Tied to the mast: Unlocking a new cultural understanding

By Professor Justin O’Connor

There’s little doubt now: the arts in Australia are in a full-blown crisis. And it is not about funding alone.

Yes, funding is an important factor, whether the overall size or the disproportionate amount that goes to the majors, but this crisis also encompasses the way we now value (or not) the role of the arts in society. The pathetic level of Federal funding, snipped and chopped, now amounts to around $200 million annually, equivalent to the cost of maintaining one Collins class submarine per year. It is an absolute embarrassment for one of the richest countries in the world. But the Liberal National government is now hobnobbing with the new global Right. Not just climate change denial, misogyny, racism and nativism, but also defunding of the arts as an elitist practice. It is no good trying to shame them - “Canada does this”, “Germany does that” - the game has changed and they wear their cuts as a badge of honour.

In what world do we imagine the money taken from, say, Bell Shakespeare, would be given to the independents?

The grounds on which we argue for the arts have been transformed, taking us back pre-Keating, Pre-Whitlam, yet landing us on a blasted heath which, is not Menzies either. For the Liberals, the commercialisation of culture – its absolute reduction to the market – is now a given. The more sophisticated of them talk about the arts as R&D, with the successes spun-off commercially. Others look to their base. The Wentworth backlash was about climate change but these are also the constituencies for the major arts organisations. Those MPs whose seats are threatened still see an ongoing role for arts subsidy. Publicly-funded art has now become utterly corporate, with the boards staffed by the business, legal and political elites, and the marketing sections talking about ‘binging’ and ‘guilty pleasures’, whilst pushing the hampers and the sponsored wine of the week.

The default argument for the arts (or ‘arts industry’ [1] as is often referred to by its supporters when cornered) is its employment figures, conflated with a ‘creative industries’ of which almost 60% is in software, design and marketing, and another 10% in media. Growth in the cultural industries (arts, media, fashion, design, architecture) has flat lined according to the ABS figures, with overall employment almost exactly the same now as in 2006.

So now the game has shifted to ‘cultural value’, generating a proliferation of complex metrics and dashboards, all inexorably gravitating to the black hole of economic value. The arts are good for social cohesion, and well-being, and mental health - think how this increases our productivity. Mozart is good for passing Maths exams too! The Liberals, of course, have no interest in the creative industries. Labor seems to think that it is still the killer app it was in 1994 when Keating squeezed ‘cultural industry’ into what was predominantly an arts policy. Looking around Eastern Europe, East Asia and Latin America would disabuse anyone of the idea that ‘creative economy’ is good for the arts, rather than its mortal enemy.

Art is more than 'the arts', and it is more than culture. 'The arts' are a set of traditions and practices than can become ossified and die, and 'art' can also be found in what used to be called popular culture ... That makes it harder all round.

In the past few years, the challenge to the growing corporatisation of the Majors has been from the small independent sector, now working on the smell of an oily rag. Scott Rankin’s recent intervention pulls no punches and it is hard not to agree with much of what he says. Except that the grounds of his opposition don’t get us as far as all that. ‘Art’ is seen as some kind of derivative of ‘culture’, and if it does not get out there on the streets or in the prisons it will ossify and die. This conflates the unwarranted ring fencing of the majors with a whole series of arguments about heritage, colonial culture, and the privileged elites, which is not only unhelpful but is partially responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place. David Pledger recently compared [2] the major performing arts companies to Big Coal! Do we need another bloody La Boheme? No. It is lazy and cravenly subservient to the demand for bums on seats, fuelled by ROR metrics and politicians justifying spend to their ‘taxpayers’. Shake the majors to the core? Yes. And then what? In what world do we imagine the money taken from, say, Bell Shakespeare, would be given to the independents? Or, if it was, what kind of multiplying reporting and audience strings might be applied? The ways in which the majors are funded is not the problem but a symptom. ‘Culture’ is not a solution, because the last time I looked, large parts of ‘culture’ was owned by the alt-right, if not by governments as in Russia or India. Counterpoising culture (good) to art (ossified, sanctified and bad) is the last sting of that faux-populism that once was Australian cultural studies. It is a dead end. 

Art is more than ‘the arts’, and it is more than culture. ‘The arts’ are a set of traditions and practices than can become ossified and die, and ‘art’ can also be found in what used to be called popular culture, in video games and in contemporary music and comics and so on. That makes it harder all round. Art is also imbricated in economies in extremely complex ways, which neither the creative industry proselytisers nor the subsidy bodies can deal with. The kind of knowledge required for an arts policy connected to the diverse needs of the whole population is, or used to be, found in public broadcasting agencies and more generally in older forms of media policy. 

What is at stake is how we frame the role of art in our contemporary culture, as part of the expression of a common horizon of experience, as a form of knowledge and as a form of binding, and unbinding, which used to be called ritual. This will demand new kinds of thinking that are barely visible in the Australian intellectual landscape at the moment. It will involve a recovery of a relation to individual and collective meaning as a value in itself – art pour l’art if you like – because life is a value in itself. Indigenous cultures here and across the globe are trying to assert this, and for this reason are on the front line against the global right. This is because they challenge the ways in which life has been reduced to that which can be justified by the language of economics - for profit or growth. Art has always tried to subvert this, though repeatedly, and often happily, locked in its corporate cages and the audience tied to the mast. If we want to untie, rather than burn, this audience we need to connect with art’s call, not only to change the world, but to change life.

 [1] http://aicv.org.au

 [2] https://dailyreview.com.au/arts-battle-haves-nots-reaches-tipping-point


Justin O’Connor is currently Professor of Cultural Economy at Monash University, and in January 2019 will take up the position of Professor in the School of Creative Industries, University of South Australia. He is also visiting Professor in the School of Cultural Industries Management at Shanghai Jioatong University. He is a UNESCO cultural policy expert and is on the Board of Renew Australia. He co-edited the Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries (2015) and has a co-authored book in Press: Cultural Economy in the New Shanghai. He is currently leading two ARC Discovery Projects, on UNESCO and the Making of Global Cultural Policy and Cultural Policy and Urban Manufacturing.