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My agenda

Page history last edited by Alison Croggon 16 years, 1 month ago

Some general musings


Obviously I don't have the knowledge or experience to address all areas that Creative Australia is supposed to cover. The fact that I haven't listed a specific topic doesn't mean that I don't believe that it's important, or even that I don't have anything to say; in these cases, I think others who are better informed will have more useful suggestions.


My personal experience as artist and critic is concentrated in the performing arts, as a critic, commentator and practitioner, and literature, in which I have written works that are both commercial (fantasy novels) and non-commercial (poetry, theatre texts and opera libretti). Any suggestions I make will naturally draw from my experience and observation in these fields.


There are areas where the efficacy of government policy is necessarily limited. It is important that it is. You cannot legislate for excellence: the success or otherwise of public arts policy is crucially determined by how well it is implemented, and in some cases successful policy will be about removing barriers and letting well alone rather than actively intervening. In the arts, as in scientific research and development, a major public investment must be in the gamble of exploration. Arts policy must be focused on how best to facilitate and harness the energies that exist within our culture. It must not seek to determine their artistic direction and forms. For this reason, arms-length, peer-reviewed funding as free as possible of political interference is crucial. The Australia Council is, in my view, the best body to administer federal arts funding.


We all know that the arts are underfunded, and that compared with our international peers, arts funding in Australia is low. If the arts were well funded, they would at once be more democratic: we could better support our regional artists, and support more intercity and regional tours of metropolitan companies; ticket and book prices would go down; organisations could be more adventurous with new and risky work, and audiences would become more educated through their exposure to a wider range of work.  But in the current economic climate, lifting government arts funding is likely to be a low priority; it seems to me more likely that it will face cuts. For this reason, my suggestions are less about increasing funding and more about helping in indirect but real ways.


The major challenge is to use the resources we have more cleverly, and to work out how to galvanise private funding without this funding compromising artistic vision and risk. Equally important is to search for sustainable models of funding while simultaneously resisting the common urge to define the arts as a commodity economy in which artists function as "content providers". We must keep clearly in mind that while the arts create work that is treated as a commodity, and are part of economies that must be viable, what makes them most important is not the money they generate (although this may be considerable) nor the employment they generate (ditto) nor the economic knock on benefits of a thriving culture - tourism, restaurant activity and so on (again ditto). These benefits demonstrate that the arts are an important factor in a thriving economy, but they are not the reason for their being.


Consequently, the desired outcomes of good cultural policy are difficult to measure, since their chief value is not economic. For this reason, the question of arts advocacy - the cogent and passionate argument for the arts to their public, and the discourse surrounding the arts, which directly impacts on questions of social accessibility - appears to me to be absolutely crucial.


It's no use making brilliant art if nobody knows about it. Australia is unfairly gifted with brilliant artists, but very often - for example, in the experimental music or the street art scenes in Melbourne - you are more likely to read about their achievements in the foreign press than in our own. It sometimes seems that the only people who know about the achievements of some of our more interesting artists are a small, informed bunch who have actually seen the work, and who don't rely on traditional media for their information. This is not the artists' fault or desire, but it leads to an inevitable perception that the arts and artists are elitist and exclusive.


The biggest outlets for public commentary on the arts have traditionally been the mass media - daily newspapers, television and radio. These provide the biggest interface between artists and their public. And - with notable and noble exceptions - Australian arts coverage in the mass media over the past four decades has too often justified the international perception that Australia is a philistine and ignorant culture. Too often arts commentary is written by journalists or critics who are less culturally literate than the artists on whom they comment - or the audience interested in their work - and who demonstrate neither interest nor understanding in their supposed areas of expertise. Our critical culture, especially in theatre, has been dismal, a mixture of ignorant dismissal or uncritical puff pieces, both different sides of the same coin. I have spoken to many visiting international artists who have been taken aback, even shocked, by the arts commentary they encountered here. And there is little hope, as newspapers struggle with the digital age, of this changing for the better: arts coverage in being cut in major newspapers all over the US, and here has been steadily diminshing in quantity and scope here since the early 1990s.


I blame this mediocre culture of public arts discourse for much of the social alienation that characterises the attitude of the Australian public to their artists, the perception that artists are elitist and pretentious, for example. Artists, on the whole, are neither, or no more so than those in any other profession; but the commentary on their work often reinforces those perceptions. A lively, entertaining and informed critical discourse, on the other hand, provides an invitation for the public to enter a conversation with the culture. It demystifies art, showing that it is something that is made by human beings for other human beings, and illuminates why certain works are exciting. It provides a place for argument and difference. It is a bridge between an artist and his or her audience. This is not a question of a critical culture being "supportive". Uncritical supportiveness is as deadly - perhaps more deadly - than savage attack. It is a question of it being engaged and of it engaging others, and of there being platforms for diverse opinions and argument.


How to improve the critical culture in the mass media? One obvious and urgent solution: actively and passionately restore the ABC Arts Charter, which scarcely exists after years of budget cuts and neglect. Perhaps it might be possible to encourage more and better arts coverage in the daily newspapers by offering funding, in the same way the Australian Literary Review is funded through the Australia Council. I think this idea is fraught with difficulty, although I have a couple of suggestions of how this might be done: the danger is that it could merely result in more of the same, when in some cases what is required is a revolution. In the culture of daily newspapers, arts coverage has long been a poor sister, a kind of basketweaving workshop for journalists not good enough for "hard" news. Even when there are committed and informed editors, they fight a daily battle for space and notice. And among arts journalists internationally, there is widespread gloom about the future of their profession.


This is where the resources of Web 2.0 - the user-generated internet - become very interesting. Many critics are turning to the internet, where they have the space to say what they mean and are always acessible to interested readers, and in the past couple of years blogs and other interactive fora have provided a much needed space for conversation between artists, audiences and critics. This is one of the most positive things that has happened to Australian culture in years, and it directly challenges the stifling hegemony of the traditional gate-keepers. One thing that blogs do brilliantly is to open the conversation to a global level, interacting with blog readers and writers all over the world. And a side effect of that, as I can attest personally, is to stimulate international awareness of the vibrancy of Australian art. I feel that Web 2.0 has many possibilities, while at the same time I am sceptical about much of the hype that surrounds it. But I am personally ambivalent about the efficacy of government policy in this area. It might be one of those areas that are best left well alone, and best supported indirectly rather than directly. On the other hand, can it reach its full potential as an alternative voice if it remains resolutely amateur?


The other aspect of arts advocacy is education. I don't have suggestions here so much as a number of observations.


I'm sure the question of funding will be exhaustively addressed during the Summit: how best to ensure that public money is well spent, how best to ensure that the tax dollar results in a vibrant, successful, diverse and open arts culture. We need to be smart if we want to ensure that our funding gets the results we desire and to ensure the health of our artistic ecology. This involves complex questions about economic and organisational structures. But sometimes, in all these questions, it is easy to lose sight of the people who actually make the art. And artists themselves receive a relatively small proportion of the arts dollar, much of which is absorbed into administration and bureaucracy.


The engine of any artistic culture is the individual artist, whose unpaid work underpins the entire arts economy. Of course their work to varying extents depends on the health of the institutions which are interested in it, the literary magazines, performing arts companies, galleries and publishers who present it to the public, and it is important these are sustained. But very often, these artists work as autonomous individuals. And as individual artists pursuing a vocation in the arts, they face unique difficulties. I have a couple of suggestions on how some of them might be mitigated.


I take it as a given that the arts are a social and individual good, but I also believe that this idea of social good must be well argued and must be not be taken for granted. I believe that the arts are an indispensible means of understanding ourselves and others; an inalienable and profound pleasure that offer a depth of experience that is absolutely necessary in a commodity-driven and materialist culture; a means by which we can learn collectively and individually to negotiate ambiguity, complexity and difference. I believe art is essential to a human being's, and a community's, mental health. In direct and indirect ways, both economically and spiritually, a vibrant arts culture enriches our personal and communal lives.


And I believe too that,  as enshrined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every person has a right to participation in his or her culture. When this right is compromised by social or material disenfranchisement, artists, artistic organisations, educators and governments must address this disenfranchisement as a matter of urgency.


My specific suggestions are on the home page. Click through for details.


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