Picking up the pieces in the cultural sector – but where to put them?

Jun 23, 2022
Matthew Clarke's Melbourne Art Tram
The epochal shift is to move art and culture out of ‘industry’ and back into public services, like health and education and welfare. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The recent Federal election was greeted with much relief by the cultural sector, and understandably so. As Tony Burke said in his first speech as Arts Minister: “The nine-year political attack on the arts and entertainment sector is now over. The neglect, the contempt and the sabotage of the previous government has ended.” The culture wars are done, let the cultural policy work begin!

But is it so simple? Do we have the shared thinking and workable tools for a different way of supporting art and culture?

There’s no doubt that elements of the Coalition – including two prime ministers – were vehemently opposed to the arts, which they considered the concern of the metro, ‘woke’ elite. But beneath this, ministers George Brandis and Paul Fletcher sought – one ham-fisted, one softly-softly – to increase direct government allocation of arts and cultural funding, and emphasise commercial (popular) over artistic (metro elite) criteria. This was – back of an envelope, seat of the pants – a cultural policy of sorts.

Labor is likely to increase (or restore) funding for the Australia Council and re-affirm the arms’-length principle. What of the other matter, of artistic merit versus commercial returns? This question is not just one from the last nine years, and nor can we neatly map it onto Coalition or Labor.

Labor can point to Whitlam’s establishment of the Australia Council and a massive funding boost, but its last two cultural policy documents are tributes to Keating. In both, art and popular culture, subsidy and commercial vitality, go hand in hand. Culture was a post-industrial industry, helping bring back all those jobs and exports lost from manufacturing. What was good for culture was good for economics, no need to choose. Burke suggested the Coalition recognised neither the cultural nor economic value of the arts. The Coalition’s culture wars against the inner city certainly dragged it in that direction. But Fletcher’s by-passing of the Australia Council with RISE to give directly to a range of popular, as in commercially viable, projects points to what had been happening under-the-radar for some time.

When arts funding hitched itself to an economic, even industrial, wagon in order to get a seat at the Big Policy Table – economic development, innovation, employment and skills – it systemically hollowed out its own value. When its economic bluff was called it stood naked in a cold wind. If you are an industrial powerhouse of growth and innovation, why do you need subsidy? And if you need government ‘investment’, then why should this not go to those projects that are, at least potentially, commercially viable?

The cultural sector embraced the advocacy of ‘industry’ at the same moment the government renounced the idea of nation-building industries – fine for post-war reconstruction, but not for an era of competitive globalisation! Being an industry meant being subject to the same kinds of marketisation and economic metrics as every other industry. So began 25 years of being an industry whilst also asking to be valued for non-industrial reasons. The arts attached themselves to the ‘creative industries’ as engines of innovation, as R&D, as skills development for other more commercial sectors. Advocates used industrial design, footwear manufacture, software development and advertising to bump up the figures – $111 billion – but then demanded that government ‘fund the arts’, which actually contributed only a small fraction of this number.

Perhaps we should we separate these commercially-focused activities from the subsidised arts? But large parts of the ‘creative industries’ are as hand-to-mouth as ‘the arts’. The music industry, for example, is made up of some highly commercial operations fed-by a huge artesian well of self-exploitation, second jobs and burn-out. As a commercial proposition, funds invested in state-based film production companies may be better shifted to green Hydrogen or logistics. We might say the same about computer games, or crafts.

For the truth is, they are culture too. When the Australia Council talks about 98 percent of the population participating in arts and culture, it is these ‘creative industries’ that are the primary suppliers. The real contempt of the Coalition was not for the arts but for publishing, film, television, radio, games and music, which were given the full free market treatment. Over nine years they exposed all these sectors to overseas based platforms and conglomerates, stripping away their protections in face of massive asymmetries of market power. These, with the arts, make up our contemporary culture and delivering them wholesale to a “free market” has done lasting damage. In this ex-IPA member Mitch Fairfield was as bad as Brandis and Fletcher. Handing over the NBN, a nation-building infrastructure par excellence, to the private sector using shoddy technology, whilst allowing the complete re-wiring of our social media for the benefit of US-owned platform companies is a national scandal.

The cultural policy work Burke talked about does not require wonkish tinkering in a Canberra back-office, but an epochal rethinking of the value of art and culture. The problem is not about ‘balance’ but the terms of the equation. We scrutinise cultural value – intrinsic, extrinsic, instrumental, art for art’s sake – but what about the ‘economic’? What kind of economy do we want culture to be a part of? One based on unregulated markets, short-term finance, shareholder-maximisation, tax-evading and extractive corporations, or on skilled labour, with strong rights backed by unions, long-term investment directed by a government with vision, the returns as well as the risks coming to the Australian population not foreign companies.

But there are more fundamental questions to ask about the fetishisation of GDP – as we all now know that GDP does not measure most of the important things, and its simple growth metrics hides accelerating inequality. The challenge to mainstream economics is now itself mainstream. There are calls for a focus on the social foundations, the provision of basic services and infrastructures required for a decent life. To value well-being rather than GDP growth, and distinguish, in a heating world, between good and bad growth. To address the accelerating problems of a hollowed out public administration, under-funded (or semi-privatised) services such as health, education and transport, of the ability to secure reasonably priced food and energy are well known.

The epochal shift is to move art and culture out of ‘industry’ and back into public services, like health and education and welfare. This is not a move into ‘subsidy’ and direct state provision. Health and education are complex mixed economies, involving local and global players. They employ far more people and generate far more economic surplus than the ‘creative industries’ but they are valued (just about) for their contribution to health and education, and not required to show how every dollar in health generates so many dollars in local spending.

Next week I will talk about the Foundational Economy, an idea gaining traction in Australia and around the world. This group of economists and social policy experts argues that for most local and regional economies, employment in infrastructure, services and small-scale local ‘everyday’ business accounts for over 60 percent of the total. Why would the cultural sector align itself with the innovation and hi-tech service sector, which makes up a relatively minor part of a regional economy Why stay stuck in a Jurassic Park of 1990s neoliberal globalisation when they might speak of themselves as part of this large foundational sector.

This is not just culture attaching itself to another economic argument. This alignment gives the cultural sector its public purpose. Why fund arts and culture? Because they are part of our democratic citizenship, alongside health, education, mobility, housing, welfare. Art and culture are mixed economies – many cannot survive without subsidy, many are highly commercial, some are micro, some span the globe. Just like the education and health industries, or other essential services.

The hard work for cultural policy is how best to ensure this sector can bring benefits to its workers, owners, administrators whilst delivering a complex set of services to the multiple needs of Australian citizens. Culture, like health and education, is an economy, but the task is not to maximise its ‘efficiency’ as measured by growth, productivity and profits but to maximise the benefits it brings to all of us. This requires a detailed knowledge of these cultural economies – how does global film work, how might we intervene within it to grow a local film ecology; what kind of platform regulation might work for a country such as Australia; where are market asymmetries and what can we do to level the field; how does a national broadcaster work in an age of streaming?

But above all it involves care. Do all Australians have equal access – to literacy and libraries, to practical participatory creative education? Where are the arts, drama and music teachers, and who teaches them? Where’s the NBN at and how is it delivering to this agenda, for everyone. Ultimately it is down to the question that is at the heart of Burke’s outrage, one many of us share – what kind of country does not fund art and culture, does not know how to value it. We have to learn how best to fund it, how to organise and nurture such a complex, multifaceted globally interconnected and locally embedded culture system. But the real hard work is learning how to value it. After decades in which one version of the ‘economic’ became arbiter of all value this will take some time. But aligning culture with the social foundations is a good start.

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