JUDITH WHITE. Whatever happened to Whitlam’s vision for the arts?

Mar 5, 2020

In 1972 Gough Whitlam’s election campaign promised “to promote a standard of excellence in the arts, to widen access to, and the understanding and application of, the arts in the community generally, to help establish and express an Australian identity through the arts and to promote an awareness of Australian culture abroad”.

It worked. Whitlam’s achievements in the arts remain legendary – properly funding the Australia Council, with boards drawn from the arts; making a reality of the National Gallery of Australia, and empowering founding director James Mollison to build its collection; boosting the local film industry and energising the ABC.

Together with access to free tertiary education these measures launched an era of exceptional creativity. Cate Blanchett for one, speaking at Whitlam’s 2014 memorial, cited them as the springboard for her own career.

Yet almost five decades on from “It’s Time”, there is profound unease across the sector, as organisations face wave after wave of spending cuts and talented young people struggle to find a way in to training and education.

So what happened to Whitlam’s vision for the arts, the vision to elevate the cultural level of the whole of Australian society?

Neoliberalism happened, that’s what. Embraced by the governments of Margaret “there’s no such thing as society” Thatcher in the UK and Ronald “evil empire” Reagan in the US, the doctrine of rampant individualism and the supremacy of market forces spread like a stain in the 1980s. It was lapped up by Wall Street and its global counterparts, and promoted by the mainstream media, first and foremost the Murdoch corporation. It invaded university faculties and management schools, and it became the unchallengeable doctrine of the leadership of major political parties of every persuasion.

The Liberal Party has taken it to extremes, with disastrous results. Nothing better expresses conservative contempt for the idea of “culture for the people” than the Morrison government’s abolition in December 2019 of a dedicated Department of Communications and the Arts. This is a government that didn’t even bother to take a cultural policy to the election: its policy for the masses appeared to be beer, pies and footy, laced with dog-whistling patriotism.

No wonder many in the arts welcomed Bill Shorten’s arts policy. At least he had one. It echoed former PM Paul Keating’s Creative Nation call: “We seek to preserve our culture because it is fundamental to our understanding of who we are…”

But in the reconsideration of policy following last year’s election, it’s important to examine what has happened to the sector since the 1980s. Regrettably, it was the Hawke government, keen to be seen as responsible managers of capitalism, that introduced the lamentably-named “efficiency dividend” that has done so much damage to cultural institutions. To keep public spending down, this policy mandated annual budget cuts to the budgets of federal organisations. They were then obliged to make up the shortfall by cutting frontline jobs and chasing sponsorship and philanthropy, skewing them away from service to the public and towards a corporate model.

Scott Morrison’s government and its Coalition predecessors have turned this tendency into a campaign of financial vandalism and political expediency. While institutions vital to our heritage have their budgets slashed, half a billion is found for extensions to the Australian War Memorial and millions more are currently being spent on commemorations of the first landing of the Yorkshire adventurer, Captain Cook – all to serve the conservative narrative of what Australia is.

So great has become the financial pressure on vital national institutions that in February 2020 National Library director-general Marie-Louise Ayres attempted to justify slashing its publishing program on the grounds that it’s “unprofitable”. Since when was heritage supposed to be about profit?

Financial pressures and the stacking of boards by the Liberals’ political appointees have combined to distort the very purpose of heritage institutions. It’s the ultimate irony that in February, when the High Court rejected historian Jenny Hocking’s attempt to gain the release of letters between the Queen and Governor-General John Kerr relating to the 1975 Dismissal, lawyers for the monarchy were paid not by Buck House but by the National Archives of Australia – whose mission is to “hold the memory of our nation”.

It seems to fall increasingly to writers, artists and academics to defend both the memory and the conscience of the nation. It’s notable that the most eloquent condemnation of the Morrison government’s attitude to climate change has come not from the federal Opposition but from artists: from writer Richard Flanagan for example, and from performer Tim Minchin whose YouTube video on the subject details how governments of both sides of politics have failed to rise to the challenge.

The arts are indeed “fundamental to our understanding of who we are” and it’s in the arts, more than in the major parties, that we find recognition of First Nations peoples, awareness of the existential crisis of climate change, rejection of the demonisation of asylum seekers, acceptance of diversity and concern about social inequality.

To harness the talents and energies of artists, to create a movement with the momentum of the 1972 campaign, requires a vision that puts people and society before profit and corporate lobbying. It has never been more urgent, but so far there is little sign of such a vision coming from the leadership of Anthony Albanese.

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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