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June 01st 2011 print

Michael Connor

Arts Policy and the Culture of Grovel

A Tweet by the associate editor of Overland was clear and unsurprising: “When making submissions to left-wing journals, try not bragging about being published in right-wing journals. Hypothetically speaking.” Un-hypothetically speaking, it was an accurate representation of everyday, mundane, political bias in the government-funded culture business. With the real possibility that the Coalition may be returning to power some time soon, the lack of a serious, reforming policy commitment towards the arts is apparent. The intense Howard-hatred we lived through from 1996 to 2007 will not just be repeated if an Abbott government is elected—it will be far worse. The Left’s slide into barbarism is not hidden in obscene corners of the web but is the daily product of ABC commentary pages, the Fairfax press, and much-visited Left blogs. Culture will again be a battleground, and the Coalition’s lack of reformist policy for dealing with the arts will again ensure that they go into battle against enemies they themselves have funded.

In the federal parliament there is no insider policy quite like the arts policy. Good intentions, politics, greed, careerism, ego, snobbery, overpraised talent, doublespeak and outright lunacy combine to produce the occasional worthwhile outcomes and the more usual really bad outcomes. Nowhere else (except in the universities) is the politicised greed of the Left quite so open and self-serving, nowhere else (except in the universities) is their mantra that everything is political so forcefully inflicted, and nowhere else (except when dealing with the universities and the ABC) is the Coalition so constrained in its response. The badly named “culture wars” in Australia were skirmishes which pointed to the very real polarisation of our society between the New Class/Left and everyone else. In the arts it is not just that the New Class/Left have taken absolute control, which they have, it is that the Coalition is complicit in this by funding their domination.

During the Howard years the attitude of the Coalition to the pernicious Left dictatorship over the arts, the universities, and the ABC was ambivalent and its attempts to bring about moderate reforms were ineffectual. It was a fault, but the fault does not lie entirely with the politicians. There has never been an informed economic and political survey of culture in Australia from a Right perspective, and consequently there has not been a policy discussion of what should be done in the arts. The mild reforms of the Howard government unleashed wild and unbalanced criticisms. The changes it made did not rest on deeply considered formulations of policy. The Coalition had neither the will nor the policy to take on the Left ironclads. Good policy needs detail, and there has been a failure on the Right to take the arts seriously or to put forward strong policy proposals for dealing with the way government funds are used to further Left domination in the field. A discussion is needed not of how government can best fund the arts but of how to turn off the taps. Cultural engineering should not be the business of government. Years of opportunity, the period of the Coalition in opposition, have passed without any meaningful discussion of the culture problem.

The Coalition’s current policy paper on the arts was prepared before the 2010 election by (or for) Steven Ciobo and is the current policy program distributed by the present shadow Minister for the Arts, George Brandis, who was Arts Minister in the Howard government. It is a lightweight response to a very serious problem and its language is precisely the sort of New Class babble for which you would hope right-wing politicians would have an instinctive distrust. Unfortunately, it suggests that any discussion of arts policy by the Coalition is probably doomed if it relies on tertiary-educated staffers who are incapable of seeing outside the problem because they are infected with the institutional leftism of the universities: 

The Coalition is committed to building a thriving, innovative, unique and prosperous arts and cultural sector. Today, the arts and cultural sectors in Australia are recognised worldwide for our exemplary visual, performing and literary artists and arts companies. The Coalition recognises Australian arts and culture is characterised by a rich diversity of art forms practised across this vast country. Importantly, the Coalition supports the arts and is determined to ensure that all regions of Australia are able to enjoy the cultural and economic benefits of a strong and secure arts sector. A Coalition Government will implement a practical and affordable action plan to help the arts sector grow. This plan involves real support and real action that will make a real difference to the arts community and, through it, to the lives of all Australians. 

Its essence, five generous dollops of our cash, represent the Coalition’s utter surrender in the battle of ideas, though to be fair, the people who wrote this may not even be aware that a cultural battle is waging. The initiatives could have come from any of the gimme-gimme arts presentations made during Rudd’s 2020 Summit: “Promote the development of the arts in regional areas” (that is, more money); “Provide a new acquisition fund for regional galleries” (that is, more money); “Introduce a temporary film production fund” (that is, more money for lousy movies); “Support local film production” (that is, even more money for even more lousy movies); “Introduce a musical instrument loan scheme” (that is, more money). That’s it, and it’s not good enough. The best way of dealing with your political enemies isn’t by giving them jobs to spend more of your money. 

Government arts funding is considered a battle won, a long-resolved policy decision accepted by all sides of politics. This should be contested, and the politicisation of government-funded culture should be examined. There should be no argument for replacing a Left-dominated culture with a Right-dominated culture—that is an impossible fantasy. But an argument should be considered for withdrawing government from the field while encouraging private benevolence to step in. A discussion can quickly turn to government achievements such as galleries built, prizes given, artists supported. It misses the far deeper consideration that government funding of the arts has introduced the wholesale politicisation of artistic creativity, and introduced a culture of grovel in dependent artists. As always, government is not the solution, it is the problem.

One of the serious considerations in dealing with the arts is seeing what is actually meant, and what has actually been achieved. When those on the Left say that everything is politics we should believe them, and examine their pet projects for the politics within. Left-wing arts bureaucrats need to be approached with utter distrust; come close with good will and common sense and you haven’t got a hope—you’ll be mugged and your pockets picked. Good-sounding government policy for funding the arts will (almost) always have bad ends: any good results are purely accidental. Promoting regional arts sounds like a good idea. Making first-rate metropolitan theatre available to regional Australia sounds good. What it means is providing short-run productions, probably at metropolitan prices, of political inner-city theatre that no one in the suburbs ever went to see. It would probably be better to allow regional theatre groups to compete against each other to choose local productions which would then be sent to the cities—that would encourage regional theatre. But it’s not the business of the government to do so. Private initiative and funding could meet the challenge but no one would do this because it would not satisfy careerist New Class ambitions, it would only please bogans in the bush.

One way out of the impasse would be considering how state funding could be withdrawn while opening the way for its replacement by private funding. If a law firm with excess profits wishes to fund the Sydney (Left) Writers’ Festival, then let them. It’s more appropriate for them to fund a book promotion event for David Hicks than for it to be done with funds filched from the Australian taxpayers. As it is, we pay for this: “David Hicks was in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region undertaking training to help the people of Kashmir when the September 11 attacks changed everything, leading to his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay.” Money for that sold-out event came from the City of Sydney; Communities Arts, New South Wales; the Australia Council for the Arts; Telstra; SBS; ABC; University of New South Wales; and the federal government’s Australia–India Council. The India connection is odd, for I thought he had been involved in shooting into India.

Everyone is not an artist. While it suits the arts propagandists to use platitudes like this to extort more money from government sponsors, it is pointless and ultimately hurtful to encourage those without talent. The appalling fine arts courses in universities take in hundreds of poor kids who are miseducated and then thrown out at the end loaded with worthless degrees. You can watch them sinking in spirits as they turn about in the vain hope of finding work after the universities dump them. They waste years of their lives in order to keep the academics who run these things in jobs. And those with talent often have their real gifts perverted and misused simply to fit in with some bizarre and currently fashionable theory being spouted by their second-rate instructors.

A National Play Festival for new writers sounds like a really good idea. The last one was held in Parramatta in March. It drew loads of entries—there are lots of writers out there. A section of the program was called Must Sees and showcased eight new plays: 

As two young blokes await execution in a south-east Asian prison cell for drug smuggling they re-enact their life’s joys as their own life tragedies play out. Playful and gutsy …

Two actors befriend and ultimately betray a young mentally ill invalid. Sharp and piercing …

An epic melodrama of life lived at the edges of Australian identity that spans 1967 to 2001 in PNG and Darwin all through the eyes of cabaret artiste Russell. Exuberant and charming …

One child teaches a younger one the complexity and intricacy of begging on an Indian street corner, while a western documentary maker fails to immerse herself in the lives she seeks to capture on film. Detailed and intriguing …

A small group of underground scientists attempt to re-green the earth’s now toxic surface but authorities will not tolerate dissent, risk or hope. Audacious and muscular …

Four small-town lives linked through a violent crime try hopelessly to erase the past and build a new future. Painful and beautiful …

Through interviews, emails, letters and legal documents a playwright pursues the truth behind a fifteen year old schoolgirl and a forty year old schoolteacher who were involved in a sexual relationship. Controversial and “objective” …

Five initially disparate urban Australian lives intertwine and intersect, ultimately all leading to the police shooting of a young man in a kid’s [sic] playground. Sophisticated and ambitious … 

They sound utterly dismal. Though there may be an unlikely masterpiece here, the brief synopsis of each play suggests it was written in the hope of being selected by a panel of arts bureaucrats.

Those connected with the festival included professional directors, writers, dramaturges and actors but as they collected their cheques they didn’t seem to realise that their helpful interference may have hindered rather than helped the young writers. Looking at the brief outlines you feel that the writers should be congratulated for writing a play, and then told to go and write a real one. Also, just looking at these texts you wonder who has taught them to think theatre is an outpost of social security. Though the writers surely spend much of their own time searching for entertainment, when they write they turn away from that and put together works that fit the criteria of arts bureaucrats who treat entertainment as a sin. If they are watching the sort of DVDs the rest of us are watching, things like The Wire, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, how can they not be inspired by this outflowing of creativity? Everything is being done to foster and help, but the whole project leaves you shaking your head and wondering who would pay $100 to see any of these plays. If it wasn’t that they had written them I doubt any of the playwrights would waste their money.

In the battlefield of culture, language is the strongest weapon in the New Class armoury. Challenge them on their own terms and accept their word-smothered propositions, and the battle is lost. The awful language once encountered only on the pages of unreadable academic theses has now become a spoken language. That truly creative people have to negotiate through this stuff must be intimidating and deadly.

Serious analysis of the state of arts is needed but it must be an outsider approach. If you enter into a discussion of the arts and arts policy in general in the terms of the tertiary-educated Left you have lost before you have begun. If it is accepted that government has a role to play in arts funding the discussion has already been checkmated. 

To illustrate the complexities and the chaos that overlay the arts you could turn to Australia Council publications, speeches, discussion papers and all those sorts of things, but a single extract from a single arts bureaucrat is a good example of how far into the maelstrom government funding of the arts has taken us.

Esther Anatolitis is a resourceful and accomplished arts administrator. She was former chair of the Arts Industry Council, has worked in public broadcasting, was a co-founder of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and is presently CEO of Melbourne Fringe. She was recently interviewed for an Age video presentation. The topic was funding, and she wants more of it­—thickly spread across her idea of the artistic community (I think). The interviewer, Michael Short, wrote of her that “Her power, authority and gentle confidence become evident as you listen to her. They are not trumpeted.” In the interview they gave the impression of understanding each other when Anatolitis spoke: 

It’s about recognising that in any complex system, the possibility and the potential for the most exciting innovation comes at the smallest scale. I like to think of the model of thermo-dynamic equilibrium—so taking it out of an economic system back into a physical system. A system in equilibrium displays static, macroscopic qualities; so from afar, everything seems lovely and peaceful and normal and there’s a whole bunch of predictable and safe ideas being expressed. But at the micro level, the system displays the most dynamic properties. It has dynamic microscopic properties but static macroscopic properties. So, how do we at that micro level really gather and capture and understand and then stimulate and foster and encourage great work and new ideas …

It’s funny how much clarity you can interpret in retrospect. Something I love doing when I’m trying to think through some ideas is to draw some mind maps and my partner Craig Barrie and I facilitate a salon at our place once a month and yesterday I showed some of my mind maps and some of the artists who were gathered there said “but they’re so neat”. And I was making one while we were talking … 

Government patronage of the arts produces politicised bureaucrats, not artists. Good intentions have produced a politicised Left culture of grovel, elitism and stupidity. If the Coalition is ever to do anything to free us from this it needs analysis, discussion, policy planning, and the will to introduce change. The “culture wars” highlighted a deep dissatisfaction with cultural institutions perverted by the Left, a dissatisfaction felt by the broad community, who show an instinctive distrust of our cultural malaise, but did not present policy for dealing with the problems. Until they are confronted and clear policy is formulated and adopted by the Coalition, we are condemning future generations to the same fate of bureaucratic cultural misery which is promoted as Australia’s cultural glory by those who live off it.

Michael Connor wrote “Andrew Bolt on Trial” in the May issue.

See also: How to rethink arts funding