Features Australia

Kick the handout habit

The pandemic offers the perfect opportunity to get rid of wasteful ‘arts’ funding

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

‘Christ alfkn Mighty,’ writes that exemplar of ladylike refinement Clementine Ford, complaining to anyone moronic enough to follow her digital ravings that men are ‘not able to take a joke’. The ‘joke’ is that ‘coronavirus isn’t killing men fast enough’. Well ho ho. That’s about as funny as the one about the Jew in Auschwitz.

And is it even remotely true? The men not dying quickly enough to suit Clementine are not likely to be of the age that in her fantasy-addled feminist mind have manoeuvred women into ‘shouldering the burden of domestic labour at the expense of their own economic freedom,’ as she puts it. In the real world the men at risk of Covid are more likely to be in care homes, pushed around by bossy women treating them like backward infants.

Clementine likes to present herself as fearlessly outspoken. Presumably that’s why she invokes the name of Christ, utterly irrelevantly. That’s not outspoken and never has been among the deplorables and rednecks who talk like that all the time (and whom Clementine no doubt regards as inferior in intellect, taste and wisdom to herself). But why not show real courageous outspokenness for a change and invoke some other sacred name as an expletive, like Mohammed for example? No no, don’t try to answer, we know the reason. Clementine isn’t brave enough to risk ending up like the editorial staff of Charlie Hedbo. Slagging off Christ – and just for the offensively rhetorical sake of it, not to make any particular point – is safe and easy, as edgy comedians and the ABC demonstrate all the time.

It’s also biting the hand that feeds you. The taxes of Christians help pay the iniquitous amount of money wasted to keep our bloated behemoth of a national broadcaster wallowing in its own incompetence (just parse its awful news scripts or try to survive ten minutes of one of its leaden dramas). Clementine too has gladly accepted Christian money, most recently in the form of an arts grant from the Melbourne City Council, partly extracted from Christian ratepayers. She was given $4,000 to tide her through what the council must regard as her culturally essential labours in writing a book, the pestilence (coronavirus not Clementine) having ruled out her supporting herself with a part-time job such as dishwashing or serving hamburgers. That $4,000, multiplied by the 225 other ‘artists’ with their snouts in the trough, would go a long way to helping Melbourne’s homeless.

Leaving aside the obvious point that the more artists of Clementine’s sort the pandemic puts out of action the better for our national culture, you have to wonder at the reasoning of these public bodies that dish out other people’s money to keep the least productive sector of the economy in funds, with or without a pandemic. Can you think of one worthwhile piece of art or writing produced in this country in the half-century since governments started funding ‘the arts’? A painting, a novel, a symphony that wouldn’t have come into being without public subsidy? The only painting most people have ever heard of since the arch-spender Whitlam started the whole scam is Blue Poles and that was by an American.

What we should be doing is de-funding the arts. This country will soon have to find at least $130 billion to pay for the wage subsidies to people who’ve lost income because of the ravages to the economy, people who’d been doing much more useful work than Clementine. Where will that come from?

When the rest of us have to cut back in our own spending the first thing to go are the luxuries, the so-called discretionary items – the restaurant dinner, the holiday, the evening out at the theatre. Theatres are indeed a luxury, and the subsidies to keep open those that can’t pay their way by selling seats are among the discretionary items in our national budgets. When times are tough we can’t afford them.

The Australia Council, that sink from which not so much as a brushstroke of memorable art, a syllable of arresting prose, seems ever to emerge in exchange for its lavish handouts, will this year pour $31.7 million down the plughole – and the same next year and two years after to keep 144 ‘arts organisations’ contentedly indulging their ‘creative’ onanism. State-sponsored art is a contradiction. Art should reflect public taste, not the taste of bureaucrats. There is no other measure for assessing its worth but the informed judgment of those who appreciate it. Are there not appreciative patrons enough to make it worthwhile for talented artists to exercise their talent and make a living? Picasso didn’t need subsidies, neither did Evelyn Waugh or Percy Grainger. But they were uniquely talented and genuine talent will in time attract an audience. One may have to endure a bit of poverty to get oneself started, but the young and dedicated can put up with a touch of hardship – and isn’t there something romantic about subsisting in a garret? Puccini (also not in receipt of a grant) thought so. The key word of course is talent. One has the feeling that that’s what’s in short supply. Can it be that arts subsidies merely keep the talentless amused, people who’d be better off morally and more valuable socially devoting themselves to a less glamorous occupation?

The practice of dispensing money to encourage culture has somehow wormed its way into public acceptance as one of the normal functions of government, like paying for schools or the air force. It has become a habit, but in fact it’s a bad habit, fostering self-indulgence and arrogance in artists. It’s a habit we should break, an addiction from which we should free ourselves, difficult though that may be.

Expensive arts absurdity is all around us, as a trawl through the websites of the Australia Council and other founts of unmerited largesse will reveal. Have a look: all the jokes you’ve heard about lesbian visually-challenged First Peoples ballet companies are not an exaggeration. If you can resist their siren call and stay at home you’re on the way to recovery from arts subsidy syndrome. The more voters break the habit, the sooner governments will be forced to.

When governments can’t be bothered running something they privatise it. Why not privatise the Australia Council? Issue shares that venture capitalists and arty QCs can buy in the belief that they’re advancing culture. As for the artists, real or self-deluded, art for art’s sake is surely a more noble aspiration than art for a taxpayer handout.

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