Friday, June 3, 2016

Arts funding: budgeting for the soul

When it was suggested to Winston Churchill that he cut the arts budget to fund the war effort, he replied, “then what are we fighting for?”  Well, so the meme goes.  The fact that the then British Prime Minister didn’t actually say this doesn’t really matter. It’s remained a favourite social media meme and oft (mis)quoted moment because it’s not an arts advocate, an artist, a curator or an arts-loving writer arguing for arts funding – it’s a politician.  It seems so unusual that a politician would care about the arts. 

On the whole, politicians are considered philistines when it comes to the arts.  As we come into the federal election, it’s evidently not a priority.  The headlines are all about wealth-creation (or barriers to it): surplus, superannuation, taxes, housing, ‘boat people’, dole bludgers, construction, unions, penalty rates etc. etc.…. And that’s why the arts community gave a collective sigh of relief when Malcolm Turnbull  - a known art-collector and supporter of the arts - was elected PM.

The arts community was thus understandably upset when the new arts minister appointed by Turnbull announced that the changes to arts funding brought in by the conservative, ballet-loving George Brandis were not going to be reversed. Over the last year, the arts community has waged an admirable war against the changes.  Last year’s senate enquiry into the Liberal’s art budgets, for instance, received a record 2719 submissions, leading one LNP senator to label the response as a conspiracy.  Evidently, our politicians underestimated the passion and sheer doggedness of the Australian arts community. 

Last month the effects of the arts changes became particularly obvious when around 65 arts organisations, many of them established and respected, were de-funded in part as a result of the funding changes.   Because of the Australia Council’s funding structure, the cuts in funding have disproportionately affected the visual arts and writing communities.  As Alison Croggon pointed out in The Guardian, there’s been a massive 70% reduction in individual grants since the 2013/14 financial year. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the changes, and I recommend you google Croggon’s articles in The Monthly (16 May) and The Guardian (19 May) for a more detailed account. Instead, I want to emphasise why we should fund the arts, and more specifically the visual arts (I’ll let my fellow columnist, Paige Turner, argue on behalf of literature).

I strongly believe one of the major errors we’ve made in our argument for greater investment in the arts is to use the language of conservative economics.  Our arguments have been based on financial return and job creation.  Let’s be honest, no one goes into the visual arts in order to make money.  We make, support and view art because it makes us happy and fulfils our intellectual curiosity.   This is also backed up by science. According to Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, the key to human happiness is the act of seeking, which encompasses the quest for knowledge, anticipation, and the creation of new forms of expression.  For an easy dopamine hit, create some art.

Visual art a method of storytelling that we can trace back to our early ancestors.  Archaeologists have discovered figurative cave painting in Indonesia and Australia that pre-dates the famous caves in Europe, and this concurrent emergence of visual expression suggests that art is something innate in us all.  It defines us as humans.

Art has also long-served as an important pre-literate method of communication.  The pre-Modern frescoes and stained glass windows in the churches and palaces of Europe, for instance, were in part designed to communicate biblical stories, local history, and political authority to a largely illiterate public.  Art has the ability to express stories, ideas and emotions in ways that words simply cannot.  Even now that we live in a highly literate society dominated by written language, we’re incorporating emoticons and other forms of pictorial communication to convey nuanced emotion where words fail. 
Detail of the stained glass window called Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière, a section from the 13th century, in Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral. This is the central image of a section depicting the Marriage at Cana.
Source: Wikimedia

When we view art, we experience emotions.  Entering a maze-like installation might inspire feelings of curiosity, excitement, and perhaps even a bit of adrenalin-pumping fear. A portrait of a dog may invoke affection, and a painting by J.M.W. Turner is undeniably visually pleasurable.  Even the most abstract artworks can appeal to our emotions - many years ago I broke down in front of Robert Morris’ Minimalist L Beams.  Art often demands a level of intellectual engagement from the viewer and can challenge us, ask difficult questions and expose us to different worldviews.

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet (1839). Source: Wikimedia
It benefits society to have ready access to art both in galleries and public spaces, and therefore we need to support the producers.  If you ask an artist why they make art, they’re not going to respond ‘to increase tourism to the region’.  Increased tourism is great for Hobart’s many coffee shops, hotels and high-end restaurants, but it doesn’t change the fact that some local galleries do not even pay artists to exhibit or even provide material allowances.  It’s particularly galling when you consider that the gallery’s cleaner gets paid in money, rather than the oft-cited ‘exposure’.  We shouldn’t ask artists exhibiting in public galleries to work for free, and public galleries need to be funded so that they can pay artists fairly, just like they do the cleaners, plumbers and other workers. 

Art should be seen as a public good like health or roads, and it should not be expected to be financially self-sustainable.  Art departments in schools and universities need to be better funded. We know creative expression can be therapeutic, so we need to use it as a method of healing in hospitals and prisons, and provide cheap and easily accessible spaces for community groups to create together. 

Many years ago I worked as an art therapist, and I remember one non-verbal client who would silently wrap objects in string, over and over with precise rhythm, resulting in a delicate cocoon.  A few years later I attended art school and watched as a fellow student did the same thing.  The instinct was the same, but only one needed an artist statement (or so the university’s unit outline stated).  

We invest far too much money in the worst parts of ourselves (the recent $50 billion on military submarines immediately comes to mind). It’s time to better fund the better side of our nature.

This article was originally printed in the June issue of Warp Magazine.

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