Recent changes to arts funding has sparked debate and furore within the community. To briefly recap, Arts Minister (and Attorney-General) George Brandis is moving $104.8 million in funds from the Australia Council to his own Programme for Excellence in the Arts.
Why do we talk about arts funding as though it is wasted money? Well, financially viability is all in the way the discussion is framed. In a classically Orwellian move the arts receive ‘funding’ and small businesses receive ‘incentives’. One group of people are given ‘handouts,’ as if the money is misused, whereas businesses get tax breaks, start-up grants and deductibles. The reality is, government helps a lot of people and companies to get started and keep running. In order to entice business, the government changes laws, alters taxes and offers motivations and incentives. They engage in platitudes and diplomacy – in the arts, not so much.
What we have is an increasingly insidious government funding a culture war. While it could be argued that this is simply a pragmatic economic decision to shift funding from one place to another, it seems dubious that this is the case. Because, and this is the greatest hypocrisy in all is this, art is a business. As a supposed champion of business why does the government feel the need to control the funding? The answer is that it seeks control of cultural output and the circulation of ideas. A government that fears freedom of expression should reconsider its values.
Art should beget art. As an ongoing debate of ideas, each piece should contribute to a collective discussion; there is no finitude here, there is no right or wrong, but rather a multiplicity of identities and beings constantly changing and affecting change. The biggest travesty is when the dialogue ends. When there is only one voice being heard, that’s starting to sound like fascism. Art is not about what one man considers excellent, it is about a culture attempting to define, refine and find itself, its many selves.
So, what is excellence? Who defines it? Should this be a benchmark? The reason for the Australia Council is so that there are ‘arms-length’ funding opportunities for artists. Like a separation of the powers, an arts council that is distinct from the government is vital for informed and critical public debate. Too often the criticism levelled at artists is that they are ‘inner-city, latte-sipping, lefty hipsters’. This is reductive as, for example, it ignores developing artists in regional areas, and frames art as a practice that only a certain sector of society participates in, and belongs to. Some artists are inner-city, latte-sipping, lefty hipster and that’s okay. Some artists are not, and that’s okay too.
During protests, those involved in larger companies remained relatively silent or participated in secretive meetings. Most likely those conversations are positive and their outcomes noble in intention; however, I help but feel that they should be front and centre of the social sphere. If other industries were under similar fire, key players would be seeking media attention to explain how these changes will be affecting all Australians.
So, who are our key players? And how often do they talk, not advertise, talk, to the public about what they are up to; about what they’re producing and creating – and why? Art doesn’t always resonate with everyone, and that’s fair enough, but that doesn’t mean that all of us – everyone from management down – shouldn’t be trying to explain context, intentions and parameters in making art. Wesley Enoch, for example, has written an open letter to Brandis, which demonstrates active leadership, likewise with Kate Cherry in Western Australia, who spoke at the rally.
Given the dearth of rigorous and ongoing communication around cultural products, it is difficult now for the wider Australian population to care about changes to the arts budget; they lack the dialogue to engage with the topic. It is easy for politicians to spin the ‘self indulgent artist’ shtick when they have control of the conversation. That’s problematic because it is increasingly apparent that the public needs a strong artistic community to shed light on the political goings on in this country.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. It provides a space for debate. It challenges and confirms ideas. It asks questions and provides answers. In fact, it is both a question and an answer. It is also the home of difference. You need only look to the festivals around Australia to confirm this. It is essential that an arts community is able to provide for the myriad facets of a society, not just the elite, not just the majority and not just to placate dominant opinions. What Brandis is essentially doing is funding a very particular type of art for a very particular type of person.
It’s time for a cultural shift in the way we talk about the arts. We all need to be more visible and sustain ongoing dialogue with the wider public – as hard and arduous as this may seem. Companies need to be talked about as businesses…because that’s what they are. When filling out grant applications, companies must justify every dollar they spend and yet there is still a perception amongst the wider community that artists are frivolous and self-interested.
In reality, art provides a service that is quintessential to a healthy democracy: it encourages debate, difference and enables everyone to have a voice. The debate is not be ‘should we fund the arts?’ But rather, ‘what art is being produced today?’ Without information, leadership and conversation, many people will not think that Brandis’ move will affect them. This is terrifying. Because it does. It affects us all.