Government abandons the arts: what’s to be done?

In Cathy Wilcox’s cartoon for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald of 17 July  2020, students are depicted leaving a boarded-up university building and queuing for information at the Job Trainer tent, where a young man is being asked: ‘Have you thought of becoming a celebrity handyman?’ The scene reflects a government that champions trades and has abandoned support for any local culture other than reality television.

The erasure of culture from the national agenda during the current Coalition government is striking. In Canberra, the arts office is now buried under bitumen, somewhere down the corridors of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Government expenditure on cultural activity has dropped by at least 5 per cent since 2007. By contrast, the aim of 2 per cent GDP of the budget for defence has projected an increase of 6.2 per cent in real terms. And now there is the punitive increase in fees for undergraduate humanities courses, which recently led to a $12 million cut to the Arts Faculty at the University of Melbourne.

While this has met fierce opposition from the arts sector, it is unlikely to cause outrage in the electorate. There has been a 25 per cent decline in public support for public arts funding over the past decade. We need some analysis of why this is so.

The clerisy

Reactionary though it may be, there is something to learn from how the Right approaches this. Voices such as that of Joel Krotkin on platforms like Quillette (founded by an Australian journalist) present the knowledge class as a ‘clerisy’. This class of academics, North Atlantic journalists and tweeters are seen to support the technocratic elites in a neo-feudal alignment based on a priestly surveillance of liberal values at the expense of workers’ concerns. While not necessarily celebrating Trump, this critique gives credence to his electoral success. If Trump loses the election, this critique of neo-feudalism is likely to focus on the vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, a Californian with the strong support of Silicon Valley.

Though Australia does not have technology elites, US-based political tribalism has a parallel here in the growing insularity of art forms. The cultural field increasingly contains separate bubbles of practitioners making work for each other within different forms. So in relation to poetry, whereas in the past there were national laureates like Judith Wright, the audience for verse now seems increasingly specialist, constituted by other poets.

Peers

This insularity became institutionalised in 2013 with the changes to assessment panels at the Australia Council. Art-form boards were replaced by panels of peers.

I’m not claiming that this is a corrupt process. It’s been necessitated partly by funding cuts and a call to channel maximum funds to arts workers. I’ve been a peer on a couple of panels and have witnessed an entirely honourable process, with strict adherence to conflict-of-interest protocols. But it’s hard to argue for consideration of public value against direct benefits to the artist, even if that artist is located overseas making work for a foreign audience. Without an independent board, there is no clear focus for strategic audience engagement. During lockdown, the Australia Council offered marketing webinars using the same techniques as would apply to any other commodity.

In the visual arts, I’ve been frequenting contemporary art exhibitions over the years and have seen the growingly esoteric nature of gallery spaces unwilling to engage with audiences outside the personal networks of the artists. Much video performance seems self-obsessed and without any enduring value beyond a frisson of creative freedom.

Creatives

It’s worth rethinking ‘creative freedom’. The knowledge class has been lauded as a vanguard of liberalisation and development. Richard Florida heralded the arrival of ‘creatives’, who consist of a mix of artists and design and media professionals. Following on from the radical politics of university students, this class cultivates a responsible awareness of other interests, including colonised peoples, non-binary genders and non-humans.

But this plurality of interests often retreats from social justice as a collective endeavour. Recently, Thomas Piketty critiqued those who focus on cultural diversity rather than progressive taxation:

…western democracies are now dominated by two rival elites, reflected in many two-party electoral systems: a financial elite (or ‘merchant right’) that favours open markets, and an educational elite (or ‘Brahmin left’) that stands for cultural diversity, but has lost faith in progressive taxation as a basis for social justice. With these as the principal democratic options, nativist parties prosper, opposing educational and economic inequality, but only on the basis of tighter national borders. There is a vacancy for parties willing to defend internationalism and redistribution simultaneously.

Also from the left corner, Asad Haider in Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump invoked Malcolm X in championing collective struggle above sectional politics: ‘The framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and to gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure’.

I would slightly disagree: there are forms of solidarity in identity politics that transcend the individual, such as diversity initiatives now prevalent in institutions and corporations. Nonetheless, these do not cohere around a general ideology of liberation as might be found in socialism.

Locally, the swap of political allegiance between tradies to the right and professionals to the left has become a refrain of Guy Rundle’s Crikey columns. In his overview of the first twenty years of the millennium, Rundle opined that the knowledge class:

had become blind to the degree that it was an advancement of their own knowledge class interests, disguised as the old general interest of humanity that the socialist movement was once held to represent.

Regardless of the ideals upheld by the knowledge class, it cannot be sustained without some engagement with the majority. This needn’t involve the kind of compromise associated with arguing the economic case for the creative industry. But it must come with some reform to its more institutional forms. The year-long lockdown offers a rare window to consider how the knowledge class might become more relevant.

Rewilding

We hear much talk of ‘rewilding’ as a solution to current dilemmas. This goes beyond urban legends of dolphins in the canals of Venice. In the Guardian, Suzanne Moore used the phrase to resist the reflex goal of returning to normal life: ‘Does normal mean stadium tours by big bands with ticket prices in three figures?’ These questions are timely, but essentially the article is about more state support for public art rather than any review of how art is produced.

Those structures themselves may need changing. Arts development is often presumed to be a matter of increasing formalisation. Arts become an ‘industry’ that fights for the interests of its ‘sector’. The boards of arts organisations take an increasingly corporate interest in ‘compliance’ ‘risk management’ and ‘brand value’.

The industrial mindset is an inevitable response to the pressures of a growing population. But left to its own devices, it can become a machine with little sign of organic artistic life. Rather than an organic ‘culture’ with its own shared meanings, the arts ‘industry’ is an aggregate of individual interests.

The retreat of the market during lockdown has exposed the absence of culture. I was struck recently in an Oxfam Zoom meeting with artisan organisations who spoke of the devastating loss to exports. Representatives from Kenya and the Philippines admitted that the only market for their crafts today was export and foreign tourists. For locals themselves, craft is often seen as a backward and precarious activity by contrast with office work in the city. With a Midas touch, the practice of outsourcing culture seems to have resulted in a mirror of Western consumerism. Why should these traditional crafts depend on foreign capital? Wasn’t there a time when such a culture could flourish in far poorer conditions than those of today?

Lockdown has seen some serious examination of this arrangement. I’ve been interested to follow the many YouTube, Zoom and LinkedIn discussions featuring Tyson Yunkaporta. His book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Will Save the World wilfully bypasses academic conventions. Rather than footnotes, Yunkaporta ties his argument to a series of weapons that he has carved, which he occasionally brandishes to ground his ideas.

With a Buddha-like equanimity, Yunkapora speaks to a broad cross-section of people about the illusions of Western modernity. His use of the ngal—‘us-two’—pronoun eschews any role for the symbolic as a formalised structure of meaning. There are no ‘isms’ for a reader to extract, though in his conversations he sometimes invokes systems theory, particularly what’s popularly known as ‘Game B’.

Yunkaporta is one of the most engaging expressions of the ‘rewilding’ Zeitgeist. This involves zooming out from the civilising mission of the arts to the extractive world system it has come to serve. We are yet to see what will emerge once this particular enzyme has loosened up our cultural structures.

Given the apocalyptic vision outlined by Justin Clemens in Arena Quarterly, it’s tempting to be overwhelmed by pessimism. We should, rather, be provoked to find what Antonio Gramsci advocates as an ‘optimism of the will’.

Useful

Rewilding may take different artistic forms, such as turning suburban streets into galleries or performing classical music in a bar. As an advocate for the crafts, I’ve struggled against the demeaning representations of them, involving satire of hipsters or lockdown hobbies. In the current predicament, the role of crafts goes beyond nostalgia.

The craft world bridges studio and workshop. It is a means not just of representing the world as a mirror but also of introducing a meaningful object into everyday life. You usually find craft in the gallery shop, where objects are taken home or bought as gifts. While it is regularly overlooked as a serious artistic pursuit, craft does produce goods that continue to give value to everyday life.

Take, for example, Melbourne ceramicist Vipoo Srivilasa, who tirelessly creates projects that work with communities, such as the Monster project to creatively engage production-line workers in a Thai ceramics factory.

The lower cost of living is luring many artists to small country towns, where there is greater potential to work outside the bubble, as in the artist residency in the tiny northern Victorian town of Boorhaman. As part of a ‘slow art’, Chaco Kato used an accessible technique like knotting to bring locals together, even engaging with a local rope factory.

This doesn’t have to be parochial. Through the Crosshatched project, Tallarook potter Sandra Bowkett regularly hosts Indian potters who produce chai cups and round mudka water vessels for a local market.

There is also promise in local businesses, such as Wonderpants in Castlemaine, that offer useful products that engage a loyal following. This may not be considered ‘creative’, but it does imbue the product with meaning and connection. The sudden need for masks, combined with isolation from global supply chains, has been a catalyst for the repurposing of textile studios into production workshops. Historical moments like the Arts and Crafts movement and Bauhaus showed how creativity can be applied to objects that combine usefulness and social change.

The Japanese platform One Village One Product offers a model of rejuvenation through specialisation. The Vietnamese have now taken up this model to become an international national movement. For the time being, it is important to nurture local markets for useful products that add meaning to people’s lives.

Back to the garden

In the end, we have to do something. National politics seem set on a course of cultural destruction, evoking the Taliban in results if not in means. With an exclusive focus on retail kitchen politics, anything that conflicts with the ideology of short-term self-interest will be starved of support. The universities have played a critical role in creative arts, providing salaries for its leading practitioners and scholarships for others. During the coalition government, this field is likely to decline along with state funding. Resources for the Australia Council and the ABC are likely to be cut even further in upcoming budgets, and states will be hard-pressed to sustain current levels of support.

This is not to deny the need for the arts as a critical mirror on our world. Their institutions are essential for long-term cultural memory. But it’s important to renew their purpose by occasionally going wild, venturing beyond the familiar.

The philanthropic sector has shown impressive leadership here. The report by arts thinktank A New Approach A View from Middle Australia replaces the stock ‘creative industry’ with ‘arts and culture’, reflecting lived experience. In May this year, Philanthropy Australia’s Arts Funders network offered 1,400 artists $1000 each, rather than the usual winner takes all approach of grant funding.

The recent death of artist’s artist John Nixon evoked memories of art as a vocation. I remember visiting his acolytes at the Prahran Store 5 Gallery, drawn to the intensity of their aesthetic mission. Though Nixon’s authority emerged from outside the system, the Guardian’s obituary reverted to the corporate language of the arts: ‘Australian arts industry pays tribute…’.

The arts have been built on a modernist critique of traditional authority. But there comes a time when the arts themselves must be rebuilt—a time when we must, as Milton wrote, ‘reform the Reformation’.

The industry is dead. Long live the industry!

About the author

Kevin Murray

Kevin Murray is editor of Garland magazine and secretary of World Crafts Council – Australia.

More articles by Kevin Murray

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