The abolition of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards represents a harbinger of things to come. Not just in that state, though you’d have to say that Campell Newman’s decision to cut a major book award bang in the middle of the National Year of Reading does not bode well for arts funding in Australia’s north.
No, one rather suspects that we’re also getting a preview of the priorities of Tony Abbott, Prime Minister.
When right-wing parties win elections, arts administrators generally repeat to each other a piece of consolatory folk wisdom, along the lines that conservative governments fund culture more generously than their Labor counterparts. But if that were ever true, it rested upon a patrician sensibility in which certain manifestations of high culture (opera, ballet, etc) were understood as ritualistic reinforcements of class power: thus an orchestra, say, might be subsidised because its performances featured on the social calendar of those people who traditionally bankrolled the Liberal Party, even as experimental poetry might be allowed to wither.
In any case, Tony Abbott’s a politician of a different stamp. The right-wing Catholic tradition from which he emerged always had a frosty relationship with the (deeply sectarian) old money Tories who dominated the Liberal Party of the past. Abbott’s not a born-to-rule grandee but an activist and culture warrior. Like many of the new generation of Liberals, he’s spent his career chasing the Left out of what he sees as its institutional footholds. That seems to be at least part of the reason why Newman shut down Queensland’s awards – as the Oz helpfully reminds us, they ‘attracted controversy last year when former al-Qa’ida trainee David Hicks was shortlisted for the non-fiction award for his Guantanamo Bay: My Journey.’
Abbott’s previously made clear his disdain for modern art – he famously described the paintings at parliament house as ‘avant-garde crap’. For many conservatives, Australia’s literary infrastructure essentially serves as a giant teat suckling all manner of whinging and carping environmentalists, lesbians and Gramscian Marxists. You can see how the argument goes: Why not abolish the lot? Writers never vote Liberal anyway!
Unfortunately, the supposed Leftism of the literary world is more apparent than real. Indeed, that’s one of the difficulties we now confront. In a context where widespread cuts are on the agenda, can we actually articulate a defence of art?
It’s a question worth pondering, precisely because the arguments that you most often hear from writers about the value of literature provide little basis to oppose Newman’s cuts. Worse still, they go a long way to legitimate them.
Most obviously, since the 1980s, many have embraced, almost unconsciously, the approach pioneered by Labor in the Hawke/Keating years, in which art funding is justified by framing culture as an industry. That is, in the era of economic rationalism, the ALP moved away from the mushiness of aesthetics to talk instead about how many people worked in the arts, and how much value they pumped into the nation’s coffers. For some, even on the Left, this approach was a way to get a place on the big table, to talk the Serious Language of Serious People, a hard-headed discourse of dollars and cents that could be sold to cabinet much more credibly than nebulous claims about creativity.
Today, though, you can see where that leads.
While the book industry employs plenty of people, most of the revenue comes from titles that will never feature on awards shortlists. The literary end of the spectrum isn’t a big money-spinner. State-based prizes generated debates and discussions about books but it’s doubtful that they make much of a difference to the economy, at least not in any direct sense.
In any case, because an industry-based explicitly accepts the logic of the market, it doesn’t provide any basis to challenge the cost-cutting that mandates these attacks on the arts. Today, all the Serious People agree that budgets must balance. So what then do we say to them?
Nor is there much help forthcoming from the other traditional Leftish claim about arts funding, the one that emphasizes the role of literature in fostering a ‘national culture’, ‘letting us tell our own stories’, ‘giving voice to the Australian experience’, yadda yadda yadda.
This is, in many ways, a zombie argument, in that the theoretical assumptions that once underpinned it are all pretty much dead but the rhetoric still stalks the earth – we heard a lot of it during the wretched debate about parallel importation. In the era of Facebook and Youtube, it’s by no means clear what a ‘national culture’ is or why it should be defended.
That is, if the old cultural nationalist paradigm around bush ballads and the Legend of the 90s and all the rest of it ever made any sense, it clearly doesn’t today. It’s symptomatic of the problems inherent in the argument that the cultural baggage of the old nationalist Left has now been embraced, pretty much holus-bolus, by the far Right (think of Katter’s Australian Party). Indeed, there’s a pretty clear lineage from today’s conservative populist mobilisation against urban elites (which also probably underpins Newman’s abolition of the Prem Lit Awards) back to the holy texts of ‘progressive’ cultural nationalism (think of Lawson’s ‘The Uncultured Rhymer To His Cultured Critics’).
Where, then, does that leave us? Here’s a few scattered thoughts.
We need to build popular support. That seems obvious but too often the responses to looming cuts in the sector begin and end with attempts to convince those making the decisions. What we need, instead, is public recognition of the value of culture, sufficient that ordinary people will rally to defend it.
That might seem like a tall order but there are reasons for optimism. Reading is, according to the ABS, a favoured leisure activity for about 60 per cent of Australians over the age of 15. The recent Books Alive survey claimed that in the week before the research, some 67 per cent of adults had read for pleasure. Writers’ festivals draw extraordinary numbers and are popping up all over the country, while creative writing courses are one of the biggest growth areas in Australian universities.
The people who care about books are out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can articulate why literature is of importance or why reading is more than simply an enjoyable pastime.
That’s the challenge for those who work in the field. There’s an urgent need for a new defence of literature, arguments that are neither philistine populism nor patronizing elitism but instead make the case why writing should matter to ordinary people.
It’s something we’ve traditionally been very bad at. We need to get much better, very quickly.