Where to now for Australian culture?

xpgomes10, CC BY-NCFor almost two weeks, we have been living the Rumsfeld Paradox, a dizzy concoction of “known knowns”, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. And we’re not finished yet.

Given the unknown nature of the Coalition Government’s operation under post-election conditions, it is difficult to know what the actual consequences of its victory will be for arts and culture. What we do know is that the most dramatic shifts have occurred within the political and media spheres – and their impact on arts and culture is immediate.

The political context
A seismic shift occurred within our political culture during this election. Almost one-quarter of the electorate refused to vote for one of the two major political parties. Both major parties recorded their lowest or near-lowest number of primary votes. It’s the clearest indicator yet of the growing disconnect between our mainstream political culture and civil society.

This genuine expression of democracy was a godsend for the arts and broader cultural sector, as a dominant Coalition victory would have given it a mandate to continue its prosecution of the arts.

The key campaign indicators of the Coalition’s intention for the arts were the tepid, almost contemptuous performance of Mitch Fifield in the role of Minister for the Arts at the National Arts Debate and Malcolm Turnbull’s studied indifference to the portfolio when he appeared on Q&A.

These representations helped re-frame previous arts minister George Brandis’ de-boning of the Australia Council for the Arts last year as a softening up of the sector for the ideological wrecking ball that the Coalition seems keen to swing.

Artists are the canaries in the coalmine of a democracy and over the last year, the Coalition has been rapidly sucking the air out of their crawlspace. Today, however, further dismantling of the Australia Council and re-direction of taxpayer’s money to the coffers of the Government’s newly minted and self-serving Catalyst Fund is a little less likely to occur. There are more urgent distractions elsewhere for the government – and there is a lot more noise around the arts.

The arts sector has loudly articulated its concerns in a strategic campaign that drew voters’ attention to both the damage the Coalition had inflicted and the arts’ significant value to society. This was done through appeals from artists and audiences alike. And the effect was to put the arts on the election agenda for the first time since 1993.

How Turnbull reacts to his near-death electoral experience – either kowtowing to his party’s right-wing or re-calibrating a centrist approach – will have significant bearing on whether the Coalition continues to target the arts. At the very least, the result has bought the sector some breathing space.

From newspapers to newsletters
A major shift also occurred within the mainstream media, whose commentariat seemed hard-wired into the major parties’ political machinery. Listening to seasoned commentators sheet home the blame for their inaccurate predictions to the voters’ lack of sophistication was like watching The Titanic’s passengers waving at the wheel-house to veer left and avoid the iceberg.

In truth, the swinging part of the electorate has a more nuanced understanding of the major parties’ strategies and the media messaging than the players themselves.

At some deep level, the mainstream media has lost its values and influence. The major newspapers read more like newsletters advertising the wares of whichever major party they align with. We read Fairfax and Murdoch to understand the worldview of its owners, editors and journalists; it has a diminishing currency when forming our own.

One explanation is that the Fifth Estate is cannibalising the Fourth Estate with a whole new iteration of independent and social media, wildly and widely distributed, cutting across old media models. In some ways this is true and simply reflects what is going on in other sectors, the arts included.

From another viewpoint, the mainstream media’s complicity in the disconnect between mainstream political culture and civil society has been exposed.

This is a problem for the arts, as its interdependent relationship with the media relies on the shared values of independence, objectivity and courageous interrogation. A wholly diverse, independent and mainstream media is as crucial to a healthy democracy as a wholly diverse, independent and mainstream arts sector.

We don’t fully understand the value of politics and the media, sport, health, education, until we see them in relation to each other. That’s the task of culture: to shape these relationships, construct meaning out of them and fold it back on us, creating our identity in the process.

When these relationships are threatened so is culture, and when culture is threatened – specifically the arts – so are these relationships. Politicians who fail to understand this arrangement do so at their peril.

The arts and cultural sectors’ political mobilisation began a year ago in response to Brandis’ attack on the Australia Council. freethearts rose up and ran a sustained campaign with limited resources, instigating a senate inquiry, and prosecuting its cause nationally. Out of that configuration, ArtsPeak, an unincorporated and hitherto quiet federation of arts organisations, put up its hand to be a national advocacy platform for the arts.

ArtsPeak successfully co-ordinated a National Arts Debate, persuading Fifield, the shadow Minister for the Arts Mark Dreyfus and a Greens representative to attend. Mobile and responsive groups of artists such as The Protagonists called a National Day of Action midway through the election campaign.

Congregations around a variety of hashtags – #Ausvotesarts #artmatters #istandwiththearts #dontbreakmyart – and the Art Changes Lives petition have distinguished this mobilisation by appealing not just to artists and arts workers but audiences and citizens as well.

The Arts Party made a political play for votes and performed beyond expectations. On current counting they have over 27,000 votes in the Senate and according to Leader PJ Collins,

We’re now projecting 40-45,000 first preference votes in total. In terms of all preference votes, we’re expecting the number to be well over 500,000.

Despite the Coalition’s refusal to acknowledge it, the arts became an election issue for the first time in over 20 years. Arts administrator John Paxinos, one of the architects of the 1993 campaign that cemented the arts as a signature of the victorious Keating government, says:

I consider that the 2016 campaign has been so much harder and they have achieved a great deal more than we did … All we had to do in 1993 was publicly endorse one party. In 2016 we have seen a National Day of action, the creation of the Arts Party and a number of other actions and initiatives.

NAVA executive director, Tamara Winikoff, a central player in both freethearts and ArtsPeak, offers this analysis:

What emerged from the campaign was a couple of different models for action, both based to some extent on distributive leadership… This power sharing around the country has been very instructive. It has led to longer term plans to capitalise on people’s demonstrated concern and willingness to devote energy to making changes to boost the valuing of the arts.

These plans need to materialise into a clever, responsive and sustained strategy to help the arts fend off unwanted attentions and cultivate new cooperative relationships. More than ever, the arts sector needs to mobilise.

Art matters
The theory that George Brandis attacked the Australia Council for the Arts and set up his National Program for Excellence (a Catalyst by any other name) as payback for the artists’ boycott of the 2014 Sydney Biennale is a persistent one. But it tells only half the story and absolves the sector of its historic responsibility. Brandis would never have been so bold if he hadn’t seen the arts sector as a deficient advocate (a view he was later disabused of).

However, his was a fair assessment at the time. Over the last 20 years, advocacy has all but disappeared from the Australia Council’s activities – the elision of advocacy into “audience development” says much of the agency’s current impotence.

For the sector’s part, it devolved advocacy to managers who didn’t have the language to defend the intrinsic value of the arts to either the political class or the so-called “industry” that grew around arts production. Reverting to the language of counting audience numbers and recording revenue, the value of the arts was reduced to a wholly instrumentalist paradigm.

This deficit has had significant consequences in both the way Australian culture has developed and the role and agency of artists within it. It’s a deficit that was exposed in the wake of Brandis’ incursion, the subsequent senate inquiry and this election. Attempts to address it have been made by developing and practising a new language, which has sometimes been productive and at other times, confusing.

In particular, the conflation of the arts with creative industries in party political and advocacy forums has diluted the single feature that distinguishes the arts from industry – their intrinsic value.

“Creative industries,” a term created in the late 1990s by the UK Labor government, has its roots in expressions such as “cultural industry” and “cultural industries”. These terms map the slow elimination of the intrinsic value of the arts through investment in the creation of creative capital (or wealth) until such value is forsaken for price, leaving the monetisation of the arts as its sole value to society.

It is no surprise that creative industries discourse is often criticised for its tendency to neglect social and cultural contexts, concentrating exclusively on economic outcomes.

Victoria is a case in point – the only Australian state with no Ministry for the Arts. The arts have been absorbed into the new Ministry of Creative Industries. It is as if they have been “disappeared” like some Politburo member in a Milan Kundera novel, airbrushed from history overnight by a bureaucratic sleight-of-hand.

Nomenclature is important. It defines task and assigns value. The erasure of the arts from the public consciousness of government risks doing more damage than a Ministerial incursion on an arts agency.

Money may well have been given to the creative industries in Victoria but exactly, which industries and how many of these constitute the arts? The arts numbers four of the 13 nominated industries that make up this portfolio. Until an historical and comparative analysis of arts funding under the creative industries rubric is undertaken, claims of increased funding for the arts (and artists) need to be evidence-based.

For the arts to push back, survive and thrive, it needs to distinguish itself from the “creative industries”. A language needs to be developed that valorises its intrinsic value – conveying the arts’ capacity to irritate, question and challenge; to hold to account and provide alternatives; to assert character and identity; to propose new ways of thinking, creating, being and seeing.

A language that can convince society of the value of the arts as a public good. Good for democracy, good for our social well-being, good for our development as human beings. The future of the arts depends on it.

Policy pictures
The sector’s desire for a bipartisan approach to arts and cultural policy will be even more difficult to achieve given the only major political party to go to the election without an arts or cultural policy was the winning one.

In contrast, Labor’s platform was prosaic but effective: restore funds to the Australia Council. The Greens went further in an effort to drill down into how artists can be supported in their daily lives. Strategic activism and artful advocacy is required here. If Labor and/or The Greens can put the arts on the table in the various negotiations to come during the Coalition’s term then some ground might be made.

In terms of the sector itself, there seems to be consensus that the current system is broken and new policy will need to be developed to rectify it. However there are divergent strategies in play. One leans towards repairing the system and the other leans towards the creation of something altogether new.

One configuration congregates around ArtsFront, a new grassroots movement for a bipartisan arts policy being led by more established cultural organisations. A second configuration Frontyard congregates around a set of emerging values, questions and operatives. It is advocating for an Australian Charter for the Arts that legitimises the arts as central to the national conversation.

These groupings are not exclusive – myself and others are associated with both. They represent a genuine curiosity in the arts sector to develop arts and cultural policy free of government prescription and interference.

How much influence the arts sector has over the new Australian government won’t be clear until it can detect and sense the government’s rhythm. Of necessity, this will be a new rhythm determined by negotiation and compromise, with the multifarious players across the major and minor parties and the independents in the Lower House and Senate. It’s a rhythm dictated by clear fault lines in mainstream society.

Over the last year, the arts and cultural landscape has been re-drawn by political circumstances. The hierarchy of major and minor organisations and independents has been upturned and the sector, like our post-election society, has also been transformed. This knowledge should help the arts sector create a cultural landscape that aligns its interests with that of society and a healthy democracy.

Where to now for Australian culture?
David Pledger, Artist, PhD Student, School of Architecture, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image: xpgomes10, CC BY-NC