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Kill Climate Deniers!: more on public funding of the arts

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 20 April 2016


Back in 2014 I wrote a piece about accountability, which began with the news that the ACT Government had funded a theatre project with the title as given above. I knew nothing about the play, but its title led me to ask what redress any of us sceptics had, if and when it were conclusively shown that the AGC scare was just that, a baseless scare. As taxpayers we had been forced to contribute to large amounts of expenditure that was simply wasted, on the advice of people who claimed to know the truth. Then Andrew Bolt took up the question of public funding of plays with titles like this one, and attention passed to him and his take on it.

Well, the play is soon to be performed, and I will almost certainly go to see it. It turns out that the plot centres on a group of eco-terrorists who take over Parliament House, and the title is their cry to the world. In short, the Climate Botherers are the baddies, not the goodies. Why did the playwright, whom I know, like, and have worked with in another area, choose such a title, you ask? Well, it gets attention at once, doesn’t it. And in this PR-fevered world, your first goal is to gain attention.

One other outcome was a public discussion in Canberra over the weekend about the public funding of art, with the title, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds You: Taxpayer-Funded Political Art’, and it was intended to look at the question of accountability in taxpayer-funded art, questions of censorship and the ‘right to offend’. At the invitation of the playwright, I went to it, and enjoyed myself. If you think about it for a moment, how would you defend a publicly funded work of art of some kind that challenged the fundamental standpoint of the government that had provided the funding?

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I have had to deal with questions like that for thirty years. Either the project is thought to be politically tainted, or to be pointless, or to be something that is not relevant to Australia. There are always cries to get rid of the Minister or  of those making the recommendation, and I’ve been one such. It doesn’t really matter which party is in power. As was said at the public discussion, there seem to be lots of people who don’t like publicly-funded art at all, or only like it if it serves some purpose dear to the person. Socialist art, or ‘social realism’, the rule in the Soviet Union, had to be understandable by workers, to show scenes of everyday life, to be representational and to support the aims of the Party. We might abhor all that as a funding principle, but there’s a lot of comparable sentiment in our own society, if you take out the word ‘Party’.

The context for the discussion is a shift in the political economy of the Western world that has become increasingly obvious in the last two hundred or so years. Adam Smith argued that every person’s needs had equal validity, and the notion of economic equality quickly fastened itself on to that of political equality. Indeed, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published just a few months before the American Revolution, and the French counterpart came only 13 years later. The next, 19th, century was one of rapid economic growth in the Western world, and in the 20th the rate of growth was even greater.

Out of those two and a half centuries has come quite a different society to the one that Adam Smith and his colleagues knew. The prevailing model in the West is the social welfare state, where famines are a thing of the past, and the great question is ‘redistribution’. In Adam Smith’s day the funding of art was a matter for aristocrats, the wealthy bourgeoisie and the Church. Today art of all kinds is a commodity, and artists are essentially self-employed artisans. Some do very well out of it. Most don’t, but enjoy what they do and would rather do that at a modest income level than do something else at a higher salary.

The great patrons of the arts now still include wealthy collectors and philanthropists, but also the State, through its establishment of art galleries, libraries, opera and ballet companies, arts funding schemes, symphony orchestras and the funding of festivals of all kinds. To that we should add the education system, where children are taught to respect art and music, and given some training that might develop appreciation, and help the really talented find a career later. There are conservatories, art schools, design schools and the like to complement this endeavour.The Church is no longer a patron in any serious way: too few people attend its services or contribute to its coffers.

I think it fair to say that publicly funded art galleries, symphony orchestras and their counterparts are as much a part of our contemporary society as are publicly funded hospitals and universities. The issue is not whether to fund these activities, but how much. And neither side of Australian politics ever has arts funding as a top priority, no matter how much noise they might make at election time. So what criteria should arts organisations observe in choosing what to play, what to show and whom to encourage through funding? That is the hard question.

By and large, those making the choices are expected to attract audiences, visitors, and to select  grantees who later do well. We have a market society, so commercial success is an important criterion. Who uses the criteria? Nearly all the time the answer is some sort of peer review system, and the committees spawned by it. Yes the Minister is responsible — he or she is responsible for everything that happens in the areas for which the Minister reports to Parliament. But the real decisions are made at arm’s length from the Minister. In my experience Ministers rarely even want to know what the recommendations are, unless one of them is plainly going to be contentious in some way.

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There is a good reason. Most arts recommendations, like most academic research recommendations, come as a group. There may be hundreds of them. Some of them may be hard even to comprehend. And Ministers are very busy people. In the arts domain the Minister will likely be junior in status, or if senior have more important things to worry about, with the arts being a small part of the portfolio.

So if you want to know how something gets to be funded, it’s important to know who sat on the relevant committee. I have no idea which people came to recommend that the ACT Minister fund ‘Kill Climate Deniers!’. I doubt that there was anything partisan in the decision. It seemed like an interesting play, and the playwright was someone you would call a ‘an emerging young talent’. I do know that most of the people involved in choosing are much younger than me, and the young are naturally critical of the status quo, since they occupy no special place in it unless they are an Olympic gold medallist. Those opposed to the status quo will always be looking for new approaches to what we already have. There is nothing criminal or reprehensible in their doing so. The histories of painting and of music  are continuing stories about eternal dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The wonderful paradox is that the striking title of the new play is about the standpoint of eco-terrorists, the baddies — not, as was first widely thought, a statement about the evils of those who did not agree with the climate change orthodoxy.

Ah, it’s a wonderful world.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin. If you want to read a little more about the play and its first performance, read here.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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