Arts funding: some further thoughts ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Arts funding: some further thoughts

Some notes arising out of the present discussion:

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:

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. ...

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.

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."

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".


TimT said...

There seem to be some grounds for agreement there between right and left. And as any glance into the pages of, say, Quadrant or The Spectator will show, there is a large community of those on the political right who feel deeply for the arts.

There are quite a few contentious arguments in points 1-5 there. I agree broadly with 1), though not necessarily 2-5. It's always dangerous, for instance, referring to the American 'arts' model, as if there's only one of them. American films are doing quite well; Australian films, not so well. The major difference between them? American films operate, almost wholly, on a private model. Australians, on a public model.

Point 4) is also rather disingenuous - the detention of children happened under previous Labor Governments, as well. Similarly with censorship (for instance, Pru Goward spoke on radio two weeks ago about being retrenched from the ABC for being a prominent member of the Liberals at a time when a Labor Government was in power). These sort of things shouldn't happen.

I'd say that the way to ensure that these things do not happen is to move towards a genuinely independent arts market, where public funding and sponsorship is neither needed nor wanted - where artists are able to relate more directly and honestly to audiences, not bureaucrats or politicians. And where those politicians or bureaucrats do not make decisions on behalf of audiences - but audiences do it for themselves.

Rather ideological of me, you might think. I think of it as a move away from ideology.

TimT said...

PS In Newcastle I was involved for about four years in a council-funded youth arts zine. Had great fun, but you can just imagine the bureacratic squabbles we got involved in! Also got involved in the performance poetry scene there, and I've since been to several poetry performances (the most dull by far was the most recent, at the Melbourne Writers festival, where a bunch of boring old farts got up and said pompous things to a disinterested audience).

I've been cynical about state sponsorship of the arts for a long time. But there are lots of good and talented people in the Aussie arts scene, and it's just a pity they keep on getting let down by successive governments!
There was a good book review in Quadrant recently, which noted that in most governments over the past 50 years, there has been little or no real understanding of culture. (They've been more interested in foreign affairs and the economy). I think it was a good point ... maybe we need a few more P J Keatings!

Anonymous said...

I have been watching this storm unfold over at Tim Blair. I think that the rancour and smear have been such that I feel inclined to treble arts sponsorship just to spite them.

Amongst the spittle and froth though I think two positions can be distilled; a libertarian argument that is basically hostile to any government intervention as intervention simply justifies large government. Any appeal to the ineffable or the unquantifiable is not going to work here as many libertarians would agree with your sentiments but see in those sentiments nothing solid in justifying having to subsidise yours or anothers existential odyessy. The other argument, if it can be called one is the good old ‘your different and I hate you’ and nothing can be done with this except lob rocks and enjoy the howling.

Surf the libertarian sites and you will see a tremendous amount of intellectual energy expended on examining public goods. Public goods are traditionally those necessary goods (such as roads, legal infrastructure, street signs etc) that the market cannot provide and so are paid for by the government to address this 'market failure'. Public goods theory is invoked to justify the necessity of government. Libertarians would dispute that the market failure is such that it can only be remedied by govt intervention. Libertarianism is basically an anarchist position that sees enlightened self intrest regulated by the market as an alternative to the coersive intrusions of the state. Issues of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, habeas corpus etc can be seen in this context simply as constitutional sops to ameliorate the tendancy of governemt to authoritarianism. In the absence of a coersive state so the theory goes such guarantees become unnecessary for they only have meaning when confronted by authority.

In the libertarian context your argument about the snuffing of La Mama as an attack on free speech is not ridiculed, it is seen simply as inevitable. If your liberty is guaranteed by the state, or underwritten by the state then it is on very flimsy ground…sedition laws anyone?

Of course not every one is convinced by libertarian arguments (though as a cuddly marxist I’m sympathetic) and the majority of your frothers are going to loathe to give up negative gearing, baby bonuses, sports extravaganzas in short the whole network of state sponsored spending. If arts subsidies go then all subsidies must go. It no longer an argument of personal preference but simple equity.

Theatre Queen

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tim T - nice to see you here. Maybe the salient point that conservatives who like art have trouble with is with innovative contemporary art. Where Mozart is worthwhile, Xenakis is highly dubious. It forgets, for example, that Milton was the radical (and politically radical) avant garde of his time. So I wonder how many conservatives would support arts programs that gave resources to new art as well as the canonical? It certainly does happen in Europe. Osborne talks about music in Germany; I have a little knowledge of theatre in France. If you go there, you will see that funding works, and works brilliantly, if intelligently applied. People go to see the performing arts in droves, they buy lots of books, they are interested and engaged with what they see (even if they hate it), they are proud of what their culture achieves. This happens with funding that we can only dream of, which permits say theatre directors to achieve their visions. But the point about education is also a crucial one.

Osborne says it pithily: "Europeans combine arts education with the living presence of the performing arts within their communities. Classical music is far more relevant to young people when performing arts organizations are a highly present and esteemed part of their city or region. In America, the nearest genuinely professional full-time performing arts organization is often hundreds of miles away. America’s children should perceive the arts as part of their communities. And our more talented children should be able to think of the arts as a realistic career option, just as children in Europe do."

As for Australian films: do you remember when we had an industry? Films like Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Breaker Morant... like, real, excellent films. It seems like another age. These films only happened because of government assistance. Films are no longer made (what, three feature films last year?) for a range of reasons. One being money: Australian films cannot hope to compete with the publicity machine of Hollywood and all of them are made with budgets that are a tiny percentage of what Hollywood would call a low-budget film. Why most of the films made now are mediocre aside from the question of money is another issue I won't address here, but that's about an endemic problem.

Hi Theatre Queen - thanks for your summary there! The problem with thinking that all authority resides in the state is that it ignores other kinds of authority - ranging from family tyranny that might lead, say, to domestic violence, to the kinds of thugs running Iraq in the governmental vacuum there - that the state itself, in an ideal world, might mitigate. I do think there is a place for a benign state, in this world anyway, which has responsibilities towards the people it governs.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Fair point too. TimT, about Labour's incarceration of asylum seekers. To tell the truth, it's hard to tell the difference between the Liberals and the ALP on most questions these days. Sometimes the Liberals are even more liberal than Labour. I don't have a lot of admiration for the ALP's arts policies either. When I can find them... and they were the ones who introduced "arts policies" and the term "the arts industry".

Keating - for all his clocks and Armani suits, which triggered every cliche about elitism in the book, - was at least interested in the arts. It's been a while since significant politicians have paid more than lip service to them.

TimT said...

I think when James McAuley started Quadrant, his dislike of T S Eliot-style modernism was well-entrenched, but he was always aware of modern literary trends - it's one of the reasons his magazine has lasted. So conservatives may have a healthy scepticism about innovation in the arts (which I share), but they're not necessarily dead against it.

That's a very good point you make about education. It has been little remarked upon, but Peter Jensen's campaign to do away with traditional music in St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney is one of the more shameful episodes in recent years: the cathedral is linked with St Andrews School, one of the best musical schools in the country (Nigel Westlake was a student). And though I supported VSU, it may have quite a serious impact on uni students and their contributions to the arts community. (Hopefully it's a short-term one.)

I do like Theatre Queen's analysis there. Cuddly Marxism is close to liberterianism? In some ways, maybe ... hmmm ...

Okay, cheers for now. I've got to get off to work. :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry to go on and forgive me if I'm starting to lecture or state things that you know all too well. However I'm making this contribution because I there is a head of steam being built up over arts funding and the right seem to be winning in shaping the conceptual context in which this debate will take place.

Apart from the irritation of the stream of ad hominem fallacies I'd like to address the spurious logic behind 'my hard earned tax dollars'.

The short answer is that they are not 'your tax dollars'. They are the price that one pays to contract into civic society. They are an exchange. In return for this exchange one recieves protection from agression from abroard and within, freedom from arbitary process, insurance that should you be incapacitated, unemployed or bankrupt you will not starve, a guarantee that regardless of income your children will recieve an adequate education etc etc etc.

If I buy a loaf of bread, the money I give to the baker is no longer my money, it's his. However in paying tax I also recieve the right to influence the way that public funds will be dispersed, a right I do not enjoy in relation to the baker.

However if I feel that the cost of contracting into civic society is overly burdensome then no one is nailing my feet to the floor. A hall mark of lib dem societies (that public funds underwrite) is freedom of movement and I can always contract out by emmigrating to a more low taxing society.

Again forgive me if any of this strikes you as patronising but I've been looking at a few blogs and apart from horror there doesn't seem to be much going on in trying to determine the ground on which this debate will be fought.

Theatre Queen.

PS Tim...cuddly marxist was tongue in cheek though the utopia that both agitate for do have the withering of the state in common.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TQ - I think trawling some of those sites is like going into some bizarre twilight zone, full of paranoid creatures driven by petty grudges and obscure resentments...they remind me of the lesser characters in a Terry Pratchett novel. But I personally think it is always worth stating what is obvious, since it very often gets obscured.

I am not sure, either, how much they set the agenda. I suspect that these people were probably quantified when Hanson was in the run for election - ie, around 15 per cent of the electorate at best. Most people actually want things like public health and education, and even useless things like parks and gardens and art. The argument is generally about what is then fair.

I rather liked Jana's take on the tax dollar question in the comments on the La Mama piece.

As for the question of value - I come from the rather Nietzschian place that value is something that individuals make, rather than something lying around in the manifest universe which then can be claimed as objective truth. And I think that artists are themselves makers of values, one of which is beauty. And I am also rather attracted by Nietszche's respect for fictions. Utterly indefensible, of course, but perhaps less indefensible than those who claim that value resides only in that abstract called "money". At the very least, it's a less crass conception of human existence.

TimT said...

There's no one-to-one similarity between taxation and payment for ordinary goods and services. For one thing, the nature of the services provided by politicians or public servants are hotly contested at elections, and often split down ideological lines; for another thing, there is an element of compulsion in taxation that is not present in the payment of normal goods and services. Not only can politicians apply normal legislative powers against a person who refuses to pay taxes - not only is EVERYONE obliged to pay taxes, regardless of what the service is - but politicians can even change laws regarding the collection of taxation, and the prosecution of people who refuse to pay tax, to suit themselves.

These difficulties are compounded when it comes to tax money being paid to artists: how can you make laws regarding the 'service of beauty'? How do you define in legalistic and bureaucratic terms what this beauty is?

Jana argues that right-wingers have redefined 'public money' as 'taxpayers' money'. I'd say that the second phrase at least reflects the process by which the money has come into the public purse, while the first phrase is slightly Orwellian - it obscures this process; it allows pundits in The Age to speculate about the appropriate distribution of government money without reflecting on where it comes from. There is definitely an element of privilege about these articles, as they gloss over the often morally questionable process by which privately-earned resources are appropriate by the state.

Anonymous said...

This is a theatre blog and so after this post I'm going to retire gracefully from socio political rantings.

I have to say Alison I don't share your optimism; Hanson wasn't repudiated her programme in part was absorbed by the Libs. Secondly in 1993 Sen Puplick as shadow arts minister went to the electorate with an art's policy that dismantled the notion of arms length funding bringing funding decisions under the direct fiat of the minister. Whatever the public's take on public gardens maybe, it wouldn't take too much wit to politically seperate that from the 'indulgent arts lobby', 'the sneering cultural elite who want our tax dollars to subsidise their rancor' etc.

To timt, again I am anxious not to outstay my welcome by banging on in another's blog but...No one has ever sought through subsidy to legislate for beauty. Howard went to an election on GST, he won, the public voted for a new tax. I need a bit more background on this before I can call this morally qustionable. I can't speak for the Age pundits but is there really anyone around who doesn't understand that govt revenue is derived from tax?

It comes down to contracting in or contracting out. There have been many instances where tax regiems have had to be changed to remedy the flight of persons and capital. The Uks super tax of 95 pence in the pound was one such case. That issues are hotly contested at elections can if you like (though I suspect you wouldn't) be likened to any vigorous negotiation of contract. Politicians can only change the laws to suit themselvs at the risk of being turfed out.

I don't for a moment think that this is the last word timt and I'd like to go further on this but I have to say that I have no desire to strain Alison's hospitality.

cheers to all

Theatre Queen

Alison Croggon said...

TimT and Theatre Queen, civil discussion is always welcome here.

TQ, I don't think I'm especially optimistic; perhaps a little flippant - I don't think the extreme right wing people have gone away, just that they have (as you say) been absorbed into mainstream politics, or mainstream politics moved up to them. Though it seems to me there are signs - not just the US mid-term elections, though they are a big sign - that the tide is turning. In some ways.

I'm just speculating that maybe that factor in our society was approximately quantified around Hanson; 15 per cent was also the figure Le Pen got in the French vote. It's probably as decent a guess as any. And no, they're never going to go away, and I expect that most of them are not going to change their minds.

I suppose that modern left wing tax systems that fund things like education, culture, etc, are about moving the tax system away from something like tithing or feeding the King's coffers (for luxury, warfare etc) to an idea that's more like the commons, the public space that used to exist between houses in the village, which anyone might use to graze their cows. At the moment, from my squinting eye, the tax system is feeding elites: I mean, real ones. As people keep pointing out, the income gap between rich and poor is growing and growing (artists are always on the poor side of that gulf, which is why many of them find the idea that they are "elite" quite bewildering) and that is at least in part to do with taxation: the burden lies most heavy on the middle income people instead of, as seems more just, the very wealthy. I remember reading that Rupert Murdoch and News Ltd pays 5 per cent tax. How can that be considered fair? Why aren't people angry at Murdoch instead of artists?

This understandably leads to resentment when people are struggling. As artists do as well, but there we are... Still, the culture budget, someone worked out (so don't quote me on it), costs each individual 2 cents a day. Even at the private level, we're talking piddling amounts of money. Are artists being scapegoated for the Murdochs and Packers? Because this is what it seems like to me.

The point about value being something that is made, not given, means that a value for the arts can be created where it doesn't exist, or at least that possibility is there. And of course it has been done in other places: Europeans are not "naturally" more appreciative of the arts than Australian, they just happen to have had the opportunities to find out why they might matter. At least as many people, and at my best guess, twice as many as the extreme anti-arts people, do value art. Well, we should advocate better.