Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Art for arts sake, art for society’s sake or arts as entertainment - value and spectacle

The value of culture has always been viewed through the lens of economic or social benefit. If it doesn’t produce some secondary benefits it has been seen as of lesser importance – a diversion or mere entertainment, with a focus on spectators and spectacle.

I wrote the first version of this article about four years ago after four years working in the Commonwealth’s Indigenous cultural programs. Because I was working in the Commonwealth public service and it commented on policy issues in the area I was directly involved with, I didn't publish it.

Rereading it four years on, in a very different environment, is strangely fascinating. It raises issues about value and impact that coincidentally are related to concerns that have more recently been expressed by the current Minister about focusing on the broader outcomes of arts and culture at the expense of its ‘intrinsic’ value.

Dancers at Garma Festival, East Arnhem Land, 2008
In this he is not necessarily reflecting a unanimous view because it’s clear that in its day to day activity, particularly in the area of Indigenous Affairs, the current Government still has a focus on broader social and economic outcomes, just as it did in the Howard era with the ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’ agenda.

How this will play out with respect to the suite of Indigenous cultural programs which seem to be firmly lodged with the Attorney-General’s Department, when almost every other Indigenous program has been shoehorned into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, is hard to say.

The power of an instrumental view
I have always had a strongly instrumental view of arts and culture and been a strong advocate of the broader social and economic impacts of arts and cultural activity. I’ve seen plenty of examples where involvement in arts and cultural activity has produced major changes in the outlook, behaviour and well-being of individuals and communities.

In the earliest example I can recall, when I was a Community Arts Officer in Noarlunga in South Australia in the early 1980s, I was told a resident of a nursing home was considered catatonic. Yet he became involved in writing and theatre workshops we ran there and the nursing home staff were astonished at how much he came out of his shell as a result.

When I was ACTU Arts Officer in the mid to late 1980s and working to then President Simon Crean, the network of Trade Union Arts Officers, and the parallel Community Arts Officers who were mostly based with Local Government, actively promoted an instrumental view of arts and culture as a way of persuading their host organisations of its merits in daily life, at community and workplace level.

Crean was later better known to the arts and cultural sector as the Commonwealth Minister for the Arts who introduced the first Australian National Cultural Policy in 20 years – in fact only the second one of its kind and not a bad attempt at that. It’s certainly true that the approach in the National Cultural Policy is very much an instrumental one, hence the criticism from the current Minister.

Beyond instrumental
As much as I have an affinity for instrumental views of arts and culture, the problem is that if you reduce it only to the broader outcomes, even as a way of persuading a broad constituency of its worth, is there anything left at the heart?

It’s a complex question because you could reasonably ask if anything has intrinsic value – health or wealth or most other things. For example is health actually good in itself or is it only good for its instrumental value because it improves overall happiness? An instrumental view can have merit with all social phenomenon, especially in seeing how it plays out on the larger landscape and produces impacts that are not immediately apparent. Often it’s not until further investigation that we can see the complex causal pathways involved and assess the scope of the impacts.

Diversion or mere entertainment
The value of culture has always been viewed through the lens of economic or social benefit. If it doesn’t produce some secondary benefits it has been seen as of lesser importance – a diversion or mere entertainment, with a focus on spectators and spectacle.

This has lead to cultural activity being clumped with sport as entertainment, a view that has become even more prevalent in recent years. Both art and sport suffer because sport is also about fundamental matters beyond entertainment – mental and physical fitness and, often, cooperative activity and cultural traditions.

This view appears most powerfully in relation to worthwhile attempts to make a difference to acute social challenges such as Indigenous disadvantage.

Powerful flow on effects
Case studies and anecdotal evidence show that involvement in cultural (and sporting) activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement; developing a stronger sense of community; increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability; and by helping to generate income streams however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

However, this is not why people are involved in cultural activity – it’s just a bonus. It shouldn’t be ignored and it can be harnessed to good effect but we have to be careful not to just focus on the side effects, no matter how important. Cultural activity is an expression of who we are, what we value and how we see ourselves and our place in the world. That’s much more important.

More than the sum of its roles
The subtlety is to recognise that arts and culture (or anything else) is more than the sum of its instrumental roles, more than its entertainment value, more than any specific ‘inherent’ value. Perhaps we need to be careful that we don’t forget that, in this mix, first and foremost arts and culture actually produce arts and cultural impacts.

Few would suggest that non-Indigenous culture should only be supported where it can be shown to produce some social or economic impact. Indigenous culture is far more than a way of fixing social problems – it is a powerful positive force in Australian culture, a central part of our presence in the world.

See also

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less
‘The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. In a context where there have been significant long term cuts to arts and culture funding in the last two budgets, particularly the 2014-15 one, these changes only worsen the situation’, Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world
‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’, Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe 
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2
we are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind, ‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.


Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

The Indigenous cultural programs – what is happening to them?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

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