Cultural Policy and the National Debt

Currency Press,
20 October 1999, Australia

A talk to the X Club, University of Western Australia, 5 October 1999, by Katharine Brisbane, with a range of thought-provoking comments on support to major performing arts organistions and Australia's 'Nugent report' on the major performing arts.
Selected extracts:
For the major theatre companies, the concerns that decide a season have begun to shift from issues of meaning and necessity to those of marketing and style. Is such a work promotable? What corporation would sponsor such a work? Is there a way we can connect with a sponsor’s product? (The Nugent [Major Performing Arts] Report gives much praise to a quite literal connection made between the Sorbent company and Circus Oz by employing giant toilet rolls in the ring as the safety buns.) Then the company must consider the Australia Council guidelines. Are we doing enough new work? Employing enough women or Aborigines or non-English-speaking actors? And so on. Making meaning while carrying this burden is a doomed enterprise.
All this is spelt out in the Nugent Report. The report discusses the pros and cons of doing more commercial entertainment, of cutting back on staff, on cast sizes, of changing marketing practices, better governance. None of this is new. But no part of the report raises the question of whether their work is appropriate to Australia in 1999; whether we have invested our money in the wisest way. What to do about these mausoleums we have built for our artists. Most particularly it failed to comment on whether all this globalised ‘art’ has any meaning for Australians and whether our artists have the theatre they deserve.
There is a tremendous groundswell of energy coming from the young people who are interested not in globalisation but in internationalism: that is, not making work identical to the rest of the world; but absorbing and reflecting the world while living and working at home. They are using all kinds of new forms, for which there are as yet no definitions; and new ways must be found to appreciate them. Bruce Elder, the pop music critic, has written about this:
‘The key to understanding popular culture ... is a recognition, and an acceptance, that like can only be measured against like... I call this genre-based criticism. It is the only useful kind of popular culture criticism. But the process of evaluation is complex because the genres are constantly changing and evolving, The challenge is to define the qualitative values which are the measure by which a genre evaluates itself.'
So there’s the dilemma. If we are constantly turning back to what we know in public policy, how can we be anything but reactionary? How can the new generation bridge the gulf that now exists between the energetic groups working in the back streets and the corporations imprisoned in our cultural monuments? It can, and will be, done, by what I call the ‘trickle-up effect’.
Since the arts were politicised in 1968 by the establishment of the Council for the Arts, we have increasingly allowed the big end of town to control the resources; and already we have seen, like the country football clubs, the erosion of the regions and increasing conservatism. We need to get back to an artistic climate in which our artists can speak up for what they believe; can reflect the problems and celebrate the character and diversity of our country; and earn with that diversity and ingenuity a respected place in the international community. We can only do that by starting again, once more with meaning, and together making the trickle up-effect.