Exposing Australia’s love affair with the arts

Rupert Myer AMWhat’s a typical Australian? More than half of us have a parent who wasn’t born here. Most of us live in a city large even by global standards. Relative to the rest of the world we are rich, and we live a long time. And – here’s the surprise – almost all of us participate in the arts, and half of us make art.

This is not our self-image, nor is it how we project Australia to the rest of the world much of the time. The archetypal Australian, partly borne of our literature and film, is a bushman with grandparents from the ‘old country’, passionate about sport. You say, “Surely, that’s out of date?” Pull out an Australian passport, and its images are flora and fauna, bush scenes, and the only building is an outback pub.

Over the past few decades, Australia has transformed itself. We have moved into cities, grown service industries, welcomed migrants from all round the world and changed the national diet from ‘meat and three veg’ to a kaleidoscope of variety, taste and imagination. We have also embraced the arts.

According the survey released last month by the Australia Council, The Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts, 19 in 20 Australians participate in the arts. That’s if you include reading – dominated by reading novels. Four in five Australians participate in arts other than literature. One in two Australians make art. All of these numbers have increased since the last survey in 2009, and they’ve come a long way since the first survey in 1999.

Over the past four years the big changes are increases in the number of Australians making music – playing an instrument or singing in a choir – and the number of Australians making visual art or craft. At the same time, as the use of the internet and electronic devices rose, old-style – or timeless – art-making rose too.

Of course, some Australians face real obstacles to their engagement. Those with a disability, migrants, and regional residents are less likely to participate in and make art. But the differences overall, and for individual art forms, are surprisingly small. For all these groups, their participation is often not much different, and invariably at least two thirds of the participation rate of the general population.

Childhood experiences are vital to making things even better. People who were regularly taken by their parents to arts or cultural events are almost twice as likely to make art in later life. We owe it to our children to give them the opportunity to “be Australian” by participating in the arts. For the arts are now all but universal in Australians’ lives. Fifteen years ago, one in three Australians thought arts were ‘not really for people like me’. Today it’s only one in nine.

But this participation remains a guilty secret for many – part of our self-image as individuals, but not part of our self-image as a country. A recent television program identified sports at the top of the scale as ‘dinky-di Australian’, and the arts as, well, un-Australian (surely it’s even more un-Australian to use tired, clichéd language). A challenge for the arts in Australia is to ensure that Australians know that their fellow Australians share their secret passions.

Ironically, as participation in the arts has grown, a lot of arts policy has focused on the instrumental value of the arts – what they do for the economy, for regional development, for academic achievement. Some suggest that this is a response by the cultural sector to governments at all levels placing greater scrutiny on spending across all sectors of their economies.

Accordingly, activities that have intrinsic but unquantifiable value struggle to justify the allocation of taxpayer funds. The arts do have instrumental value, and creative industries in particular will increasingly underpin our economic future. At the same time it is imperative that the cultural sector confidently articulates the intrinsic value of the arts to policy makers.

We should give up on the guilt complex. Apart from anything else, it’s not working. For most Australians, the impact of the arts on the economy is minimal. In fact, if one excludes the many commercial activities that rely on creative individuals (many of whom trained in art schools), the arts are not a particularly large part of our economy. But then, that’s not the point, as most Australians understand. For four in five Australians, the arts are valuable in themselves – they make for a richer and more meaningful life. They’re seen as important in self-expression, thinking creatively, dealing with stress, and community identity.

It’s time we outed our national love affair with the arts. They’re not a niche activity. Instead they are all but universal in Australians’ lives. There’s no need to be embarrassed about how we find them inherently valuable, and part of a better life.

Rupert Myer
Australia Council for the Arts

This opinion piece first ran in The Daily Review on Friday 11 July 2014. The Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts report and fact sheets can be found here.

Image: Rupert Myer AM