Culture is bigger than the arts

Last year I had a meeting with two officers of the Australia Council.

The Australia Council – or OzCo, as nearly everyone in the cultural industries calls it – is the federal government’s arts funding and advisory body. The meeting was with two of the council’s digital and new media team, who were keen to explain the latest digital arts initiative, Arts Content for a Digital Era. The conversation was cordial but largely unsatisfying. The Australia Council officers attempted to explain why the latest strategy was a worthy initiative. I tried to explain why it doesn’t matter.

The Australia Council has lost its way, I argued. It has failed to meaningfully engage with the arts practices of everyday Australian artists and no longer enjoys the support of many of those who create art in this country. The time has arrived to seriously re-assess the role of the country’s chief cultural policy body.

I believe it is time for the Australia Council to be abolished.

There are three main reasons why.

Firstly, the Australia Council has become irrelevant to the broader debate around cultural policy. The policies our governments adopt about culture range across a vast ambit, from copyright laws and internet censorship to the planning regulations and liquor licensing laws that affect small bars. The Australia Council has long been silent in this broader debate, and in any case remains uninterested in cultural expressions outside its core responsibilities. Its mandate as the federal government’s arts policy body has also had the unfortunate effect of narrowing the broader cultural policy debate into an arts policy debate, with ‘the arts’ defined as ‘what the Australia Council funds.’ This has meant new art forms – or indeed any old art forms not currently favoured by the Australia Council – are often left out of policy debates.

Secondly, culture is changing but the Australia Council is not changing with it. ‘Culture’ is not only bigger than ‘the arts’, it is also being rapidly transformed by new technologies in ways that OzCo refuses to come to terms with. In an age when screen-based art forms dominate the everyday consumption and creation habits of Australians, the Australia Council remains stubbornly focused on a dwindling core of traditionally defined performing arts. As new technologies have transformed entire industries over the last decade, the Australia Council has turned its back on digital culture, even going so far as to abolish its own New Media Arts Board in 2005. As online, networked and digital forms of culture continue to grow and proliferate, the Australia Council’s policy ambit becomes correspondingly more minor and less important.

Thirdly, OzCo itself has become reactionary. In a tale familiar to students of public policy in other spheres, OzCo has fallen victim to industry capture and institutional inertia. Although it contributes small but significant amounts of funding to smaller companies and individual artists, taken as a whole, the Australia Council now exists largely as a conduit to funnel money to a small number of larger arts organisations. Its supposedly important functions of peer review, advocacy and arms-length policy analysis have withered away to almost nothing. Indeed, in monetary terms, the majority of the grant dollars it distributes are not peer reviewed at all.

As an organisation, I believe the Australia Council no longer exists to advance the wider good of Australian culture, but rather the vested interests of the arts elites it represents. Many of its administrative functions could be absorbed by the federal government’s Department of the Arts, while the tiny handful of dollars it hands out to independent artists and small organisations could be topped up and delivered by a new body, one that actually believes in supporting new creativity and the work of Australian artists.

To understand the decreasing relevance of the Australia Council, it is necessary to understand its position within the broader context of Australian culture as well as the history of government attempts to engage with it.

The first Australian arts grant is dated back to 1819, when Governor Macquarie picturesquely gave poet Michael Massey Robinson ‘two cows from the government herd.’ Cultural policy in Australia was dominated by the construction and maintenance of state cultural institutions, like the state art galleries and libraries founded in the second half of the nineteenth century. The importance of these institutions lingers on: state libraries and art galleries are still the main service delivered by state government cultural ministries and suck up the majority of their budgets.

The Australia Council evolved in the 1960s and 70s and developed out of a very different set of policy ideas. Before the Second World War, federal government support for the arts had been, in the words of prominent cultural economist David Throsby, ‘virtually non-existent’. After the war, public funding was found for a limited number of major performing arts companies, notably the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the Australian Opera. Beyond this, support for, or even understanding of, ‘the arts’ was sparse. A generation of talent left for Britain or America – the famous expatriates like James, Nolan, Hughes and Greer – while at home, cultural critics like A A Phillips and Robin Boyd railed against the mediocrity of what they respectively called ‘the cultural cringe’ and ‘the Australian ugliness’.

By the late 1960s, demographic change and the intense lobbying efforts of an increasingly influential cultural elite led to the establishment of the ‘Australian Council for the Arts’, the predecessor to the current Australia Council. It was principally a result of the efforts of two men: ‘Nugget’ Coombs and Gough Whitlam. Coombs campaigned tirelessly within the political establishment and Canberra bureaucracy for a new cultural body modelled on the Arts Council of England and animated by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Whitlam provided the political impetus and, crucially, the funding.

Whitlam’s summation of Australian cultural policy at the time he took office is worth reproducing at length. As he records in his memoirs, published in 1985:

[in 1972] the arts in Australia were sorely in need of encouragement. Many of our finest artists were working overseas. Our national cultural institutions were embryonic or non-existent. Such institutions as existed in the States were largely relics of colonial or Edwardian times … the basis of a national arts and cultural policy did not exist. There were no major performing arts centres. The fledgling Australian Opera and Australian Ballet companies were under-funded, with the performing arts still largely in the hands of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, established in 1954. Touring of the performing arts to country districts was organised by state-based arts councils with limited access to funds. There were no regional theatre companies or galleries; there was no film industry; there were no state arts ministries. Aboriginal arts, and the crafts in general, were virtually ignored. Support for writers and artists had been dispersed for generations with notable frugality by ageing committees.

Whitlam’s response was to fold most of the existing government cultural agencies into a new body, the Australia Council. This would have seven art form boards – film and television, literature, music, theatre, visual art, craft and Aboriginal arts. With a few tweaks (such as the hiving off of film and television to the Australian Film Commission and the creation of a dance board), that basic structure has been with us ever since.

And there’s the rub. The Australia Council’s structure, created in the early 1970s and intellectually a product of Keynes’ thinking in the 1940s, still largely determines the cultural expressions it supports in 2010. The art forms funded by the Australia Council were, and remain, dominated by the performing arts. As academic Gay Hawkins has noted, ‘the overwhelming tendency to equate culture with art is evident in the Australia Council’s focus on largely pre-twentieth century forms, on forms left behind by the economy and many audiences’. Even when the Australia Council has supported community arts, she points out, it ‘has been downright hostile and even reactionary in its approach to mass and popular culture.’

Consider the full diversity of cultural expressions that Australians engage in. This morning, for instance, before I showered, dressed or put the kettle on, I began the first ‘cultural’ activity of my day: I opened up my laptop computer and logged onto Facebook.

As US linguistics professor Naomi Baron writes in her recent monograph Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, new technologies are transforming the way humans communicate in ways almost unimaginable even two decades ago. ‘Once you have the requisite equipment (a computer, a mobile phone) and have managed the access fees,’ she writes, ‘it’s far simpler and less expensive to communicate with people not physically present than at any time in human history.’

Writing is, of course, only one of the forms of communication being transformed rapidly by technology. The paradigm example is music.

Ever since the invention of the first instrument (thought to be a flute made of bone), music has always been a technological artefact. But the pivotal musical innovation of the twenty-first century is not an instrument, but a computer algorithm. The ‘MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3’ – better known as the MP3 – was an obscure digital compression format for music before an enterprising university student in Boston devised a clever way to share files over the internet. His name was Shawn Fanning and the program he created was Napster. In the decade since Fanning invented music file-sharing, contemporary music has been transformed: sales of CDs have plunged, major labels have merged or folded, concert and festival attendances have soared. Music is returning to its roots as live performance because that is how musicians can get paid.

Technology is not just changing art forms; it is also creating them. Game design is a case in point. Already a multi-billion-dollar industry, computer games are also becoming a serious and significant art form, capable of breathtaking beauty and stunning leaps of imagination. In perhaps the best recent discussion of the artfulness of games, John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books that ‘the best games are already beautiful, and I can see no reason why the look of video games won’t match or surpass that of cinema’. Lanchester notes that games can do things that other art forms can’t: bend the laws of physics, for instance, or create entirely new worlds for gamers to explore. Games possess what he calls a ‘sense of agency’ in which ‘the game offers a world in which the player is free to act and to choose.’ As anyone who has played the Grand Theft Auto series knows, games can present the sort of compelling moral challenges that would have been instantly recognisable to Sophocles or Shakespeare.

So why doesn’t the Australia Council support gaming? Why is there so little support for blogs and online publishing, or for contemporary music?

The short answer to the question is ‘history’. OzCo supports the things it has always supported and struggles to support anything else, new or old.

There is no policy justification for these decisions that you can find in any published document or statute of the Australia Council. Absurd and unexplained inconsistencies in whom and what it supports are not the exception but the norm. It funds large companies of professional musicians to play the musical treasures of the European world – but not of the Islamic, Pacific or Chinese traditions. It funds companies that only produce a few works a year but not festivals that produce hundreds. It funds video art but not short films. It funds opera but not musicals (except when opera companies mount musicals). It funds ‘literature’ but only a certain type of literature – serious novels, generally, but not genre fiction, or online writing and publishing, or writing for graphic novels, or screen writing, or narrative writing for games. It funds theatre companies to ‘make it new’ while funding operas and ballets to remake the old. And at the same time as some of the oldest living forms of music in the world slowly die out in the central desert, the Australia Council gives more money to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra ($9.7 million in 2009, according to the SSO’s Annual Report) than it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board ($3.7 million, according to the Australia Council’s 2008–09 Annual Report).

Of course, other arms of Australian government fund other cultural expressions: Screen Australia funds film and television, and local governments fund a surprisingly large amount of art in the community. But, if anything, this simply underlines how narrow OzCo’s spectrum of support actually is (the Australia Council also turned its back on community arts in the mid-2000s, abolishing its Community Cultural Development Board in the same decision that axed the new media board).

In any case, funding is only one side of the policy coin. The government’s best-funded policy intervention in terms of new media and digital arts is not a grants program. It is, in fact, a regulation: Communications Minster Stephen Conroy’s $125 million attempt to censor the internet. But the Australia Council has almost nothing to say about cultural regulation, even in an area obviously relevant to its interests, such as child pornography laws. One of the things that the Bill Henson controversy made obvious was that the prized Australia Council privilege of ‘arms-length’ operation extends only to funding decisions. OzCo either will not or cannot robustly advocate for a core artistic value like freedom from censorship.

A new model is needed. The first thing that should be done is break up the existing structure of the Australia Council. The twenty-eight institutions that make up the Major Performing Arts Board should be split off. These institutions are not peer-reviewed. Their funding is guaranteed year-in, year-out (even when they go broke, as the Sydney Dance Company did recently). There is no reason they could not be funded directly as line items of the federal Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in the same way that the National Library and National Museum are.

The remainder of the Australia Council needs radical reform. Let’s abandon the name. The old idea of an Australia Council ‘for the arts’ has outlived its usefulness; a new name is needed for the new cultural ambit it must claim. While we’re at it, let’s abolish the art form boards too. They no longer make any sense in 2010. Nearly a century after Duchamp’s urinal, it is pure folly to draw up arbitrary definitions of what constitutes an artwork and what doesn’t. Many state government arts grants programs already accept open applications, regardless of art form or genre: there is no reason why OzCo couldn’t do the same. The current system of peer review is barely credible: it needs to be radically strengthened and diversified. When a grant needs to be assessed, it should be reviewed by the peers best available to do so, not a ministerially appointed board of worthies.

The balance between individual artists and institutions needs to be changed. Nearly 90 per cent of funding goes to organisations. Much of this money disappears into salaries, infrastructure and on-costs; precious little trickles down to the working artist on the ground. Compare this with the National Health and Medical Research Council, which has a mandated policy stating that one-fifth of all funding will go to ‘people support activities’ – grants for individual scientific researchers. A similar goal is badly needed in the arts.

New creative expressions need to be championed. Cultural creativity comes in all different shapes and sizes; art forms are splintering, and genres and practices are proliferating. The solution is not a catch-all ‘new art forms board’ but a radical levelling of the playing field, so that many more practices can be recognised and supported.

Finally, the age-old dialectic of ‘high arts’ versus ‘popular culture’ should be abandoned. The silliness of the high and low culture debate is best shown by a broader look at the overtly populist cultural decisions of many governments – such as the federal government’s recent decision to rebate commercial television licence fees, thought to be worth $250 million to the likes of Channel Seven’s owner Kerry Stokes and Nine’s owner CVC Asia Pacific, a global private equity firm.

Yet the explicit justification for funding art forms such as opera or orchestral music continues to be the merit of these forms of culture. We need not subscribe to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu to observe that what is often called ‘excellent’ and ‘artistically meritorious’ in this country is all too often the culture of the elites. Few stop to ask themselves what makes a ballet (or a computer game) ‘excellent’. And for whom? Artworks are not good or bad, worthy or worthless, just because they are popular or unpopular: every critic knows that a Hollywood blockbuster can sometimes attain high standards of artistry, while the avant-garde and unpopular can be insubstantial and formulaic.

To do all this, a modest amount of new funding is needed – perhaps $50 or $100 million a year. Such a figure is clearly supportable in a federal budget in excess of $300 billion. If money has to be found, we need only to look to the funds committed to the television licence rebates or the internet filter. But new money for small companies and independent artists making new work would have a huge impact on the practice of culture in this country – if only because the current state of artists’ incomes is so dire.

Such a reform will certainly be opposed by many in the arts industry. In its own way, the power of vested interests in the big arts organisations is no different to those of large mining corporations or banks. In contrast, independent artists have few political connections and little lobbying power. That’s why the debate must begin.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is National Affairs Correspondent for New Matilda, a lecturer at Deakin University and an arts journalist. His most recent book, When the Goal Posts Move, is about the arts funding crisis.

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