Defending the arts from Brandis’s elitist populism

The creative logic of George Brandis

George Brandis is struggling to sell the new changes to arts funding outlined in the 2015-16 federal budget. Last Friday hundreds of artists around Australia took to the streets to dance against the proposed changes, which include transferring $104.5 million over four years from the Australia Council to the establishment of a new, ministry-controlled, ‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’. There are now a number of petitions from the unions, The Greens, and the Labor Party, and an open letter was recently published in Overland, signed by hundreds of leading Australian artists, arts workers and public intellectuals, calling on Brandis to drop the changes.

Why is it such a hard sell? Perhaps it is because artists, despite what some may believe, are great bullshit detectors.

The decision seems to rest on a number of contradictory arguments, virtuosic in their double-speak:

  1. Firstly, there is Brandis’ argument that having two bodies for arts funding simply has to be better than one. Brandis put on his exasperated face: “I can’t see for the life of me … what is wrong with there being contestability so there are two funding streams.” As Keith Gallasch has pointed out, the logic is a strange application of the ‘neo-liberal’ defence of competition, but instead of government providing the framework for competition in the private sector, now a brandismeme1government body will ‘compete’ against another government body with a high degree of
    crossover. Bureaucratic double-up and all the confusion of this arrangement will neither produce more ‘efficiency’, nor more ‘diversity’, nor higher ‘quality’, nor even more ‘consumer satisfaction’, as apparently free competition is supposed to (yet, of course, rarely does…).
  1. The fact that this idea is so patently absurd indicates that it surely cannot be the actual purpose of these changes. To make it work, Brandis has to rely on the demonisation of artists and by extension art bureaucrats, couched in a kind of libertarian language condemning OzCo as a ‘monopoly’, and even (in an interesting use of Cold War-sounding rhetoric) an ‘iron wall’. (I mean, who doesn’t hate Stalinist monopolies?).Through a variety of public statements, Brandis has made his line of logic clear: a) through peer-review, artists become too self-serving and only support themselves and their stupid out-of-touch ‘contemporary’ (not to mention ‘political’) art that no one likes; b) artists should make art that ‘audiences’ enjoy, ‘art for art’s sake’; c) the Ministry is the best at determining what audiences enjoy, since it is impartial, not like the artists themselves or the art bureaucrats. This identification between people and state is a logical non-sequitor if you believe in democracy, but perfectly rational from the point of view of a hopeless conservative.

    This is the populist sales-pitch for the change. Of course the fact that it pushes funding further away from accountability makes clear that it is populist in rhetoric only. Moreover, that Brandis’s favoured institutions are the elite institutions such as Opera Australia (who was “delighted” with the changes) and Australian Ballet, kind of gives the game away. The logic, again, is a masterpiece of contradiction: Brandis wants to break the ‘monopoly’ of the Australia Council (thus of the degree of artist control of artist affairs) in order to increase the monopoly of the traditional art institutions over the Australian cultural field.

  2. This is starting to get closer to the truth. But of course it goes deeper. It has been pointed out, that following the Sydney Biennale boycott in 2014, it is clear that Brandis is keen to stop any similar embarrassments from happening again. While this has not been part of the official rhetoric of the current change, it nonetheless provides a subtext. Again it involves a strange kind of populism for the elites: Artists are made out to be so self-serving and obsessed with their art that nobody likes, that they would reject the goodwill of our business elites no matter how heinous their crimes. As Brandis commented: “At a time when government funding for the arts is, like all demands upon the budget, under pressure, it is difficult to justify funding for an arts festival which has announced to its principal private partner that it would prefer not to receive its financial support.” Who are artists to bite the hand that feeds them?

‘Contestability’, breaking ‘monopolies’, art for ‘audiences’, artistic ‘responsibility’, and so on. There’s our double-speak. But what is the real meaning of these changes then? It is clear that they are neither about supporting Australia’s cultural growth, but nor are they about budget savings (a euphemism for austerity in any case). These changes are about controlling the arts, reducing their scope, and not allowing artists to dissent to what is an increasingly inhuman Australia.

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It might be news to a lot of Aussie artists, but the Australian arts community (particularly that outside of the mainstream) poses a potential threat, and this threat needs to be contained. Australian artists these days hardly tend to be revolutionary anti-capitalists (oh if it were only true!), but on the whole they are against the torture of refugees, against the cultural genocide of Aboriginal people, against the fossil fuel industry, and so on. Brandis doesn’t only want to make it more difficult for these artists to access funding, he wants to mobilise a whole set of artist-bashing tropes to help hive off these ‘leftist’ ideas from the rest of the population, make them seem like the fantasies of a specific cultural elite, out of touch with the majority.

Of course, we artists shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, we are not particularly special in this respect: controlling art is just one part of an overall increase in the surveillance state, crackdown on unions and protest groups, and general fear-mongering. The ultimate strategy? Continue the destruction of Australia’s welfare state in support of big business, distract with racist hysteria, and hound any opposition before it becomes a real threat.

Defending the arts

While the bulk of the changes do not amount to cuts as such, they do amount to a very substantial reduction of the funds that will be available to experimental arts, emerging arts, small companies, community arts, and so on. The very places where this left-liberal artistic milieu predominates. Moreover, despite Brandis’s assurances, such a change to the funding structure is more than likely the thin edge of the wedge and prefigures deep cuts in the future, or a larger raid on OzCo in favour of direct Ministerial control. (One particularly farcical article in the Daily Telegraph has questioned the validity of arts funding at all). Therefore, in opposing these current changes, we should put forward a clear defence of not just independent, but arts funding tout court. Yet it needs to be one that doesn’t dig us deeper into the trap of appearing ‘elitist’. How?

  1. Our first line of argument should be both defensive, and militant. We should say straight up that while the government is committed to spending 9 billion dollars on new warships, 10 billion dollars on fossil fuel subsidies each year, and eight billion dollars on torturing refugees, then arts funding should in no way be under the axe. We should not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of arguing for a bigger slice of the pie for arts at the expense of other (legitimate) parts of the pie (e.g. healthcare, education, welfare, foreign aid, etc). We should demand a bigger pie for everything that is good for ordinary Australians. That means reducing expenditure on destructive endeavours and increasing taxation on the wealthiest in Australia.
  2. Next, of course, is the defence of OzCo. The Australia Council does not in fact fund just one type of art, one approach. It actually funds quite a wide range of different approaches to theatre, dance, music, visual arts, mixed media, etc, some more ‘popular’ in their approach, others more ‘classical’, and still others more ‘avant-guard’. I have been through grant programs alongside both experimental theatre companies and rock singer-songwriters, for instance. While artists generally like to complain about how so-and-so got a grant instead of them, or how a particular approach seems ‘in vogue’ with the reviewers now and then, in general OzCo cannot be accused of being too narrow in its approach. No doubt, improvements could be made (especially with more funding), but this will come from greater artist input, and Brandis’s solution is not a solution at all.
  3. On the broader level, art itself needs to be defended. To borrow from radical economist Michael Lebowitz, we could say that art, ultimately, is about the ‘real human development’ of everyone in our society. It is about the refinement (and sometimes radical subversion or overturning) of the way we see ourselves and the world, but also simply about the development of our five senses, so that we may experience more, more fully, and more openly. This should not just be for a privileged few, but for all. Yet the current structure of our society means that the majority of Australian’s don’t have the time or emotional or intellectual energy to engage wholeheartedly in the arts (from either working too many hours, or having only stressful, precarious employment). Art is hived off from the majority of the population, who are told that it isn’t for them.Against this, the ultimate goal is not the development of art for its own sake, nor for the benefit of a tiny community of intellectuals, but the development of art so that the whole of humanity can live a more dignified and stimulating life. The development of each artist and their art, no matter how esoteric, no matter how popular, is therefore not in contradiction to the needs of ordinary Australians. It is part of an overall vision of a better Australia, one where human flourishing is the goal, and not the blind service of profit. More funding, more access, more education, less stressful and time-poor lives for all Australians – these are what the arts in Australia needs. Brandis’s changes take us in the opposite direction. We are right to demand these things, just as workers are right to demand better wages, as communities are right to say no to Coal Seam Gas, as First Nations Australians are right to say no to the forced closures of Aboriginal communities, or demand bigger taxes on the rich.
  4. More specifically, we need to defend the little guys. Supporting the big institutions does not in general ‘trickle down’ to the smaller arts practitioners (‘small-to-medium’ organisations, they are called in the industry). There are isolated examples to the contrary, such as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s recent QSOCurrent performances, which my ensemble Kupka’s Piano along with other small-to-medium groups was fortunate enough to be hosted by. But by and large funding for the big institutions stays in the big institutions.A culture of art that is dynamic, engaged, exciting, and dare I drop the ‘innovative’ buzzword, all this demands feeding not the giants, but the ants. Supporting smaller arts companies and emerging artists, community art programs, experimental projects. Supporting arts education and training. All this feeds into a broader, more engaged, more accessible, more diverse arts community. Programs like JUMP mentorship program (of which I was a recipient) and ArtStart were excellent in that they gave emerging artists the possibility to develop their approach outside of the framework of institutions, which, while in some senses necessary, can also be conservative and slow moving.
  5. Yes, most of the art funded by the Australia council is not commercially viable in its own right. But that holds true for many of the big institutions as well (and think of the multi-billion dollar incentives to the fossil fuel companies to prop up this antiquated industry!). Art, whether conservative or hypermodern, relies on government funding. This should not be seen as a bad thing. Art suggests to us other ways of living, ones outside of dependence on the market and the logic of profit. But nor should it be dependent on the favour of politicians of any dimension, which is why an independent body like OzCo is so important.

As the example of the campaign against the East-West Link in Victoria shows us, people-powered campaigns can win against destructive government policies in this day and age. These new funding changes can be defeated. Australian artists have valiantly jumped into the fray, but they will need to keep the pressure up, not just through petitions and letter writing, but also through broad grassroots actions. (This might take some artists beyond their comfort zones, but aren’t artists supposed to be adventurous?)

In doing so, Australian artists should appeal not just to their own interests, but point out how the interests of the arts community are in fact in line with the interests of all Australians, even those who might think what many of us do is a load of wank.

Sign the petition here.

Read the open letter to George Brandis here.

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