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.


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.



Badiou nails it: Individual and collective

This recent short interview with Badiou is really excellent.

Not simply because he clarifies that an event “is a dialectical category,” in a sense resulting (albeit in an unforeseeable way) from the crystallisation of phenomena in the situation. Also not just because he makes this startling statement: “the organisation we need can’t just be an insurrectionary combat organisation, but must also allow for a new way of managing the state across a long transition period,” which is seemingly a long way away from his espoused ‘politics at a distance from the state’, even if he is still totally opposed to a bureaucratic or ‘statist’ socialism.

It is also awesome because it very neatly summarises the relationship between the individual and collective in a proper idea of communism:

Emancipation is the emancipation of all humanity; and humanity entails a vast range of differences, which will still continue to exist. There will still be men and women; there will still be Finnish speakers and Anglophones; there will even still be different jobs, even if we aim at versatility; and so on. Communism has to be a vision that incorporates such differences and, at the same time, affirms a universal community even within each of them. I would say that communism is not necessarily an identity; it’s not an identity that envelops all the other identities, but rather a movement, a new form of coexistence and commonality among all that is different.

On a musical level, my basic thesis would be this: this idea of communism also provides the ideological starting point for a contemporary idea of counterpoint. Replace ‘women’ and ‘men’ with ‘violins’ and ‘tubas’ (random examples, I’m not essentialising), and replace ‘Finnish speakers and Anglophones’ with ‘post-tonal pitch construction and folk-derived harmonies’ and ‘different jobs’ could be ‘different relationship to the metre’, or whatever – do that, and you’re getting a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to get at musically. A unification of musical lines that does not negate their identities – thus a counterpoint.

Of course, it is complicated, not just because one has to use a lot of imagination to work out the musical techniques and forms that would accord with this idea, but also because in my view an artistic rendering of this idea must take account of its current absence and its current status as a struggle. But that’s a refinement of the basic idea, it hardly negates it.

Music, politics, government: truth procedures and their linkages

It occurs to me now that I haven’t written a blog post for over a month. That’s largely because I have been knuckling down finishing piece for solo piano and tape for Alex Raineri. But, now that that is finished, I have a lot I want to rant about on this blog: the medieval motet and counterpoint in early music, composing my piano piece, ideas for my new pieces, more on Ferneyhough’s approach, OpenMusic software, etc. So expect all that pretty soon. But for now, I just want to take up (again) the music-politics relation, and move outwards from there to the relationship between truth procedures and government.

This is all just thinking out loud, so don’t hold me to any of this, and apologies for its sprawling length. Nonetheless, I feel there’s something in the below line of thinking…

François Nicolas recently gave a presentation at a conference in Tunisia on music and politics (which he kindly sent to me). In this he spoke about the need to recognise the irreducibility of art to politics and vice versa and what it means to be both a musician and a political militant, to live in this divided space. It helped me to clarify some thoughts and frustrations I’ve been having for a while. If you read French and want a copy of this paper, let me know, and I’ll send it to you. If not, well, hopefully I’ll translate it soon, and post it here.

Anyway, I find myself agreeing (increasingly, again) with both Nicolas (and Badiou, the philosopher with whom he has worked for many decades) that music and politics represent distinct ‘truth procedures’ (the best introduction to this is, of course, Ethics). The relative autonomy of the one to the other is nothing new or particularly interesting, but what I’m curious about is the idea, that Nicolas makes explicit, that to draw proper links between the two procedures, on condition of their irreducibility, you need to be ‘subjectivated’ twice, both as a musician and a political militant, in two different truth procedures.

Accepting this idea, I would add the following ‘liberal’ sounding thesis: political art is not something to be encouraged in and of itself. Political activism is something to be encouraged. Musical (or artistic) commitment, commitment to the development of the ‘art itself’ (a contested idea, to be sure, but one that can be demonstrated in a materialist manner, albeit with a large grey area), should be encouraged on its own terms.

What has always got me about this idea of Badiou’s of artistic truths, is that it seems to let artists off the hook: obsessed with their art and the construction of its truth, the artist participates in a subjective procedure that seems to give them a free pass for ignoring anything that falls outside of this domain. Of course, this more or less Romantic-Modernist reading is just one possible reading of Badiou’s idea, and not a necessary one, but it is one that comes up when people suggest the idea of a self-validating artistic practice, or a truth content to art that is irreducible to anything else.

On the contrary, I would like to affirm (precisely by severing the artist and the art) that being musically subjectivated, for instance, offers no excuse for avoiding political subjectivation. What this means is that musicians should as a human being and not an artist, independently of their art, put themselves to a political cause. That is, they should, just like anyone in any other job (be it nursing or construction or teaching or whatever) should, to the greatest extent possible, take up political activism – daily organising of demonstrations, meetings, strikes, debating positions and tactics, etc, in the service of a political-social cause. What I’m suggesting, therefore, is the totally sensible point that, while art may contain its own truths, an artist as a human being does not therefore live in truth. An artist is not the art-subject; according to Badiou, this is the work. An artist is instead an arts-worker, an economic subject linked in this sense to the political (though not for all that naturally ‘politicised’, far from it).

I often feel composers decide to make ‘political art’ without having entered into a political subject themselves. That is, they take up a political issue because they are interested in politics and have read a bunch of theory about art and politics and think that, by doing their art, they can do some kind of politics. Yet these people often have never organised a demonstration, debated the best demands to take up, held public forums on political issues, tried to build a democratic political organisation, etc etc. What they end up dealing with are political opinions, and not politics. In general, these days, they are reduced to some kind of critical art, all the more powerless both artistically and politically. (Since politics means one thing to them, and another thing to the militant, you can have a conversation with them and completely miss each others’ meanings. A frustrating experience).

I am not suggesting that if one is subjectivated both musically and politically, that then a genuine political art will flow. Not at all. Political art is always difficult and unstable and always changing depending on the conjuncture. But, nonetheless, we can hazard a basic thesis: Without political subjectivation, political music will be insincere and incorrect, without artistic subjectivation, political art will not function as a universal bearer of human development.

Instead of the category of ‘political art’ then, perhaps we need a category for the organic emergence of the political truth procedure into the domain of arts, or the organic formation of (unstable) relations between the two fields.

Switching the arena a little, this goes some way to offering a left government (understood in the anti-capitalist sense) policy on the arts – a revolutionary government should not directly support ‘political art’, but instead support the people’s participation in both political truth procedures and in artistic truth procedures. To be clear: the political truth procedure should make sure that it organises itself on the institutional terrain of the arts (for instance, conservatoires and arts colleges/universities should be sites for organisation of students and lecturers, etc), but this in no way amounts to a take-over of the artistic form itself, which should retain its relative autonomy. At Darmstadt last year, I organised along with some other musicians-militants, an Open Space workshop on ‘Music and Protest’. If I went again, I might well simply organise some workshops on some political topics, since the idea that Darmstadt should be immune to politics or that it should only be taken up as a (never ending) discussion about ‘music and politics’ – this idea should by no means go unchallenged.

All this is quite close, of course, to Trotsky’s position, although I’ll have to return to that and check the specifics… I’m not as convinced anymore of his support for a kind of ‘withering away of the arts’ on condition that all life becomes art, the breakdown of the division of labour, etc. I suppose if that ever took place, it would have to do so organically, and not from the state, and that this would happen in such an unforeseeable future, that it is really not a theoretical issue for today. Yet the historical materialist perspective which locates the emergence of art and its various historical modalities as historical phenomena based (in the final analysis) on particular economic factors (alienation, division of labour, class division, commodification) does provide an important counterweight to reifying the distinction between the ‘artistic’ and the ‘economic’ and, by extension, the ‘artistic’ and the ‘political’ (which is to say that there is something always already economic in art, and something always already political (at least in the sense of ideological) in there too).

Moving on, though, accepting for the moment a relative stability in the present of the distinction between truth procedures, we could draw upon Badiou’s four-fold distinction (no doubt in a way that he would detest) in this broader sphere of left government.

Following the logic so far, the policy of a left government would be to support each of the four truth procedures independently, but not to attempt to take the position, nor encourage any particular way, of uniting them (which would likely result in a Stalinist terror). A left government should support people’s involvement in politics (that is, by increasing civil liberties, taking the side of the people in their struggles, providing resources to people’s organisations, changing school curricula, arresting climate change, etc), in arts (through increased funding, opening up new spaces, expanded education, etc), love (through increased rights for women, LGBTIQ, etc, women’s shelters, challenges to inheritance, undermining the normativity of the family unit, etc – all of which would increase people’s capacity to respond properly to love events), and in science (through funding, education, pulling support from institutions that are anti-science, etc). All this means a left government would be nourishing – through these measures, and through general social policy (i.e. alleviating poverty, etc) – the truth procedures already underway, not usurping them, and not forcing a state ideology of their unification. Their unification (or better, their various linkages and fusions, themselves transient and subject to change) will come from organic experimentation between people who are subjectivated in two or more of the truth procedures.

(This distinction between government and truth procedures is an interesting one, which I would like to explore some more. It implies also that the party is not in itself a political truth procedure, but merely one expression of it. It somehow brings Badiou and Poulantzas together, who, in his late years, came to believe both that the social movements should be allowed some distance from the party, and that not everything is political. But this is a political question to tease out later).

Back on music and politics: There remains in all of this the problem of popular music or folk music. Are they elements within political truth procedures, or musical events themselves? Badiou (and seemingly François, though I have to check) has no theory of popular musics as sites for truth procedures. He remains rather Eurocentric and elitist when it comes to art. Protest music, for François is part of the political subject, not the musical one. I tend to agree. But what would the conditions of it travelling into a musical subjectivity be? Surely not its taking up of Western art music’s formal qualities and institutional structures. This will be a big challenge to overcome: think of popular musics and art musics in the same way, not as qualitatively different phenomena.

All of this remains meta-level and barely begins to suggest the specific relationships musicians should be forging between music and politics today. Nonetheless, what it does is provide an ethics for the musician-militant (as François calls it). It clarifies that there is no substitute for political action proper, and that there is no substitute for artistic development on its own terms. From a political point of view, it proposes that the institutions of musical production and reproduction first of all should be considered sites of struggle, that is, prior to the conscious entrance of politics into the art form itself. It also suggests that nothing is precluded in linking these two fields of truth, but also that there will never be theory or practice of the relationship between the two, since it will always be a matter of starting at the historical conjuncture of each.

The musical common

I’ve been reading Jodi Dean’s book The Communist Horizon. Mostly I haven’t found it particularly strong, but I am enjoying her section about the ‘common’:

As Albert-László Barabási demonstrates, complex networks follow a powerlaw distribution of links. The item in first place or at the top of a given network has twice as many links as the item in second place, which has more than the one in third and so on, such that there is very little difference among those at the bottom but massive differences between top and bottom. So lots of novels are written. Few are published. Fewer are sold. A very few become bestsellers. Or lots of articles are written. Few are read. The same four are cited by everybody. The idea appears in popular media as the 80/20 rule, the winner-take-all or winner-take-most character of the new economy, and the “long tail.” In these examples, the common is the general field out of which the one emerges. Exploitation consists in efforts to stimulate the creative production of the field in the interest of finding, and then monetizing, the one.

This is more a note to come back to. The main thing I think of is with regard to musical activity and the way voluntary labour by all us little players in the music scene is part of a pool of general human activity which is necessary for the ‘stars’ to emerge… This labour goes completely (or largely) unremunerated. Will think about it further later. I think it has real implications for a socialist policy for the arts.

Emotion and interpellation: Small

While I’m thinking about ‘interpellation‘, here’s an interesting and relevant quote from Christopher Small:

But the emotion that is aroused is not the reason for taking part in the ritual. Rather, it is a sign that the ritual is doing its work, that it is “taking,” that the participant feels at one with the relationships that the ritual has created. (1998, p. 96)