Market forces have rendered artists risk averse managers of content

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.

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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.

RELATED STORY: CIRCA’S YARON LIFSCHITZ SLAMS THE MAJOR ARTS COMPANIES AS FUNDED BY A ‘GOVERNMENT ENTRENCHED OLIGARCHY OF PRIVILEGE’ 

16 responses to “Market forces have rendered artists risk averse managers of content

  1. Its beyond ironic to have someone rambling about cultural “industry” who just spent $2.3Mill on one opera and by all accounts lost close to $3Mill on a disastrous and unpopular festival “club”. Its great that there’s a festival in Adelaide but it shouldn’t be a license to burn through cash on a whim.

  2. It is interesting how the ABC always seem to be deemed the opposite of the current government. When Labor was in power the ABC was accused of being right-wing and conservative, now with an extreme right-wing government in power the same ABC are accused of being left-wing. Could it be that the ABC is actually doing, or at least were until cuts made it unable to function, what they should and that is to ask the hard questions and hold the government accountable? The sort of questions populist media organisations don’t dare to ask?
    And the arts funding should be the same, fund those organisations that challenge the equivalent of ‘reality tv’ and question the drone of grey numbness?
    Somebody in these comments suggested that arts organisations should ‘put on shows people want to see’. But how would you know what you want to see if your choices are limited? What these people are suggesting is a North Korean solution, deny choice to make it easier to confirm with government directions. By limiting the market you lower the expectations, a dangerous downward spiral.
    Since we are talking about cars, it will be fair to say that the North Korean car manufacturers are not up to scratch with other developed world car technologies. If you don’t know there even is such a thing as a Hyundai, Kia or Daewoo, let alone a BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Holden, then how can you make a choice? How can you expect or demand the quality and performance when you don’t even know there is such a thing? If all you are offered are a narrow range of performances selected by people on basis of their income potential rather then their contribution to the society we live in, then how can you decide what it is you would like to see, hear or experience?
    The great risk with the arts is that cuts aren’t showing a direct impact. Yes, maybe on individuals if your funding is cut, but for the society at large the change is barely noticeable. And in 10 years time when the results of a dried up influx of new talent, ideas and development becomes obvious the expectations have been lowered so much that is won’t matter. And by then we can rename the Australia Council to Pyeonghwa Motors.

  3. From my perspective probably 80% of programs on television are superficial nonsense or repeated repeats providing dumbing down content calculated to make us all hap,hap happy. Even the ABC is now including some of this” so light” content. The many social problems in our society need to be addressed without the influence of behind the scenes lobbyists and based on fear of consequences and I think play action gets across a message more easily than words. You mention Q&A one of the problems for me is the polarised nature of participants in Q&A, where the same old boring cycle of entrenched interests compete with each other.for favourable attention and words from the heart, no matter how disagreeable, are only seen occasionally. I no longer watch the program if there are politicians in it. It is fashionable to make fun of Pauline Hansen, who in my opinion is a rather pathetic figure, and gloss over.the reason for the discontent or fear that gained her the popularity she has. Rather like Trump she activated frustrated anger in a significant population .Lampooning her only entrenches the grievances of those that she touched. Maybe a good subject for a play incorporating a genuine enquiry into her success without cheap condescending humour. We could all learn something. Long live new ideas! , an anathema to those with entrenched opinions about everthing.

  4. Yes I wholeheartedly agree with the criticisms of Neil Armfield. It was a patronising and clumsy attempt to promote the arts as an industry like another sunrise industry coming up in the wake of a declining old one. Not true and not relevant. The arts is not an industry except measured by boffins and economists who view society as a separate entity to the real world when it is the real world. in fact this was the worst episode of Q&A I have yet witnessed so much so that I turned it off after 40 minutes so boring and irrelevant it was to the arts really and its influence on society. The answers by Armfield and others on the panel reduce the arts not to a vital instrument of Australian culture but as a form of entertainment like the sort of rubbish you see on commercial TV and I am afraid that the ABC is positioning itself along these lines by the analysis presented here in this piece. Good luck everybody

  5. Perhaps if arts organisations performed works the public was willing to pay to see, then arts companies and the like wouldn’t be quite so critically dependent on the government teat.
    As for cuts at the ABC, most of the Federal Public Service (for that’s what the ABC is, no matter their pretensions), have faced far larger efficiency dividends and funding cuts and have faced more than a decade of ‘doing more with less’. There is no support in the greater Australian workplace for whinging ABC management and staff, given everyone else working in government has done it far tougher for longer.
    If Auntie’s people don’t understand that, then they are far more arrogant and pig headed than they appear.

    1. unicorn, Your ABC is Australia’s largest media organisation. It is required under its charter to, among other things, fairly represent all Australians and remain at all times politically neutral. It doesn’t and it isn’t. The ABC is a vehicle for the Green/left movement only. Please refer to The Drum, The Insiders, 7.30, Jon Faine, Q and A, Radio National and its endless reliance on The Guardian, Fairfax and the usual leftie opinion makers.

      As a result, 50% of our population is not represented. A 50% cut in its funding seems reasonable.

  6. There is of course the Arts Party, which collected over 1.5million votes at the last election on a platform of supporting the Arts in Australia and clearly influenced the approach of all other parties. The Arts needs an independent voice in our politics.

    Why not join or subscribe to them if you want to see some change?

  7. Seems to me the gummint and such are trying to suppress original thought and enforce some Orwellian group think. The ABC is a threat because it often generates IDEAS!! Away with seditious souls who might buck the conformist caging. Website below may not seem directly connected to this rant…but it IS.

  8. yeah well … the day a politician’s first move is to listen … and then talk to the electorate and one another … rather than at us and one another, then perhaps we may make some head way in this country’s burgeoning cultural deficit. But I do note there are dumb, arrogant people in the arts too!

  9. Get rid of Q & A would be a good first move. It’s outlived its use-by date long since, and is only a vessel harbouring left wing nut jobs.

  10. Thank you so much for this article. I am struggling to get by, but I decided awhile back that I was going to say what needs to be said through theatre. I am not impressed by tepid middle class psychodramas. Neither am I impressed by a wallow in the dark side for purely voyeuristic purposes. I write musicals but not the sort that are largely about spectacle and shallow stories. I am very proud that this year one of my plays was performed on the steps of Victorian Parliament for International Women’s Day and in support of the homeless. The current musical I am working on is about youth unemployment and youth homelessness. I have regularly been singing the songs at the #NoHomelessBan protests at Melbourne Town Hall. I have never been given a cent by the government or any other granting body for this work. I did once get a grant for teaching children robotics. So, it’s not entirely about my grant writing skills.

    Again, I am deeply grateful for your writing about the loss of art and the rise of entertainment. I will be boosting the signal on this article.
    Katherine Phelps

  11. I agree that the arts in Australia are considered elitist and exclusive. Subsidies have dried up and as a result ticket prices are high making it difficult to attract new audiences. The attendance at expensive events for known popular stars such as Adele is however greater than ever before so people do care and pay for popular arts. It is the introduction of the arts to a wider audience that is problematic.
    The QandA program was disappointing in addressing these issues perhaps because of the selection of panellists. I believe you completely misinterpreted Mem Fox’s response to the question of the disconnect. Rather than being arrogant she was being honest and said she didn’t know as it wasn’t within her experience, quite refreshing in today’s world where everybody professes to be an expert on everything. I felt Armfield’s comments were long winded and unhelpful and the host, sweet but lacking polish. Wainwright was great but probably not well informed about Australian arts funding.

  12. I also was dismayed by Neils answer to that first question. He appeared to fall into the trap of the current thinking of the arts as an industry, something that can be measured as production output, something that can be reduced to a number, something you do when you come home from a hard day at real work, something that is an attachment to real jobs, people and security when in fact it is all around us all the time and embedded in us as human beings. The term Creative Industries is a nonsense that distances art from people and everyday life.

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