Why we need subsidised independent artists

This what’s happening right now

For those of you who don’t already know, Australian arts minister, George Brandis, has announced he will cut $100m from Australia’s independent arts body, the Australia Council, and instead use that money for a ‘national program for excellence in the arts’ which will be personally administered by his office.

What’s wrong with this?  Australia Council for the Arts is an independent, peer-reviewed body, that administers art funding separately from the government.  With this change, artists will need to obtain personal approval from George Brandis’ office, and make art to his taste, in order to receive a piece of that $100m.

Across Australia, artists are rallying today, to ask George Brandis to keep the arts separate from the government.

But it’s not just artists who should be concerned. It’s everyone. And here’s why.
Why do we need art?
Imagine, for a moment, our world without artists. There would be no TV, no books, no film, no video games, no theatre, no music, no bands, no dancers, no painters, no designers, no architects.  Our homes would be purely functional, rather than designed for beauty.  We would probably live in concrete-box high-rises, as that’s most efficient.  Without designers to shape our towns and cities, we would likely be surrounded by concrete, instead of trees and parks.  Take fashion designers out of the equation and clothes would be purely functional.  We might as well wear potato sacks.

In this scenario, our lives are pretty barren, and there is no beauty except outside of the cities, in nature where humans haven’t wrecked it yet.  All we have is work and education.  What do we live for?  What do we do for fun?  What’s the point of it all?


We don’t just need art.  We like it.  And proof is seen over and over again as our suburbs transform themselves.  A typical pattern is this.  Poor artists congregate in a poor suburb.  The suburb becomes interesting, dynamic, lively, with all the projects sparked by these artists.  People are intrigued.  In fact, people want to live there.  In the clamour to buy houses in this suburb, prices are pushed up up up. And after a while, it’s only the very rich who can afford to live there.  Guess what happens to the artists?  They are priced out of the market and leave.  The suburb becomes ‘gentrified’.

The economy of art

We live in a capitalist society.  That means that every year, when our government sits down to analyse the success of our nation that year, it is measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  The more GDP, or the more money that has changed hands, the more successful our country has been.  Unfortunately this value permeates every aspect of our society.  We are only successful if there is money involved, preferably lots of money, the more the better.

The thing is, if you want to make money, in most cases you have to really focus on it.  That’s how big corporations are made.  They are made by business managers who have studied commerce and finance focussing on maximising profit, cutting costs, and ‘optimising services’, in order to yield the greatest possible profit for its executives.  This sort of thing requires a great deal of attention to the ‘bottom line’.  It doesn’t leave a lot of time and energy for creative experimentation (which would cost too much).

The other thing about money is that it tends to come when you, or your company, is very established.  You climb your way up the ranks in terms of status, skill and success.  Companies expect to grow every year.

The reason it is hard for artists to make money is because they take their eye off the bottom line, and instead break the rules and experiment with new, different ideas, rather than proven techniques that will bring in a reliable income.  The very thing that makes art so interesting and enjoyable is its experimental nature. The something different and interesting that delights or challenges us.  For every piece of art, whether it’s a house design or a garment or a painting, that brings a lot of money, you can bet there were hundreds, even thousands, of failed attempts that didn’t.  Those failed attempts didn’t earn money.  But they were a crucial part of the process in creating something that we all want.

Unfortunately, the desirable product is often then snapped up by business people who do what they do best: make money from it.  But the artist usually doesn’t end up with a particularly large slice of that pie. And remember what they do get has to cover all their experimentation as well as their successful item.  The hourly rate is usually pretty low.

That’s why art needs to be subsidised.  Everyone in society benefits when we have artists experimenting and creating and pushing boundaries and challenging and surprising us.  Governments know that.  That’s why they allocate funds to artists.

However, because art doesn’t make (much) money, in our capitalist society, it also isn’t given much value.  And that’s why being an artist is the poorest paid profession that exists, and most artists live below the poverty line.

Why artists need to be able to create independently

A little while ago, I watched Andrew Marr’s documentry on the history of the world.  In it he outlined the reason that Britain became one of the world’s great superpowers, despite being such a small country.  It’s because the British gave their people a free reign to create and develop their ideas and profit from them.  At that time, around the world, most societies were empires governed by a single leader, who took total control of the creativity their citizens were allowed, and ruthlessly stamped out those who didn’t comply with the government line.  When art has to toe the government line, it becomes propaganda, not art.

Artist Robert Jackson said on his Facebook page: “In my quest to stay in the funding cycle under the new regime I have just started work on an anti-halal opera, a climate change denial ballet, a “the beauty of fracking” exhibition, and a racial vilification novel.”

By having the Minister for the Arts personally approve the creative projects of Australia’s artist, we are returning to the pre-industrial age where art has to toe the government line and suit the personal taste of the Arts Minister.  This does not foster an environment in which artists can take risks, experiment, and try out radical new ideas.  It does not foster an environment where artists can work towards change at a society level.

Why art should not be about excellence

George Brandis wants to foster ‘excellence’ in the arts.  At first glance that sounds noble, ambitious.  But the problem is that excellence is all about outcome.  It’s about producing a brilliant final product.    When art is constrained with the outcome firmly in our sights, ideas and creation are constrained too.  ‘Excellence’ does not encourage risk-taking, because the risk might result in something not excellent.  It does not encourage art as a process, as a community-building tool, as a way to share cultures and build connections and foster tolerance and celebrate diversity.  It does not encourage art as a personal tool for self-expression, despite the many benefits it has to offer us.  It does not encourage art that is really confronting or disturbing or uncomfortable, because that probably wouldn’t be ‘excellent’ either.

What you can do

1. Please write to your local federal MP to tell them how poor this decision is, and how it threatens the fundamental democratic process of arts funding. It doesn’t matter what political party they are from, they represent you and your interests.
Put in your postcode, and it will give you the contact details for your local MP.

Click on: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Members for your MP

2. Get busy on social media: #FreeTheArts

3. Sign the petition: http://www.australianunions.org.au/australians_for_artistic_freedom

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