Recently I had a piece published Overland magazine calling for radical reform, perhaps even abolition, of the Australia Council for the Arts. This week, the Overland website carries a response by cultural policy analyst Christopher Madden.
I think Madden’s rebuttal misguided in several important respects and so today I’m going to unpick his piece item by item … but before I do that I think it’s worth saying that we agree on many things. More than that, I welcome this debate – it’s exactly what I hoped to provoke with the piece. Madden’s response to my article is robust, informed, detailed and well-intentioned. It’s also, I think, quite wrong.
On to specifics. In my original article for Overland, I argued that the Australia Council “should be abolished” for three main reasons, which I repeat here:
1) the Australia Council has become irrelevant to the broader debate around cultural policy. The policies our governments adopt about culture range across a vast ambit, from copyright laws and internet censorship to the planning regulations and liquor licensing laws that affect small bars. The Australia Council has long been silent in this broader debate, and in any case remains uninterested in cultural expressions outside its core responsibilities.
2) culture is changing but the Australia Council is not changing with it. ‘Culture’ is not only bigger than ‘the arts’, it is also being rapidly transformed by new technologies in ways that OzCo refuses to come to terms with. In an age when screen-based art forms dominate the everyday consumption and creation habits of Australians, the Australia Council remains stubbornly focused on a dwindling core of traditionally defined performing arts.
3) The Australia Council has become reactionary. In a tale familiar to students of public policy in other spheres, OzCo has fallen victim to industry capture and institutional inertia. Although it contributes small but significant amounts of funding to smaller companies and individual artists, taken as a whole, the Australia Council now exists largely as a conduit to funnel money to a small number of larger arts organisations.
How does Madden respond? Sadly, not really by dealing with these substantive points.
Instead, Madden responds essentially by attacking my “methodology.” I think this is rather missing the point in what was, by definition, a polemical essay rather than a scholarly policy analysis, but let Madden state his case:
I have difficulty understanding the concepts of art and culture that underpin Eltham’s analysis. Though much is left undefined, I am uneasy about his treatment of old and new media, high and popular culture, cultural and technological innovation. Medium and content seem to get mixed up in the analysis. I am no cultural theorist, so will not delve deeper into this. But if, as Eltham argues, policy contains certain prejudices about art and culture, I worry he may be supplanting those prejudices with his own.
It’s a shame Madden hasn’t delved deeper here, because it’s hard to know what he objects to. But perhaps the real problem here is the urge to define at all. Madden’s comment about mixing up “medium and content” illustrates, I gently suggest, that he may be out of touch with some of the more important contemporary currents of cultural theory.
That’s because culture is both medium and content. Forty-plus years after McLuhan, this is (or should be) a trivial observation – but even at the prosaic level of the policies of arts funding bodies, it is immediately clear that all sorts of different artforms can be performed or reproduced in any number of media: we can read books online, we can watch video art in a gallery, and so on; opera itself is in one important respect a 19th century form of hybrid performance, as Wagner himself liked to observe. The silliness of splitting funding up by government-defined artform definitions is precisely one off the things I most objected to in my article.
But again, it’s hard to specifically rebut Madden’s comments here, because they are pretty vague ( including a casual smear about “certain prejudices about art and culture.” ) Of course, for those of us writing from a tradition of cultural studies, admitting to prejudices is almost the first step. What observer does not enjoy some forms of art more than others, and what policy analyst doesn’t harbour preferences, know more or less about some artforms than others, and otherwise suffer from information asymmetries, blind-spots – in a word, prejudices?
I think I’ve been pretty upfront about my prejudices. For instance, I think that online culture is important – every bit as important as the sort of cultural expressions to be found in well-funded large cultural institutions and the Australia Council’s so-called “Major Performance Observations”. And it may well be this prejudice – or preference, or opinion – that Madden is taking issue with.
Let’s turn to his next criticism, about my “methodological” problems:
Eltham states that ‘screen based art forms dominate the everyday consumption and creation habits of Australians’. This may be true for cultural consumption, thanks to television and movies, but I can find little evidence that screen-based forms dominate creation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Work in culture/leisure collection, participation in ‘traditional’ creative cultural activities is at least as popular as in new media activities. In 2007, the 552 000 Australians ‘creating artwork with a computer’ was less than the number taking creative photographs and about the same number as those drawing. Other technologically-based activities – such as designing websites, producing films and designing games and interactive media – have lower involvement rates than ‘traditional’ activities like textile and woodworking crafts. The Australia Council’s recent researchMore than Bums on Seats tells a similar story for a wider notion of participation.
I believe Madden has simply missed the key point here: that digital technologies are transforming cultural particpation. You can see this from his treatment of the ABS Work in Culture/Leisure statistics, which actually show that participation in screen-based practices are very important, and growing. Madden is right to point that craft activities like woodwork, jewellery and furniture making are involving growing numbers of Australians. But he fundamentally misses the broader trend, which is the digital transformation of nearly every aspect of cultural practice. The ABS data includes activities such as photography, design, web and game design, all of which are highly digital and rapidly increasing in popularity. Madden is correct when he says that “some craft involvements grew by staggering amounts”, pointing to a doubling of popularity in jewellery-making. But even greater increases can be seen in some digital involvements: “designing websites” almost tripled in popularity.
More broadly, Maddens argument that “these numbers are hardly representative of an Australian culture being overrun by digital practice. If anything, they evoke the opposite – resilience in ‘traditional’ culture, maybe even a cultural equivalent of the ‘slow food’ movement” is simply not supportable by the data he himself cites – especially when one considers the way that once-traditional practices like writing and photography are nowadays fundamentally screen-based activity, as Madden, a blogger, would surely acknowledge. If anything, one could argue the methodological sloppiness here is Madden’s.
The nub of our disagreement may well be this paragraph:
Eltham argues that new media activities should receive greater support because they ‘dominate’ or ‘proliferate’. There is, however, no policy logic stating that, the more people are engaged in a cultural activity, the more reason there is to support it. Lots of people tend to their Facebook page every day but this does not mean government should support Facebook participation.
Let’s leave aside for a minute the many valid and important arguments for addressing issues of digital literacy and the digital divide – issues that Madden dismisses here with a disappointing swipe at Facebook. Is there really “no policy logic stating that the more people are engaged in a cultural activity, the more reason there is to support it”? I can think of a number of well-known policy logics to justify exactly that, including Benthamite utilitarian arguments, Lockean social contract arguments, not to mention the original and subtle arguments of Keynes in favour of support for cultural funding that I mentioned in my original article.
The most disappointing argument advanced by Madden is this:
One reason for this is that funding is strongly influenced by cost differences between art forms. To illustrate, consider a funding decision involving live symphony music and live folk music. The council identifies public benefits in both activities and decides to support them to ensure supply. But orchestras are not cheap. The level of funding required to ensure supply of live orchestral music will be large relative to the level required to ensure supply of live folk music. To successfully support both activities, their funding levels will differ, and will reflect inter-art form cost differentials as much as the value placed on them by the council.
This is a pretty astonishing claim, especially to anyone with any understanding of public sector finance or the concept of opportunity cost. It may indeed be true that it costs more to support a symphony orchestra than it does to support a solo folk musician, but this is a particularly weak argument. In effect, Madden is begging the question, by saying that the reason some artforms get more funding than others is that they cost more.
Not to put too fine a point on it: this argument is not backed up by any of the Australia Council’s stated policies or funding programs. Big-budget computer games cost tens of millions to develop; they receive no funding. Poetry costs little to develop: it does receive funding.
I’d wager that the promoters of multi-state travelling rock festivals like the Big Day Out would also find this a rather surprising argument. The Big Day Out has a production budget of tens of millions, in the same kind of quantum and audience engagement as Opera Australia. It employs hundreds of musicians, stage managers and crew. The Big Day Out receives no Australia Council funding (I’m not saying it should either, but let’s make the argument). If the Australia Council devoted roughly $90 million to funding contemporary music in this country, could plenty of contemporary music be supplied? In fact, could more music, musicians and performances be supported than are supported by comparable funding for the large orchestras and opera companies produces? I know which side of the argument I’m tipping.
Madden makes exactly this point later in the article, stating that
The point here is not to defend orchestra funding but to illustrate that funding distributions are not an accurate reflection of the public benefits or perceived importance of those activities. More persuasive evidence would focus on public benefit rather than funding levels.
But, as Madden should know, in Australia at least, there is no robust available evidence for the different levels of public benefit produced by the funding of different artforms. There sin’t even the beginnings of a debate about what the “public benefits” bestowed by folk musicians, symphony orchestras and installation artists might actually look like, and how we should compare them. What evidence we do have suggests that the Australia Council’s funding priorities have nothing to do with public benefit at all – but are in fact the result of the pragmatic political reality of well-funded lobbying and the history of entrenched special interests.
Tomorrow, I’ll have a look at some of Madden’s slightly naive ideas about the formulation of public policy, and what this might tell us about his advice for those who might want to “improve their chances of success in arguing for policy reform.”