Thursday, July 16, 2015

Australian Artists: Submit to the Senate Inquiry but understand its futility and greater potential

Note: I have a self-imposed embargo on writing about Australian arts when not in the country, which I am (again) breaking to write this due to the extreme nature of the government cuts and their wider implications. I am conscious that taking pot-shots from afar is not ideal, and no attempt is being made to capitalise on this position.


Reading Alison Croggon’s self-published submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Arts Budgets of 2014-15, which is reviewing a reallocation under direct government control of almost 50% of Australia's major arts funding body's budget allocates to artists, one can make some casual notes which result in an alarming whole. Putting aside Alison’s undeniable authority on the issue established in an intimidating autobiographical introduction, the irrefutable nature of the argument is its most shocking component. Some statistics presented are alarming to those new to them: that the Arts sector is nearly as big as Mining, that it is a far greater employer, that it receives substantially less government subsidy than mining, not to mention benefiting to Australian life in terms of education, togetherness, and identity. These arguments are not new to Croggon, who has been championing these statistics for some time to anyone who will listen.

Nor, unfortunately, is it news to the Australian government, which has full access to this data. They know how big the arts sector is, they know how big an employer it is. They have mapped out precisely how the cuts will affect everyone – as Alison puts it, "individual artists, who already substantially fund the arts through their unpaid work, will be forced to compete in a diminishing pool", moving overseas or opting for different careers to keep off the dole queue. This is not an accident, it is precisely the point. As ad hoc and reckless as the Abbott government’s strategy may sometimes seem, the cause and effect has been fully mapped, and it is certainly not something drawn up on the back of a napkin at Rockpool Seafood Restaurant over a few glasses prior to a helicopter ride home to Double Bay. The reality is not casual - it is much worse.

The question that naturally arises from Alison’s argument is as follows: why would any government, especially one from a party nominally interested in economic prosperity (at least historically), want to smother a sector that is seemingly performing so efficiently and productively – employing so many people with so little government expenditure? The answer to this question lies in their overall electoral strategy, which involves marginalising target groups and decimating their influence on the political narrative.

Removing the real opposition

Among the greatest threats to the Australian government at the next election is the potential for communities and collectives of critical thinkers to collectively emerge in opposition to it and form coherent counter-narratives. The money from Arts Council Grants is one of many methods of support and growth for these communities and can indirectly feed critical public dialogue. The free time that people from these communities have to be active – many of which, it should be noted, are still in fledgling stages and are still defined by individualism,  career-driven and institutional objectives – is removed when you starve them of money. Furthermore, cherry-picking certain artists to receive funding allows the government to distribute the flow of finance only towards those artists which are not likely to even inadvertently feed this community. The comments from the CEO of Opera Australia, Craig Hassall, that he was “delighted” and that “my first thought is that I am relieved and delighted that major performing arts companies' funding hasn’t been cut […] I don’t really have a view on where the money comes from, as long as the government is spending money on the arts” should be read in this light – further, not only will Opera Australia benefit from the changes through its funding being maintained, it will directly benefit from the removal of its primary competitors in the marketplace, which includes small and independent organisations thriving on some sense of collectivity, community and solidarity. Furthermore, the beneficiaries of the cherry-picked funding – Brandis’ own Artists Army if you like - are likely to be classically-trained artists from wealthy backgrounds, who include most of Australia’s opera singers, it being an expensive activity, further benefiting from another individual source of funding.

But let’s not pick on Opera. Although the CEO’s comments were emblematic of the lack of political sensitivity to anything other than its own survival, there has been notable absences of meaningful statements from any of Australia’s larger cultural organisations. This should not be seen as them protecting their measly government funding (Melbourne Theatre Company, sometimes selectively referring to itself as a State Theatre, receives about 13% of its turnover in government funding. Normally, as primarily public institutions, state theatres receive 50% or more). That organisation's confused and watered-down statement about their investments in independent theatre reflects this totally compromised position. In general, the conspicuous absence of statements from major arts organisations should be seen as a direct result of a desire to protect their market position from a growing threat of grass-roots theatre and arts organisations. They are, in other words, attempting to have their cake and eat it too, benefiting from the centralisation of Arts funding whilst being seen to stand in solidarity or at very least neutral ambivalence.

It should be noted that these organisations are probably not even that pro-government (Opera Australia might be the exception), and are in fact no doubt hoping it blows over as soon as possible whilst not affecting their audiences or artistic freedom, and without them having to take risks. However, they have never been faced with a government as ruthless as this before, as Australian conservatism has until now been comparatively benevolent, and are thus understandably confused about how to stand up to what is a new level of divide-and-conquer. Suspicion should be aroused when massive structural changes such as this appear in the media hand-in-hand with strange ‘good bloke’ narratives – for the Arts Minister, this was some selective quotes the likes of ‘but I’ve seen him at my arts events in Katoomba, and he’s a great supporter of the arts’. For Abbott in the Aboriginality Lifestyle incident it was ‘yeah but he comes and visits the communities. He really cares and understands’. In both cases, the actions are presented as mere innocent, naïve mistakes, departures from the norm, even used to paradoxically reinforce the politician's good character. John Howard’s benevolence was a charade, maybe, but one that the Abbott government largely doesn't bother with to a great degree. It’s most remarkable feature is ironically the one championed by Julian Assange from his room in Great BrEcuador: transparency. 

A new possibility outside of the obvious

The challenge for artists here is only partially about the actual budget, or indeed arts, at all. The reality is a much broader, much more devastating shift. Brandis has stated that one of the directives to come with the budget changes is that institutions receiving government funding will not be able to also refuse corporate funding. This position is formed directly in response to the increasing politicisation of arts funding, a global movement brought to Australia in a major way by the group of artists who boycotted the Sydney Biennale last year due to its ties to offshore refugee detention, and which also brought out some strange comments from ministers about art - Malcolm Turnbull stating that the artists were guilty of ‘vicious ingratitude’ for their statement, and joining a long line of anti-art politics made by ministers of late to gain political capital at the expense of public misunderstanding about how art functions. In light of this, the senate inquiry from the Greens, crossbenchers and Labor is absolutely a masquerade – there is little chance this will have any effect other than watering down a radical centralisation of 50% of the major body's arts funding into one that is just a radical 40%, and for those parties to gain some political capital to use at the next election, placing the community of artists in their pocket for later employment. The senate inquiry will affect the bells and whistles of the policy, but not its underlying philosophy, which can only be addressed through sudden and brave changes in how Australian artists collectively organise, communicate and cooperate. This is clearly an opportunity for artists to come together with other marginalised groups and make the argument for art amongst other things, but furthermore, to build permanent, better networks and communities less focused on individualism and competition until now so inseparable from the Australian psyche. In this, there is much wider potential for a major shift that will affect change on a broader scale. This is the real challenge affecting artists at this moment.

Until the eventual disappearance of the Abbott government, the deafening silence from Australian major cultural institutions either individually or through AMPAG will symbolically stand for a much wider silence. Unfortunately, leaving the dirty work to those disparate entities affected by the changes will only lead to greater divisions in an already polarised Australian society. The opportunity for these institutions to stand for anything meaningful within this context has now passed, but paradoxically this represents an opportunity for individual artists and small organisations to produce a wider shift in the balance of Australian culture and life - by being the ones who come to stand for autonomy, equality, and community.

Alison Croggon's statemnent to the Submission to Senate Inquiry into the 2014 and 2015 Arts Budgets is available here.

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