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Ratbags at the gates

By Helen O'Neil - posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Finding the right language to explain why societies value their creative arts is difficult, but in an era where returns on public sector spending are measured and weighed in everything from emissions to train timetables, it becomes necessary. Sustained support for Australian creativity has given politicians and policy-makers confidence in one area at least: they know Australians are creative and able to produce work that is recognised as excellent. Successive generations of talented artists, writers, musicians, performers and filmmakers emerge, despite the lack of rigorous education in creative thinking and art-making in schools. But creating policies to take advantage of this interest and capacity is still tentative.

Indeed, the biggest debate about the arts in 2008 was not about developing talent, or making Australian art available to new audiences and industries, or about the centrality of art and creativity in the new technologically-enabled global economy. It was whether photographs Bill Henson exhibited in Sydney and prominently on display in regional galleries were pornographic. For much of that debate, the print and radio commentators railed at the defence by artists of Henson’s work, as the product of an elitist group too blinkered to recognise the pornography and sexual exploitation of children that was obvious to ordinary Australians. Even when the Classification Review Board ruled the work did not need to be classified, there was an incapacity to move to a sustained discussion about whether art distributed on the internet made child subjects more vulnerable to exploitation than the same work in an art gallery or a book.

Henson became the centre of real community anxiety about the innocence and privacy of childhood disappearing into a cascading series of networked hard drives. But the public debate was a fairly arid discussion about whether artists were over-privileged and out of touch.


If it showed nothing else, the episode revealed that Australian artists and those who work with them need to find a new way to bring the creative arts to mainstream public debate - and begin to explain to governments how to focus their cultural and creative policies in a profoundly different world to the one which gave birth to the Australia Council and explorations of national identity that defined the arts for decades last century. It is not enough these days to be Australian - creative arts must show they are embedded deeply in community life and the economy.

With more understanding about new Australian experience of the arts, and how they are valued, artists will know more about the people they are trying to reach. More information will produce a powerful tool to show policy-makers how the arts contribute to strong communities. It is a tool that stretches beyond the traditional economic impact studies to get to the core issues of how the arts are essential in individual experience - and while it might point to what may be commercially successful in enhancing this experience, it should also give impetus to experimentation and innovation - far more risky, but essential for renewal of Australian arts.

Perhaps a subsidy model based on national identity can be transformed to become a mechanism to support a diverse expression of Australian creativity, by also drawing on the recognised role of the commercial and the entrepreneurial not-for-profit sector.

With digital technologies collapsing genre categories and enabling easier access online for niche products, there is a chance to create new opportunities at both the micro level and in national institutions. Individual artists and small organisations can reach the global audience to seek exposure and sales. Locally, there is extraordinary potential: just as the video recorder created a new demand for movies in the cinema, as well as a new income stream for filmmakers, so the online world is creating a new demand for live experience. Attendance at galleries and museums is rising, as people intrigued by online images seek the real-time experience of exhibited artists. Festivals are attracting a new breed of people ready to get involved in adventurous experience, who are aware of genre acts and international niche work through the web and want to see it live.

But it is the Prime Minister who will have to pull together the next nation-building exercise in Australian arts. It is always the way: the buck stops with the prime minister. Leadership in arts and cultural policy has always been most effective when driven from the prime minister’s office. In the past, prime ministers who have regarded the arts as a decorative indulgence have missed out on the burst of creativity that spills over into mainstream national life with unexpected results in the national mood and the economy. But prime ministers who have integrated and understood the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the arts, creativity and culture have inspired the nation and made space for innovation with tangible benefits.

The creative arts-based industries cut across so many areas of life, so action is needed in education, innovation and industry, arts and the digital economy. The Prime Minister will have to pull together ministers and departments, and set the pace in cabinet discussions of the new paradigm of the arts. There is a good list of specific projects amongst the account of discussions in the 2020 Summit that he could use as a starting point for his creative Australia and a bunch of people who can test its progress. But along the way he will have to learn to deal with the uncomfortable in Australian art, including Bill Henson, and the risk-taking, and the anger that comes with people trying to change their societies and suffering frustration in the process, just as the cultural warriors 50 years ago risked exclusion and had to find new ways of connecting with audiences and forming unexpected alliances.


Just as the government urges young Australian students to do maths and science so that science-based innovation can aid economic growth, the Prime Minister must also urge students to study music, literature in English and other languages, drama, dance, design, screen and visual arts. This Prime Minister, we know, is a worker, a hands-on man, an evidence-based reviewer and appraiser of what works. Once he sees the evidence, he will, I am sure, be convinced. But he does need to see it. And first he needs to ask for it. As a Queenslander, he knows all about the brilliant successes achieved there over decades from its programs of school-based music education. Why not this as a core part of the education revolution: a violin or guitar to go with the laptop? A culture in which parents tell their children to do accountancy, commerce and law for a good life is one destined for boredom - and second-rate economic growth. Innovation is our future, and the creative arts will be integral alongside the scientists and technologists.

Do we need more ratbags in the arts, as the leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra Richard Tognetti suggested to the business, political and community leaders at a Sydney Institute dinner a couple of years ago? This extraordinarily passionate violinist, who combines leadership with a huge stockpile of technical and creative skills in music and a daring willingness to keep trying new combinations and collaborations, made a powerful case for the iconoclast in times of stasis. And his argument for the ratbag went beyond Australia’s tangled history of dealing with the artist as public figure, reflecting on Caravaggio’s difficulties with the Catholic Church and the confrontational American artist Jeff Koons.

The answer to his question must be yes. It is not enough to leave it up to the politicians in the hope they will just get it right by themselves. In the end we need another generation of ratbags to inspire and prod politicians and policy-makers to develop Australian creativity. They will be the ratbags of contemporary Australia.

In the spirit of those stereotypical bearded bohemians of the art world of the 1940s and their establishment patrons, those visionaries who established modern landscape painting as part of the national identity, and those brash and angry filmmakers and writers of the 1960s and ’70s, we can move on to listen to the inspired youthful risk-takers exploring the new possibilities of the global, technologically enabled world. They are likely to be more commercially oriented, more connected to their communities, fonder of Australian suburban life than the ratbags of my father’s generation. But they will be passionately opposed to mediocrity, committed to finding and developing talent, dedicated to their craft skills and their art - like my grandmother, who was a ratbag if ever there was one. Above all, like Richard Tognetti, these artists will be entertaining - grabbing the attention of Australian policy-makers and audiences with sheer brilliance - as they enrich our experience of life.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 23: Essentially Creative. The full essay is available at here (PDF 314KB).

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About the Author

Helen O’Neil is the Executive Director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences has more than 100 member organisations covering universities, the learned academies, collecting institutions and professional associations and learned societies through the sector. She was previously a director of an independent publishing company.

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