Melbourne's La Mama theatre is one recent high profile victim of funding cuts. Pic: Mat Connolley News & Commentary It’s time to create a new approach for the arts By Rosemary Sorensen | April 7, 2020 | Outlining the ruthless cuts to many organisations previously funded under the Australia Council’s four-year grant scheme, Ben Eltham’s “simple explanation” is that it is a “failure of imagination”. That may well be so, in which case, let’s not waste any more time bemoaning the progressive dismantling of the Australia Council’s capacity to provide essential support for the arts. Instead, let’s encourage those with flourishing and clever imaginations to work out how to turn this around. As Eltham says, the reduction in arts funding has been happening for years, and I’d add that it’s been happening with very few challenges (Eltham’s voice is often solo). Not many people who work in the arts are free of the need to toe the line, which is why so few voices are raised to condemn governmental decimation of support for arts and culture, until it directly impacts them. Strong newspapers used to have experienced arts journalists on staff who were able to query and challenge governmental decisions on behalf of the arts sector – that’s pretty much disappeared now too. The lack of effective challenge from within the “arts industry” has been accommodated (that is, aided and abetted) by the almost complete acceptance of models of accountability that make ticking boxes mandatory. Alongside that is the conveniently worthy-sounding but actually dodgy idea of “sustainability” as a backup reason to condemn some grant-seekers to the “failed” list. Imagine telling Vincent Van Gogh his sunflowers weren’t sustainable! But I don’t want to go down the track of pointing out the way some of those now stamping their feet and rending their garments may have been complicit, by omission, in the rise and rise of this dodgy, subservient, dog-eat-dog, obsequious and competitive cultural model – sorely tempting though it may be. Instead, I’d like to suggest that, if there’s been a failure of imagination, here’s an idea. Why don’t arts organisations and cultural thinkers right across the spectrum put the brakes on this jalopy running downhill at increasing speed, bumping over speed traps and throwing its passengers into the ditch along the way? Why don’t we figure that, like the energy sources that have serviced society for the last century, the jalopy is, or should be, obsolete? Yes, the unfairness of who gets what is going to continue to cause despair and I doubt we can expect to change that. What we could change is the idea that cultivating the arts has to be a competition for funds, for audiences, for success. It will certainly require well-researched expertise and courageous sharing of knowledge to make any idea for change palatable. So entrenched is the dogma that culture is a competition for money, attention, privilege and status, we apply it at all levels and to all “production”. A journal editor referring to other journals as “arch rivals”, as happened in the wake of the shock news about defunding, is a logical outcome. What we could change is the idea that cultivating the arts has to be a competition for funds, for audiences, for success. We need to hear from the kind of thinkers who are able to push forward into speculating on a way out of what Ben Eltham calls this “cultural bloodbath” we’re now witnessing. It’s not just a descriptive naming word we need, of course: we need a book, a manual, a treatise. But let’s begin with a word, something that gathers up ideas about mutuality, cooperation, sharing, respect and altruism. Ah yes, I hear someone say, but it’s human nature to compete. Just look at the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey! When homo erectus saw the value in strong-arming the opposition with a few competitive battles to the death, off we went – the dawn of civilisation, leading to much conflict and loss of topsoil, as well as to opera and poetry. Maybe we should call that careening jalopy I mentioned “Myth”, and at the same time please can we acknowledge all the brilliant work done by writers on understanding how myths are constructed and why, and for whose benefit. Acknowledge and learn. Why on earth we think “human nature” is immutable when everything else is subject to constant change is a mystery fairly easy to solve. It’s part of the Myth and supports it. As well as his simple reason for the state we’re in, this failure of imagination as he puts it, Eltham says the more complex reasons for the cultural bloodbath occurring now include “historical precedent, conservative antipathy to arts funding, and enduring beliefs that artists are not really deserving and that culture is not a real industry”. We’re not going to change any of that by continuing with the same old thinking. Hard on the heels of the Australia Council funding cut announcement the Copyright Council announced the “release” (like a flight of doves) of $375,000, and, yep, “oh phew, goodie, yay” rose the cries from the little crowd of supplicants gathered beneath the palace windows. Soon the same little crowd will start eyeing off the supplicant next to them, jostling with sharp elbows to force their way forward to catch the attention of the Prince-of-Dollars on the balcony above. Calling the arts an “industry”, and totting up the dollars it adds to the economy, hasn’t worked. Clearly. I reckon, as I’ve said before, most of the people who work in arts bureaucracies really do try to be fair, to be helpful and to support culture and the arts. I do think, however, that box-ticking and asking people to match requests to the currently approved expression of worth is a dishonest way of managing funding. A lottery system would be less fraught. If you’ve got credible management in place, into the hat your number goes, and fortune rules the outcome, rather than some spurious calculation of merit followed by even more spurious oversight by bureaucracies under the watch of politicians. A lottery approach wouldn’t do much to reduce or reverse the Australian suspicion that art is an elitist wank, but it might at least take some of the sting out of failure to get the palace-balcony nod of approval. With that out of the way, maybe a different form of cooperative organisation could emerge and develop, privileging a pragmatic philosophy that works on the language we use to describe whatever we value in the arts. The language we’ve been using is, you’d have to say, a failure. Calling the arts an “industry”, and totting up the dollars it adds to the economy, hasn’t worked. Clearly. So, either we rat-run the same corridors or we take to the skies. I am sure there are people who can help us think about this, people whose wings haven’t been clipped too hard by working in the arts industry, as we have been convinced to think of it. We need to take flight. This image, provided by Colum McCann in that superb book Apeirogon, suggests how that might work if we do it as a flock, so to speak: While in flight, birds position themselves in order to gain lift from the bird in front. As it flies, the leading bird pushes down the air with its wings. The air is then squeezed around the outer edge of the wings so that, at the tip of the wing, the air moves and an upwash is created.By flying at the wing tip of the bird in front, the follower rides the upwash and preserves energy. The birds time their wingbeats carefully, resulting sometimes in a V-shape, or a J, or an inversion of one or the other.In storms and crosswinds the birds adapt and create new shapes – power curves and S-formations and even figures of eight. Upwash: a social method of cooperation applicable to arts and culture whereby, when challenged by storms and crosswinds, arts organisations are able to adapt and create new shapes. Better than washed up, no? Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Rosemary Sorensen Rosemary Sorensen is director of Bendigo Writers Festival.