Exit strategy: a new vision of art and culture?
As the pandemic’s debilitating impact on arts and culture continues, the industry is frantically gripping the handbrake to stop the slide, while simultaneously seeking a roadmap. One such path is proposed by the philanthropist-funded think tank A New Approach, supported by a recent report by former Grattan Institute director (and ANA advisor) John Daley. Both claim to know the wrong turn that has been taken and the right path to follow.
In desperate times, we try our luck. But those in the cultural sector should consider the options very carefully, lest they end up sinking deeper into the Badlands.
For Daley, artistic policy has stagnated for 30 years as the world around it changes radically. The circumstances of the sector have become more restrictive, its charms decidedly dated. To overcome this The Guardian‘s Kelly Burke called her complex’ Blanche Dubois’, the area has to adapt to the times. It should stop making arguments about economic impact and instead identify its contribution to “happiness, understanding and togetherness”. Daly and ANA are calling for the creation of a new cutting-edge body to put advocacy on a professional basis, uniting the sector around a set of cohesive and measurable results.
In short, for Daley, the industry is in a mess of its own making. His report claims that, according to perceptions to the contrary, the arts and culture received “relatively generous” government support during the pandemic. Likewise, according to ANA, “Average Australians” overwhelmingly support the arts. With the right message, a new cutting edge body could turn the tide. As long as the artists get involved. The ANA calls for a “National Plan for Arts, Culture and Creativity” (NACC), a vision to guide the sector towards the sunny highlands of 2030.
We are not against a plan for arts and culture, and a new political vision is certainly needed. But is this it? The framing of the plan requires that arts and culture be treated as an “industry” like any other. Despite nods to its non-economic value, ANA is pushing the industry further towards a political model where it delivers “returns on investment” through quantifiable targets. It is a form of technocratic neoliberalism completely disconnected from the current reality of COVID-cum-post-COVID.
It is wrong that artistic policy has stood still. Community arts transformed ideas of access to and participation in culture in the 1970s and 1980s. That of Paul Keating Creative nation in 1994 he addressed issues of multiculturalism, popular culture and Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific. Multimedia arts were controversial long before the Internet and its plethora of digital devices. Debates over the appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians and refugees, Australia’s Eurocentric narrative of who works in the arts and under what conditions, and structural discrimination of all kinds, were well underway in the industry by 2000. and culture on its head, even in ‘Middle Australia’. It had a decisive impact on policy making.
Those in the cultural sector should consider the options very carefully, lest they end up sinking deeper into the Badlands.
It was governments that demanded that cultural organizations use economic arguments to demonstrate their value. For Daley, to suggest that this was the area ape the language of Canberra is a bit rich. Daley says it’s a “myth” that governments are only interested in GDP – he pays workers unable to work again, for example. It is a categorical denial of the reality of neoliberalism. The last three decades have seen the relentless privatization of public services, cutting them to the bone while making their access as onerous as possible in the name of “efficiency”. Blaming artists for adopting economic arguments forced upon them by governments that believe in nothing else is gaslighting.
The claim that they should now move away from the economy is also misleading. It introduces mundane expressions of “happiness” but leaves the basic assumptions unexamined. ANA’s report is steeped in the “industrial” language of GDP, metrics and employment growth, abstractions that have little to do with the human beings who actually work in arts and culture. The economic references of the sector have never been accepted by the Treasury, we are told. But to say that artists don’t work primarily for money is not the point. It ignores the transformations brought about in Australian society by the government’s belief in the superiority of free markets, the private sector and consumer sovereignty. Undisputed beliefs in both reports.
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF CULTURE
Bypassing the economy, Daley and ANA ignore the Political economics of art and culture. They speak of the “growth” of the commercial arts sector as if it was not the result of deliberate deregulation, implied in a worrying concentration of ownership and control, erosion of local production, a decline real wages and an increase in precarious employment conditions. Whatever the flaws in the research on the creative industries, it at least understands that there are complex economic dynamics at play that cultural policy must take into account.
History is also ignored. A decline in federal government funding and its low rating on the OECD scale is seen as the arts’ failure to effectively advocate. The animosity against the sector that started with John Howard and gained momentum under Tony Abbott barely registers. There is also no discussion of how the public administration has seen its independence curtailed, its officials are no longer expected to stand up to ministers, or tolerated when they do. At a time when executive power is ascending, control over government decisions by outside bodies is limited. However, the sector is invited to join a new cutting-edge organization for all the arts and culture whose proximity to Canberra will unlock the resources that have been gradually taken from it.
Where is the Australian Council for the Arts in all of this? Daley suggests that it is a “government agency” and that it cannot undertake advocacy effectively. But Sports Australia is a government agency and does advocacy all the time.
The Australia Council is a statutory and independent arts funding agency with a set of clearly defined goals and values. It is Australia’s oldest and most trusted instrument to support art and culture nationwide. Yet like the ABC, it is slowly being strangled.
The current government is the one which finds few advantages in the agencies which constrain the ministerial decree. As its dismal response to accusations of “denunciation” suggests, the government’s view is that elected ministers can unilaterally decide who they can give “their” money to. The Australian Council is the kind of organization the government doesn’t like. In his 50 years of life, he certainly had problems. But these issues should be the subject of an open discussion, with industry holding the agency accountable for its charter. It is not just the grants the Council gives that are important. It is the democratic debate that takes place around its objectives and results. Despite all its flaws, the agency has a close connection to the cultural sector and sophisticated ways of including it in its decision-making.
In contrast, John Daley and ANA see the link between government and lobbyists as the primary focus of policy making. They offer little consideration of how the sector got to this point, or the democratic deficits it causes.
WHY WE DON’T NEED A NEW TIP BODY
Now building a new cutting edge body to compete with the Council would be a big mistake – in fact the privatization of public policy. Transformations in the idea of culture; the proliferation of different types of cultural consumption; the challenge to established artistic canons; the expansion of platform capitalism into every nook and cranny of everyday life: these are huge challenges for an arts funding agency.
Isn’t it high time that the Australia Council and organizations like the ABC were properly supported to do their democratically appointed work?
But depriving him of funds and then saying he is incapable of doing his job is neoliberalism’s oldest ploy. The government has cut budget allocations, stuffed boards of directors with politician appointees, eroded research capacity, and hampered opportunities for independent action. Isn’t it high time that the Australia Council and organizations like the ABC were properly supported to do their democratically appointed work?
We need a vision for cultural policy that recognizes the full role that art and culture play in an economically complex and socially pluralistic Australia. This will not come from importing happiness pie charts, but from rethinking the place of culture in contemporary democracy. It is not a question of abandoning the economic arguments. It means questioning what governments think of the “economy”. This is exactly what the explosion of heterodox economic approaches is doing today – “donut” pictograms, founding models, models of care, Green New Deals, UBI and UBS guarantees, First Nations concerns and well-being indices. These are the changes that are currently taking place around art and culture. The industry should adopt them.
Why revive the dull orthodoxies of the corporate discourse of the 90s? The way forward for the cultural sector will not come with professional lobbyists massing the minister’s messages. It will come from the reaffirmation of an inclusive vision of arts and culture based on citizens’ rights and shared democratic values. This will come from the debate and acceptance of the principles of a common culture on our shrinking and heating planet. This is only the safe way out of the Badlands.