Alison Croggon
The campaign to destroy the arts

Art has always drawn its share of opprobrium from authorities, but never more than when the poor are seen to enjoy it. The moralisers of 18th-century England – the same England that invaded the great southern continent to establish a penal colony – produced some nostrums that endure to this day.

One of the first moral panics – repurposed over the centuries with the introduction of film, television and video games – concerned the ruinous effect of novels. “Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels,” a 1796 columnist wrote in the newsletter Sylph. “The depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books.”

Young people and the poor, as always, caused as much concern as women: the youth of the 18th century made Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther a bestseller, reportedly prompting a wave of copycat suicides, and it was banned by authorities for decades. In 1751, the British parliament passed the Disorderly Houses Act, which sought to legislate against “the lower Sort of People” who are “tempted to spend their small Substance in riotous Pleasures”. The mere purchase of a theatre ticket by a working-class person was seen as a sign of financial recklessness that amounted to criminality.

It was a sentiment echoed in Botany Bay by Reverend Richard Johnson, who in 1788 recorded that the people of the colony “prefer their Lust before their Souls”, haunting brothels and theatres rather than places of “publick worship”. This introduced a long history of conflict between theatre impresarios and the colonial authorities who sought to close them down. Since then, many people in Australian public life have made a special virtue of degrading the arts, creating a tradition of anti-intellectualism that starves and mocks the very idea of creativity.

For state and religious authorities, art has often been the enemy. It’s easy to see why. Art tends to be anti-authoritarian. It argues against the simplistic. It opens possibilities. It values freedom. It imagines. Worst of all, it destabilises the idea of authority itself.

And yet these same authorities desire the power and prestige of this work for themselves, as adornment and legitimisation. Western culture is to a large degree the story of revolutionary art – Milton and Wordsworth, Beethoven, the Impressionists, the Surrealists – being tamed for the comfortable classes and then used to beat down the new avant-garde.

Nevertheless, in the post-World War II West, state funding became a crucial part of making art culturally and economically accessible. In Europe even now, subsidies mean that any punter can see companies such as Pina Bausch for as little as €15; the same tickets here can set you back $150. Subsidies overseas have secured well-resourced arts education and well-staffed and -stocked libraries in public schools, not just for private school students.

Australian authorities often like to keep art for the few, drawing a line between “legitimate” art for the respectable classes versus the unruly, experimental, different and new. We saw this mechanism in the notorious 2016 raid on the Australia Council for the Arts by then Arts minister George Brandis. He took $105 million from its discretionary funds – the money that is specifically used to finance independent artists and companies, which represent both the bulk and the originatory imagination of Australian culture – for his National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA).

The aim was to move arts funding away from the Australia Council’s public accountability and peer assessment and into the personal remit of the minister, where it could be comfortably used to fund “mainstream” arts. Brandis was reportedly shocked by the response of the arts community, which rose in a united body and explained at length, in thousands of pages of submissions and weeks of hearings, that no mainstream culture can be vital if it doesn’t have the independent arts to nurture and explore new ideas. In the end, NPEA gave back some of the money and the Liberal–National Coalition went back to its furtive shaving of the culture budget.

And then came the pandemic. What’s happened in its wake has the feeling of a coup. Last month’s punitive federal budget is another dark chapter in the long struggle between art and authority. The targeted vindictiveness expressed towards those the Morrison government considers its ideological enemies is startling.

Over the next four years, for example, the Australian Human Rights Commission will see its budget cut by more than a third. Public schools will have half-a-billion dollars clawed out of their budgets, while private schools receive a $2.6 billion boost. Meanwhile, spending on climate change – the gravest crisis of our time – will fall over the next four years to a pathetic 0.2 per cent of total expenditure.

Among the biggest losers are, of course, public arts and cultural bodies. This year’s budget represents a massive cut of 20 per cent, largely driven by the end of the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund, the federal government’s tardy and opaque pandemic assistance scheme.

There are further ongoing cuts, none of which are mitigated by a modest rise in the Australia Council’s budget. The Australian Music Industry Package – established in 2019 to support contemporary musicians – will vanish by 2025, while support for regional arts is halved. Funding for Indigenous Arts, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia and the National Museum of Australia all fall substantially. And so on.

These blunt numbers represent a catastrophe for major cultural institutions, which were already punch-drunk after a decade of continuous cuts, even before the pandemic hit their bottom lines. The National Library warned in 2016, for example, that the ongoing – and publicly invisible – “efficiency dividends” were now eating into its core operations, making it all but impossible for it to do its mandated job.

As with Australia’s tertiary institutions, which were denied JobKeeper assistance and consequently lost 40,000 jobs over the pandemic, the Morrison government took an opportunistic approach to pandemic relief for the arts, seeking to restructure how and where funding was directed. Covid-19 was used as a chance to further control whose work gets support.

The $200 million RISE Fund was administered solely by Paul Fletcher’s Office of the Arts in the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, evading the accountability and transparency required by Australia Council funding.

Although many well-known arts organisations benefited from RISE grants, Fletcher said he made a “conscious decision” to support the private profits of commercial companies, with large-scale musicals and events featuring strongly in the list of recipients. Among the larger grants were two to Ryan McNaught, totalling $1.4 million, for his LEGO spectaculars, and $1.35 million for a Guns N’ Roses tour. This money was unavailable to individual artists and smaller arts organisations, who were also the hardest hit by Covid-19.

The future effects of this cumulative crisis – on our collective cultural endeavour, on Australian cultural memory and history – are incalculable. So much is already lost – not only the organisations that have gone by the wayside since 2013, not only the artists who have finally given up the struggle, but all the future possibility that has been crushed.

The arts have made their case, again and again, for their place in the economy as a multibillion-dollar industry. Yes, the culture industry employs many more people than mining does. Yes, in 2016 – the most recent figures available – the total cultural and creative workforce was 868,098 people, or 8.1 per cent of the total Australian workforce, and the industry was worth $111 billion to the economy, or 6.4 per cent of gross domestic product.

This happens to be true, but this argument was inevitably used against the arts – witness the LEGO funding. One thing that became very clear during the Brandis era is that economic justifications for culture hold no water for governments that are less interested in social good than in ideologically reforming society into their own image. And in defending culture’s economic worth – an unfortunate necessity in the face of constant bad faith claims that it’s an expensive indulgence – many lost sight of the fact that art represents an entirely different kind of value.

It’s easy to understand why Morrison’s government hates – it’s not too strong a word – the idea of lively, critical, various, groundbreaking art. But we’re yet to see what Labor offers as an alternative: arts is a signal absence among their first tranche of announcements, although they include increased funding for public broadcasting.

Shadow Arts minister Tony Burke said late last year that Labor would reinstate a culture policy – perhaps something like the return of 2019’s ill-fated Creative Australia – and undertake better protection for gig workers, and that Labor planned to reverse the Morrison government’s suspension of cultural quotas on Australian-made television and its attacks on the Australia Council. However, beyond motherhood statements about the value of the arts, there is little sign that extra money will be invested to address the ruinous neglect of previous governments, including the ALP.

In the larger scheme, arts budgets are, as a bureaucrat once memorably noted, a rounding error. It’s a measure of its values that this government has spent countless billions ensuring human suffering – imprisoning asylum seekers, making dodgy weapons purchases and propping up the dying and deadly fossil fuel industry – but can barely spare a crumb for Australian artists.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "The campaign to destroy the arts".

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