‘Art should astonish, transmute, transfix’, Brett Whiteley once said, adding ‘one must work at the tissue between truth and paranoia’.
And, in recent years at least, in the crack between poverty and scraping by, as Australia’s arts and cultural scenes were stripped of the support necessary to enrich the nation’s consciousness—or even just brighten someone’s day. Creatives may be compelled to create, reflecting back our hearts, fears, desires and whimsies to the mutual benefit of the nation at large, but the nation’s representatives felt no such compulsion to fund it.
The pandemic was just the nail in an increasingly cavernous coffin. The Australia Institute found commonwealth arts funding fell by almost 20% between 2008 and 2014. And that was before the Coalition wrapped their hands around the arts budget.
Half a century ago, an Australian prime minister believed art was a fundamental human right.
Gough Whitlam’s belief in the arts helped, to paraphrase Paul Keating, change the way Australia thought of itself. But in the proceeding decades, creatives once again became an afterthought, their work not even considered labour. The Morrison government largely locked out the arts sector from its Coronavirus saviour payment, JobKeeper. Under pressure from the 600,000 or so employed in the sector, a relief package was finally announced, but the then-prime minister Scott Morrison could barely bring himself to utter the word artist, instead focussing on the ‘tradies’ who would benefit from building sets and stages.
Arts funding may not have been one of the biggest flashpoints of the 2022 election. But the silence and space left in place of what could have been became so loud, the arts was once again a mainstream issue.
Revive, the Albanese government’s new cultural policy, accompanied with $286m in promised funding (some of it redirected) four new bodies to oversee and protect Australia’s art and culture scene, dedicated local content quotas for the streaming giants, an Australian poet laureate and a focus and commitment to hand power back to First Nations artists, promises to fill some of those gaps.
But it was not just the money which sent a shiver of hope through one of Australia’s most neglected communities—it was the recognition. The acknowledgement. The seeing.
‘The arts cannot be left simply to those who can afford to do it,’ Albanese said.
‘Arts jobs, are real jobs’.
This is, the Prime Minister went on, about the nation’s soul.
There is still a lot of work to be done to reclaim the nation’s soul after decades of neoliberal focus where ‘value for money’ was scraped of any compassion or context, and narrowed to literal dollars.
Take the government’s commitment to ‘develop information’ about ‘the flexibility available for artists to be looking for work or working in the creative arts sector, and have this recognised as part of their mutual obligation requirements for unemployment payments’.
Mutual obligations should not exist, but while they still do, they should be re-written to allow flexibility for what counts as ‘work’. There is no benefit in meaningless labour for labour’s sake.
Instead of pledging to ‘develop information’ about possible changes that could be made in this space, changes must be made.
Because while art should be for all, without allowing for the basics in human dignity—a liveable wage—we consign people living in poverty (including artists) to a colourless existence, where they’re forced to prove their worth by what a government budget deems valuable.
Whitlam believed a ‘society in which the arts flourish is a society in which every human value can flourish. A society where democracy is secure is a society where the arts are secure.’
Revive takes us all closer. But we should remain vigilant about who it risks leaving behind.