This week, the Australian Government declared that the arts were no longer important.
No, that’s not actually true. They didn’t make any such declaration. Instead Prime Minister Scott Morrison spouted some nonsense about why he was cutting a number of government departments to “bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services.”
The Department of Communications and the Arts was one of several that went under the knife. Australian arts will now be overseen by — wait for it — the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The same department that manages our trains and roads will be responsible for the future of the arts industry, which contributes $100 billion to the economy.
The Prime Minister didn’t need to announce how little he and his cohort care about the arts. In a press conference, he addressed the changes to communications, saying there would be “a strong synergy between what’s happening in communications policies, communications, infrastructure delivery and regional Australia.”
He made his contempt for the arts abundantly clear by failing to mention it at all.
During a week in which 100 bushfires are raging across the state of New South Wales, including a megablaze bigger than its capital city, where 1.6 million hectares of land has been destroyed, people have died and Sydneysiders are literally choking on smoke, it almost seems frivolous to complain about cuts to the arts.
But it is shocking (and at the same time, utterly unsurprising) that our Government chose this week — its last in Parliament for the year — sending thoughts and prayers to the firefighters while steadfastly refusing to discuss climate change. Instead, its final actions for 2019 were to merge the environment and agriculture departments (removing responsibility for emissions reductions), ensure that sick refugees are denied medical care — and slash the arts.
In times like these, when there is so much to feel sad and angry about, how much energy should we expend in caring about the arts?
The people who make a living in the arts, of course, care very deeply. They are bracing themselves for further rounds of cuts — like the $100 million that disappeared in 2014 and again in 2015 under this same government, which saw 65 organisations lose their funding.
It is worth noting that the opera and ballet emerged unscathed. While I have nothing against opera and ballet, they are traditionally elitist art forms with high ticket prices that exclude someone on, say, a minimum wage. This not only displays the government’s very narrow understanding of what art is and can be, but also their complete lack of interest for people on a minimum wage.
Two years ago, the Coalition went one step further and announced that arts diplomas would no longer be eligible for government subsidies from the beginning of 2017. This move effectively locked out (again) all but the most privileged students from studying a wide range of subjects encompassing photography, music, visual arts, filmmaking, media, and graphic design. The arts were relegated to a leisure activity, one that you dabble in because your family can afford to pay the hefty upfront fees, rather than a serious investment into your future.
In a capitalist society that values people according to their economic contribution — emphasised by this government’s ethos of “if you have a go, you get a go” — artists are invariably undervalued and therefore underpaid.
The average income of practising professional artists in Australia was around $48,000 in 2015, a figure that includes non-arts income which makes up the bulk of most artists’ earnings. This income declined by 4% between in the seven years prior to the study. By comparison, the average Australian income is around $35,000 higher than this and rises by around 3% per year.
This is why, for many artists, government-funded grants are an essential (yet usually tiny) part of this income. When the government has determined that the arts are too inconsequential to merit a department, then artists are right to fear that they will deem funding them to be an unnecessary expense.
This week, I have seen a meme floating around social media that reads: ‘When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding to support the war effort, he replied: “Then what are we fighting for?”’
The quote is false (as is our hero-worship of Winston Churchill and the belief in righteous use of military force to protect our culture) but the sentiment is spot-on. Who are we without art?
Our arts are not only how we define who we are as Australians, but more importantly, how we engage with that definition to constantly challenge and re-shape it. This is why dictatorships always suffocate the arts and re-form “culture” in their own image. Art questions authority. Art undermines the status quo. Art fucking matters.
This government does not disdain the arts, it actively fears the power of artists to create narratives that conflict with the one that they are constantly feeding us.
Full disclosure: I am a filmmaker who has benefited from government support — which, I might add, was extremely hard-won. Every artist I know would love to achieve a level of commercial success where they do not require this support.
In Australia, this is almost an impossibility: a 2017 study of 94 films found that not one had gone into profit. There is a much longer conversation to be had about why the Australian film industry is propped up by government funding, but one thing is certain — without this funding, it will collapse altogether.
I was recently at a small film festival, lamenting to an indie filmmaker from the US that my movie hadn’t taken me to the soaring heights I’d dreamed of, which are generally measured by a film’s bottom line. She told me she never imagined she would make money off her documentary, she just wanted to live in a world where independent film like hers existed.
I, too, want to live in a world where independent arts exist and flourish. The government is systematically destroying that world. That is why we can and should be angry.