This year I have harshly come to the realisation that our government doesn’t care about art, well, not unless you’re Tim Winton, Nicole Kidman or the Australian orchestra. To them, emerging artists are just the people on the sidelines who should get their act together and get a real job. We are the annoying buskers on Bourke Street outside Myer, the poet reading at shady pubs in front of ten people, the TAFE students who should be getting serious and studying at university. After all, isn’t university the place artists go to become ‘real’ artists? To learn all the rules there is to learn on how art should be created? Then all of us artists can keep producing and reproducing and regurgitating the same art again and again and Australian culture can stand still forever. Yes, that’s exactly what we need as a society: to be unchallenged.
What a shame. What a damn shame it is to come to the understanding that what you thought was your lucky country isn’t so lucky for your chosen profession. Although being an artist isn’t a chosen profession in the same way being a bank manager is, it’s what you do because without it you cannot exist. There are other options to suppressing your art, like taking anti-depressives for example, and sadly that seems like the preferred option for the government these days. We live in a country where favourable outcomes come to us only when a political advantage is to be gained: save ‘The Tote’, shut the artists up, smile for the cameras and move on.
Every stream of art is suffering. Literature is suffering. When the Brumby government revamped the training system last year, they put TAFE art courses out of reach for many Victorians. If you are a mature age student and have a previous higher qualification you are ineligible for a government subsidised place and you must fork out fees equivalent almost to that of university fees. A survey conducted by Ernst & Young found the reforms had led to reduced enrolments at more than half the TAFEs surveyed. This is a huge loss to the arts because many people don’t embrace their artistic selves until they mature into adulthood, and at a wiser age, perhaps. Most of the students accepted into RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing diploma, a diploma highly regarded in the publishing industry, are of a mature age, and because of the skills reform changes, this course is now suffering a slow and painful death.
But apparently we writers shouldn’t complain. Apparently we can just take out an exorbitant loan, bankrupt ourselves even further, and go study at university. In fact, many in the university sector see TAFE as just a stepping stone to university, places where students rejected from university go and study in the hope of eventually gaining a place at a university. Being a mature age student myself, I couldn’t disagree more. I have a higher qualification in computing and when deciding where to study writing, I didn’t even look at university. University is regimented and set in its ways; TAFE courses are fluid and suit the study of art by allowing a comfortable classroom environment where students learn from each other, creating and flourishing together (rather than being preached at from a lectern in lecture theatre on what art is). Art, I think, is self-expression; it cannot be taught.
The government is getting a little panicky though. In August, Skills Minister Brownyn Pike, in response to an Age article where Paul Keating raised concerns about skills reform, announced she would be undoing the damage for mature-aged apprentices. So if you are a mature-aged apprentice, you can count your lucky stars. You are in the professional goldmine, whereas artists, we’re not really held in the same esteem. Apprentices build things. Artists merely produce art that people can escape to. We create films so people can go the movies and relax, a book to cuddle up with, a painting to inspire. We play music in pubs or as people stroll down Bourke Street, although that’s changing now with the new laws that require buskers to have a permit .
But where would society be without the escape of art? Probably at Crown Casino playing poker machines, but I’m guessing the government would much rather people doing that so they can collect their tax on the pokies. They would much rather invest millions in the Grand Prix – and have a $50 million dollar tax payer loss – than invest in art and feed the cultural soul of Australia.
So where does all this leave the emerging artist? Well, we could apply for an ArtStart grant. But you have to have graduated from a degree or diploma to get funding for that. You could try your luck in for a highly competitive Australia Council grant, but you’re more likely to get one of those if you play in an orchestra – last year Opera Australia received more funding from the Australia Council than all the applicants from other art forms. But that’s hardly a surprise, our government is big on funding the rich. You could send your manuscript or short stories out to competitions and other organisations like Varuna who support emerging writers. But with minimal or no funding, these organisations are forced to charge the emerging writer a fee to have their work considered. Fifty bucks here and fifty bucks there, it’s difficult not to bang your head against the wall to be honest. The Tote may have been saved, but live music venues are struggling and slowly dying. The iconic Arthouse is set to close next year, Brisbane’s celebrated venue The Troubadour is closing next month. But I’m not giving up. A true artist keeps going, keeps producing art, despite the obstacles and ignorance of the government. But by no means will I stay silent in the struggle, not when the government is so blatantly unsupportive of the arts.