marcus westbury

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Arts, Creative Industries: dichotomies and bureaucracies

May 21st, 2011 by marcus

[I've been incredibly slack at updating the blog of late, i put it down to travel, parenthood, and general need-to-make-a-livingness. However, that does leave me with a bit of a backlog of old scribblings to post here over the coming weeks. The piece below was originally in The Age on the 31st of January and no, as far as i can tell not a lot has happened since...]

SIGH. The Australia Council for the Arts did something incredibly impressive last week. It released one of the more interesting, more insightful, more nuanced and more genuinely interesting pieces of research it has put out in a long time. Why the sigh? Well, so far, it doesn’t exactly seem very enthusiastic about it.

The report, Arts and Creative Industries, is based on detailed interviews with creative practitioners, micro-business operators, curators, managers, directors, lecturers and consultants, and dispels the simple dichotomy that has art on one side and commerce on the other.

For those of us who have long held that the line between the two is not so much a division as a continuum, the report provides a lot of on-the-ground evidence to back that up. The authors  led by Professor Justin O’Connor from the centre for creative industries at Queensland University of Technology  point out, “they might work for one or the other across the course of a day or week, but equally their [commercial] work, though never receiving public subsidy, might be described as ‘artistic’. Indeed, those working in commercial culture not only value ‘the arts’ but also see their own commercial activity as involving high levels of artistic or cultural purpose.”

The report argues against the simplistic neo-liberal line that art can only be validated by some secondary purpose, be it innovation or export earnings. It argues for art “as an idea, as a set of practices, as a set of experiences” and yet  somewhat complicating things  makes it abundantly clear that any contemporary understanding of that “cannot be restricted to what is now known as ‘the arts’ . . . that old opposition of art and popular culture  with its associated binaries of ideal/commerce, public/market, high/low  has always been contested and is now mostly threadbare”.

It’s good stuff. It is entirely consistent with the cultural experiences of anyone born after the latter half of the 20th century. It’s certainly the closest the Australia Council has come in a long time to provoking some serious self-reflection on its own role in a changing landscape. As Australia Council chief executive Kathy Keele acknowledges in the foreword, it “challenge[s] many of our current conceptions, definitions, and even policies”.

And therein lies the rub. The Australia Council, to its credit, has commissioned the research and provided the foreword to the report, the real challenge is to start providing the leadership. While the simple dichotomy has long passed its use-by date in the real world, the whole current arts funding and policy system is pretty much premised on it. Take away the idea that “the arts” is a bunch of stuff that came to prominence around the 18th century  enshrined in the Australia Council’s Whitlam-era act  and that everything else is industry and commerce, and there is a major problem.

Despite its increasing disconnection from either real-world experience or an articulated and coherent rationale, there remains a lot of vested interests, reputations, rent seekers and hangers-on  and yes, even some really great artists  for whom a simplistic dichotomy works really well.

In the best-case scenario, the Arts and Creative Industries report moves the Australia Council away from a reactionary and defensive position of recent times and towards showing genuine leadership. It provides a clear rationale and authority to move beyond simply providing subsidies to a relatively small number of artists and companies to engaging with the whole creative ecosystem. It even suggests some engaging ways of doing that, including opportunities that would significantly expand the role of art  in the broadest sense  and embed it in areas that have traditionally been left to markets  to integrate it more into media and design. But will it do that?

How it handles this report will be a test of the Australian government’s arts funding and advisory body’s seriousness. While the Australia Council isn’t backward in promoting research, reports and good news stories that validate the status quo, there is not much precedent for it challenging it. There is little indication that the kind of media blitz, national forums, and general oxygen that have been given to other reports are about to follow. Still, the moment hasn’t passed.

Now would be an excellent time to lead.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john May 23, 2011 at 7:17 am

    I am a professional of 30 years standing, in a 19C dinosaur art-form; I paint pictures. I have not seen them around the place in decades, and ditto for the other related profession, professionals that I know.

    Marcus …. can you please tell me what the Council actually does?

    PS
    Conceptually the Council’s foundational ethos was set by experts who wanted to improve Australian taste in art , by creating something that did not then exist “advanced art “. It was consciously an anti market instrument.

    A old fashioned liberal might caution that the line, between ‘arts policy’ and Authoritarian -I know whats ‘advanced’ ..show some ‘recognition’ of it, is a very thin line, easily and often crossed.

  • 2 john May 23, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Ps the majors were there long before the Council and did not want the forced marriage, it has been separate houses for decades