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It is difficult to grasp the cultural devastation that is occurring across Australia. Even a partial glimpse is unnerving; surveying the whole is depressing beyond words. Despite the fact that in 2015 Australia’s per capita purchasing power ranked 15th among the 25 wealthiest nations in the world, we are living in a nation in which poverties of every kind are being imposed from above.
In 2016 it became clear that Australian arts are facing the worst crisis since before the Australia Council was founded in 1967. But that is only part of the story. The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory.
Since the 2013 election, many of our major institutions have reached a point where they are forced to curtail their basic activities. We’ve seen public funding cut for science authorities, universities, research programs, museums, archives and galleries. According to one media analyst, the national broadcaster, the ABC, has lost $100 million a year in direct and indirect funding since the election of the Coalition government. CSIRO has lost 900 staff since 2013.
Earlier this year, the National Library of Australia announced that it would be reviewing its public educational programs, stopping publication of its quarterly magazine, and ceasing to update its popular digital aggregator and database Trove. The National Museum of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Gallery of Australia are all rolling back core programs amid significant staff cutbacks.
Place the attacks on science and culture next to other Coalition policies since 2013, and the national picture gets very grim indeed. At present the government is proposing $50 billion tax cuts for companies, many of whom pay no tax at all, at the expense of our poorest citizens. There’s the $1.2 billion expended last year on a dysfunctional and brutal offshore detention regime that benefits only the multinational companies that run it. Meanwhile, there are cuts to domestic violence shelters, to indigenous legal and welfare programs, to countless government projects that seek to ameliorate the wounds of disadvantage and ill luck. Everywhere you look, those who have most are taking from those who have little or nothing.
In the arts, it’s been a year of unprecedented turbulence. The $105 million “excellence raid” on Australia Council funds last year by the then arts minister, Senator George Brandis, shook the arts community to the core. From our cultural bodies, the message is the same: the recent cuts are the final straw for institutions that were already pared to the bone. There are no more “efficiencies” to be had. Further reductions mean profound structural injury. “Savings” have been imposed despite warnings of long-term, irreversible damage to Australia’s cultural heritage.
For all the right-wing rhetoric against latte-sipping elites, the grinding down of the marginalised and poor and the attacks on our cultural institutions are profoundly connected. They are two faces of the same ideology. These policies reflect an attitude that sees culture and knowledge as the sole province of the privileged, the servants of the powerful. And, as we saw clearly in the outraged ministerial responses from Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull when Sydney Biennale artists protested against offshore detention camps in 2014, these policies have the broad intention of silencing critique and dissent.
But the bitter fact is that our current crisis is not new. The election of a government intent on a radical overhaul of public investment has merely intensified an ongoing problem to breaking point. Our cultural expectations have always suffered from a poverty of imagination.
Australia has produced a disproportionate number of distinguished artists in every form, from poetry to contemporary dance, from film to literature, from design to opera. And these artists have a robust public. According to Arts Nation, a major survey conducted by the Australia Council in 2015, 85% of Australians believe that the arts make life richer and more meaningful, and 38% participate actively in the arts more than six times a year. More Australians attend art galleries each year than go to the football, and we buy more books per head than almost any other nation.
Despite this, state support for Australian arts has always been among the most fragile of governmental expenditures. The past year was the darkest in memory. Since the election of the Abbott government in 2013, the Coalition has, according to the former shadow minister for the arts Mark Dreyfus, cut $300 million from the cultural budget.
Brandis’ expropriation of $105 million from the Australia Council budget for his National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) reduced the Australia Council’s discretionary funding by a third. The funding for the larger, wealthier companies is ring-fenced under a two-tier system, which, in a familiar movement, means that the cuts primarily affect the hundreds of smaller organisations and individuals whose funding comes out of what remains. Brandis’ move to bring arts funding under direct ministerial control was also, significantly, an unprecedented attack on the time-honoured bipartisan policy of arms-length funding for the industry.
After a national campaign by the arts community, Brandis was relieved of the arts portfolio. Around a third of the NPEA money, $32 million, was returned to the Australia Council, and the ministry kept $48 million for an NPEA now rebranded as Catalyst. Nobody seems to know what has happened to the other $25 million.
The return of the money was a hollow victory: the cuts represent a significant reduction, in scale and ambition, of Australia Council programs, and much of the damage had already been done. The Australia Council’s first decision, in the emergency after the announcement of the NPEA, was to cancel one funding round and halve the rest, from four rounds a year to two. Many grants were reduced, and some programs, such as the very successful ArtStart, which was designed to help young artists become self-sufficient, disappeared altogether. An unprecedented 134 companies or organisations – half of those who applied – weren’t funded in the last round in May. They included established companies such as Force Majeure and Arena Theatre.
Michael Lynch, former general manager of the Australia Council, called the 2015 cultural cuts “madness”, and described the Australia Council raid as one of the worst administrative decisions in 40 years of arts funding. In my view, that’s no exaggeration. The impacts, direct and indirect, will shape Australian arts culture for a generation.
During the recent election campaign, the Labor Party vowed to restore the funding to the Australia Council. They made no such assurances about the cuts to the ABC, aside from a boost to local drama, and apart from pledging to restore funding for the National Library’s Trove, there was little about the other threatened cultural bodies. The ALP is ambivalent at best about the Productivity Commission’s proposed lifting of parallel importation restrictions, which both the book industry and authors argue seriously threaten the future of Australian writing.
In other words, even under a regime that’s friendlier to culture than the Coalition has been in the past three years, the best we can expect is a return to business as usual, which was generally agreed to be inadequate and poorly co-ordinated. Vision? Ambition? How can we even imagine that, when so much of our culture is simply struggling to survive?
The despair that characterises so much present discussion about our cultural future is about much more than money. What has been clear for years is that in general public discourse – as opposed to the preferences of actual Australians – culture is a trivial consideration. Part of the exhaustion of being an arts worker in Australia is that our very existence is continually in public question. Again and again, we have to assert presence and value. It is impossible to simply assume that culture is a common good: it must be constantly argued.
Outside the specialist world of arts discussion, Australia has two modes of talking about culture and art: the mockery from right-wing columnists who regularly attack artists (as well as other knowledge workers, such as scientists and university researchers), and the bathetic motherhood statements about art’s intrinsic worth that roll readily from the mouths of politicians. Art is considered a leisure activity, a luxury for an elite, an entertainment in the most reductive senses of the word, a value-free product.
Advocates even point out the economic benefits of a healthy culture, to combat the erroneous but widespread perception that it contributes nothing to the economic bottom line. (For the record, culture is a bigger industry than agriculture, and employs many more people than the mining sector.) But the danger is that these secondary issues become the primary justifications, erasing the reasons why culture actually matters.
Again and again, public discourse about art has taken the road of least resistance, preferring to shore up the status quo rather than to question, to expand, to educate, to inquire, to imagine better.
Criticism is a crucial part of making a culture. Critical discussion in all its manifestations – from the casual tweet to the considered academic essay – is the hinge that links an artwork to a public. Critique is what connects one work to another, and to the contexts – the histories and social meanings – that inform it. Argument is how we hammer out the value of a thing, creating over time a complex weave of consensus and disagreement. A healthy critical culture welcomes the new and strange, inviting those who might feel hesitant to step confidently into the rewards of not knowing.
Do we have this kind of public discussion in Australia? We do, but it scarcely exists inside our major media institutions. It’s fostered in small companies, on blogs, in forums and discussions that exist on the margins of mainstream discourse. Over the decades, our mainstream critical culture has failed to convince us – the public, our governments, even artists themselves – of the value of culture in our daily lives. It has failed to articulate why Australian art might matter as a public good, to individuals and to a broader society. And now, as Australian culture faces its biggest crisis, that failure is tragically manifest.
Under the newly constricted funding, small organisations and individuals – the sources of our most robust critique – are those who are most at risk. With a few noble exceptions, it’s always been those with the least institutional heft who have been the most outspoken. Indeed, small organisations and artists, rather than our well-resourced institutions, have driven almost all of the political heavy lifting in the turmoil of the past year. Just as the larger companies rely on the poorly funded independent sector to take the creative risks that generate new ideas and new talents, so the smaller organisations and individuals are those expected to stick out their necks to defend the whole.
It was grassroots-driven activism that had sparked a Senate inquiry, which attracted 2719 submissions from every section of the arts community, held hearings in every state and territory, and put the arts firmly, and for the first time, on the agenda in the 2016 election.
Likewise, our major media outlets have for decades relegated the arts to a fenced-off playpen, a subset of the entertainment section. The Walkleys, the premier awards for Australian journalism, have never acknowledged cultural journalism or criticism as they do, for example, the equally specialist journalism of sports coverage. In the newsroom, the arts have always been poor cousins, begging for space. The ideas that drive our best artists, the passion that informs their work and their desire to speak about this world, almost never make it into print or pixels except as bowdlerisation. There isn’t the space.
Space for critique began shrinking long before the digital age. It’s with a sense of black irony that I see colleagues wax nostalgic over a “golden age” of criticism in the 1990s. Critics in Australia were poorly paid even then – unlike the US and Britain, we have never had a tradition of full-time arts critics – and the discourse itself was much more poverty-stricken. Even if contemporary performance criticism seldom lifts above a product review, there is more of it than there was 25 years ago. Publications such as ArtsHub, RealTime, Australian Book Review and Daily Review host longer reviews online. Back in the 1990s, the daily papers were all there was. And mainstream reviews printed there were for the most part dominated by a snoozefest of trite conservative opinion.
This was a situation many major companies preferred, and took active steps to foster. I know of three critics in the 1990s who were quietly sacked by their editors after major companies took exception to their reviews, with the implied threat of withdrawn advertising. When I was a young critic for the Bulletin, the Playbox Theatre attempted, in a blaze of publicity, to get me sacked for my “vitriolic” reviews. This case only differed from the others because my editors refused to sack me, and in the end the whole embarrassing debacle went public.
I had thought that companies seeking to control critical debate was a relic of the bad old days, so it’s disheartening to see this trend return. Last year, Opera Australia’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, removed two critics from the company’s press list after he was “offended” by their comments. An arts editor asked me to write a commentary on the situation, but this article never appeared in the publication that commissioned it. A very embarrassed editor, on the direction of his superiors, requested that I soften the argument, and when I refused to do so the article was killed. In times when revenue is at a premium, a threat to withdraw advertising speaks louder than freedom of opinion.
And yet we need a strong critical culture now more than ever.
The critic is the person who makes a major part of the public argument for culture. It is a critic’s job to discover and to advocate for new and exciting work, to estimate its success or failure, to elaborate its genesis, to call to account, to argue for worth and unworth. Ideally, the critic exists as part of a web of diverse voices, where differences of response can be adumbrated and explored. This dynamic interweave of argument is how a culture is made: as Mexican critic and poet Octavio Paz said, criticism is what makes connections and histories, a culture. Without criticism, what you have is just a whole lot of art.
From about 2005 to 2012, Australian performance had that kind of critical culture. It was driven by conversation on blogs: intelligent, engaged, expansive, diverse responses that sprang up in the years before the internet was corporatised and streamlined by major media outlets and the behemoths of Facebook and Twitter. It was a lively conversation that included creators and audience members as well as critics, and it was a conversation that ignored national borders. Significantly, this conversation happened outside institutions.
The internet has changed since then, and I don’t believe that such a window of opportunity will open again in the foreseeable future. But for a few short years, we saw what is possible when a critical conversation truly takes the art it discusses seriously, when it argues fiercely about ideas and aesthetic, when it welcomes the new. An exciting critical culture generates an engaged audience, and encourages artists to push their work to new heights. It amplifies and examines the ideas that are implicit in a work of art. It is impassioned and stimulating. It is beholden to no one.
Eventually blogs ran out of puff: you can only work without payment for so long. Newspapers took over blogging culture and tamed it, filtering out the eccentricities and individualities that made it unique and exciting. No newspaper in Australia has ever fostered the kind of expansive critical discussion that characterised that era. Even online newspapers such as the Guardian Australia, with no pressure on space, enforce word limits and star ratings, reducing the possibility of nuanced responses to brutal product reviews. The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.
This year, as if to emphasise the wider malaise, Australian arts coverage also hit crisis point, as collateral damage in the collapse of traditional media in the digital age. After years of serial redundancies, Fairfax sacked most of its arts journalists. “Sentimentality was thrown in the paper shredder a long time ago,” one Fairfax insider told Crikey journalist Myriam Robin in May. “Arts is no longer a priority. It’s all about what rates online.”
Outside the major dailies, there were other signs of trouble. In July Limelight Magazine, which aimed to be a commercially viable arts journal, sacked its only interstate journalist and later launched a crowdfunding appeal. The ABC’s Arts Online portal, intended by former head of arts Katrina Sedgwick to be a means of combating diminishing nationwide critical coverage, was archived at the beginning of the year, in favour of a video-only arts portal, and for a few months disappeared from public view entirely.
It’s too easy to blame critics for the failure of critical discourse, although as participants in this mess we are as culpable as anyone else. Most critics are genuine art lovers who sweat at a thankless task for very little reward, and even the worst aren’t responsible for the failure of criticism. The failure is systemic. Our critical culture isn’t only written by our critics. It’s the wider discourse we see in our media, our government, our cultural and educational institutions. It’s the discourse that determines what is possible, what we aspire to, what is visible, what is allowed to be spoken.
There’s so much that’s rendered invisible.
It is difficult to address a lack of imagination. How do we see absence?
I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France. The room is cool, peaceful, austerely beautiful: a space designed for contemplation. In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.
I feel as if I have fallen into a parallel universe. As one of the largest and oldest monasteries in France, La Chartreuse is a tourist attraction, but it has a double life as a major cultural institution. I’m in residence with around 20 other writers and theatre artists as a guest of the CNES, all of us here to develop works for theatre. We’re a motley bunch: as well as writers from all over France, residents this year include writers from Syria, Benin, Algeria and Israel.
Beyond providing mental and physical space, the institution has rich resources. The La Chartreuse library holds the largest collection of theatre texts in Europe, and the bookshop – again devoted to theatre – is open every day. There are rehearsal rooms and sound studios, and regular readings, performances and lectures take place in its 250-seat theatre. Around 60 writers and theatre companies come to La Chartreuse every year.
Trying to imagine a similar cultural institution in Australia – a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre – is an interesting exercise. The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.
France isn’t immune from the global trend of cutting cultural budgets. Here, as elsewhere, there is gloom about the future. But even so, the CNES represents an investment in artistic creation that in contemporary Australia would be considered all but scandalous.
But why is such a place so unimaginable? It’s not a question of relative wealth: in the same table that ranks us as the 15th richest country in the world, France comes in at 25. And as Ben Eltham pointed out earlier this year in a Platform Paper, the Coalition government recently spent half a billion dollars on a massive cultural celebration of Anzac with no one batting an eyelid.
Despite the idyllic setting, the work that is nourished at La Chartreuse speaks of a passionate engagement with the contemporary world. One of the visual art exhibitions on show here demonstrates this clearly. Called Je ne suis plus personne (I’m No One Anymore), it’s a collaboration between poet and playwright Omar Youssef Souleimane, who was forced to flee Syria in 2012, and French artist Dorothée Clauss.
It’s displayed like street art, as big posters throughout the monastery, popping up unexpectedly on walls and pillars, in medieval fireplaces and gardens. Souleimane’s lyric poems about war, exile and loss, printed in French and Arabic, are complemented by Clauss’ delicately devastating ink and watercolour drawings. A poem and image on the Syrian civil war, The Wounds of Evening, is the first thing you see as you walk into La Chartreuse. In the context of rising right-wing racism in contemporary French politics, the impact of seeing Arabic script at the entrance to a historically Catholic space is profound.
It says many things about La Chartreuse. This, it says, is a place where political engagement meets our common humanity. In this place, injustice and suffering may be acknowledged and protested, and the urgency and complexity of our times may be contemplated and addressed. Here our desire for understanding and connection and beauty may be fed, even in the midst of horror.
This, it says, is what art is for.