Pic: Mark Broadhurst

News & Commentary

How did we get here? Why artists became so dispensable

| |

Before the airlines were grounded and our restaurants and cafes closed, thousands of jobs were lost overnight when work for virtually all practicing artists and supporting technicians, front-of-house staff, gallery attendants and allied workers abruptly ceased.

With the shutdown went all the active projects, along with those planned across the year and beyond, and with them the ongoing wages for the majority of Australia’s freelance artists.

For weeks, it seems we were forgotten by the powers that be – until 10 days ago, when the Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher announced that arts organisations may qualify for some measures available to businesses and apply to support their staff through the Job Keeper allowance. Because, as Paul says:

“The cultural and creative sector plays a vital part in our economy, contributing $112 billion – just over 6 per cent to our Gross Domestic Product every year. Over 800,000 people work in cultural and creative occupations.” 


So our arts organisations may be spared collapse as a result of the pandemic if they’re eligible, and all arts employees, Fletcher implied in his statement, will be supported by the Job Keeper allowance. All the arts workers except, of course, the artists themselves. Because rather paradoxically the only workers in the arts that don’t qualify, the only ones that don’t have tenure, are the artists.

How did we artists come to be so dispensable?

If you make something, if you act, write, paint, dance compose, design or perform, you will have to apply for the Job Seeker allowance. This has been the way of the arts for the last 2 decades where the application of market economics to art has meant that artists scramble while our administrators take long service leave. The creators of the work that supports those 800,000 will join Australia’s other casual workers seeking support while our administrators and managers will keep getting paid, spared to manage another day.

And then just days ago we learned the truth of what Fletcher was really saying. Amid the chaos of the greatest challenge the arts community has faced since the Dark Ages, the Australia Council has, with impeccable timing, cut funding for a plethora of small-to-medium arts organisations across the country. It defies belief that at a time when our cultural industries are in crisis, when we are pouring billions into the economy to save businesses, our peak arts funding body, still struggling to claw back tends of millions George Brandis swiped from them several years ago, is being forced to shut arts organisations down through lack of support.

I guess we are the only $112 billion industry in this country the government has decided needs a kicking during a pandemic.

Of course Victoria’s Creative Industries Minister, Martin Foley, hasn’t even managed a press release during this cultural crisis or made a response to the cuts, which included the iconic La Mama, and that is hardly a surprise; he talked a big game when the Brandis cuts took place, then did nothing. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has suggested that people should access their super to pay the rent, forgetting that years of destructive cultural policy means that most artists have none.

How did we artists come to be so dispensable?

If you look back, our standing, while never particularly secure, has been systematically under attack since 2001. A federal election year in which the complexion of the country seemingly changed overnight, when Australia decided to transform itself by jettisoning long-held humanitarian, cultural and social values in exchange for glibness. Truth and its attendant reality were summarily disregarded in favour of individualism, where the promise of prosperity for a large proportion of the population displaced our collective judgement, our memories and our capacity for compassion.

I guess we are the only $112 billion industry in this country the government has decided needs a kicking during a pandemic.

It was the year of the Tampa Crisis, an event leading public intellectual Robert Manne describes as having redefined our nation. According to Manne, it was the then Prime Minister John Howard’s handling of Tampa that exposed a moral gulf between Labor’s working-class supporters and the left-leaning middle-class, which resulted in a complete destabilisation of the party, cleaving it from its ideological base and rendering it rudderless.

And in treating the humanitarian considerations of old-style liberals with such complete disdain, in one fell swoop Howard converted the Liberal Party into the one of economic rationalism and populist conservatism in the American Republican tradition that it remains to this day. It wasn’t long before the Labor Party completely dumped its traditional values and followed suit and with that went anything that vaguely resembled ideological difference.

Howard’s public comments at the time of Tampa, accusing refugees of deliberately throwing their children overboard from a stricken boat, were early examples of what the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt has referred to as Political Bullshit, bullshit which he contends is the most dangerous form of deceit.

While a liar cares for the truth in so far as his aim is to prevent others from learning it, the Political Bullshitter doesn’t give a hoot about the truth or falsity of their assertions as long as they sound good. They simply pick out ideas and create a story to suit their purpose, which is almost exclusively political gain, while remaining completely indifferent to the reality or the consequences.

Howard won that election handsomely on the back of the Tampa Bullshit and so Political Bullshit became the gilt edge standard of Australian politics regardless of what side you’re on. It is ubiquitous, and we were handed a contemporary example of it in the early days of this shutdown when the Department of Human Services system crashed.

Rather than admit the system couldn’t handle the strain, the minister responsible employed a classic piece of Political Bullshit and deflected blame by claiming a cyber-attack. Four weeks ago he would have got away with it. But these are different times. It’s not just the dole bludgers that are strapped for cash and ordinary Australians won’t stand for that bullshit, will they? Paul Fletcher certainly thinks they will.

It is interesting too that Canberra began referring to itself as the Federal Government instead of the Commonwealth Government. Whether by coincidence or by design what followed has been a systematic stripping of our common wealth for close to two decades. The commons, the place where resources are traditionally held in trust for all of us in equal measure, where things are judged by their use value as opposed to market value began to get ransacked almost immediately as a new pattern emerged.

When the 2004 Free Trade Agreement with the US locked out our sugar growers, the Howard government responded with a $700 million industry compensation package. When that same free trade agreement froze and then re-imagined our local content rules for free-to-air television, prohibited local content rules on all forms of new media and set in motion a watering down of media ownership laws that stuck the knife into independent journalism, Howard responded by ignoring calls for industry assistance and instead diverted funds without consultation to build the National Portrait Gallery.

And for most of the past two decades many of us in the creative community have had a front row seat, forced to dangle on our perches like “canaries in the coalmine” as our little patch of the commons, the arts and independent journalism – two important cultural and natural resources that should be available to all of us, that have traditionally functioned as the defenders of truth and generators of social empathy, the unofficial guardians of democracy – have either been handed to business, corporatised or dispensed with.

And we have been forced to stand by as politicians have used market economics to discredited our social value and distort the impact of their policies, which have in truth amounted to nothing more than an ongoing series of cuts.

Artists, prevented from expressing their concerns to the wider public by an increasingly populist mainstream media that sees no market value in discussions of cultural policy, were forced to watch unsupported as our governments, first right and then left, legislated to abandon our cultural sovereignty without consideration or debate, completely destroying any capacity we may have had for developing a national cultural policy.

Howard’s legacy was a template for Australian public policy that continues. One in which substance is exchanged for a focus on keeping business on side and the prosperous majority emotionally satisfied. And successive governments of both colours have followed his lead on arts, eschewing sustainability for the sector in favour of baubles and sentiment.

And so despite the bullshit from arts ministers prior to the current crisis that lauded a “healthy and vibrant creative sector”, years of ideologically-driven policy making that has bordered on hostility and has flown in the face of expert and industry opinion has left the arts in tatters, so much so that now even some of its most notable practitioners are standing on the precipice of penury. That is the truth.

And now as if to prove that we’re nothing more than a thorn in the side of governments we have these cuts, the timing of which is frankly beyond gobsmacking. The country is in lockdown, but it appears that as far as arts policy is concerned it’s business as usual. And I can only imagine the lack of action at the state level in NSW and Victoria is because ministers like Foley are worried they might have to admit that they too have been publically bullshitting about the state of the arts and their support for the sector for more than a decade.

Less than two years ago in Victoria, when a budget surplus made $100 million available to the arts, the minister didn’t ignore the advice of industry and experts who would have suggested directing a small portion toward artists. He simply diverted all of it elsewhere without telling them. So don’t think for a moment we don’t we have the money to support artists. We clearly do, we just don’t have the will, not even in a crisis.

What are we doing with this newly gifted spare time? I would guess we’re not all studying last year’s company reports or looking out the window for a fireworks display.

More than a quarter of the world’s humans are stuck at home right now and if you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of them. And yet, what are we doing with this newly gifted spare time? I would guess we’re not all studying last year’s company reports or looking out the window for a fireworks display. We’re streaming the work of our artists in the hope that they will help us navigate this isolation, and looking to our journalists to tell us the truth.

So, as you sit at home, consider the human truth of the arts and independent journalism in Australia. Much of what you will read, watch and listen to that is honest and of substance is produced almost entirely on goodwill. Perhaps in this strange nether world that is lockdown some of us are actually beginning to understand what art and independent journalism actually do, that they have a social purpose and a value that extends beyond Harry Potter and regurgitating popular opinion. Common sense would see us throwing the arts a small bone so that we can produce content in these extraordinary times but hey.

I don’t know what the world will look like when this is all over, but unless we undertake to have a wholesale rethink of our approach to supporting the independent arts and journalistic communities in this country, unless we recommit to our common wealth, we will surely have sounded their death knell. And what will happen if there’s a next time?

6 responses to “How did we get here? Why artists became so dispensable

  1. Well said Neil,
    The desolation I feel is not personal right now, though in time it will become so, I have no doubt. My desolation is reflected in everything you have raised above. In knowing that we have turned away from everything I treasure. In being so profoundly sad that I live in such a stupid and greedy country. But we know this will pass – history (that other neglected treasure of being human) tells us this. Love – to all of us.

  2. I presume your question is rhetorical because the reason the so-called Right-leaning ideologues want to stamp out the Arts and Literature etc is pretty straight-forward … the Arts and them pesky folk that produce it and defend it are instruments of independent thought and — heaven forfend — dissent.

    The greatest challenge the sector has faced in probably a century is not to let Shonky and Co. use the guise of public health and well-being as an excuse to achieve their aims.

  3. Well of late Labor has been as BAD as the LNP in ignoring Arts.

    I am sorry but I honestly believe that politicians ignore the Arts as the Arts in Australia is run by public servants and that’s who the politicians ever see in relation to Arts. SO Arts is ignored.

  4. I was present in the tally room at the 1996 election. As we all realised that Howard would win, the feeling of dread foreboding flooded the building. Neil’s description of the politics since proves how right we were then to fear the future. And it has come to pass.

  5. The ‘government arts’ is cathedral of cards built on exclusion and contempt for the public that provide the funds. A closed shop is a political force unto itself., you reap what you sow… The only salvation is public value, real democratic public value, an idea too hard for the easy handout class it seems…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *