THE ARTS 2020

By David Pledger; edited.

On the fifth day of the last month of the last year of last decade, Australia’s conservative government erased the Federal Ministry for the Arts. Erasure is emblematic of ideologically-driven systems regardless of the wing, left or right. Some person, idea or practice hitherto considered vital seems suddenly to lose value and is airbrushed from history. But in truth, the practice of erasure increases by stealth. Because, in truth, the erasure of Arts Ministries began in our country five years ago in the State of Victoria and again in South Australia last year. The erasure of the arts from the public consciousness of government is as damaging as deep funding cuts. In 2011 when 25% of The Netherlands arts and culture budget was slashed leading to the closure of 24 cultural and arts organisations, a fate that awaits Australia’s small-medium and independent arts sector in February. Across the Western world, the evisceration of the arts is integral to a programmatic approach that cuts welfare, health and public services. It is consistent with a worldview that creates and accentuates division, inequity and social injustice, unspoken policy that fits squarely within the trajectory of neoliberal governments worldwide, governments creeping – sometimes sprinting – towards authoritarianism through downward pressure on civil liberties, direct attacks on the media, the ‘militarisation’ of the public service and a perceived state of permanent crisis. It is a corollary of neoliberal capitalism that it disables these instrumentalities of democracy in order for it to fulfil its essential ambition, the maximisation of the profit of all things – goods, services, people. Whilst neoliberalism has no centre, it is visible by the dots that, once connected, characterise each region or nation’s variant. In Australia, these include the persecution of citizens (Robodebt), the prosecution of whistle-blowers (Witness K), the intimidation of journalists (ABC, Newscorp, Assange), a brutal asylum seeker policy, the militarisation of police, the politicisation of the public service, climate-denialism and the diminution of the arts and the national broadcaster. This is the shape of Australian neo-liberalism. We need to understand that external forces will always determine the conditions under which the Arts operate.The Arts sector has struggled to read and adjust to this shift. It continues to behave as if politicians’ primary motivation in government is to represent the interests of their elected constituency, and for Ministers, their portfolio constituency. This is no longer the case. Politicians’ primary motivation is to remain in government. In opposition, it is to return to government. The political mind-set is risk-averse, it’s hardwired to not committing to anything or anyone in case that commitment exposes them to criticism, worse still, a loss of power. It’s time to change our action settings to deal with this change in political culture.

 

The Arts sector’s main strategy has been to have a seat at the table to ensure access to politicians. It’s ingrained a politesse that has dominated and diluted advocacy for a generation. Sitting at the table is irrelevant unless you can turn tactics into parliamentary muscle, signatures into votes, individuals into community, outrage into practice. How do we do this ? In the political space, we need to shift our historical focus on major political parties and forge a cross-party alliance of individuals who can represent the interests of the Arts in all areas of mainstream political culture in every policy discussion. Special attention needs to be afforded to independent and micro-party politicians in the Senate who are critical to passing legislation, and so carry real power. In the social space, we need to understand that external forces will always determine the conditions under which the Arts operate. The reality is, there is not a deep, sectoral understanding of how the Arts intersects with, relates to, and is affected by other parts of society. The sector’s tendency to see the Arts as an isolated thing to which singular stuff happens, only re-enforces its perception as elite. We, in the Arts, need to engage meaningfully with familial sectors such as environment, media, welfare, health and education, and lift our eyes from the path we are walking to join those in other countries facing similar travails. We need to see ourselves as part of a whole rather than a whole, apart. In the artistic space, the generation of artists in our post-emerging, pre-established artist category is beginning to understand that being in control of one’s content and medium in dialogue with an audience is a discipline that can be seamlessly applied to protest, rights and power. It can be playful, disruptive, artistic – and they don’t see you coming, ‘cos they don’t see you. Practising artists need to be activists, and cultural institutions need to find courage to support them. Advocacy and activism need to be an extension of every artist’s practice. These tactics can be deployed by artists, arts workers and cultural operators. They comprise a strategy to combat a government committed to keeping the Arts in check as opposed to embracing the Arts at the democratic table. Here, the two, best examples are our neighbour, New Zealand – whose Prime Minister seamlessly integrates the Arts in her nation’s vernacular – and our friend, Canada – whose arts budget will have doubled in 2021 on its 2016 figure. Our government is more aligned with the European variant that fears the Arts for its potential to reveal its duplicity, negligence and vested interest. Time to build a new table.

 

John le Carré, edited, on winning the Olof Palme prize: "So why isn’t the threat of nuclear war today as present or terrifying to us as it was in Palme’s day? Is it simply that the nuclear threat is so ubiquitous, so diffuse and irrational? North Korea? Isis? Iran? Russia? China? Or today’s White House with its born-again evangelists dreaming of the Rapture? Better to invest our existential fears in things we understand: bushfires, melting icebergs, and the uncomfortable truths of Greta Thunberg. The cold war was anything but irrational. It was two players facing each other across a nuclear chessboard. And for all their clever spying, neither knew the first thing about the other. If Johnson and his Brexiteers had their way, it would be declared St Brexit’s Day. Church bells across the land would peal out the gladsome tidings from every tower. And good men of England would pause their stride and doff their caps in memory of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Trafalgar, and mourn the loss of our great British empire. Empires don’t die just because they’re dead. We Brits are all nationalists now. Or so Johnson would have us believe. But to be a nationalist you need enemies and the shabbiest trick in the Brexiteers’ box was to make an enemy of Europe. “Take back control!” they cried, with the unspoken subtext: and hand it to Donald Trump, along with our foreign policy, our economic policy, our health service and, if they can get away with it, our BBC. So Boris Johnson with our blessing has taken his place beside two other accomplished liars of our time: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. If Palme were trying to get the truth out of them, which of the three would he turn to? Or none of the above? One day somebody will explain to me why it is that, at a time when science has never been wiser, or the truth more stark, or human knowledge more available, populists and liars are in such pressing demand. But don’t blame the Tories for their great victory. It was Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, with its un-policy on Brexit, its antisemitism and student-level Marxism-Leninism that alienated traditional Labour voters and left them nowhere to go. They looked to the left and didn’t recognise their leader. They looked to the centre and there was nobody there."