Why art?

Some figures

When Campbell Newman won the 2012 Queensland election in a landslide that all but annihilated the ALP, one of his first policy announcements was to abolish the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. This saved a mere $244 000.

Newman followed the announcement with more major cuts, ripping $20 million from the arts budget, particularly from education programs.

After determined lobbying from the racing industry, Newman confirmed the Bligh government’s commitment of $110 million to the industry, including $35.4 million for an upgrade to the Gold Coast Turf Club and $10 million for a refurbished greyhound racing track.

In April 2013, his government also tripled its funding (to $47 million) for the Liberal National Party’s flagship Get in the Game program, which provides cash to community sports clubs.

These figures – $157 million for two sports programs alone – dwarf the paltry $20 million savings made on the Queensland arts budget.

The racing funds were justified as support for an ‘iconic’ industry that involves ‘30 000 Queensland jobs, and more than 130 community-based clubs’. It is the familiar language used to justify government spending on industry: the encouragement of employment, the multiplier effect of smart investment, the community good that results from the state supporting and stimulating institutions.

Yet, even on these narrow terms, culture has at least as much claim as any other aspect of the Australian economy. In 2006, Queensland cultural industries employed (as their main occupation: the figures don’t include volunteers or part-time itinerants such as musicians) 80 149 people, an employment rate almost three times that of the Queensland racing industry.1

This statistic includes employment in commercial advertising and architecture. A more detailed breakdown of Queensland cultural employment that doesn’t include these industries put the figure at 57 811 people, still almost twice that of the racing industry. In 2008–09, more than 13 300 businesses were ‘actively trading’ in the Queensland cultural sector, many more than the 130 ‘community-based clubs’ named as beneficiaries of the racing funding.

In other words, cutting the arts budget was primarily a symbolic political decision. In shunting the arts aside as disposable luxuries that a prudent state couldn’t afford, Newman dramatically – and with maximum publicity – dissociated himself from the policies of the Queensland ALP and the ‘cultural elitists’ said to support them. Rational? Perhaps not. But as a populist political gesture, extremely effective.

In Australia, cultural funding totals $6.6 billion a year across federal, state and local governments. This figure covers everything from the ABC and ‘heritage’ funding (museums, libraries, zoos, the environment, etc.) to the relatively small sums given to the arts.

In 2011, cultural industries directly employed 531 000 people, and indirectly generated a further 3.7 million jobs. Copyright industries were worth $93.2 billion to the Australian economy in 2007, with exports worth more than $500 million.2

According to its own figures, the mining industry is worth $121 billion a year to the Australian economy, only around 25 per cent more than the cultural industries. Mining employs significantly fewer people than the cultural sector: 187  400 directly, and a further 599 680 in support industries.3 The industry receives government assistance – to the tune of $700 million in the last financial year.4 In 2011–12, Australian industry as a whole – including agriculture, food manufacturing and service industries – was given an estimated $17.3 billion in combined assistance (a mixture of direct subsidies, tax breaks, tariffs and regulatory assistance).5 This doesn’t count a further $9.4 billion invested in research and development by the Australian government in the same financial year.6

In contrast, it’s probably safe to say that, when discussing arts funding, we’re talking about around $500 million annually, out of a total tax revenue in 2011–12 of $390 billion7 – that is, about 0.1 per cent of total government expenditure. (Assistance to industry, including research and development, is around 7 per cent.) The Australia Council, the major arts funding body, has a budget this year of $220 million.

The arts in relation to culture are often compared to research and development in relation to industry: it is the restless experimentalism of artists that generates the vitality of the wider culture. The arts are, if you like, the engine room: even if not always profitable in themselves, the arts lead to highly profitable innovations. The British Arts Council, facing savage cuts under David Cameron’s Tory government, argued this year that, although the arts get less than 0.1 per cent of public spending, they return four times that value to the British economy.

Hard-Right theorists decry state funding of any kind, including subsidies to industry, in their calls for public spending to be slashed in favour of the ‘choices’ of the free market, but few people would argue against the worth of the cultural funding that supports public libraries and museums.

Nonetheless, despite their relatively tiny cost, the arts are by far the most contentious of all cultural funding. The easiest way to campaign against cultural funding is to stir up public condemnation about the perceived excesses of artists. This has long been a favourite mode of attack, especially from the Australian Right. For instance, Chris Berg, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, recently slammed arts funding by focusing on a recent exhibition at ACCA that featured defecating dancers, even though he didn’t see the controversial dance. The performance wasn’t, in fact, funded by the state. More disturbingly, a young artist exhibiting at St Kilda’s Linden Gallery was accused of producing child porn by right-wing activist Adrian Jackson, prompting a police raid. Jackson’s publicly stated aim is to stop council support for the gallery.

For a certain section of the popular imagination, artists combine a heady mixture of otherness: they are outside regular employment, like welfare recipients, but also participate in activities perceived to be elitist or exclusionary or unjustly privileged. In questioning conventional values, artists are, like terrorists, an ‘enemy within’: Andrew Bolt once explicitly made this connection in a would-be satirical piece on ‘arts extremists’ living, like Islamists, in ‘ghettos of hate’.8

But anti-art polemic isn’t confined to the Right: Labor can be just as hostile. In the scandal that erupted around Bill Henson in 2008, Kevin Rudd’s response, in his first public statement on culture as prime minister, was to call the work ‘absolutely revolting’.

More recently, Mark Latham, the ALP’s favourite loose cannon, let fly on the elitism of the high arts in an article for the Chifley Research Centre:

By any objective test, classical music, opera and ballet are insufferably boring. They have no social worth other than in the treatment of sleeping disorders. But that’s how the elites like it, safe in the knowledge that people below their station in society are unlikely to join them in the jewellery-rattling rows of the Opera House. Their abstraction from ‘ordinary people’ is secure.9

In these debates, the arts are highly politicised: on the Right is the conservative defence of a Western canon of high culture, often seen to be threatened by various modernities; on the Left is an instrumentalist defence of the arts, broadly defined as cultural and social capital underpinned as a driver of economic productivity.

In response, artists and cultural organisations are forced to justify themselves in languages and according to criteria that have almost nothing to do with art. This is, as I hope is clear, a practical necessity when art receives public funds, but it inevitably distorts the perception of art itself. A crisis in communication occurs at precisely this point. Art becomes variously a symbol of economic growth; creative innovation and excellence; wasteful government spending; education, status and prestige; social exclusion or inclusion; human rights; and individual or national expression. At the worst, art is reduced to a football in a vicious game of political point-scoring.

The louder the debate, the more art itself slides out of the picture and vanishes.

Why does art matter? What is art? Why should anyone care about it at all?


Some speculations

Part 1

Art continually escapes definition. It is promiscuous; it absorbs every kind of philosophy, embraces every ideology, exploits every technology available. It uses every kind of material, from bodies to metal to paint, from sounds to abstract ideas. Every justification for it has a counter-justification. Every rule, every attempt to legislate it, only generates exception.

In the end, one is forced to speak about art in intensely personal terms. Every work is particular. Whatever its form – a performance in a garage, an exhibition in a state gallery, a book read on a train, street art in a city laneway, a stadium rock concert, a classical recital, a public sculpture, a digital poem – the complexities of what is experienced by those who encounter art are always specific to the artwork itself and to the person experiencing it. Every work is made under specific historical and economic conditions, for certain reasons and out of certain intellectual, social, economic and aesthetic preoccupations. It is received with the same complexities, often in contexts that are wholly different to those in which it was made.

Discussions about art almost always derail on a question of estimation: whether this or that work or category of art is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or sometimes even whether it qualifies as art at all. This betrays an overwhelming anxiety: how is a work of art to be judged? Who judges it? By what criteria or standards? Even more uneasily, perhaps: if we do not judge it, is it possible that the artwork is judging us?

But whether particular artworks, or particular kinds of art, are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a secondary question. I am not saying that critical evaluations are unimportant; on the contrary, such responses, from the casual tweet to the long-form essay to the weighty volume of critique, are the primary ways in which cultural and social meanings are elaborated and assigned. But those judgements, no matter how impassioned, have little relevance to the question of the value or meaning or function of the act of art itself.

Anxieties about art coalesce around notions of privilege and prestige – social, cultural and personal. Partly this is because of the ongoing shock of modernity, through which values traditionally attached to the notion of art – aristocratic privilege or sacredness, for example – degrade and change with the institutions they represent.

Every judgement on art is an impulse towards hierarchy. These judgements may be hotly argued rankings of material or intellectual or aesthetic value; they may be as simple as a person claiming they love one movie and hate another. But these hierarchies are fatally volatile, doomed from the outset to collapse inward on themselves. Aesthetic – the quality most identified with art – is inherently inimical to hierarchy. Judgement is an order that must always be imposed after the fact on an experience that radically destabilises the very existence of authority.

Aesthetic is the formal investigation of feeling, which we understand interchangeably as emotional experience and sensory perception. It derives from the Greek word that means ‘things perceptible through the senses’ – as opposed, that is, to things thinkable or immaterial. Since the nineteenth century, aesthetic has been used to mean ‘the criticism of taste’ and has been endlessly elaborated and contested.

When people speak of art, they implicitly acknowledge this. They say: ‘it touched me.’ They say: ‘it moved me.’ They speak of ‘taste’; they describe goosebumps or chills. They may cry or laugh or find themselves silenced and inarticulate. They may be angry or bored or disgusted. Sensory and emotional experience is open to anyone: all it requires is to be physically present. This can generate considerable anxiety in those who wish to link art with privilege.

The experience of art is lodged inescapably in the body, and it can’t be abstracted without violence. This violence is, nevertheless, routinely done to art. An overwhelming human impulse before the chaos of sensory and emotional feeling is to place one thing above the other, to assign value to one aspect and remove it from another. Ironically, sensory perception is often devalued in discussions of art: many strands of thought consider the senses and emotions to be base and bestial, the province of the feminine, a polar opposite of civilisation and culture.

It’s no accident that the body, the site in which our impulses towards hierarchy are most intimately challenged, has become a primary metaphor for authority, from St Paul’s insistence on the man as the head of the household, to the notion of the head of state, to that of the body corporate. The impossible fantasy of the intellect – perhaps of power itself – is to be bodiless, uncorrupted by the unpredictable complexity of sensory and emotional feelings, freed of our inescapable mortality. The ultimate ambition is to be finally objective and deathless, like God Himself. But the living body is an entity in which each thing is dependent upon all the other things: the brain cannot exist without the rest of the nervous system, nor the cardiovascular system, nor the digestive system, nor the endocrine system. The body is not a hierarchy. It is a system.

Art, too, is a system. It is a network of interdependent relationships: firstly of the artists with themselves and the world in which they live, and then with the artwork they create; next, with those who encounter the art and who then create relationships between the art, the world and themselves. Art is made and received in a dynamic structure of exchange in which order and disorder are in constant tension and flux. Its potential excess of sensory and emotional stimuli makes art particularly subject – just as the body is – to forces of control. Art both expresses modes of control and exceeds them, and art always, for better or worse, overflows its intentions.

Art makes us recognise and cognise: it re-arranges what we know so that we can perceive what we don’t know. Art isn’t moral in itself – it cannot be moral in itself – but it activates and articulates moral thought. The artist brings into play all our ways of perceiving: the mind and the senses, the fantastic and the real, the material and the intangible. It is a means by which knowledge, as intellectual apprehension, is transformed into lived experience.

In even its most perverse forms, art is radically innocent. The artist only seeks to make something. The innocence of making is in mortal conflict with the alienation of labour. All experiences of art, even the most depersonalised, depend overtly or covertly on the notion of a subject making and receiving. An artist makes an object of his or her subjective experience that permits another subject to recognise the contradiction that is the condition of consciousness. In a time when the subject is suffocatingly redefined as the neoliberalised consumerist self, art in all its forms, even the crudest, expresses a profound longing: the desire of the subject to be returned to itself.

Art is an invitation, which like all invitations may be accepted or refused. Every artistic act contains within its genesis a wager: that we exist as subjects, not as objects. Art is a technology for consciousness that comes with no guarantees, but that always contains within itself a seed of revolt – the possibility that we are agents in our own lives, that we can perceive and feel and be.

Part 2

When I think about art, I mean freedom.


Why art should be publicly funded

Australians, by and large, get this. They are, despite what culture warriors tell us, overwhelmingly positive about the arts. In a survey that looked at participation in visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theatre and literature – that is, the key art forms supported by the Australia Council – 38 per cent of Australians describe themselves as art lovers, for whom the arts are an integral part of their lives. Only 17 per cent report estrangement, believing that the arts attract pretentious elites, and a tiny 7 per cent feel no connection at all. Overall, 93 per cent of Australians reported engaging with the arts in the previous year. In 2009, more people attended art galleries (11 million) than went to the football (10 million).10

Given this, it’s hard not to wonder why funding the arts is controversial at all.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for public funding is that it’s the only way in which the pleasures, rewards and liberations of art – well known even to many of those who argue most fiercely against state subsidies – do not become merely the exclusive property of the wealthy. Art itself is not elitist, but prices can make it so.

The biggest barriers to the arts in Australia are money, distance and education. In Europe, the generous funding – 80 to 90 per cent of the budgets of the major institutions – ensures that art is affordable. Tickets for major dance and theatre companies, which here can cost $100 or more, can be bought in France for 10–15 euros (around $20). State funding for companies like the Melbourne Theatre Company or the Sydney Theatre Company hovers at about 10 per cent, forcing them to make up their budgets on ticket sales. The result is expensive tickets and a pissed-off Mark Latham.

State funding is crucial to arts education. It also decentralises the arts, allowing regional Australians not only to encounter their own culture but to create their own work. And it allows our artists to reach their potential. State funding permits regional companies like the Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre company, one of our biggest international success stories, to create work with its ensemble of disabled actors. It’s directly responsible for the ecstatic reviews they receive in Europe and America.

Funding makes possible the international success of Bangarra Dance Theatre, which works closely with remote Indigenous communities to create their performances, or the long-term community-based work of Big hART. It funds touring and stimulates arts practice in culturally deprived regional areas, as well as outreach and educational programs in schools and the wider community.

Without public funding, many people would never encounter art at all.

The major problem with these programs is not that they don’t work – they do – but that there are not enough of them. The arts in Australia are drastically underfunded. Competition for grants is fierce, and the pool of ‘unfunded excellence’ – work considered worthy of support, but dropped because of limited budgets – gets ever longer as the arts sector grows and unindexed budgets shrink against the CPI. Cultural organisations are loath to speak out on this issue, as the backlash – as Cate Blanchett discovered when she made a plea for more arts funding in 2010 – can be merciless: it is perceived as an argument by an already-privileged class for more free money.

The reality is that artists are among the lowest paid professionals in Australia, with a mean annual income of $18 000. The median figure is even worse: a mere $7000.11 Artists do a lot with the little they receive. The biggest funder of the arts is artists, through unpaid labour; the biggest beneficiaries of artistic activity are not the artists themselves but the communities around them. Countless studies, local and international, log the benefits of funding culture and art, demonstrating positive effects in everything from educational results to real estate prices, improved mental health to urban and regional renewal, economic productivity to crime rates.12

In a 2002 speech, former Australia Council chair Donald Horne attacked the ‘economisation of culture’ and the self-description of the arts as an ‘industry’ as a fundamentalist creed. ‘It’s the kind of language that turns our society into “the economy”, our citizens into “the consumers” and our public funds into “taxpayers’ money”,’ he said.13 Echoing Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Horne sought to reframe the debate on culture as a question of rights:

Just as we have political and social and economic rights, so we might also think of ourselves as having cultural rights. Three cultural rights would do it: the right of our citizens to engage with the human cultural heritage; the right of our citizens to engage with new intellectual and artistic production; the right of our citizens to engage in their own forms of intellectual and art production.

Cultural rights are, in other words, the rights of any person to access their potential as intellectual and creative citizens of their region and the wider world. This argument is about human possibility, as a society and as individuals. It claims that people have a right to culture as a crucial dimension of their lives. It’s this notion of culture as a human right that most underlies contemporary public and philanthropic support for the arts.

Making art is different from manufacturing widgets or fridges: only the most dishonest commenters argue that its value can be judged on its economic success alone. Arts funding is central to any question about what kind of society we want to live in. Arguing for the economic and social capital of art is, in the current moment, a pragmatic necessity, a rendering unto Caesar of what is Caesar’s. But art must first be defended for its intrinsic values, which are deeply embedded in our most profound instincts about what it means to be a human being, both as individuals and as members of a complex global world.

Art is a question that ripples through all our dimensions of existence, from the most intimate solitudes to the broadest notions of social citizenship. It asks that we pay attention. And if it touches us, it may say, as a Greek Archaic sculpture of Apollo said to the poet Rilke: ‘You must change your life.’


1  National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics, ABS, Culture Report 2012 – Queensland, March 2012, www.arts.qld.gov.au, viewed 29 July 2013.

Creative Australia: National Cultural Policy, Australian Government, 2013.

Australian Mining: This Is Our Story, www.thisisourstory.com.au, viewed 29 July 2013.

4  Productivity Commission, Trade & Assistance Review 2011–12, Annual Report Series, 2013.

5  As above.

6  Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Focusing Australia’s Publicly Funded Research Review: Maximising the Innovation Dividend, October 2011.

7  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Taxation revenue, Australia, 2011–12, 2013.

8  Andrew Bolt, ‘Ghettos of hate’, Herald Sun, 8 November 2006.

9  Mark Latham, ‘The Culture Wars: Legitimate Battlefield or Just Another Sneaky Right-wing Attack’, Chifley Research Centre, April 2013.

10  Australia Council, More than Bums on Seats: Australian Participation in the Arts, 2009.

11  David Thorsby & Anita Zednik, Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? An Economic Study of Artists in Australia, Australia Council, 2009.

12  Australian expert group in industry studies, Social Impacts of Participation in the Arts and Cultural Activities, University of Western Sydney, 2004; Kevin F McCarthy, Elizabeth H Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras & Arthur Brooks, Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, Rand Research in the Arts, Rand Corporation, 2004.

13  Donald Horne, The Arts, the Regions and the Economy, Groundswell, 2002 Regional Arts Australia National Conference.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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