(Reflections On) Our Culture And The Arts



The Morrison government’s recent failure to recognise the arts specifically in its reformed structure of ministries is really nothing new in principle – nor even surprising, given the political history of the arts in this country since the Whitlam era, writes Donald Richardson.

Australian governments have rarely taken the arts seriously – a fact that has rarely been objected to by the arts community, which has chosen to keep is head down in a culture that has always regarded artists as being queer foreigners with outlandish ideas and questionable lifestyles: not people you would want to live next to.

Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic Alison Croggon in her excellent The Desertification of Australian Culture in the October issue of The Monthly, marshalled some very revealing facts and informed opinions on the subject, but her article was foxed by multiple conflations – not, however, those of the writer, but conflations which are long-entrenched in the very culture she discusses. This rarely-recognised fact frustrates rational discussion.

What industry?

The first is the term ‘culture (or arts) industry’. This unfortunate conflation is actually nothing more than ignorant nonsense. Artists – individual humans who make art simply because they wish to and can – operate in no way like industrialists do.

Industrialists only manufacture things for which they perceive an existing or future popular market, but no-one can know whether the product of an artist will sell because no-one will have any knowledge of the product in advance (not least the artist him/herself!).

That some artists’ products subsequently sell does not make artists industrialists (or art an ‘industry’). Exchange of money occurs in many human interactions, but we do not speak of the ‘law industry’ or the ‘religion industry’.

‘Culture (or arts) industry’ is plainly illogical conceptual nonsense.

On the other hand we should recognise the existence of the arts market – the application of capital/ism to culture – which, being the only aspect of the subject that is easy to grasp and talk about, results in its omnipresence in journalism.

We should also recognise that designers – creative people who conceive and make functional objects (as distinct from art per se) – frequently work in industry on industry’s terms.

The ‘creative industries’

‘Creative industry/ies’, a term that was coined in 2002 by Richard Florida and is used glibly as if it has real relevance to our culture, deserves deconstruction.

Florida listed them – such essentials as ‘from computer graphics to digital music and animation’ – but he never recognised that the entertainment and publishing industries have always employed creatives for commercial ends; however, these creatives are the class of individuals described in the first paragraph above!

An undeniable, yet unrecognised, fact is that, whereas industry and culture are necessarily essentially conservative, the arts per se are progressive. Progress in the arts has always been made by individuals who do not accept the current aesthetic situation.

Another conflation

The second conflation is that of the two concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘the arts’. Croggon is far from alone in considering the terms identical or interchangeable. Her statement that ‘culture is in part an expression of what a society values…’ to my mind does not adequately reflect that culture as a concept covers much more than the arts: it is everything that a society values and consequently must include religion, law, family, sport, communications, trade etc, etc.

If we can accept this as fact we will have a much more realistic discussion. For example, it justifies the ‘vastly greater government support for industries such as defence or mining…’ and the $500 million for the Australian War Memorial, and could justify the ‘$30 million grant to Foxtel’ (even though it cannot justify this being ‘hidden under confidentiality clauses’) – all of which Croggon questions. These things are easier to identify and discuss than are the principles of culture or the arts, per se.

A more enlightened approach is that of the 2017 report of the UK’s All-Purpose Parliamentary Group, ‘Creative Health. The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’, which documents the significant social relevance of the arts.

The confusion and illogicality is exemplified in the very title of the former Federal Government’s ‘Department of Communication and The Arts’ (However, we have not yet reached the even more ludicrous situation of the United Kingdom’s current omnibus ‘Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’, which promotes itself by the slogan ‘Culture is Digital’!)

While some aspects of the arts are concerned with communicating their principles and contents (and many are not!), there are aspects of the communications industry that have absolutely no relevance at all to the arts. It is totally illogical to generalise from the fact that newspapers are printed on the same material on which Turner painted his watercolours to assert an inherent commonality between the two quite distinct concepts.

Here the use of the term ‘media’ requires discussion. The media (the materials and forms) of the arts are numerous and ancient: marble, oil paint, the piano, pencils, oratory, verse, tonality, key, chamber music, etc, etc. To restrict the term to mean only the media of communication – even to electronic communication – as popular parlance currently does, not only robs the concept of its richness but also is the equivalent of using ‘man’ to cover all of humanity.

We need to be clear that Craig Hassell, CEO of Opera Australia, was not the only person in the arts to welcome George Brandis’ ‘vanity project’, the 2015 National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), because many deplore the lack of standards in much contemporary cultural expression under the justification that ‘anything can be art’ (which is a total misconception that the phrase embodies the philosophies of Marcel Duchamp’s radical 1917 sculpture Fountain and John Cage’s ‘piano solo’ 4.33).

While successive governments – both Liberal/Coalition and Labor – have cut funding to the ABC and SBS, they have largely maintained support for Opera Australia. This is no doubt because the ‘performing arts’ qualify as entertainment as well as art – another conflation of concepts that our culture has never rationalised, this one with a concept that is beyond question.

So we waffle on, often at cross-purposes… but maybe even this level of discourse is closed off in Australia now.

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Donald Richardson is a visual artist, teacher and anti-‘theory’ arts theorist whose latest book, ‘Art, Design, Craft, Beauty and All Those Things…’ is in press in London with Austin Macauley. Previous publications include ‘What Art is – and Isn’t’ and ‘Creating Remembrance. The Art and Design of Australian War Memorials’.