Recently, tweets featuring #istandwiththearts flooded the internet. It was meant to scan ‘I Stand with the Arts’, but I initially misinterpreted it as ‘I Stand with T Hearts’, and was uncertain as to whether the expressed solidarity was for a poor maligned soul by that name or whether we were supporting persons afflicted with some cross-shaped cardiovascular condition.
One twitterer wrote that he had accidentally read it as ‘Island with the Arts’, which conveyed rather the opposite of what was intended. The self described ‘arts community’ (artists, bureaucrats who work with artists, and librarians with short purple hair) are furious that the government is making cuts to the Arts Council of Australia. June 17, their ‘national day of action’, featured a tasteful, boutique rally of several dozen people outside the Prime Minister’s office. An online petition has over 12,000 signatures, the above hashtag was for a time the most popular thing on Aussie twitter, and singer Katie Noonan lambasted the PM on Q&A.
Many tweets further cited the same old Winston Churchill anecdote, which gets brought up whenever this sort of conversation is had. When asked, mid WW2, if he would agree to cut arts funding and give the money to the army, Winston Churchill replied, ‘then what are we fighting for?’. Except, of course, he never said that. It appears nowhere in his speeches, nor in his books, nor in the books of people who knew him. It isn’t even the sort of thing he might have said, like the one about boys at Eton pissing on their hands. We know he didn’t say it because before and throughout WW2 the British Government spent next to nothing on the arts. It’s not that Churchill didn’t want to cut arts funding, it’s that there wasn’t any to cut. #istandwithhistory.
Other tweets, less apocryphal, were nevertheless similarly misguided. Many made the case that cuts to the Australia Council constituted a disgusting moral crime, and invoked the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everybody has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefit.’ You wouldn’t know it from all the outrage, but the Australian Government isn’t denying you your human right to enjoy art. They’re not shutting down theatres à la the Puritans, or burning books à la the Nazis, or banning music à la certain followers of Allah. Australians are, basically, allowed to watch and read and listen to anything they so please. What’s more, they seem willing to pay for the pleasure. The fear that revenue for the arts would shrivel up in the internet age has proven to be unfounded. Subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify are booming, and more money is being made from eBooks than ever before. #istandwiththearts isn’t about supporting ‘the arts’, because the arts don’t need supporting. The desire to consume and create art is universally human. Rather, #istandwiththearts is about ensuring taxpayer money is spent creating art which broader Australia doesn’t want.
My detractors might argue that great art shouldn’t have to survive in the marketplace. Indeed, many creative visionaries went entirely uncelebrated by the public in their lives; Kafka was basically unpublished, Van Gogh only ever sold one painting, and Dickinson seldom left home. Why, though, if the public can’t be trusted to rally around worthwhile art, should we trust the elites at the Arts Council? Experts have historically proved little better than the plebs at valuing the meteoric over the mediocre. L’Académie des Beaux-Arts resisted impressionism, Rolling Stone so hated Led Zeppelin’s debut that the band refused interviews with the mag for years, and the ABC still haven’t given me a television program. (By the way, for any ABC executives reading, you could call it The James McCann Experience, and nobody would accuse you of left wing bias ever again.)
Alternately, it might be said that state funding is necessary for ‘emerging’ artists. In practice, ‘emerging’ seems to mean anybody under the age of fifty who hasn’t yet figured out how to make a crust from their craft. Funding emerging artists might be reasonable if, decades after we started fostering them, any had finally emerged. The national glut of ‘rock academies’, music mentorship programs, and university degrees in pop music has coincided with the most barren period for Australian music in living memory.
The government doesn’t owe anybody a career in the creative industries. Most people do not want to be artists – it’s hard, frequently unrewarding work. Open mic nights, poetry readings and contemporary art galleries are proof that many of the people who do want to be artists should spare themselves (and their audiences). The Greens are proposing that failing artists receive Centrelink payments as part of a ‘create for the dole’ program. A safety-net for people struggling to find work is humane; a safety-net for people struggling to finish their poems is insane. Labor are closer to the mark, in terms of their rhetoric, at least. They have been vocal critics of Coalition plans to reallocate funding from the Australia Council, and oppose the money instead being allocated by the Minister of the Arts of the day. On their website, the ALP write that ‘politicians shouldn’t decide what stories we can and can’t hear’. It’s true, but coming from a party which believes it should be unlawful to say anything ‘offensive’, we should take this with a pinch of salt.
They are right, though, that the Coalition’s policy is a bad one. Just as Peter Garrett proved that artists have no business involving themselves in politics, so too politicians have no business involving themselves in the arts. It was true when Barry Humphries jokingly made Sir Les Patterson Minister for the Yarts in the late 70s, and it’s true now. The current minister, Mitch Fifield, is the sort of guy you’d trust to knife his PM, or get caught up in a bizarre police-raid controversy, but heaven knows what qualifies a lifelong Liberal Party apparatchik to allocate $12 million in arts funding every year.
Neither an MP nor an unelected arts council should be allowed to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on the arts. Australians are perfectly capable of funding the arts directly themselves. Anybody who stands for quality arts must stand against #istandwiththearts. Why should we trust these people with the cultural future of our country, if we can’t even trust them to write a snappy hashtag?
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