JUDITH WHITE. Cultural recovery in a globalised world

With international travel at a standstill, arts organisations are grappling with the dilemma of future programming. There is no lack of local work to showcase – but what about international connections?

Arts festivals are in crisis because of the pandemic. One proposal favoured by the Adelaide Review’s Walter Marsh is that for 2021, they could simply use the backlog of COVID-delayed Australian works. “Allowing these orphaned works to fill the hole of overseas programming – and redirecting money otherwise spent on airfares and big-ticket international draws to an ambitious program of new Australian commissions – would provide an immediate and much-needed stimulus to our cultural sector,” he writes. (The Guardian 21 May)

Well, if COVID-19 is not under control worldwide by next year, this may be a matter of necessity. But it must go hand-in-hand with finding sustainable ways to stay connected internationally.

Indisputably, there is a host of local talent to showcase, and a wealth of stories to be told – indigenous stories especially. Australia, warned writer Richard Flanagan at the Garma festival two years ago, “will fail as a nation if it cannot find a way of admitting our Indigenous people, and with them, our continent’s extraordinary patrimony: 60,000 years of civilisation”.

But Flanagan at the same time gave the global context for this necessity, with the warning: “The world is being undone before us. History is once more moving, and it is moving to fragmentation on the basis of concocted differences, toward the destruction of democracy using not coups and guns to entrench autocracies and dictators, but the ballot box and social media.”

The arts in all their forms explore truths; and neither art nor truth know borders, which is why today’s democratically elected autocrats seek to entrench us behind a narrow nationalism to which the arts must never give way.

Six years ago playwright Andrew Bovell gave an impassioned keynote speech to the National Play Festival held at Sydney’s now-troubled Carriageworks. He spoke of “our argument for the soul of the nation” and affirmed: “I as an Australian playwright am up for the fight.”

The inspiration for his speech, he said, was the 2005 Nobel Lecture by English playwright Harold Pinter, Art, Truth and Politics. While acknowledging the complexities of the search for truth in art, Pinter said it was essential “as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives,” and launched into an uncompromising denunciation of the United States’ role in the world and British complicity in it.

No culture in the world exists in national isolation. Culture in modern Australia, even as the land’s ancient civilisation finds new means of expression, is unimaginable without the effort to understand the world we live in. It’s also unimaginable without the influence of the world’s finest artists and storytellers, without the dramatic tradition going back to Shakespeare and Sophocles, without classical and contemporary music, without Asian and European art. And it demands that artists be able to express their truths free of political constraint.

While we wait for international travel to resume, we should find ways to connect through the new technologies which up to now have been so largely controlled by giant corporations. Nothing can ever replace the intensity of live performance, the immediacy of connection between players and audience. But online performance has a global reach which is now a part of our future, and we should embrace it.

For some years now leading international companies in theatre, opera and ballet have promoted ticketed screenings of filmed performances in our cinemas. Since social distancing began Australian companies, large and small, have broadcast a wonderful array of work online, most of it free. That of course brings in no revenue for either companies or performers.

Another model being pioneered by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, for one, is to stream performances online for a modest ticket price, which goes in its entirety to the artists – and it’s magic for those of us who live at a distance from major cities.

Declan Greene, the young new artistic director of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company, is one of many thinking of such new ways to connect. The pandemic, he told The Saturday Paper (23 May), offers “an opportunity to renegotiate some of the fundamentals of our relationships with our audiences … Work built for live-streaming is built for pretty much anyone. You don’t have to leave your house to experience it at all. So, if you can figure out a way to create the appetite for it, it could foreseeably be much cheaper to access. The internet is everybody’s space. It’s like making public art. It’s for everybody.”

Why not, then, take online ticketed events a step further? A publicly-funded Australian streaming service, set up to operate at arm’s length from government interference, could channel filmed performance and arts events from across the country, bring them into our homes at a reasonable price – and also take our 60,000 years’ worth of stories to the world. It would act as a collection agency to remit the online ticketing revenue to the originating companies and artists, and could also facilitate connections between local organisations and their counterparts overseas.

Together with financial support for struggling organisations, and local content quotas for overseas-owned streaming services, it could help to put the arts front and centre of Australia’s pandemic recovery and of our global future.

Discussion welcome.

Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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