marcus westbury

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Art for Arts Sake v. Creative Industries

July 21st, 2009 by marcus


Musings about the relationship between art and creative industries that originally appeared in The Age. There is probably much more to say on this topic but probably not witout the sweeping generalisations inherent in 700 words.

SHOULD governments fund the arts “for art’s sake”, or should they be developing “creative industries”? It may seem like an abstract philosophical argument but at stake in this heated debate are the reasons why, how and even whether governments fund and support art and culture.

The two camps at times have much in common. They can and do form workable alliances but discussions can degenerate into the kind of hostility that student communists reserve for splinter groups that are less ideologically pure.

Historically, governments funded and promoted the arts for reasons that had little to do with money. Governments supported the arts because it was good for us, or a sign of civilisation, or it asserted our Australianness. The arts made it a better world to live in. Today the role that government plays in the arts is constantly being questioned.

The “creatives” who argue that governments should let go of dated ideas of “The Arts” range from frustrated designers or web workers or architects through to economists, bureaucrats and postmodern academics. They’re supported by some in the high art world who figure that any case for subsidies needs a little economic jargon, the odd research report, and some friendly sound bites about how many direct and indirect jobs the sector supports.

Those who advocate supporting art for art’s sake range from staunch defenders of artistic independence to stridently anti-commercial artists, to the opera lovers, the landed gentry and reflexive defenders of the status quo. They’re supported by every artist and community worker who is sick of justifying self-evidently beneficial projects and programs with elaborate pseudo-economic nonsense for Treasury and political press releases.

To the creative industries crew, the capital “A” Art types look like unreconstructed elitists, with an antique view of what is and isn’t proper art. All the subjective talk of “intrinsic value” seems a lot like code for elevating whatever they are personally into, and getting the Government to underwrite it, no questions asked.

To the capital “A” Art types, the creative industries crew look like the bastard children of shallow pop culture and decades of economic rationalism. They dangerously reduce everything to the dollar and miss the central point that culture is about something bigger than making a buck. They seem destined to stuff culture with the same free market that has so spectacularly stuffed up everything else.

I’ve regularly found myself popping up behind enemy lines on both sides. I alternate between finding both sides compelling and hopelessly and frustratingly wrong.

I believe passionately in the principle of art for art’s sake – and yet I also believe that arts policy is desperately behind the times. The traditional art forms of theatre, dance, classical music, opera and the visual arts still dominate government spending and focus while the so-called “commercial” arts touch our lives far more than the traditional ones.

If we want to make this world a better place, then design, architecture, contemporary music, mass media, digital media and video games have a cultural significance that far outstrips the impact of the high arts. They are art forms, not cash cows. They demand to be taken seriously because of their intrinsic worth and impact. It is an insult and not an elevation to talk of them only in terms of industry development and export earnings.

Just as importantly, any cultural policy motivated by picking economic winners is doomed to fail. You can’t pick the next cultural movement. Last year’s trends are next year’s cliches and any attempt to pick them as policy is likely to go horribly wrong.

The paradox of creative industries is that artists rarely behave like industries. Artists can be good business people but for the great ones, money is rarely what drives them. Thinking of them as economically rational players motivated by the desire to maximise their profits is a recipe for failed industries and terrible art.

Policy needs to celebrate the creative imperative in all its forms. It needs to provide fertile ground for creative people and encourage and support them to take risks, experiment and innovate. It shouldn’t matter whether you are a painter, a sculptor, in a rock band, a theatre maker, an architect or a computer-games designer. The industries will take care of themselves.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kathryn Buck Jul 21, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Yes now I’ve read it I am with the Art for Art’s sake view. My whole point behind ‘give me a building to love’ was that it’s not about money as much as about a means of empowering dedicated artists and entrepreneurs with the tools to help themselves and each other to keep moving forward without the constant practical struggles of having to deal with bureaucratic restrictions and constant questioning. I don’t think we should have to justify ourselves as artists (especially when one’s track record affords some respect). I believe that a modicum of trust is warranted. Let US ARTISTS be free to run our own studios or venues under an umbrella group. Like I said don’t give me money…Just a building to love!
    The Industries WILL take care of themselves.

  • 2 Peter Anderson Jul 22, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    The recent cultural industries push needs to be looked at in the context of broader cultural arguments – not least the significant impact of cultural studies on these debates. A couple of decades back when the field of cultural policy studies was being cobbled together (with it’s origins in cultural and media studies), the big push was for a shift from ‘arts policy’ to ‘cultural policy’.
    Early on, quite a lot of this was caught up in old cultural studies arguments about high/low culture – which at times emerged in an odd Opera vs. Community Arts argument, or a popular culture vs the high arts argument. Of course, some of those in the Community Arts camp argued as much against mass pop culture as they did opera, just as the opera folk missed the point of community arts (sat the Art & Working Life program) and Kylie covering ‘The Locomotion’ under the guiding hand of Stock Aitkin & Waterman (that reference is there just so that you can all get your bearings time wise).
    Not surprisingly, the rise of a lobbying rhetoric around the ‘arts industry’ can be linked back to the Australia Council, and the need to develop what look like quantifiable measures of the value of the arts.
    The cultural industries push is in some ways a gradual extension of the move to a government focus on cultural, rather than arts policy.

  • 3 Dan Monceaux Sep 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    I’m an artist turned ‘Creative Industries’ rep, here in SA. I have to say that as an artist working principally in new media, video and animation, SA’s Department of Trade and Economic Development has been far more supportive of my work than our local film commission, or arts funding body (both of whom struggled to classify our work as either film or art). I don’t feel like I’m trying to paddle upstream so much anymore… even if it means working to a business plan rather than pure impulse.

    We’re working out of a subsidised shared studio in the CBD called the Tomorrow Studio, which shares some common ground with the ‘give me a building to love’ notion. Come visit on your next trip to Adelaide :)