1. Along with several hundred other arts industry, university, and media types, I trotted over to the Seymour Centre at the University of Sydney last Tuesday to bear witness to some ritual rhetorical combat, parliamentary-style, with position statements and a very short 'debate' between Federal Arts Minister Senator George Brandis and the Labor Shadow Arts Minister MHR Peter Garrett. The occasion was, at least nominally, the launch of the book Australian Arts: Where the Bloody Hell are You?, the published proceedings of a symposium of the same name from late 2006. And yes, I dutifully bought the book, if only for Dr Ian Maxwell's fascinating introduction to the vexed intertwining of artistic and nationalistic imperatives around national government arts funding for international arts activities. This includes comparisons of the cultural funding of bodies such as the Goethe Institute, Alliance Francais, and the British Council, all of which are funded to promote their respective local artists to the world, and all of which seeming to have much greater hard currency investment from their governments than our own efforts with Asialink and the Australian International Cultural Council (a part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and chaired by the Foreign Minister and karaoke enthusiast Alexander Downer, currently the subject of a fascinating Australian Story on ABC TV). Well worth a read. It's a pretty complex and fascinating set of debates about the place of the arts within the promotion of national cultural identity, and within international relations and foreign policy, and some of this is addressed in a recent article on international arts diplomacy as 'soft power' by Rosemary Sorenson in The Australian newspaper. Propaganda anyone? In a political and social environment characterised by a series of so-called 'culture wars', it's clear that the politics of cultural practice, and the modes of expression and spaces such practices ought to allowed to adopt and occupy are high on the list of Federal Government priorities. As a student of politics and performance, I have a particular interest in the performances of politicians, rhetorical and otherwise. After all, these are the bread and butter of my current research and aesthetic practice, at least for the last five years or so. And here we have a selection of ministerial performances who stage themselves directly around aesthetic practice.
2. In part, this writing is as much influenced by the way the media coverage of the event on ABC TV's Lateline program last Thursday framed and added to the (pretty limited) debate, a program that I just happened to be watching, transcript here. In particular I was struck by two things in the TV coverage. Firstly, Education Minister and excessive rhetorician par excellence Julie Bishop (remember the Maoists in our schools anyone?) presenting the obligatory big pretend cheque as a metonym for an actual cash commitment, in this case to the Bell Shakespeare Company, stating: "It's not legal tender, so don't try and cash it. But a photo opportunity of a cheque for $1million." A great media stunt performance, the big fake cheque. Even The Chaser boys did that, in their case presenting a cheque for $290 million dollars made out to Saddam Hussein to AWB manager Charles Stott at the Cole Inquiry last year. Despite the lesser amount of his fake cheque, John Bell felt much less that he had been assaulted, and I'm sure his lawyers weren't complaining in the same way that Stott's did. In fact, he seemed pretty chuffed. As you would. It's not every day that that sort of money gets thrown at the arts, unless its for capital works, such as the latest foyer redevelopment at the Sydney Opera House, costed at $38 million, a works project approved immediately after the rumoured $55 million spent on the Western Loggia additions, opened in 2006 (couldn't find any specific numbers on this one in a quick search). Perhaps appropriately, the fake cheque was handed over in the Utzon Room at the Opera House, itself a $4.6 million refurbishment finished in 2004. From the ABC camera I had a good look at the Jorn Utzon-designed tapestry, with real gold threads woven into it. Who says there's no money in the arts?
3. Which is of course what this whole debate was about. Money for the arts, money for the arts as 'cultural diplomacy', money for arts as an intrinsic element of a civil society. Money makes the world go round, and if you let some of that money go to arts, then the going round will be nicer. Or something like that. But it was clear that no one was going to talk numbers. Peter Garrett helpfully mentioned in his address a quote from Ian Maxwell's intro to the book (itself a citation from Asialink's submission to the current Senate Inquiry into Cultural Diplomacy) whose launch was the frame of the evening that "Australia spends just 17 cents per capita on cultural diplomacy, compared to Germany which spends approximately $3, and the UK, which spends an impressive $19 per capita." (as cited in Maxwell 2007:1) While this only indicated that Garrett had read the first page of the book, and this set of figures are somewhat rubbery (after all, the budget for the Goethe Institute includes a lot of German language teaching as well as arts), this was the only appearance of hard numbers in this supposed policy debate. Neither party was able to answer Peter McCallum's very direct question about the very real need for the arts to get not just a little bit, but a rather huge influx of additional money. My paraphrase of his question is this: the director of the Goethe Institute states that his budget is the same as one Eurojet fighter aircraft. Why then can't the arts in Australia have the equivalent of a Joint Strike Fighter? OK, I added the reference to the JSF, whose price per aircraft the Australian newspaper estimated today at $40 million. UPDATE: The defence section of The Weekend Australian on May 26-27 now estimates the price per aircraft of the JSF at $80 million. All in all, our commitment to the JSF or F-35 is now reportedly $20 billion over budget and almost ten years overdue (that reference is from an issue of The Bulletin last year, which I can dig up should anyone be interested. The reason why we recently spent $6 billion the other month on the F/A-18 Super Hornets was as a stop gap to cover the decade that the JSF is running behind schedule. But I digress...). Peter McCallum asked why can't the arts get the equivalent of a fighter jet and the crowd goes wild. But neither of our policy champions on either side of the electoral divide deigned to answer the question. By this stage of course it was clear that their primary target was not to explain arts policy to a hall of interested parties, but to attack each other. Parliamentary-style.
4. To back track somewhat. I was very excited when Brandis became Minister for the Arts. I think he's a good political performer and a very intelligent man, and not only because he was a character in version 1.0's performance of CMI and actually came to see our show (or perhaps simply himself onstage). At last, I thought, at last we have a minister who actually is interested in the arts. Not like McGauran or Kemp (though I must confess a distinct bias against Kemp, as he actively intervened to withdraw about $150,000 from Performing Lines to try and kill a proposed tour by version 1.0 last year, a decision that was never about political content. oh no. As David Marr stated of this issue in his 2005 Philip Parsons address, "Censorship is never censorship. There’s always some other principle invoked." Needless to say, with the help from the venues and some anonymous donations, the tour still went ahead). I've been impressed with Garrett's recent performances too, as would anyone who witnessed his amazing performance of official Labor policy on Lateline the other week, supporting so-called 'clean coal' technology against his much-publicised prior opposition to such a concept. And yet there he was, smiling away, speaking calmly and staying on message, avoiding the pressure to let the facade crack. Its been a couple of years, but I think he's almost there now. The eco-warrior-rock star has truly become a political actor, and in the process has become a damned good performer. Definite deputy Prime Minister material. Watch out Julia Gillard!
Brandis however, is a master politico-performance artist, giving a truly astonishing performance on SBS TV's Insight program last June, in which he not only defended Australia's policy of mandatory off-shore detention for asylum seekers with calmness, reasonable-ness and conviction, but managed to make all of the refugee activists, and even the refugees themselves in the debate sound and look like raving lunatics. Really, the man was extraordinary. Obviously he learned the lessons of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in the section entitled 'How to speak to conservatives' in his book Don't Think of an Elephant (2005). A paraphrase: If you stay calm no matter what the provocation, you can always make your opponent look unreasonable. If you can do that, then your ideas will sway an audience. What Lakoff suggested for progressives can, and clearly is also be taken as good advice for their opponents. Know your enemy as much as you know your values.
In short, based on their recent performances, with these two confirmed as speakers, I hoped for a clash of the titans, complete with clay-mation skeleton warriors. What I got was considerably less than that. But I suppose the arts are only truly important on the days where ministers are giving out big fake cheques.
5. So big fake cheques were out. But the rhetorical warfare was on, as was the battle to get the last word in and to give the sound bite to frame the debate. The sound bite the ABC chewed up was the following exchange:
PETER GARRETT, OPPOSITION SPOKESMAN: We don't see the Prime Minister and the senior ministers embracing Arts and art practitioner in the way that we see them embracing sports people and soldiers.
GEORGE BRANDIS, FEDERAL ARTS MINISTER: Leave the cheap shots alone. Because you - you claim that, that senior ministers in this government are not interested in the arts and that's just not right. Perhaps they're not as self advertised as you are Peter, but they have a deep interest in the arts.
The ABC, clearly in the interests of remaining fair and balanced, leaves the contextualisation of this exchange at that moving on to the several Brandis implications of much more money to come for the major arts organisations, in the vein of Bell's big fake cheque. See, the Government must really love the arts. Senator Brandis' contention of the "deep interest" of his cabinet colleagues stands uncontested in the fair and balanced media coverage. Of course, strictly speaking, he's correct. There are some great arts lovers amongst the current and former cabinet ministers and their families. David Marr again: "Inside the party, there’s no shortage of generalised, educated, middle class good will towards the arts." So, lots of gallery memberships, symphony subscriptions, ballet and opera opening night attendences. I've sat behind Philip Ruddock on several opera opening nights, and everyone knows that former defence minister Robert Hill's daughter Victoria Hill is an actor of note, so I'll take this statement as generally true. There is indeed "deep interest" in the arts on the part of the government members. But what constitutes depth? And which arts? And is this policy or ideology?
As Brandis stated with a straight face: "The arts have never been in a stronger position, and artists have never been happier. The only people who aren't happy are the commentariat, who never have to deal with the reality of arts funding."
Wow. I want what he's on. The wage I mean. Obviously myself and people like me don't have to deal with arts funding. Well, that'll save me time when the big rounds line up in June...
Because we're all happy now. Remember, happy. Happy, happy, happy. Australia is great and we're doing the best we can. Be proud and don't forget to take the soma.