The power politics of (under-) funding the arts

Image appears on Www.education.nswtf.org.au

Image appears on Www.education.nswtf.org.au

I have had this question bubbling around in my head for weeks (months, years). Why do Australian governments fund the arts so poorly?

It’s not an economically rational decision. There is ample evidence of the value of the arts to the economy. Politicians are intelligent and educated people, and can understand the concept of investment in an industry at certain nodes of influence having a catalytic effect, leading to much greater returns.

Cuts to the arts are often post-rationalised as an economic decision. In much the same way as I can rationalise buying yet another black cardigan (I’ll always use it, it goes with everything), the government uses economic reasons to rationalise selling pretty much anything. 20% cuts to higher education – ‘hard economic decisions’; freezing the Medicare payment schedule – ‘hard economic decisions; cuts to CSIRO, the ABC, and pretty much every other public institution which Australian people still actually have some faith in and respect for – ditto, ditto, ditto.

‘Hard economic decisions’ sounds paternal, responsible, vaguely Calvinistic, appealing to our epigenetic belief that pain is noble and necessary for the greater good. In reality of course, economic rationalism is just a marketing strategy for conservative government agendas. There is literally no economic sense in cutting the arts. There is even less economic sense in cutting something as essential as higher education or under-funding schools (the latter is increasing in the 2016 budget, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of quality education that was derived from actual research and evidence).

How do you argue with irrational people?

There are a few, barely visible factors which I think it might be useful to observe and unpack, which might help us to come to some sort of answer to this question.

  1. The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda.
  2. Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens.
  3. The end of democracy is nigh.

The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda

This is not exactly a state secret I am revealing here. But it is worth bearing this in mind. A free market, to some, means total laissez faire capitalism (think pre-GFC America) and to others (think Keynes, the economist darling of the arts) a market regulated to protect competition for the benefit of ‘consumers.’

At the moment in Australia we are finding out just what a free market means to our newest Prime Minister. So far, it seems to mean, ‘This government is not paying for anything that someone else will eventually cough up for.’

It seems sensible until you realise what it means in practice. For example, you can count on parents to work their fingers to the bone to send their children to university, even if the fees become astronomically high. When you love someone, that’s what you do. In the process, the parents may sacrifice their health and housing security to do so; and ultimately there will probably end up being far fewer Australian students at university from less affluent backgrounds.

The government can also count on artists practising their art despite not being funded to do so. When you love something, that’s what you do. Of course, there will be far fewer artists making art, and far fewer artists from less affluent backgrounds. But so what? It’s still taking place, right?

And then there is the argument – why don’t philanthropists pay for the art?

The problem with philanthropy is that it is not a meritocracy, as public funding is (meant to be). Philanthropists can donate to whatever they like, and so they should – but greater reliance on this purse means a greater concentration of funding in the hands of artists who can access power. It is the same problem as raising fees in higher education – a meritocratic system which enabled people like me and my siblings to escape poverty and ‘economically participate’ is less and less accessible to the scrappers, the underdogs, the people on the outside looking in.

wish things worked the way that the free market philosophers believe they do. I wish they did.

But they don’t. Free market politicians in this day and age are as dangerously innocent of reality and as frighteningly fanatic as communists in agrarian Russia, 1917. Just look at America to see how well free market economics works out for the little guy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Foucault was on to something. Politicians use their power to entrench the status quo for themselves and the class they identify with. Cuts to education, freezes to Medicare, and cuts to the small-to-medium arts sector are all manifestations of this primitive act. They might even believe in it as they do it. Missionary zeal is never not zealous.

That’s why you have to elect a government which identifies with the class of the majority of people. With the working and middle-class, who like choice and enterprise but also like education and health care. Who like sport but also want their kids to be able to go to the library or the gallery or learn an instrument at school, public school.

I don’t think there is a political party in Australia which currently identifies with the class of the majority of people. I think the current government markets itself well in an aspirational sense – you know, the classic ‘if you buy this car you’ll get the beautiful girl’ – ‘if you vote for me you’ll be well off and have good-looking white friends who accept you.’ It has convinced people it represents who they want to become, as opposed to who they are. By comparison, I have no idea who the ALP represents. The ALP seems to have been experiencing the kind of identity crisis reminiscent of my teenage years (patched overalls, bandannas and brand name sunglasses. I was young. The ALP has no such excuse).

Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens

The other point I want to make is that the arts are viewed through a gendered lens, and whenever your industry or sector is viewed through the G-lens, you are under-valued. Social service sectors associated with the feminine virtues – childcare, social work, nursing, teaching – are amongst our poorest paid professions. Within sectors there are gendered hierarchies – criminal law or corporate law vs community law centres; brain surgeons vs paediatric surgeons; the big arts companies, associated with power and old money and status, vs the rest of the arts. Then of course there are gendered hierarchies within hierarchies – school principals and CEOs of social service companies – still mostly blokes, despite the majority of their workforce being women; heads of major arts companies still mostly men.

My husband gives me hope, noting that sectors like banking and finance will be disrupted via technology over the next decade or so, but it will be much harder to disrupt the social services sectors, in which humans will be ‘much harder to disrupt.’

I think arts are seen through the G-lens. This is because it is not seen as a ‘productive’ sector (even though we know it actually is – but like much of feminine-gendered work, the outcomes seem indirect or invisible to the gendered eye).

Because of the G-lens, arts work is not viewed as ‘real’ (i.e. men’s) work by people outside the arts. Consequently arts is stuck with a bad image as the ‘pretend’ work of ‘people who’ve never known a day’s real work.’ As soon as you say ‘I work in the arts,’ people roll their eyes. It’s like you just said, ‘my biweekly mani-pedi in Toorak.’ Because the ‘arts’ are seen as a nice to have, as something fun, as something you might do because you love it but not for the money, then you are immediately identified as someone who is either a ‘bludger’ on the tax payer (i.e their) coin, or a member of the moneyed class. In reality, most of the arts sector is impoverished and many are attempting to speak truth to power and other culturally necessary acts of resistance.

The other thing about gendered sectors is that the work they do and the value they create makes positivists like free market believers uncomfortable. The exchange involved in arts is about people, relationships, connection and spark. It is an energy transfer and by nature its impact is largely unseen. Arts experiences are gifts and cannot be made more efficient or productive. The value of an arts experience is like the value you derive from a teacher who actually cares about you, or a counsellor who genuinely responds to where you are at right now. It saves you. It changes your life. Authentic connection is so hard to come by in this free market age, where everything has a price and everything can be made more cost-effective (I was just reading that funding cuts will see callers to mental health helplines asked automated questions so they can be directed to the appropriate mental health area. This is an attempt to streamline helplines rather than fund specialist helplines. Imagine calling a helpline and getting asked to dial 1 for suicidal ideation, 2 for loneliness, 3 for eating disorders…? You don’t have to be that imaginative to see that helpline might not be very helpful). But in this era, the ineffable is dubious.

The end of democracy is nigh (well not entirely, but come on, got your attention)

Since the late 1990s, we have seen a contempt for the ethics and norms of public service arise in the corridors of power. I don’t mean everyone in parliament – there are lots of good people working for their electorates. But I think that there is a clique of political types who learned under Howard’s tutelage (SievX, children overboard, ‘I was not informed’) just how much room there really was to manoeuvre before you actually broke the law.

In the arts, this was brought home in 2015 when the Australia Council unceremoniously lost a huge chunk of its funding. I and others were speechless at the sheer audacity of such an act, flouting long-valued conventions of arms-length funding and the norms of policy-making in consultation with the sector and based on evidence.

It’s not so much the end of democracy I am talking about here, as the end of the concept of public service. 2015 highlighted for me that there is, amongst some decision-makers, a lack of respect for the norms of public service – evidence-based policy making, careful consideration of the public interest, transparency and accountability of ministerial funding decisions….It’s seems as though there are some decision-makers who hold us, the people they are supposed to serve, in contempt. These decision-makers behave like a passive aggressive friend who calls you at 6.00 am on a long weekend to allegedly wish you a happy birthday (you know who you are). How do you call them on it? It’s not illegal. But it’s clearly not right.