After being funded by the CIA, having received over a million dollars in Government subsidies (while consistently railing against public funding for everyone and everything else), Quadrant magazine has sustained collateral damage from George Brandis’ cuts to Australia Council funding. No doubt this came as a surprise, given Brandis’ conservative attitude to the arts and the general politics of the Abbott/Turnbull government. It didn’t take long for Quadrant’s editor Keith Windschuttle to blame someone, predictably ‘the left [which] remains in control of the arts’. Even here, Quadrant got it wrong, publishing a list of the ‘grant assessors’ on its website (in a nasty attempt to publicly shame). The list was incorrect, so Quadrant had to take it down and offer a somewhat begrudging retraction.
Given the sheer number of organisations that have had funding removed, it’s hard to see a huge conspiracy by the left, especially when many of those defunded are considered ‘left-leaning’. But what is Quadrant’s justification for its continued existence? In his plea for public donations, Windschuttle tries to separate art from politics, emphasising Quadrant as a literary magazine. This is then reduced to the magazine’s poetry, while the fiction and short stories published in Quadrant go unmentioned – if you’ve read them you’ll understand why. Windschuttle points out the esteem of having Les Murray as poetry editor, and that Quadrant publishes lots of poetry each year. One can’t argue with the greatness of Murray, but a closer look at the poetry reveals that much of it comes from a small group of regular contributors, much of it pretty average. Indeed, the Australia Council previously warned that Quadrant was using too narrow a field of contributors, and many of Australia’s better poets have rarely or never been published there.
Despite Windschuttle’s attempts to keep politics and poetry apart, he cannot help but collapse them. After making a few claims for the importance of the magazine due to its poetry, he returns to the thinking that dominates Quadrant’s politics – the identification of enemies. While noting that ‘leftist’ Meanjin also lost funding, Windschuttle argues it ‘was on its last legs anyway’ after the resignation of ‘radical feminist Sophie Cunningham’. He then complains that the Australian Book Review, Griffith Review and Overland have had unfair funding increases, given that ‘all three have long been dominated by left wing academic literary fashions of postmodernism and critical theory [and are] little more than production lines for the Left’s limitless appetite for identity group politics of gender race and sexual preference, and its support for any national culture, no matter how violent or barbaric except our own’.
Such hysteria suggests why creative writers generally steer clear of Quadrant. Besides, it’s simply wrong. To envisage the Australian Book Review – which publishes almost exclusively reviews and essays on Australian literature – as anti-Australian requires a special perversity. Quadrant has always defined itself as ‘other’ to the Australian literary scene, but you can’t have it both ways. If you try and separate the literature from the politics, then Quadrant doesn’t look that special – and it’s worth noting there’s little attempt to encourage new or emerging writers in Quadrant, as there is in other magazines. And who reads Quadrant for the poetry? Quadrant exists for its politics, a quality that it is keen to project on its rivals, yet when funding issues arise it acts as if its sole purpose is to preserve Western civilisation.
This might have worked during the Cold War but it’s useless as a response to the contemporary situation. When Windschuttle writes that ‘since its founding in 1956, Quadrant has consistently defended high culture’, we are entitled to ask: what from? For Quadrant it is the leftists, multiculturalists and postmodernists that constitute the threat. Countless articles bemoan the takeover of cultural and educational institutions by such groups. There is little attempt to explore the role, status or meaning of something like high culture within Quadrant – it’s taken for granted. The defence of high culture, and by extension Quadrant’s politics as a whole, acquires energy entirely through ressentiment – the paranoid search for threats. There’s a difference between an intelligent and reflective conservativism and a narrow reactionary politics, and (after Robert Manne’s failed attempt to encourage the former) Quadrant is now almost pure reaction. The politics reflects the aesthetics – you won’t find much in the way of innovative form or content in the work it publishes. Post Brandis’ funding cuts, this narrowness set Quadrant up to fail.
Instead of looking for who to blame, Windschuttle might contemplate the what – the role of the market, the thing at the heart of Quadrant’s hypocrisy around its own funding. It is inadequate to simply defend high culture in isolation from the larger context it sits within, and while Quadrant is more than happy to denounce caricatured versions of postmodernism, it’s never supplied an alternative. We live in a world of images and information; culture is ubiquitous, as much a part of the market as everything else. This part postmodernism got right – the collapse of culture into the economy and the end of the distinction between high and other cultures. This doesn’t mean that we cannot distinguish Mahler from Marvel superheroes, but for almost everyone they exist as part of a continuous cultural flow. Part of this is due to the information/media revolution that makes culture readily available, so that the scarcity of production and consumption that once shaped cultural hierarchies no longer holds. The rest is due to the contemporary global market which commodifies high culture into advertising, tourism, soundtracks, etc., but also collapses value. The logical end point of the commodity-relation is nihilism – where other modes of value collapse into exchange value.
Instead of identifying enemies, Windschuttle might examine the market and its effect on the culture he seeks to defend. Now the Australia Council has thrown his publication fully into this very mechanism, there’s no time like the present.
– Simon Cooper