MY PHONE rang late on a Wednesday afternoon. The Prime Minister’s office was calling to inquire as to whether I had any plans for Friday night. I did but they were swiftly cancelled. Little more than 48 hours later, I’d had my only passable suit dry-cleaned, some flights cancelled and new ones arranged and I found myself sharing Kevin Rudd’s table at The Lodge.
Strictly speaking it wasn’t just me — there were 20 or so others — mostly directors and managers of the nation’s major arts companies, organisations and cultural institutions – and we found ourselves engaged in some healthy and occasionally robust debate about the nation’s arts policy and cultural direction.
It’s probably fair to say that Kevin Rudd hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the arts community in his first term. His knee-jerk description of Bill Henson’s work as “revolting”, the perception that he rarely, if ever, attends arts events, and just a general sense that he lacks the requisite amount of love and nurturing have conspired to create the perception that the PM is a little disengaged. No doubt the dinner was as much an attempt at bridge-building as of policy discussion.
While I can’t say I’d given it a lot of thought, before and after last week’s dinner, I’ve been constantly reminded just how many artists and arts workers are either confused, confronted or curious about what the PM’s attitudes towards the arts actually are. Whether the PM personally “gives a shit” — as several of my Facebook friends have put it — is one question that many in the arts want answered.
So, based entirely on the insight of a single superficial dinner conversation: does the PM love the arts as much as the arts apparently want him to? Frankly, probably not. There’s no doubt he isn’t passionate about the arts in the generic, big picture Keatingesque sense – or even the Kennett one for that matter. Equally, though, it would be unfair to imagine that he is as ignorant and disconnected as his critics might assume.
Like most Australians, the PM can engage enthusiastically and genuinely about his own formative cultural interests, his influences, shows he has seen and the influence of arts and culture in the life of his kids. There was no indication that it was a singular obsession the luvvies might long for, though.
I’m really not sure that’s a bad thing. Whether the PM personally loves the arts or not is hardly the point. Each time our dinner discussion turned away from tough questions of directions, strategies and priorities and towards the nebulous questions of how much or how little Australians — PM implicitly included — appreciate the arts, I found it just a little uncomfortable and frustrating.
In few other areas of life is there so much concern about being loved and appreciated and so little for the mechanics and practicalities of good policy. Confronted with politics and policy, it is too easy for the Australian arts community to look longingly at the status of artists in Europe (or Venezuela and Cuba — as some dinner guests perhaps rather problematically suggested to the PM) and too little at the policy choices, opportunity costs, and considerations that need to inform the decisions that governments make in managing limited resources.
Do I want a prime minister who loves the arts? Yes, ideally, but I would swap him tomorrow for one who will think about and respond thoughtfully to the serious and difficult questions facing an Australia that wants to foster creativity in the 21st century.
Do I want the nation to value the arts? Yes, but not in a generic sense. I want the nation to be a place where culture is given every opportunity to be created and contested and not merely immaculately presented and appreciatively consumed.
I lived for years in New South Wales under Bob Carr — a premier and arts minister whose love of literature and high-minded cultural pursuits were well known. He was a terrible minister.
As other states engaged in the process of robust and comprehensive policy development and institution building, the NSW premier’s very proximity seemed to thwart and discourage it outside his own narrow bands of interest.
It is not simply about love, it is not even particularly about more money. Serious debates about cultural processes and priorities fail if “love” and “value” are little more than excuses to engage the rhetorical autopilot.
Whether this PM is interested in or is capable of becoming interested in those questions, I still don’t know. As for what the PM made of the fine upstanding folks of the arts community? Now that’s an interesting question.
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