Arts funding has been in the news recently, and few outside the arts ever seem to realise how much is at stake. No other aspect of Australian life is so dependent on such a small proportion of the budget. It is not, however, just a budgetary issue. Like art itself, the questions around it incorporate many of the tensions of the broader society. At present the discussion is invariably accompanied by a comment about the need for more private sponsorship, with the frequent implication that the private dollar is somehow superior, although with little reflection about how it might be implemented, or where it might work best.
The arguments for private funding, moreover, can be so intertwined with the arguments against public funding, that one cannot examine the one without the other. No-one is saying anything very much in favour of public funding at present—for some reason, the artists, though politically active, have been tongue-tied in terms of their arguments—so we need to re-examine some of the reasons why it was instituted in the first place.
I do not wish to suggest that private sponsorship is not an essential ingredient in the arts funding mix. But the proposition that it has the capacity to solve all art’s funding problems—that if it could only be accessed properly, the government would be able to withdraw altogether—is a different matter. Some commentators, such as Jason Potts at the Institute for Public Affairs,1 have argued that it does, but one has the strong impression that for all its ideological attractiveness, its practicalities—and inequities—have not been examined.
Private funding has many precedents. The church was a patron for Fra Angelico and Michelangelo. Haydn was given the opportunity to experiment for decades under the Esterhazys, and Count Razumovsky maintained the Schuppanzigh Quartet as a personal arts foundation for Beethoven. No-one could argue that at certain times in the history of the West, at least, private patronage hasn’t played an important role in enabling artists to be productive. There have always, however, been large variations in the way patronage worked across art forms. One differentiator was the extent to which an art form was involved in the generation of meaning. Some art forms—jewellery and fashion, for instance—have a naturally sympathetic relationship with the projection of status. They can mean other things as well, but it happens that it is easy for them to embody prestige.
For other forms, the relationship is more variable. It is notoriously difficult to be specific about the meaning of music. As long as composers kept to sonatas and quartets, they were safe. But opera could be a different matter. Operas have librettos, and librettos are made out of words: they can chafe against the perspectives of authorities and potential patrons (as Cosi, Fidelio and A Masked Ball variously did). As for art forms constructed wholly out of meanings, such as the literary forms: there have never been settled relations between patron and writer. There are a small number of famous counter-examples, such as Harriet Shaw Weaver’s support for James Joyce, or Ruth Lilly’s 2003 bequest to Poetry Chicago, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Thus it is that very few poems are mounted on boardroom walls. One never sees novels—not even Ayn Rand—being quietly placed on the table to reinforce the effect of the Zegna suit and the water views. As for essayists: their contribution to the economies of status is so slight that one struggles to think of a single positive impact they have ever had; there is something about all those arguments and ideas that is disreputable, and a little scruffy, like a shirt-tail that needs tucking in, or a naive opinion at the wrong time and place. The point is that not all artistic content is equally harmless—nor should it be. Part of literature’s job description is to think beyond the received opinions of the society it comes from. Inevitably it will clash with the opinions of potential donors more than arts that carry fewer edges and implications. All art forms can be the bearers of unwanted messages, but the verbal forms are the champions when it comes to inappropriateness. It is not a coincidence that there is a hierarchy in the world of private funding, and that the literary arts are at the bottom of it. The problem is that this is not recognised: too many commentators airily recommend that artists in general should seek more private funding, with no understanding that this is a lot harder in some art forms than it is in others.
But then: traditional patronage never was a just and comprehensive system for the benefit of art and artists. Power lay with the patrons. The dispensation of patronage was a function, not of policy but of the patrons’ needs and tastes. Some opinions could be out-of-bounds (the nineteenth century is a story of exile, not patronage, for writers in Europe); legitimate areas of artistic concern might not even register with the patron (it took many centuries, for instance, before the lower classes became visible—if they ever did). If the situation was difficult historically, it becomes more rather than less so the closer we get to the present. The function of art has changed over the last 200 years. Society is no longer underpinned by shared beliefs. Now the artist is responsible for the world view of the text, as well as the images and characters it contains. This, however, is one more zone of potential conflict between artist and buyer. If there is still plenty of art whose purpose is to enhance the self-image of the buyer—a resilient market in the portraiture of eminent people; paintings that incorporate lists of donors—the unavoidable incorporation of what may be contentious perspectives can mean that the artwork itself is a barrier to support.
Fortunately the majority of donors are both more sophisticated and more far-seeing than to wish to fund simplistic self-projections. Some of the argument for private funding as a universal nostrum, however, still invokes a past when one of the functions of art was to articulate the donor’s self-satisfaction. There are dreams of power in such notions—not just in terms of the patron’s own status but also of power over the imagination of the artist: a nostalgia for more biddable times. It is hard to see, however, what such dreams offer a society that asks its artists to engage with ideas and technologies that are being endlessly reinvented.
Rather than indulging in self-aggrandisement, the modern donor has to make a judgement about whether what the artist is doing is valuable. This, too, can have its drawbacks for the practitioner. It can mean that he or she has to be a salesperson, that one key skill will be the ability to make a pitch. This may have worked, by and large, for Mozart, but it was little use for Schubert, who rarely reached first base: he was too diffident, and lower middle class; there was, moreover, an inwardness to his work that did not always suit the spaces a patron might envisage them being performed in. This is one of the fundamental problems with too much reliance on privately sourced funding: its ad hoc nature. Donors are individuals with enthusiasms; it is not their job to be responsible for the whole scene. No matter how well considered their interventions are, they cannot help but leave unaddressed an army of imaginations that don’t appeal to them—or that remain unrealised with the imperfectly socialised. Even when large bequests manage proposals systematically, they still operate within focus areas. Governments at least try to manage everything comprehensively, to distribute their resources with due consideration to every call. No doubt they do not always get it right. But no other system even attempts either to listen to the full range of claims or to mediate equitably between them.
The broader arguments against public funding should also be considered, at least some of which are based in hostility against the arts in general. There are people who don’t particularly like the arts, who may not mind them being funded on a private basis—it’s up to the individual what he or she does with their money—but who don’t want their tax dollar being wasted on something that doesn’t apply to them. There isn’t the space here to argue for the arts in general. But those who wish to see them supported need to acknowledge that arts funding (like overseas aid, like budgets for research and all those other outlays that do not seem, to many voters, to have any personal applicability) will require ongoing and active protection—after all, one reason political parties are reluctant to make too much noise about their arts policies is because they know that many voters resent their having arts policies at all.
It is not easy to persuade someone that art is a good thing if nothing in their experience tells them that it is. Ultimately this is a matter of education and exposure, and although one senses that we are making some headway here—there is more expectation now that the promotion of art is a natural function of modern government than there was 50 years ago—we have not made so much progress that a few political decisions mightn’t unravel it. In that respect, people who care whether governments nurture the arts will need to be vigilant for many years yet: these arguments are still being made against an uncertain backdrop.
Another argument (grounded, one senses, in resentment against the old, so-called high arts) says: at any particular time you can make money out of some art—at present it might be R&B for teenage girls, TV dramas, airport novels and films based on superheroes. If other art forms can only exist with support, we should let them go: orchestras, opera, poetry, jazz—either their day has passed, or their audiences are too small to warrant their being funded. Either way, nothing in art is worth saving if it doesn’t pay for itself. This is an argument for popularity as the sole basis of aesthetic worth. Arguments involving popularity are tricky, because there is no doubt that sometimes popular art is also good art. It is not, however, the same thing as quality—the overlap between quality and popularity is one of those areas where the gods are at their most capricious—and the two must be kept separate in the minds of assessors.
Time remains the best testing ground for quality, but decisions have to be made by and about contemporaries. Unfortunately, arguments about aesthetic quality will always be contentious and time-consuming. Without them, however, popularity—or fashion—becomes the only voice in the room. It is easy to see why governments are tempted to see things in terms of quantity: focus questions, census results, the quarterly job figures—what else gives them an indisputable ground for their decisions? Quantities take that messy human element out of the picture. Which is why, right now, somewhere in a Canberra bogeyhole, a clerk is quietly assessing a funding proposal in terms of its customer impacts. Yet this is an argument for Le Pétomane – the fart man: despite what governments might prefer, there is no art without relative aesthetic value.
Another argument—and this could be written off as the mind-set of a dying breed of art snob if it weren’t so common—says: art is a ruthless business; history has a winnowing effect on our memories; since we are only interested in the best, we should give them our support and let the rest go. This ignores the fact that it is only occasionally possible for contemporaries to say who or what the best are. Under this regime, there is no support for Schubert, Kafka, Hopkins, Dickinson or Blake—but plenty for Longfellow and Meyerbeer. It also ignores all the wonderful art that, while not necessarily great, contributes so much to the texture of everyday life: well-made TV shows (which are, nevertheless, not The Wire); really good pop songs (though not ‘Like a Rolling Stone’); well-crafted stories and novels that give great pleasure but are not Nabokov, and not Joyce. One understands that there is a brutality to the mathematics of attention. But a culture in which only giants are allowed in the room would be a claustrophobic one—like a club in which the only permissible attitude was respect.
Finally, there is a blancmange of disconnected thoughts that runs: ‘I know the names of artists from the past, and some of them received patronage. I barely know the names of the contemporary artists, and they’re all funded by the government, therefore the present system doesn’t work.’ One hesitates to call this an argument, but it is a pervasive set of disjointed assertions. At its heart, ambivalence about celebrity and incuriosity about contemporary art combine to create a triumph of unexamined dismissiveness.
The ambivalence is this: once the status of a celebrity has been established, many will become excited; if, however, there is any doubt, they will resist acclamation with animus—as if, despite their love of the certified product, they also resent having to make the transition from equal to inferior any more frequently than they need to. This attitude underlies the ‘logic’ of the conclusion: since, being unknown, these artists are only ordinary people, good money is being wasted on mediocrities. It is easy to see how this confuses fame with aesthetic quality (‘She can’t be any good, because she’s not well known’), a confusion reinforced by resentment at having to make any acknowledgement that isn’t necessary (aesthetic quality, by itself, is contestable, and can be ignored; celebrity is as much proof as a person is going to get, and must be acceded to).
None of this has anything to do with the quality of the art. It reduces the argument about patronage to a function of the psychology of status and implies a seamless progression from funding to celebrity, with no sense of the complications that might lie between them. It may seem like a hopelessly simple claim, the sort of thing that might be said by a rustic in a play, but it is a widespread conclusion. The only way one can really know that the money is going to productive places is through personal experience of the quality of the art involved. Since, however, those who have rejected funding on these grounds have neither the curiosity nor the sense of justice to investigate, it is better, they conclude, to find against the recipients than to give them the benefit of the doubt, with all the damage that that incurs to their self-esteem. And therefore, they shrewdly find, the funding is an extravagance.
It is difficult, in all of these arguments, to separate indifference towards art in general from a dislike of money being spent by someone else: as if the only person who could spend money properly, in matters such as art, were the protagonists themselves. Short of handing out an arts dollar to every taxpayer, we are left with a situation where both the uninterested and the resentful pressure the policymakers with similar opinions about processes of which they are only dimly aware and artists they don’t have the curiosity to explore. In the context of such poorly grounded arguments, it is easy to see how one poorly grounded answer would be to turn everything over to the private sponsor. Perhaps governments and arts-funding bodies should consider a little more money spent on education and argument.
I have recently been involved in a project that allowed me to witness the effect of systematic government spending at firsthand. Three colleagues and I compiled an anthology of contemporary Australian verse, which involved reading everything we could lay our hands on from the last 25 years.2 Although we came to the task with varying expectations, we concluded that there were perhaps 30 poets in Australia capable of producing really first-rate work—beautifully crafted poems, which operated at an original level of insight (this is without mentioning the many poets capable of producing high-quality work who were not, however, writing quite at that level of distinctiveness). Some poets may have been able to bring it off consistently; some may only have written a handful of pieces of such quality: nevertheless that is a startling and game-changing number. We have never had so many poets of such quality in Australia. In the 1950s and 1960s there were perhaps half a dozen who could write this well (and yes, this is a direct comparison with the famous names of the period).
A hundred years ago, while poetry may have been widespread in the public domain, its popularity in Australia rarely translated into quality, and there is hardly any work from, say, the turn of the previous century that is as good as the best from the recent past. Australian poetry is now a world of its own: it interacts with the world beyond, but most of its conversations are with its predecessors and peers. When one casts around for reasons for this plenitude one might adduce the greater levels of education, and possibly the higher levels of prosperity; there has been a long, slow gathering of poetic momentum. But one also notes that it is the first period in which a mature government funding program has operated. Prior to this, there had been the coterie funding of the fifties and sixties, when Slessor and Menzies and a small number of others would meet to discuss a small number of recommendations, and then a period during the seventies and eighties when the first systematic programs were inaugurated—programs that would have been fully developed during the period 1990 to the present.
No doubt the effect of the grant system on individual poets has varied enormously. A small number may not have received any grants during the period, although most will have received a few. A few poets may have worked to different rhythms, in the academic system. The beneficiaries have been spread across a wide range of poetics, styles and politics. Whereas the sums involved do little to shift the recipients into the strata of the well-to-do, they do provide sufficient time for people to devote themselves wholly to a project. If one combines this with the small but crucial bounties given to the platforms: to publishers, to journals such as Meanjin and to organisations such as Australian Poetry and The Red Room, the effect of a modest government investment has been spectacular. One cannot say for certain that government funding is the principal factor. But it is one key factor among others: an essential ingredient.
Sometimes the funding bodies are asked whether they are really having any impact. One could hardly ask for a more substantial effect than this. It is hard to see how this might have been achieved if the only funding available were in private hands. It is not so much the amounts involved—there are private donors who could find the sums that make their way towards poetry—as the attempt to manage the whole art form systematically. There is little doubt we need both sources. Government spending is always going to be inadequate, just as it is in research or welfare. But it can provide a coherent and equitable starting point, upon which others can build. Judicious private interventions can be enormously productive. But their strengths are also their limitations: because private funding is enthusiastic and focused, it also tends to be ad hoc; because it occurs at a personal level, it is subject to the qualities—good and bad—of the individuals involved.
However useful private funding may be, it can only ever complement—and not replace—a comprehensive program. It is neither uniformly applicable across art forms, nor systematic with respect to the distribution of funds in any one particular form. A policy based solely on private sources would be too random, too idiosyncratic, too subject to the prejudices and needs of the individual donor. It would no doubt score some magnificent successes. But it would leave too much good art unrealised—no matter how well intentioned the release of the dart.
- Jason Potts, ‘Leaving Legacies Behind: Arts Policy for the Here and Now’, <ipa.org.au>, 28 September 2015.
- M. Langford, J. Beveridge, J. Johnson and D. Musgrave (eds), Contemporary Australian Poetry, Puncher & Wattmann, Sydney, 2016.