marcus westbury

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Elitism (or why art is a bit like tennis)

June 1st, 2011 by marcus

IN POLITE company in arts circles these days, you do not mention the “e” word. No, not e-books or e-commerce or the other electronic innovations running a wrecking ball through Australia’s much loved big-box retailers. The uncomfortable e-word in the arts is “elite”.

The arts are in a bind when it comes to elitism. Once central to the very idea of the arts, elitism now seems best not talked about. On one level, that notion of being elite, of being separate and better, is unashamedly (or not ashamedly enough) a reason why many gravitate to the arts. There are plenty of people who genuinely believe that “the arts”, and some art forms more than others, make for a better class of person.

I’m not a better class of person. I tend to see culture with a more inclusive bent. The notion of the arts as disproportionately for an elite sits very uncomfortably. That particular kind of elitism is exhibit A in why much thinking around the arts is dysfunctional and alienated from many Australians.

It’s easy to get stuck between two different meanings of the word elite. The first and relatively unproblematic definition is the idea of elite as the “best” of something. While it opens up plenty of practical debates about exactly who gets to determine it, the idea that the arts should aspire to producing stuff that is somewhere between pretty good and downright awesome is not particularly contentious.

On the reverse side is another idea of “elite”  the idea that reserves certain status for the privileged few. Historically, this has been a major part of what “the arts” have been about. It’s probably why every single ticket to the nation’s symphony orchestras is subsidised to the tune of $137, while many excellent musicians couldn’t get $100 to produce an album.

Arts lovers are quick to point out that Australians are mostly comfortable with the idea of “elite” sportspeople. Yet the comparisons between how arts and sport approach the term can be misleading if not disingenuous.

Australia takes a pretty broad view as to which sports are elite  inclusive of any with television coverage or medal tallies involved. Every Australian need not follow aerial skiing for there to be a consensus that we like having Australians who are good at it. We don’t generally suggest that particular sports are more elite as a matter of policy.

The arts have tended to approach it from the opposite end  beginning with the assumption that certain art forms are more elite than others and working back.

It’s simpler in sport, where the competition itself shows who is the best and funding has, to some extent, rewarded medals, participation, interest and success. In the arts, any simple measure of “Are we any good at it?” and “Does it need a subsidy?” is complicated by who gets to decide.

There is a legitimate role for nurturing the elite in the arts, but there are dangers. One danger is detachment from the living cultures around us. Cultures are plural, so striving to be great needs to be less about elevating select elite cultures and more about supporting a range.

There’s a bigger danger, and it, too, has a parallel in sport. Tennis star turned Liberal federal MP John Alexander last year convincingly argued why Australia is producing fewer great tennis players. The problem was not underinvestment in the elite or our choice of Davis Cup captains. The problem was Australia has been losing its tennis courts. Alexander estimated that Sydney alone had lost more than 2000 courts in the past 15 years.

The same thing has occurred in the arts. Places to rehearse, to play, to exhibit, to try  and fail  are disappearing, swallowed up in a property bubble or regulated out of existence. If you had been focusing exclusively on the elite, you might not have noticed. But greatness will always need somewhere to practice.

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18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dakini Maddock Jun 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    But Marcus darling, if all the poor little community groups starting making and engaging with their own cultural creations how on earth could we market, commodify and exploit people? If they started to value, foster and nurture what was in thier own backyards how would we get the big city venues thier revenue- oh no thats right most of the population can not afford them anyway! It would be twadgic all those self empowered creative self thinking beings, making thier own arts & culture. How could we be elite if everyone did it?

  • 2 G Jun 6, 2011 at 5:37 am

    Then there’s the other e-word that’s the cause of this, ego.
    The full range won’t be embraced when the majority of our media broadcasts from precious bubble cultures like Sydney’s that maintain a fashionably cringe-free dystopia to satisfy a minority’s obsession with being taken seriously.
    The sooner artists pop that one from underneath the better.

  • 3 john Jun 6, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Art has always followed the money . The history of art is the history of audiences : a pragmatic definition of elite should be based on the status of those paying,not those playing.

    Agree about the lack of access to tennis courts .
    Re-watched Strictly Ballroom the other night, its a pretty good caricature of how bizarrely distorted ‘elite’ art-forms maintain the ‘correct steps’.

  • 4 john Jun 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Any art-form that is not directly and largely paid for by its audience is by definition a ‘elite’ art form; the payment of support involves some sort of intervention by mandated ‘elite’ power, be it direct subsidies(grants) or by tax deduction subsidies to philanthropy (by the well of). This is not necessarily a bad thing .
    But, arguments about what art-forms should get ‘official’ status and what art-forms should lose it and how the intervention should be done are not anti-elitist in nature.

    Rather they are arguments about power.

  • 5 john Jun 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    BTW By definition we are not talking about art-forms that are made just for the sake of it by unpaid amateurs ; by definition they do not need payment , they happen anyway.
    If amateurs really are the future, then there is no need for funding, and funding decisions, at all. The money should be redirected to public needs like healthcare or carbon reduction schemes.

  • 6 Bill O’Toole Aug 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Dear Marcus

    An excellent observation – so here is my theory
    1. Art and culture – ( fine art )are excellence in popular culture.
    2. The Australian culture/art scene was a result of the British style of ruling the colony
    3. Popular culture was associated with the lower classes
    4. We retain this today
    Sport is popular culture and therefore the elites in sport have the same role as the cultural elites in old Europe. When the high arts developed in Europe they were always a result of excellence in popular culture. They were encouraged by the royal support. Royalty encouraged the high standard . The high arts became separate when they were transposed to other countries.
    The Americans got around this by having their revolution and purposely trying to create a unique high art in America.
    In Australia we got stuck in this history aspic. Hence high art /culture must be ultimately European from the last century or so.

    Now what is disturbing is how the sports administration – (similarly as worthwhile as arts administration) now aiming to solely promote elites. Cricket, Rugby, Basketball, Hockey have implemented new three hour elite focused sports. Including on field during the match interviews with clip on mikes and cams
    it will be interesting to see what happens.
    Fortunately Skateboarding, Surfing, Netball and Street Soccer have kept out of this trend.

    So what is to be done? It will take it course. Let us look at excellence in popular culture and promote that.

  • 7 justin O’Connor Aug 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I like the comment on tennis courts; the UK too has been focused on ‘elite sports’ and won tons of medals, but everyday participation has plummeted. But Marcus, I have hay fever from all those straw men you are chopping down. You are fearlessly attacking those who think ‘the arts make for ‘a better class of person’. give me a break marcus – where have you been these last 50 year. This is caricature. No, its symptomatic of what you say next: “why much thinking around the arts is dysfunctional and alienated from many Australians”. This sort of post is entirely dysfunction and contributes to it. Yes, you are right. Lets get rid of the arts. Let’s give all the money from orchestras to the band that needs 100 to record. Because we really need another band to record but we certainly don;t need tedious colonial culture that is listened to by elitist pensioners. Nice one

  • 8 marcus Aug 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Justin, i don’t think it’s a caricature. I think it’s part of the explicit argument that is often used. See Richard Mills Australia Council commissioned essay here ( for example.

    I think you’ve actually missed the larger point which is that while we are preoccupied with questions of whether major performing arts companies have enough funding or not we are failing to deliver the basic level of infrastructure that is necessary for successful culture of all kinds to grow and thrive. Australia lost an astonishing proportion of its live music venues (in Newcastle it was 80-90 percent in the 1990s) due to a combination of licensing issues, poker machines, noise and other restrictions. Exactly how many major reviews have been undertaken into that loss and to the policy settings that might ameliorate it? By my count, exactly none.

  • 9 Angel Trumpet Aug 25, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Thanks Marcus for again drawing attention to the rest of the arts world outside of the MPAB realm.

    Indeed the parallels between sport and the arts are always interesting to consider. The country town of my youth was covered in sporting fields and parks for kids to play sport on, organised or not, for free or at very low cost. An elite handful of the kids playing there 25 years ago have gone on to ride in the Tour de France, play for the Wallabies etc, however many many more continue to engage with sport as amateur players and spectators during their adult lives.

    The cultural (in an arts sense of the word) infrastructure available in that same town at low cost was next to zilch, with only the priviliged few having expensive music or visual art lessons etc. Naturally almost no professional arts practitioners came from my country town, and most of its adults rarely engage with art in its various forms as it was not part of their youth.

    It will be interesting to see if the new National Cultural Policy will pay lip service to community/youth/regional arts etc or whether it will continue to perpetuate the top-down approach currently evident in funding models. Governments surely have a responsibility to ensure that each and every member of society can be enriched by art and/or sport if they choose to, even those in prisons, detention centres, remote areas, and elite private schools in eastern Sydney?

  • 10 justin O’Connor Aug 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Marcus – I agree with you on the concern with keeping funding for the big and ignoring the cuts (or just market forces) amongst the small. I also regret – as I am sure you do – that has to be couched in zero sum fashion – because of the sydney opera house so no money for bands in Newcastle etc. I regret it because once launched on that line I think we have lost the argument. Your article does not just say this. It wraps it up in an argument that the arts are elitist. Actually the argument for the arts is that they make you simply a better person. That this becomes transmuted into ‘class’ – whether in terms of ability to pay (or not need to work) or having the required social habitus to appreciate and engage in the arts – is an historical fact. But surely this equation of better person and better class of person was on its way out from the 1930s onwards – or indeed from the emergence of social democratic parties at the end of the 19th century who all argued for access to the arts etc.

    We might not now define ‘better’ person as closer to god, or a good citizen, or good worker, – we now have a post-Nietzschian acknowledgment and fulfillment of our inner creative powers. But if we don;t think the arts make you a better person in some way then why bother.

    The argument clearly is that ‘art’ as traditionally defined and funded is not culture in its entirety. No – but in expanding this does not leave the older arts as elitist. as if tainted by their defenders. It feels like the defenders of the arts are the enemy – but they are not, they are dug down to avoid the enemy. Viz: those who think the arts should be market responsive and if they do receive public funds then they need to be commercially driven. As James Murdoch said – the only guarantee of independence is profit!

  • 11 john Aug 27, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Historically, modern art was very much the product of the ‘market’ – it was a revolt against the Publicly backed Official artists Academy . The heritage problem is the direct result of 40 years of ‘cultural policy’ : it makes culture an artifact.

  • 12 justin O’Connor Aug 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Modern art did emerge in a separate space from official art and the galleries that carried it (and the venues that it performed in) were often privatly funded. To say that modern art is therefore a product of the market is perverse. Most of it was against the market (ha ha – the market got the last laugh).

    Is heritage a problem? Without public funding most of it would not exist. Is it an artifact – some of it is – if we mean an object made by human hand and eye. Is this a problem? Does it mean the process, the culture, the knowledge that went with it has gone. Obviously not in the case of performance. Has it ossified as people say classical music has? If you think it has is this because it has been publicly funded?

  • […] Westbury touched on this in his Elitism (or why art is a bit like tennis). Elitism, in the sense of aspiring to excellence is not necessarily a bad thing. ¬†Westbury says […]

  • 14 john Aug 30, 2011 at 8:52 am


    Until around the time of Gustave Corbet’s first one man commercial exhibition, assess to exhibition, audiences and thus to markets was largely controlled by the Official Academy. The first Moderns were viewed as vulgar because they did appeal directly to the new vulgar market ( often made up of newly -rich English industrialists).

    The ‘ privately funded’ galleries that you refer to were often commission agents, all commission agents are chosen by the seller,in this case the artist, not by the buyer.

    By ‘artifact’ : a classified exhibit in a case .

  • 15 john Aug 30, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I am not opposed to special treatments of ‘arts’.

    The mainstream of Australia is free market and largely deregulated thing, Integrating the funded ‘arts’ sector into the mainstream, would provably require destruction and rebuilding of the funded sector.

  • 16 john Aug 30, 2011 at 10:33 am

    “Has it ossified as people say classical music has?
    If you think it has is this because it has been publicly funded?”

    No, it has ossified because of too much peer review , too much circular self evaluation (and a snooty disdain for ‘commercial’)

    Courbet, comunard radical artist and radical man , was the very first commercial one man show, the people who eventually drove him into exile and bankruptcy were not the market . The market lined up and paid entry for the chance to be shocked.

  • 17 john Sep 1, 2011 at 2:10 pm


    The high court ruling is the last nail in this governments coffin . The next government will ,almost certainly, be led by Mr Abbot..

    Integrating the ‘sector’ – largely dependent on either direct payments from government or indirect payments through tax deductions – a sector that has been exempted by a ‘special status’ from normal market rules into the ‘whole of government’ is looking like integrating a rabbit into a cage full of boa constrictors.

  • 18 john Sep 4, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Marcus and Justin
    On second thoughts, there is growing enthusiasm for a return to the protectionist ,morally conservative , command economy of the 1960s- the birth place of the conceptual frame work(mostly Nugget Coombs work) underpining Whitlams cultural policy MK 1 of 1973-75 policy that created the ‘arts’ as most understand it .

    Maybe it is possible to integrate the the whole of society into the ‘arts’.