people went and then there were the artists who chose to remain in the community and who clearly stayed there because they weren’t good enough to work Uptown.
Our obsession with popularity and fame sees creative and public risk-taking amongst artists in this country at an all-time low.
It wasn’t long before trying to make something meaningful became a form of indulgence, an indulgence that we as a society shouldn’t have to foot the bill for. And in simple terms that has meant that each consecutive policy reform has targeted the independent sector (small and medium arts’ companies) while shoring up the position of the top end of town. And each time it has happened the response from the top end of town has got quieter and quieter until last year when the effects of George Brandis’ cuts to the arts were met with silence from almost all of the big arts’ companies.
And as popular success became the benchmark for companies, popularity has become the touchstone for artists. It is our obsession with popularity and fame that sees creative and public risk taking amongst artists in this country at an all-time low. Gone are the days when actors were arrested for performing a play as they were in the ‘60s at virtually every production of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed. Gone are the days when the entire company of the Melbourne Theatre Company had to be bailed from the Russell Street watch-house after its arrest for engaging in a public protest. Today few, if any, artists of note speak out about anything much that is troubling in our country.
We have virtually no spokesmen or women, no revered figures, who engage actively with public issues or speak for our profession.
We have virtually no spokesmen or women, no revered figures, who engage actively with public issues or speak for our profession. No noted non-Aboriginal artists are publicly engaged in the reconciliation movement or issues of Aboriginal welfare except to pass judgement on the cartoons of the late Bill Leak. We say nothing about immigration or the potentially damaging effects on democracy that are resulting from successive government attacks on our one truly independent national news source.
The media do not ask our views about the effects of the stripping of the welfare system, or on the ethics of radio shock jocks who incite division or on the aesthetics of urban development. And we artists have colluded in this assumption that artists have no reality, indeed no worth beyond celebrity, by embracing it.
And what have we been left with? Professional, polished and skilful work with no rough edges, where all the crumpled people have been thrown out and replaced by special people. Where there is a pervading sense that the fact that the show is on, that special people are doing it and I am sitting there should be enough for me to think about. Art that seems to have a disregard for, or rather ignorance of, its social responsibility, and like our politics inhabits a disconnected world of management-led professional risk aversion. A place from where it struggles to articulate its own pointlessness and is bereft of a vision for itself. Art that seeks to create no disruption to its audience’s particular world view and has no connection to anything that is going on beyond its own rapidly shrinking orbit.
But it was Armfield’s failure to acknowledge the heart of the man’s question on Q and A that highlighted the reasons we find ourselves off the debating team and have been rendered a valueless thing in the view of the majority of society.
For South Australians the loss of the automobile manufacturing industry is far more than a blip on their collective radars. It has been a substantial part of the social fabric of that state for close to 100 years. Yes, it is lovely for Adelaide to have a Festival, yes it’s great that there are lots of “beautiful little things” that a lot of the people who work in the car industry probably can’t afford to see, but how are the arts going to actively support those men and women who may well have been working at Holden their entire adult lives?
How are we going to contribute to their navigation of this upheaval? What are we going to do to assist in the transition from manufacturing to something else? How are we going to help to give currency to their lives at the end of that journey? Is it enough to offer them more Fringe cake and reassure them that some of the vast sums of money that the Festival generates will somehow find its way to Elizabeth?
What makes artists special should be their unerring commitment to trying to connect with their audience, to endeavour to affect and empower them.
And Q and A got more distressing when another questioner proposed that there was a “disconnect between the creative arts industry, people who work in arts and theatre, and the people who would vote for Pauline Hanson”. Armfield’s fellow panellist, the renowned children’s author and educationalist, Mem Fox, arrogantly implied in her answer that she effectively didn’t give a toss for these people.
“… Because… I am so connected, I cannot put myself in the shoes of the disconnected. I just can’t do it. I just don’t understand…them,” she responded.
The “them” Fox was referring to are among the increasing number of Australians who feel disaffected by what they see as a fundamental failing of democracy. Like so many nations that have devoted themselves to the neo-liberal philosophy, democracy in Australia is being seen as exclusive rather than inclusive.
Like the car workers in Adelaide, the “them” feel the pressure of the unprecedented number of ecological, social and economic challenges that face “them”. To “them” our political leaders appear to be ill-equipped to deal with those challenges, or at best, are unwilling to address them; a rudderless rabble drifting in a sea of political presentism, sadly lacking in vision and desperately clinging to outdated ideologies.
It is part of the artist’s function to connect to “them” or at least help “them” to connect. Art should act as a safeguard to a long-term view that goes beyond an election cycle, give voice to the marginalised and empower the kind of participation that helps transcend the division between observation and activism. And it is that activism that is crucial to the functioning of a democracy that is truly representative of all of us. Including “them”.
What makes a great work of art in any discipline is its capacity to connect with and affect its audience. That is special. And the artists who make those pieces of art are special for their ability to connect. But art and artists that are special don’t grow on trees. Most artists are not special, but what makes them artists should be their unerring commitment to trying to connect with their audience, to endeavour to affect and empower them, to continue to attempt to ask questions of themselves and their audience and to search for answers to the sometimes simple but more often complex questions that the world, their society or community, poses to them.
Kim Williams, who was one of the panellists on Monday night was right when he said that “the arts are absolutely at the heartland of a nation’s sense of self-confidence, a nation’s view of itself”. And he was right to say that “to see this as being entirely about commerce reflects what I think is one of the most dangerous things in modern life – where we treat money as the measure of all things rather than one of many measures”. But for art and artists to return to being valued for their social contribution, for their agency, we have to give ourselves the opportunity to be brave and start acting and behaving like artists, not special people doing special things. And that begins with humility and connection.