JUDITH WHITE. Save the arts, save the nation

Apr 2, 2020

As the Federal Government rolls out one bailout package after another, the arts is being ignored. ‘Culture Heist’ author Judith White argues that saving the arts is integral to saving the nation.

“Culture is not just a luxury that is delivered during the good times,” said German Culture Minister Monika Grütters in announcing her government’s coronavirus bailout package for the arts on 25 March. “Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation. The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis.”

The amount of the targeted bailout? $95.5 billion (50 billion euros) plus housing assistance and six months’ social security for freelancers.

The amount of the targeted bailout for the arts so far announced by the Morrison government? Zilch! $0 out of a total of $217 billion in economic stimulus to date. (The federally funded Australia Council has set aside $5 million from its constantly slashed budget.)

That’s despite urgent pleas from cultural organisations, arts and entertainment union MEAA and Live Performance Australia. Academics for the arts have also weighed in: “Australia’s cultural future is now as much at stake as the livelihoods of its artists and musicians,” said their 24 March open letter with more than 100 signatories.

On 27 March an impressive coalition of creative organisations sent all levels of government a letter detailing the damage the coronavirus lockdown is doing to artists, organisations and First Nations cultural activities. It outlined practical steps that include broadening eligibility requirements for income support and removing the hated efficiency dividend (recurrent spending cuts) from cultural bodies. The 100 signatories range from the Artists’ Benevolent Fund to Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative; organisations representing musicians, performers, writers and filmmakers, public museums and galleries. The letter concluded by inviting government to make a public statement recognising the value of the sector to all Australians.

From the Prime Minister’s office: silence. It’s not the economic issue that deters him – it’s well documented that the cultural sector is worth more than $112 billion annually to the country’s economy. But the “creative courage of creative people”, cited by Germany’s Culture Minister, is something Scott Morrison instinctively fears. Clinging to his dumbed down concept of “Straya”, repeating his ill-defined mantra of “Australian values”, he knows that his dog-whistling, beer-and-footy brand of populism is threatened by the arts. In song and story and image, creative people have long been the ones to express the truths of our society and our history.

Truth is at a premium when it comes to history. No doubt part of the reason the Germans are so far ahead in assistance for culture is that in recent decades they have squarely confronted the demons of their history. This is not a left versus right issue, under Chancellor Angela Merkel the ruling Christian Democrats are committed to continuing to do so.

At government level, Australia has yet to confront its own demons. This month highlights the divisions over the country’s history and in particular its invasion by the British colonisers. On 29 April 2020 it will be 250 years since the British navigator and adventurer James Cook landed at Kurnell in what is now Scott Morrison’s electorate.

Back when he was Treasurer, Morrison committed $50 million to celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the event. As PM he has upped the sum to more than $60 million, claiming that Cook “gets a bit of a bad show from some of those who like to sort of talk down our history”. This echoes his position on Australia Day remaining 26 January, which he calls the day “our modern Aus [sic] nation began” – an insult to the First Nations people for whom both 1770 and 1788 are painful dates.

Before the corona-virus hit, 29 April was scheduled to be the occasion for major celebrations, not least in Morrison’s electorate, where millions have been spent erecting yet another memorial to Cook at Kurnell. Those celebrations should now, surely, be cancelled, along with the planned circumnavigation of Australia by the replica of the Endeavour on which a further $6.7 million has been spent.

Morrison has a peculiar relationship with boats. On his desk in Canberra there is a model of an asylum-seeker boat bearing the legend “I stopped these”. Boats bearing refugees are to be stopped, apparently, rather than boats bearing corona-virus. The irony of the PM’s Endeavour project is that of course Cook never did circumnavigate Australia, any more than he landed here in 1788 as former Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie once claimed. In 1779 the acclaimed Captain was killed by indigenous people in Hawaii where he was attempting to kidnap their king. Hawaii is not on the proposed route of the fake Endeavour.

There is a much better way than the Captain Cook circus to elevate the spirits of the nation during the present health crisis, and that would be to establish the Makarrata Commission requested by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their 2017 Statement from the Heart.

Makarrata is defined as “the coming together after a struggle” and would involve the truth-telling that is essential to reconciliation. And without truth and reconciliation, we cannot speak of a genuine Australian culture.

It’s increasingly clear that there can be no going back to “normal” after the corona-virus is contained. There is a growing demand for government that works for the people, not for the wealthy few. Establishing a Makarrata commission would be an essential part of that. It would give hope to First Nations people, and energise the entire country, lifting it out of the morass of dog-eat-dog profit-seeking and lowest-common-denominator politics.

Together with the necessary support for the cultural sector, it would provide the impetus for a new outpouring of work from artists, musicians and writers, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. In these dark days, we need to support creative people. We need them to tell our stories and give us back heart.

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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