Twelve months on from the election of the Rudd Government and it is only natural that the arts community — along with most other groups in the community — are attempting to measure what if any progress has been made.
It will be some time before we can assess with much accuracy just how the nation’s cultural direction might be changing. Few would doubt that a decade of conservative rule left the nation with a profoundly different set of cultural questions and expectations than had been the case in the mid 1990s. Yet in hindsight much of the change came almost imperceptibly and via osmosis and not through a series of seismic policy shifts.
In assessing the new Government there is an inevitable tendency to reach for the first high-profile examples. Its commitment to introducing resale royalties for visual artists has largely been popular while the knee-jerk reaction to the Henson debate was not. Certainly, the national internet firewall probably has alienated the tech-savvy end of the cultural community — who increasingly predict that the experiment will become a practical, technical and political disaster.
It is also far too early to judge the new Government’s cultural bona fides and agenda. Where the Government succeeds or fails culturally will be decided less by any specific measure or issue than by what the nation under its watch will ultimately choose to measure its cultural life against.
This process is far more interesting for the question it implicitly contains: how exactly do you go about measuring Australia’s cultural life? Exactly which categories on the national cultural report card do we use as measures?
At times it feels as though the debate about the health of the nation’s cultural life has never progressed far beyond simple questions of funding. Money is the most reflexively simple measure by which a government can be judged and yet it is almost certainly the most misleading.
The Howard years in the arts were not always the slash and burn era that that they are assumed to be. The era of conservative rule was characterised less by the wholesale slaughtering of arts budgets than by a shift in the ends to which budgets were directed. It is no small irony that the party that trumpeted a rhetoric of anti-elitism, initiative and enterprise presided over an era where centralised, elite, traditional and highbrow arts were favoured in virtually every aspect of policy. At the end of the Howard era, the Australia Council was funding symphony orchestras and opera companies over and above all other forms of music combined by a factor of 10 to one.
The other great stamp on cultural policy over that period was the influence of the National Party. A series of regional initiatives — some warranted and some less so — were designed to ensure that arts funding and its high-end cultural products made their way out from the capital cities and into the regions.
This approach reveals a lot about the state of the nation and the national psyche. For the last decade we have often seen ourselves as a nation of cultural consumers. While our friends across the Tasman, for example, were aggressively promoting their film, their design, and their national identity, Australia was a nation that related to the best of the world’s culture by consuming and reproducing it. Our policy questions did not move beyond assuming that culture was made for us and brought to us and not something that we created here.
This is something we need to take a step back from and address. The way we run the debate about dollars — even when we look at the artforms and organisations that we spend money on — often misses the deeper question about what we are actually funding and why. Are we funding administration or innovation? Do we fund risk or reproduction? Does our funding reach down to artists and catalyse creation, or pool around middle management? Do we entrench and reward predictability or do we foster imagination and opportunity? Will we continue to measure our cultural vitality by how well funded our orchestras are or could this new era bring with it a new set of cultural expectations?
It is too early to say which way we’ll go, but perhaps the most significant thing that has happened in the last 12 months is that space for a debate has started to open up. For much of the last decade, the arts community has been behaving as if besieged; operating in survival mode. The debate had become defensive — about shoring up potential weaknesses and not seeking out potential strengths. Despite a new sense of nationalism we struggled as a nation to articulate any sense of cultural ambition. We ducked and defended while the national and cultural possibilities that Australia was confronting changed rapidly around us.
A new discussion needs to get beyond questions of funding and recognise that arts money is only one factor in a much larger set of issues. How hard is it for us currently to innovate and take risks? How hard is to make a film, a show, a venue, an exhibition? How hard is it to publish, photograph and distribute? What are the policy settings that we need so we can experiment and innovate? Is cultural production the domain only of those with capital or are there spaces for those without? How ready is Australia to exploit the end of the tyranny of distance being brought on by changes in culture and communication?
These are vital questions, ones that have for too long been left outside cultural policy constructed as an arc between major institutions, organisations and government. Cultural policy has been determined by moving around a series of oversized chess pieces, while the culture’s vibrancy is measured by comparing the size of those pieces.
Funding is a solution to many of our cultural challenges, but on occasions – such as when we seek to promote risk and innovation — it can actually make those challenges greater. It can also often obscure far more serious underlying problems. The long decline of the NSW live music scene — thanks to the proliferation of poker machines, the absence of sensible licensing laws and the overregulation of performance venues in NSW — was actually accompanied by a series of funding initiatives. If you measured the vibrancy by funding alone you would miss the point: that with the disappearance of places to play, financial seeds were poor compensation for the absence of fertile ground.
We have an opportunity to recognise that our culture is as much the product of our planning laws, our occupational health and safety laws, our tax system, the regulation and diversity of our media, and thousands of other seemingly unrelated issues as it is of the organisations that we do or do not fund. We have an opportunity to debate and discover the cultural possibilities that are opening up to us.
For the first time in a generation an opportunity has arisen to look at our culture anew. We have a chance to reconcile arts policy made in a bubble with the living cultures that are its real point — cultures that for too long have been the unintended consequences of everything else.
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