Being conservative, I have strong opinions about art. It goes with the territory. Art has an important social function, developing the ideas and concepts through which we understand ourselves as individuals and as a community. This importance means that it is necessarily a contested space: how should it be funded, how should it be regulated, and what it should achieve are going to have ideologically informed answers.
But it is also going to bring out the sooks. No matter which way the resources are distributed, somebody is going to feel like they’ve missed out. Rather than present some intellectually serious account of how arts funding should be allocated, we hear moaning from all sides of politics about how everything’s so terribly unfair.
Quadrant — which is utter sludge barely more adult than The Spectator — is a frequent performer on the stage of boohooery. Where previously it enjoyed a healthy stipend courtesy of the taxpayer, it now has to seek out other sources of funding to sustain its content: ‘Why the Stolen Generations never happened’, ‘Why the Left is making everybody soft’ and ‘Why the Stolen Generations never happened, the Sequels’.
I read with some surprise Roger ‘If there were justice in the world the ABC would have been bombed’ Franklin cracking the sads that a young woman received funding from the Australia Council for the Arts instead of a bunch of old men at Quadrant. As is routine, his objections are more ‘point and giggle’ than serious engagement with arts policy. Rather than put forward some serious view, he asked ten questions of Senator Mitch Fifield, the Minister for the Arts. Here’s how I wish the Minister would respond:
1/ What is his position on “sh*t art” — the real sort, not the metaphoric variety?
Is it proper for a Minister for the Arts to have a ‘position’ on any kind of art? We might consider some Minister to have a particular preference for opera over chamber, or for sculpture over portrait. Should these preferences catalyse into ‘positions’? Should artists in particular media have to hope that the Minister enjoys their particular art form in order to secure funding? Clearly, ministerial positions should be agnostic to the actual artistic practice, and should concern itself only with higher questions about what the arts programme — as a totality — should achieve.
2/ Should taxpayers be underwriting art of this nature?
Yes. Just as the health budget funds wheelchairs despite the fact that not every taxpayer needs a wheelchair, the arts budget funds activities that might not be to the particular taste of this or that individual taxpayer. Taxpayers should fund Australia’s arts programme. That art programme should reflect a diversity of artistic practices, through to and including practices involving the human body like ballet, experimental theatre, and interrogations of bodily products.
3/ Will the Minister determine which of Ms Mattingley’s “peers” recommended and endorsed her application for an OzCouncil grant?
There is a tense confusion in the question, and the Minister should hardly be called upon to answer incoherent questions. How can the Minister perform some act in the future to determine some event in the past?
4/ Is Ms Mattingley a peer who, in her turn, recommends others for Arts Council grants?
It is unnecessary to get into detail about specific cases when the questions are really better answered at a more general level: who should be part of the resource allocation process for the arts? If a purpose of our current system is to create impartiality and freedom of expression, then it makes sense that members of Australia’s arts community are involved in the nomination, selection, and assessment of grant applications. This is one way to balance community expectations that the arts budget does not fund weird rants about how the Stolen Generations didn’t happen.
5/ What is the role of art in modern society, and more specifically, what is the role of government funding in promoting art and what kind of art?
It is strange that a person who complains they did not receive an arts grant should pose this question to the Minister. If the author does not have some answer to this question already, should they be surprised that they no longer receive funding?
Art has an important social function, developing the ideas and concepts through which we understand ourselves as individuals and as a community. Public funding for the arts frees artistic expression from the ravages of a barbarian market. It ought not be the case that only profitable views are heard. For art to be challenging and confronting, it requires the freedom of resources. Public funding means that artistic views can be developed without fear or favour towards sponsors and commercial interest.
This comes with responsibilities. The privilege of being shielded from the whims of the market mean that art should serve the community which funded it. It serves by challenging, inspiring, and confronting the community, not merely by offending it by publishing horrible little rants about Indigenous Australians and their histories.
6/ Several years ago, the Australia Council cut off Quadrant‘s funding without warning and in its entirety. That money went solely toward our literary and poetic pieces. Given that Quadrant was cut off and Ms Mattingley funded, does the Minister believe that sh*tting in rainbow hues is a more worthy exercise than the poetry of Les Murray and Clive James?
7/ Does the Minister exercise any control, exert any influence whatsoever, on the dispersal of half-a-billion dollars in taxpayer art dollars, or is his involvement limited to saying nice things about artists and art at award ceremonies?
The current system is set up to reduce the level of ministerial involvement in the allocation of funds. On the one hand, this is to protect artists from fear that politically challenging art will only be funded if the Minister approves the message.
On the other hand, it also protects the Minister from criticism about this or that piece of art that was funded. When controversy strikes (or is manufactured by grumpy old men) the Minister can use the current system to keep at arm’s length: the problem is with the unelected organ and not with the Minister. In our democratic system, ministers should be held accountable for expenditure in their portfolio and the best way to hold them accountable is to have them be the top of the decision-making process.
8/ Does the arts funding regime need to be reformed?
Yes. The current system suffers from instability and fails to provide the art community with institutional support needed to advance Australia’s arts environment. There is a need to look at funding structures to engage a wider range of audiences. It is difficult to imagine how this will be achieved by producing an unprofitable literary magazine to publish the twilight years poetry of old white guys (some of whom haven’t lived in Australia since the 1960s) alongside racist screeds.
9/ Is the Minister aware of an average sum paid in taxes by a typical Australian — Treasurer Morrison might be of assistance here — and, if so, how many taxpayers were obliged to get up, go to work and have part of their gross earnings re-directed to support Ms Mattingley’s bowel movements?
She received $10,000. There are millions of tax returns filed each year. Meanwhile, there were 732 companies who paid no tax in Australia in the 2015-16 financial year. Collectively, their income was more than $500 billion.
Further, how many Indigenous Australians had to pay tax to contribute to Quadrant publishing tales of how they were suffering ‘false memory syndrome’ about their communities being torn apart?
10/ If the Minister does not support the notion that sh*t is art and yet can do nothing to stop the public funding of bohemian bowel movements, will he resign?