La Mama, funding and freedom of speech ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 04, 2006

La Mama, funding and freedom of speech

Good things come to those who wait. The Age finally ran my opinion piece on La Mama Theatre being put "on notice" by the Australia Council, almost two weeks after I sent it in, and only after Robin Usher caught up with the same story. After I submitted it, which ruffled my feathers slightly. An old journalist never loses those scoopish instincts.

A couple of things to note about the subbing: in the original, I said La Mama was picking up where the Community Cultural Development Board left off. Grammatical expediency now includes the New Media Board as well, which in the lo-tech environs of La Mama is patently absurd. And a couple of pars about the Sedition Laws were chopped, which is a pity. For the record, they ran:

Some aspects of this war on freedom of speech, such as the new editorial policies at the ABC, are much discussed. Others are more insidious, such as Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock’s refusal to amend the Sedition provisions in the new anti-Terror Laws, despite recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission and a Senate Committee. These laws, according to a range of legal opinion, particularly threaten artists.

Artistic organisations protesting the Sedition laws say they will have a “chilling” effect on artistic expression. “Freedom of expression and public debate is not only the foundation of a free and flourishing literature,” says Angela Bowne, President of Sydney PEN. “It is one of the critical underpinnings of our democracy.”
UPDATE: The cerebral heavyweights over at Tim Blair's blog get stuck into La Mama (and Croggon). Heady, edifying, deeply informed stuff, as you might expect.


Annabelle. N. Smith said...

Oh my god! How can democracy possibly survive without La Mama! Its the end of Australia AS WE KNOW IT! What next? Cats living with dogs?

Anonymous said...

As a local blogger recently pointed out, the age-old distinction between intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals is that the former discuss ideas, and the latter discuss the motives behind other people's ideas. very useful, not only because it sheds light on how few intellectuals remain anywhere in the global media.

what I'd like to know is, in the current climate, in which even admitting high-school education is termed leftie, elitist & un-Australian, how do you decide when to attempt a debate? What's the evaluation behind your reply to the people above, for example? i wouldn't think anyone would attempt to convince a self-congratulatory bunch in mass agreement that they have unconscious preconceptions. the possibilities of success seem so slim.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Annabelle. I didn't write that headline and intro. But never mind. It's always easier to attack things if you don't read them.

Democracy can't survive without freedom of speech. Of which La Mama is a fine examplar. My point was more about the many-fronted war on the arts, an important aspect of freedom of speech, of which the threat against La Mama is just one telling symptom. Among many. Remember those Nazis and their vicious suppression of "decadent art"? Or doesn't history go back that far for some people?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jana - it's always worth attempting to correct disinformation, outright lies or slander. On the other hand, some battles are not worth having. Myself, I prefer not to waste too much time on other people's agendas: better to build genuine understanding and debate than being sucked into too many polarising and misrepresenting shitfights. As Sun Tzu said, the smart general chooses his own battlefield.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
Yes, I admit it - we can be a fairly caustic bunch over at particularly when we're "on a roll". In this case, I think you had the misfortune of your article coming up right after some stuff about ABC's "The Glasshouse".

We were in the middle of giggling at some overblown commentary whose theme seemed to be "The HoWARd Regime's brutal crushing of The Glasshouse is leading straight to 1984" - and then you're article wanted into the cross-hairs! A tough break, I admit! ;-)

Anyway, I'm not sure if you went back and read it, but a few of the guys did make an effort to respond to you in more detail ahd explain their position (although yeah, most others just threw a few water-bombs at you). Anyway, I give you credit for having the guts to go in there and defend your position.

I won't pretend I know or care much (from up here in Sydney) about this La Mama theatre in Melbourne, but good luck all the same.

Cheers, "ekb87"

Paul Martin said...

I thought your comments in the Age article were reasonable. But then I also am wary of the Howard government's attacks on democracy in various forms (which started long before 9/11, but were greatly accelerated after). I found the tone and comments on the Tim Blair blog grossly immature.

There clearly is an agenda by the Howard government to suppress or censor dissent. Little by little, freedom of speech is being eroded.

Anonymous said...

"Remember those Nazis and their vicious suppression of "decadent art"? Or doesn't history go back that far for some people?"

Way to go! Excellent "own-goal" in your response to the claim that you are prone to hyperbole! LOL.

TimT said...

I enjoy your contributions over at Blairs. I must admit, politically, I'm inclined to the view that in the long term, all Australian arts has to be cut off entirely from subsidies. (I don't like them; I think they're patronising to the taxpayer AND to the arts industry).

In the short term, I agree, if federal funding were cut off from La Mama it would have a terrible effect on the Aussie arts industry.

Anyway. Don't want to speak for the Blair crowd, just leaving my two cents. I've been reading this blog on and off for a few weeks - top stuff. Keep it up!

Alison Croggon said...

You have a right to freedom of speech.

You do not have a right to be given taxpayers' money to provide a platform for your speech.

Meditate on the distinction.

Wow. Patronised on my own blog. And after all the taxpayer's money that has funded my efforts here!

Anyway, Evilpundit, to move to another sense of patronising: I guess you'd rather the arts were patronised by the aristocrats, as in Mozart's day, so only aristocrats can have them, instead of by the state, so the unwashed public can have them too. I wonder who the real elitists are here?

Ben Ellis said...

Re: Evilpundit. So. Why don't we get rid of paying for a police force? I have a right to be defended from a stabbing, but the police have no right to be soaking up my tax dollars. Surely. And the army. Let's keep it, we all have a right to have our nation defended, but let's stop paying for it because all some soldiers do is arrange naked bodies into pyramids.

The theatre in civilised societies has almost always had an element of subsidy. Shakespeare had his state patrons. The Greek playwrights were able to write thanks to generous state subsidies, too. There's a lie going about that Shakespeare was the popular cultural activity of the Elizabethan era, but that's untrue: the money was in bear-baiting a little way down the river. Most of Shakes's plays didn't last for more than about nine nights in a single run.

This seems to me to present those who want a decent civilisation with a choice: we can have Shakespeare and bear-baiting, or we can just have the bear-baiting. By the tone of posts on Tim Blair's blog, you would mostly prefer the latter.

Annabelle. N. Smith said...

"It's always easier to attack things if you don't read them."

I did read your article.

And I thought you came across as a spoilt child who didn't get their candy.

Failure of the government to fork over my hard-earneds to you for you to indulge in your artistic endevours is not an attack on freedom of speech.

If the government banned you from putting on plays, that would be an attack on free speech.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ben. Bear baiting it is, or these days, The Saw, the apogee of Oz culture.

Ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated on this blog.

Ben Ellis said...

Annabelle N Smith, by your usage of the term "candy", I don't believe that any of your hard-earneds would end up at La Mama. Another American telling Australians how their taxes ought to be spent: I seriously doubt that an Australian would type out "candy".

Colin, could you show me exactly where "people in the less intellectual fields tend to be uniformly voting Democratic", perhaps citing an http link at the very least? How did you or the researchers arrive at what constitutes a "less intellectual" field? And, while you're answering questions, why should US armed cock-ups in Iraq be financed by Australian taxpayers? Are US Republicans so incompetent that they send out the blog-attack team to Australian theatre blogs to help get them La Mama's $A170,000 grant for the staging of their own idiotic fantasies? Have things really gone that wrong?

Okay. So some of my questions are rhetorical, but I'd be interested in some answers to the first couple.

Alison Croggon said...

Basically, people who think that Australian theatre is full of spoilt children who ought to get their hands out of the "cookie" jar want us back in the good old colonial days, when there was no MTC, no STC, no SATC, no Belvoir St, no Malthouse, no Black Swan, no (name any Australian theatre company): just under-resourced struggling amateur companies like the Canberra Rep or Emerald Hill. Because that is what it was like before there was any Australia Council or state funding. And of course everyone in the media in those days spoke in English accents because an Australian accent meant you couldn't get a job (these days it would be American accents - oops, I forgot - that's already happening).

Mind you, the opera would be ok, because politicians take their wives to see it. I remember the Thatcher minister who talked about poor people: "the kind of people you step over when you walk out of the opera".

I hate nationalism. On the other hand, I hate corporate colonialism even more.

Alison Croggon said...

Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman do very good American accents and at best live here part time. They are part of the American film industry.

They are the most visible part of the cultural braindrain.

As for the "Modern Arts": that's a pretty complex phenomenon that covers every shade of the political and aesthetic spectrum and is often famously at odds with any kind of ideological template. Agitprop is a miniscule part of it. But I'm not going to waste my time arguing with people who clearly can't be bothered to inform themselves about what the arts actually are. I guess ignorance is bliss.

Alison Croggon said...

Which "public", Evilpundit? There is a sizeable public that loves the arts. I often see full houses in my travellings, with people who look quite "ordinary". But to get past personal perception, which is pretty useless, it would be good to get some facts on the table.

One third of Australians strongly supports the arts, for reasons of enjoyment and a range of intellectual and emotional benefits, which include national identity. One third feels, for a range of reasons to do with access and feelings of exclusion, hostile towards the arts. The other third falls in between. Those who feel hostile tend to be male, living away from capital cities, poorly educated, younger, with children. Their feelings of hostility are mostly to do with social exclusion. Those who place high value on the arts tend to be female, highly educated, urban. (Source: Australian and the Arts, Saatchi and Saatchi, 2002).

Even that one third who highly value the arts are a considerable portion of the populace. (And they probably pay more taxes than those people who don't value the arts, who tend to be in a lower social demographic.) And that one third that feels hostile isn't going to feel any different if they don't have any access to them, which won't happen without programs that take the arts to rural areas, help people get better informed about what they actually are, and feel included (or that they are not "sissy") and so on.

It makes a difference when people have a chance to actually experience art. I've personally seen the transformative effect they can have on people's lives (programs in prison, etc). But it all gets back to what Ben said earlier: what a decent, civilised society actually is.

Ben Ellis said...

Evilpundit, believe it or not, we actually agree on something: "whether money should be spent on police, soldiers, hospitals or actors -- that of course is determined by the elected government". We disagree about the mix.

Where the Tim Blair crowd and the US blogging shut-ins who support him get my back up is where you simply shout down anybody who disagrees with your "solutions". What characterises the effectiveness of a group - be that a community, a business, a society - is in how differences are negotiated. I sense a will-to-annihilate in these postings by you, Ms Smith and Colin.

Evidence for this you provide yourself: "I've seen enough of what passes for "The Arts" that I know I don't care to see any more of it." To this you do not add sources, links or evidence, but instead feelings, hunches and anecdotes.

Using Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as examples of non-government funded actors is ridiculous. Nicole Kidman started her acting career at the government funded Australian Theatre for Young People when she was a wee bairn. Russell Crowe's early gigs were in government-funded theatre and films, some of which were dismissed as obscurantist wastes of yada-yada... Even your spiritual guide, Mel Gibson, was trained at the government-funded National Institute of Dramatic Arts - he famously starred there in a production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" with fellow-student Geoffrey Rush. Of course, Godot has been described as a play where nothing happens, twice. Obscurantist rubbish which can only tar these actors' technique, surely.

If you can't be bothered with "what passes for 'the Arts'", then by definition you're basing your arguments about all its form on prejudice. As far as the mix of government spending goes, I don't understand why you don't make a stronger case for keeping Halliburton happy instead with government cash than "the elected government says so, m'kay".

Alison Croggon said...

PS It's also worth noting that the arts that are being cut or facing cuts (like the Community Cultural Development Board, or La Mama itself, or Queensland's only Indigenous theatre company) are often those which in fact provide access to communities which otherwise do not have a cultural voice. Make no mistake, the rich will always have their art - and their cultural voice - because they know it's empowering.

Nicole's a (government funded) NIDA graduate too, no, Ben? As is Cate Blanchett. Who was actually in a play at La Mama before she struck the Big Time.

Anonymous said...

You say you are not given any handouts to write this blog but I notice from my latest Copyright Agency newsletter I helped send you off on a junket to somehwere in the uk. I'd love to know how much money you are just given and how much you actually earn like the rest of us

Anonymous said...

There is a privatization of society present in renaming public funds into taxpayer's money, and then dividing the society into givers&takers. also reasonably incorrect, as self-proclaimed givers drive on tax-funded roads using subsidised fuel to get to work, only to feel robbed by someone else when they pay tax later. in medieval cities, that happy tax-free world, citizens were required to pave the street outside their door. and only certain cities, with a central government powerful enough to organize and supervise such works, actually saw it happen. if the art scene is asked to repay itself, maybe we should demand roads to repay themselves, tangibly, not in complex economic calculations (because those are rarely used for arts, or even public transport). those raging against taxes are often unaware of how much of our daily life depends on them, from the supermarket apple (agricultural subsidies, state-funded biochemical research...) to, as pointed above, the police. fire brigades were private enterprises until recently, and since education and health have gone private again (in countries where private funds ARE called taxpayer's money), this might be the near future. also, isn't TV a government-funded platform in its own right?

There is also a general misunderstanding of how much money goes where and with which results. a friend of mine was outraged with the Fringe Festival Material World project, blaming it for spending so much money on artistically depicting asylum seekers' ordeal, rather than spending the same money for helping those people in some tangible way. simultaneously, he didn't object to a (much more) costly government campaign urging households to save water (despite the fact that not more than 10% of all water consumption is private households, so the savings are minimal).

if we're not only discussing the meaning of arts to society, but the meaning of taxes to society, both issues should be addressed. public funds, by definition, should be used for the benefit of the public, but taxpayer's money is, by definition, theft. a problem with this kind of debates is that the presumptions of how things go are many and diverse, on all sides.

Alison Croggon said...

Another brave Anonymous poster, reducing complex issues to personal smear. Yes, Anon, I do this blog for nothing. Though I do get free theatre tickets.

I also work as a writer, and I work fucking hard for the money I get. It may be news to you, but writing doesn't involve sitting around in a yellow silk dressing gown with a feeble hand pasted to a pale forehead. And I am certainly not wealthy. If you're curious about what I do, you can check out my home page.

Fyi, CAL gets all its money from photocopying fees, gathered from the work of writers, not from taxpayers. I received $4500 to take up an invitation to be part of a poetry festival in Ireland. I don't know personally any of the people who gave it to me and presumably they gave it to me because they thought my work was worth the support. I also used the opportunity to catch up with my English publisher, because I have another life as a writer of young adult fantasy books. And which I do not ask the taxpayer to subsidise, because they are commercial work.

And yes, I think that supporting poetry, as well as other arts that have value but are not commercial, is part of what creates a civilised society.

I will reiterate that any ad hominem attacks posted here will not be tolerated and will be removed.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jana for that lucid comment.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for your flexible figures, Paul. I thought a democracy was about servicing an entire community, and the 50 per cent or so who are interested in and support the arts, according to that survey, seem a sufficiently significant part of the community to be worth considering in any society that calls itself a democracy.

I have no interest in sport, and no problem with supporting the ambitions of those who participate in it and want to achieve excellence. But then, I think a community is not a monolithic thing, but a complex organism made of mutually interdependent parts, made of people with many different interests. That seems fine and healthy to me. Why should your preferences determine mine? Mine don't determine yours. You grudge an Australia Council which costs a misiscule 0.02 per cent of GDP.

I am tired of these cliched canards against art (elitist, pretentious, blah blah). They are simply untrue. I am not interested in justifying my position. It is quite clear and I have articulated it in many ways and in many places over the years, including in various ways on this blog. I think the society you posit is impoverished and sad and soulless and intolerant, a place where justice belongs only to the powerful, which seeks to destroy difference and which is utterly uninterested in humanity. And therefore one that is utterly blind to the potential richness of human beings. I will never support a society that functions on those lines and yes, art is one of the things that opens all the doors that people like you seek to close. Perhaps that's why you and people like you hate it. But for a significant number of people it's well worth the tiny amount of money that it costs.