Some notes arising out of the present discussion: The dangers of artists being forced into conformity are apparent. Given the volatility of mass markets, Wall Street has a very particular ethos. This was clearly summarized by Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's, who was angered by some of his franchises: “We have found out ... that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. ... The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.” The very nature of a mass market is conformity in both product and customer. ... Osborne links America's urban desolation with the policies that insist on the commodification of the arts, and contrasts it with European planning that values the historical, social and cultural identities of cities. "It is not enough that people have freedom of speech," he concludes. "They must also have mechanisms for meaningfully expressing and debating it. Public arts funding is deeply valuable because it encourages societies to be diverse, intellectually alive, inquisitive and realistic. It furthers the discourse societies need to fully express their communal and national identity and place it in the rest of the world. It furthers our ability to heal and help. It furthers our well-being, freedom of expression, and pursuit of happiness. Public arts funding represents the deepest American ideals."
1. The question of funding the arts is a no-brainer for artists. Not, as alleged by populist rightwing critics like Andrew Bolt, because of self interest, but because of the manifest benefits that accrue both generally to society and personally to the individual when the arts are valued.
Artists have personally experienced what the arts can give: as a means of self awareness; as a profound and continuous pleasure; as one of the human activities that give meaning and dignity to human existence; as a means of creating a sense of community and relationship; as a way of establishing and questioning a national identity; as a way of understanding our place in the world and ourselves as human beings beyond the materialist valuations of the marketplace.
Anyone who has ever loved another human being, who has had a child, who has felt - by looking at a painting, or listening to music, or by walking through a virgin forest or a humble laneway transfigured by moonlight or, like Wordsworth, by standing on a city bridge - in fact, anyone who has been touched by beauty in one of its myriad manifestations - knows that there are many things in life that are too complex and too profound to be valued simply in terms of money. Art is one of those things.
How much the arts ought to be funded, and in what ways, is a subject that needs to be seriously debated. There is no doubt that Australian arts funding, for all its significant achievements in its almost 40 year history, is far from perfect. Some of this is due to insufficient government funding; some of it can be levelled at the bureaucratisation of the arts through the 80s and 90s; some of it can be put at the feet of those who unthinkingly swallowed the model of the "arts industry" as a sufficient justification for the arts.
We need, as artists, as members of this society, to face the problems, to talk about possible solutions. We need to think more widely and more imaginatively, and to consider carefully - even if it is to lay them aside - the criticisms made of the arts community. Is it our fault that some small but vocal sections of the community hold such negative opinions of the arts? How do we educate the community at large about what the arts mean?
There is little doubt that in Australia we have not always been well served by our arts advocacy, although there have been noble exceptions like Donald Horne. Arts advocacy over the past two decades has concentrated on the economic benefits - understandably, and I do not personally believe that the arts should not be economically responsible. But this has been at the expense of the real value of the arts aside from their value as commodities in the marketplace, which has not been articulated well at all.
As Europe shows, appreciation of the arts goes hand-in-hand with access to and education about the arts. Both access and education are aspects to which state funding is crucial: subsidies make ticket prices or book prices cheaper, permit the decentralisation of the arts so they answer to their local communities and permit the arts to be unchained from market values. Since universal literacy was deemed a desirable part of society, education has been largely the business of the state. Lack of funding means that access to and understanding of the arts is limited only to those who can afford them. It is lack of funding that makes the arts truly "elitist".
Worth noting here is the particular conditions in Australia that exacerbate the difficulties for local artists: a small population spread over a huge continent, making things like distribution and touring expensive and difficult; the necessity to compete, like the local film industry, with the vastly better resourced international corporations which result in a less than level playing field. To get rid of arts funding here would be inevitably to make Australia - even more than it is now - a cultural colony of more powerful economies, most notably the US.
2. State funding of the arts recognises that art is a labour-intensive activity which might not necessarily justify itself by economic return but which offers its own unique benefits to society. In this way, arts funding is exactly the same as Research and Development in the sciences, which doesn't necessarily generate economic return, and sometimes not at all, but which is essential to the further development of the science. It is a bad sign that R&D is not served well in this country either, and that the cultural braindrain is mirrored by a braindrain in the sciences.
3. A market-driven policy for the arts - such as is dominant in America - is unambiguously inhibiting to the diversity and ultimately the quality of the arts. (George Hunka at Superfluities has further thoughts on the American perspective, where this battle has been largely lost). It encourages artists to conform to the necessities of the marketplace, and devalues immeasurably the non-economic aspects of the arts. Those aspects, in fact, that make the arts most valuable.
Worth reading in full, in connection with this question, is William Osborne's illuminating comparison between US and European arts funding models. Australia at present is somewhere in between these two extremes, with state funding still functionally present but being continuously eroded by the "free" market ideologues in power, who would prefer us to follow the US model. As Osborne comments:
In the spirit of their mixed economies, Europeans would argue that many forms of artistic expression cannot be positioned or relativised within the mass market or its fringes. For them, culture must be communal and autonomous. They often see American culture as hegemonistic -- a totalizing and destructive assault on the humanistic, cultural and social structures they have worked so long and hard to create.
A general sense of the different perspectives concerning communal identity can be illustrated with an example now widely discussed in the States. Many Americans have seen how corporate-owned strip malls and Wal-Marts have deeply affected their cities and towns. The old downtown areas are abandoned as customers move to corporate businesses on the edge of town. Communal identity and autonomy, which are an important part of cultural expression, are replaced with a relatively isomorphic corporatism.
4. In connection with the above notes, we must keep in mind how free speech has been eroded Australia since 2001 by neo-conservative ideologues. Examples are too numerous to list here: books banned in university libraries; publishers raided and the hard drives on their computers erased; academics fearful that their legitimate research might break the law. And so on. The neo-conservative campaign against the arts does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of a much larger program of legal and social repression, the radical dimensions of which Australian society as a whole is yet to comprehend.
Much mockery has been made of my comparison of the Howard Government's slow erosion of arts funding with Ceaucescau’s funding cuts to the Bulandra Company theatre, which highlights the role of funding cuts as a means of censorship. If the present threat to La Mama was the only symptom, of course the comparison would be ludicrous. But it is by no means the only symptom. The fact that a culturally invaluable - and cost effective - arts institution like La Mama is under threat only highlights how bad things have already become.
The comparison with Ceaucescau was made in the context of a multiple squeezing of the space for the arts: on the ABC, in the Sedition laws, in conservative attacks on contemporary work. This goes, as even a cursory glance at rightwing websites and articles or Howard's "soft" Hansonism will show, with xenophobia and racism, a good dose of homophobia (except in the case of Alan Jones), and a general denigration and fear of anyone designated "other". It seems, for example, that we have already forgotten that under Howard Government policy we imprisoned literally thousands of children in immigrant detention centres, in direct contravention of both international law and common human compassion.
And this is in a larger context where basic common law concepts such as Habeas Corpus - the right that protects a citizen from abitrary detention by the State - are being set aside in many major Western democracies, including, under the new anti-Terror legislation, ours. Habeas Corpus has been for centuries the hallmark of a society that determines that the State cannot abuse its power over the individual: it is what has traditionally made civil democratic society different from tyrannical or totalitarian regimes.
If the Howard Government does not wish to be compared with repressive regimes, it should not employ the same policies as they do.
As Primo Levi said in the preface to his devastating book, If This Is A Man: "Many people - many nations - can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy'. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager [concentration camp].... Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us."
5. The question of arts funding is inextricably linked to the question of what kind of society we wish to live in.
UPDATE: George Hunka provides a thoughtful response at Superfluities, in the context of US mid-term elections, reminding us that we are not talking utopias. In part: "this is not to say that a culture or nation that provides continuing, significant support to minority and antagonistic artistic expression would have kept us militarily out of the Middle East, prevented the abuses at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, or built guarantees of privacy into the Patriot Act. But it would have provided an environment that contextualizes these issues in a broader vision of humanity."
Which reminds me of Oscar Wilde's comment in De Profundis: "The only crime is lack of imagination".
The dangers of artists being forced into conformity are apparent. Given the volatility of mass markets, Wall Street has a very particular ethos. This was clearly summarized by Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's, who was angered by some of his franchises: “We have found out ... that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. ... The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.” The very nature of a mass market is conformity in both product and customer. ...
Osborne links America's urban desolation with the policies that insist on the commodification of the arts, and contrasts it with European planning that values the historical, social and cultural identities of cities. "It is not enough that people have freedom of speech," he concludes. "They must also have mechanisms for meaningfully expressing and debating it. Public arts funding is deeply valuable because it encourages societies to be diverse, intellectually alive, inquisitive and realistic. It furthers the discourse societies need to fully express their communal and national identity and place it in the rest of the world. It furthers our ability to heal and help. It furthers our well-being, freedom of expression, and pursuit of happiness. Public arts funding represents the deepest American ideals."