I’ve been standing in the back of your life… Bondage castles and arts policy

Xu Zhen’s 201301 is on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in the Contemporary Asian Art space.  A few metres away, hidden behind a curiously placed white wall, is Yukinori Yanagi’s Chrysanthemum carpet — a huge piece both in terms of its actual space and its commentary on Japanese imperialism.  And it is excellent in ways that 201301 just isn’t.  It’s provocative and communicative.  It draws the viewer’s attention to issues that often do not get aired in the global space (especially when so much is eclipsed by discussion of the imperialist crimes of the Anglosphere).  And it makes you think about an issue in a different way — perhaps not a way with which we might agree.  I’m of the generation that sees Japan almost exclusively through the lens of popular culture; the Japan represented in Chrysanthemum carpet is entirely foreign to me.  Distancing me further is the use of other Asian languages represented in the piece: unless you’re a skilled polyglot, you need the artist or curator to hold your hand and spoon feed you through the interpretation.  Each explained element adding more depth to the piece.

201301 is garbage, even when viewed without Chrysanthemum carpet nearby.  The premiss was interesting: using materials from the erotica industry, the artist had built an intricate castle suspended in midair by ropes.  But that description doesn’t match what the piece actually is: it’s a black cardboard castle with bondage gear draped on it.  It looks visually impressive if you don’t actually look at it.  When you do look at it, it’s pretty lame.

It’s controversial, perhaps.  The local press was all too eager to publish stories about something naughty happening in Canberra, maybe to cause a by-the-numbers discussion about funding being wasted on poor taste.  But it’s just not good, regardless of your views on sex and art.

And all this got me thinking about arts policy.

Earlier this month, Ben Eltham wrote a piece about the Coalition’s lack of cultural policy.  This was the paragraph that stuck with me:

Both Labor and the Greens have announced significant cultural policies for the 2016 election. The Greens have promised $270m towards the arts and culture. Labor has committed $161m. The Coalition has promised nothing. The Coalition looks as though it won’t bother to announce a cultural policy at all.

I’ve written before about how armchair commentators confuse ‘buckets of cash’ with a policy.  ‘Significant’ here means ‘Hundreds of million of dollars’ and not, y’know, impact.  Thus, the ‘significant’ policies announced by the Greens and the ALP are just splashes of cash.  In the Greens’ case, particularly, the policy is an incoherent mess of semi-random allocations of funding.  To call these ‘policies’ is simply a joke.

There are a few reasons why cultural policy in Australia is undercooked.  The first is that nobody serious wants to work in cultural policy development.  People want to work in the cultural industries, don’t get me wrong.  But nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and construct a cultural policy road map for the next decade.  If you are a bright young thing who is passionate about being a leader in policy development, you study law, economics, and international relations, and then go work within the Triangle.  So the Ministry of the Arts is stocked to the eyeballs with people who do little more than manage grants and not people who have great views on arts policy.  And the people who are noisy about arts policy tend to be artists and arts organisations who, by and large, only want the status quo but with more money.

There are lots of structural reasons for this outcome.  Arts policy is strictly an issue for State Governments — and they’re the ones with the power to make the biggest non-financial impact on the arts — but nobody competent works in the State public service.  If you’re competent, you go to the APS.

The same is true for MPs.  Go Fed or go home.

So it’s all very well for Bill Shorten to make some cute noises about the importance of the live music scene, but State Governments are the ones with all the real policy levers about noise restrictions, venue capacities, &c., &c., &c.  And the State Governments have bigger problems than live music.  And the Greens can have a pamphlet full of smiling happy people that they’ll give more money to touring entertainment, but there’s a dearth of places to which a band can actually tour.  Most venues have live music out of sentimentality and principle, but they’re slowly shutting down in favour of playing the latest Ministry of Sound album.

Should we continue to fund the big players?  Maintaining an opera, an orchestra, a ballet troupe, and the music conservatories is expensive.  State Governments are crying poor.  Do you send them more cash?  Or do you write off all European music as bourgeois extravagance and send your funding to the avant garde Lego covered with shit and Islamaphobic didgeridoo exhibition that’s showing in a backyard arts space in the western suburbs of Sydney?

The answer to everything in that last paragraph is: ‘That’s a dumb question and we should stop thinking of arts funding in that way’.

And yet, functionally, it’s precisely how we think of arts funding.  A few million for this.  A few million for that.  Good luck everybody, and we’ll see you next election.

Australia actually needs a coherent State-Federal arts policy.  Preferably, a whole lot more money would be shoveled into cultural infrastructure: leveraging universities to build studios, galleries, and collections.  A strategy would be in place to engage citizens with Australian cultural produce: how do we encourage Australians to make 75% of its cultural consumption Australian made?  Another strategy would be in place to encourage Asian investment in Australian cultural infrastructure: how do we get the best Chinese and Indian productions to take place in Australia, hiring Australian artists and building their skills for further work on Australian works?

This is the big joke of Australian cultural policy.  We spend a lot of money but don’t achieve any real growth.  Money filters through to, say, digital artists so that they can work on Hollywood blockbusters… but there are no jobs arising out of new Australian blockbusters to make use of that investment.

And then we have socio-cultural questions on the back of it: how do we use cultural policy to engage other policy spaces?  To what extent do we need to quarantine Indigenous art policy from the rest of the arts funding and align it more with a coherent Indigenous policy?  To what extent do we need to reconceptualise part of the cultural policy space with communications policy, or national security policy, or immigration policy?

Sledging aside: the Commonwealth has money to fund things, but no power to make much needed structural changes to Australia’s cultural landscape, and the States have the power to influence the growth of the arts space, but no real funding capacity (although there’s a question about that last bit because they seem to have enough cash to fund a whole lot of crap), and neither has a vision of what a good cultural policy looks like.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s