I wrote a book


It is remiss of me not to mention it here, but last month I published a book. Available now from various Australian bookstores, my first monograph is entitled When the Goal Posts Move: Patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-2016. It is published by Currency House as part of their long-running Platform Papers series.

The book is a short history of Australian cultural policy in the years 2013-2016, encompassing the end of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government and the first term of the Abbott-Turnbull Coalition government.

This was a tumultuous period in Australian cultural policy. Significant austerity was imposed on federal arts and cultural funding. Around $400 million was cut from the budget of the ABC, and around $300 million from the budgets of federal cultural agencies like Screen Australia the Australia Council for the Arts.

Most controversially, at least for the purposes of readers here, the federal government under former arts minister George Brandis, launched an audacious funding raid on the Australia Council in 2015. $105 million was subtracted from the Australia Council and given to a new cultural slush fund, revealingly entitled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Brandis’ funding raid was about more than just moving the budget line around: it was nothing less than an assault on the institution of the Australia Council itself, and with it a four-decade tradition of arms-length funding decided by artistic peers. The politics were just as blatant: Brandis wanted to punish what he saw as undeserving (and politically suspect) art funded by the Australia Council, and redistribute the money to a palette of works and artforms that he liked: classical Western music and opera, by and large.

The pain of the Excellence raid fell squarely on the parts of Australian culture that many consider to be the most creative and innovative: the so-called “small-to-medium” sector of smaller arts companies, and the great bulk of individual artists and small collectives applying to the Australia Council’s grant programs. In a decision of remarkable cynicism, Brandis specifically ruled that the Australia Council must protect the funding of the 28 so-called “major performing arts” companies that make up the bulk of the Australia Council’s budget, thus making it inevitable that the funding cuts would fall on smaller players.

The Excellence raid revealed major schisms within Australian culture. The Australia Council and its board were shown to be impotent, even supine, in the face of the calculated political assault. Major cultural institutions that many thought would defend their colleagues were conspicuously silent; Opera Australia even welcomed the decision. The Australia Council’s board, which features media celebrities and well-known former artistic directors, said nothing.

The raid sparked national protests from artists and led to a Senate Inquiry, which took 2,700 submissions and issued a scathing report on the government’s actions. It also spurred a remarkable grass-roots protest movement from affected artists and small companies — one that proved surprisingly politically effective — called Free the Arts.

Why was the Australia Council so vulnerable? And what is the future for Australian cultural policy? This paper explores the broader socio-political environment that allowed a conservative government to launch the most damaging attack on the integrity of the Australia Council for forty years. It argues that Australian artists and so-called “cultural leaders” have largely lost or forgotten the vocabulary of public value that might be used to defend the public policy of culture here, a development not unlike that which has occurred in other parts of the public sphere, like universities and public science agencies.

The essay ends with a call to arms to rediscover the ethical and moral imperative of culture making, and the opportunity of convincing fellow citizens of that imperative.

Philip Schlesinger on the “creative industries orthodoxy”

This blog is a long-time fan of the University of Glasgow’s Philip Schlesinger, so it was with great interest that we stumbled across his 2015 lecture to the London School of Economics on that most controversial of cultural ideas, the “creative industries”.

I’ve embedded the video of it below but I’ll make a couple of quick points here:

  1. Schlesinger’s analysis is not new (there have been plenty of descriptions of the way the idea of the “creative industries” has infiltrated many aspects of cultural policy making from the last 1990s onwards)
  2. But it is an excellent summary of the development of the idea and the current state of play. (No doubt critics of this kind of analysis like Terry Flew might beg to differ).
  3. Make sure you watch to the end, because you get a bonus discussion from Angela McRobbie.


Back up and running


Well, it’s been quite some time, but I’ve decided to get the Cultural Policy Blog back up and running.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been heavily occupied in a series of shorter- and longer-form projects, including a book and way too much time on Twitter.

But it’s time to get the band back together. I was particularly inspired by the high quality of cultural policy scholarship still being published in the academic and popular journals, and by the continuing example of awesome bogs like Crooked Timber.

So, here goes. I’m sure there aren’t too many regular readers left, but I’m hoping that with some diligence over coming months, I can again contribute to a vibrant international conversation about cultural policy.

– Ben

The “three faces of time” in arts participation

Andries van den Broek has a really cool new paper in Cultural Trends this year. It’s entitled “Arts participation and the three faces of time: A reflection on disentangling the impact of life stage, period and socialization on arts participation, exemplified by an analysis of the US arts audience

It’s a really neat way of thinking about the temporal aspects of culture, and completely original as far as I know (though van der Broek points out that analysis of generational cohorts goes back to Comte).

Here’s a taste of his argument:

This is the history of the arts participation of a fictitious character, Pete. At the end of 2013, he’ll be 50 years of age, which implies he was born in 1963. He is not particularly keen on visual arts or theatre, though he visits the odd exhibition and performance. He is more into rock concerts, but also attends the occasional classical music concert and art house movie.

How come his cultural repertoire is like that? Is this typical of his being 50? (Do other people at the same life-stage typically display a pattern like that?) Or, is this typical of 2013? (Does it reflect what is the cultural offer that year?) Or, is it typical of someone who grew up in the 1970s? (Does it relate to a taste pattern acquired in that era?) It’s probably the case that Pete’s cultural repertoire is affected by all three (and, of course, by many other factors too). But, which aspect of Pete’s cultural repertoire can be attributed to the fact that he is 50; which aspect relates to it being 2013, and which aspect to his having grown up in the 1970s?

van der Broek goes on to do some stats on the effects of these three frames, using US data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This allows him to tease out the differences between, say, the formative cultural experiences of generational cohorts from, say, the effects of their life-cycle in determining their participation patterns. Overall, he finds that people are not participating in as much culture as they used to, and that the composition of artforms does change.

And what is that change? One of the main ones is that fewer people are interested in classical music. Younger generations are not replacing the cohorts of classical lovers that are slowly dying.

Most importantly, though, van der Broek finds that arts participation (at least as measured by the NEA) is declining in the US. “All in all, the upshot is that the future of arts participation is not threatened by the cultural behaviour of recent (or future) as compared to earlier cohorts, but by a general decline in arts participation irrespective of cohort (and of age).”

In summary, a really interesting paper and one that I expect I will be returning to.

Back in business

I’m pleased to announce that A Cultural Policy Blog will be returning to regular posts in 2013. 


It’s been a long hiatus while I prepared and submitted my PhD, but now that’s done, I plan to resume regular posts this year. As well as my weekly column on the Australian cultural industries for Crikey, I’ll be focussing on keeping abreast of recent papers in the field, particularly in relevant academic journals like the IJCP, Cultural Trends and the rest. 

All posts here will also be cross-posted to my personal website over at beneltham.be

Time for a break

I’m taking a couple of months or so off this blog in order to complete my PhD thesis. I’ll be popping up from time to time with a short post or link here or there, but until I finish my thesis I won’t be blogging in earnest. I promise I’ll be back in early July some time with a bunch of new posts!

Until then, you can continue to read my arts column in Crikey every Friday and my regular twice-weekly column about Australian politics in New Matilda.

Moebius on his art, fading eyesight and legend: ‘I am like a unicorn’

A fine article in the Los Angeles Times surveys the life and work of this ground-breaking artist:

"La Chasse au Major" by Moebius. Image: Los Angeles Times.

The name on his passport is Jean Giraud and he was born in May 1938 (just one month beforeSuperman arrived in a small rocket from another planet in the pages of “Action Comics” No. 1)  and he has long been regarded as the most important cartoonist of his country. That phrase, however, falls wildly short of capturing the essence of his career and breadth of his influence through comics, book covers, paintings and movie work.  As filmmaker Ridley Scott said last year of the Moebius influence on contemporary sci-fi film: “You see it everywhere, it runs through so much you can’t get away from it.” Perhaps, but the artist is still caught off guard by the breathless reception he gets these days.  In late November, Giraud made a relatively rare visit to the U.S. to speak at the Creative Talent Network Animation Expo and again and again he was approached by fans and younger professionals who gushed.

Read the rest.

What’s new in the International Journal of Cultural Policy: the creativity issue

It’s the only international journal of cultural policy, so it’s not surprising I cover it here regularly.

Even so, the most recent issue is a cracker – dealing with one of the hottest (and least understood) topics in cultural research: creativity.

Unfortunately, readers who don’t have access to institutional subscriptions will be unlikely to read it. So I’ve saved and made available Chris Bilton’s introduction to the issue below. As Bilton notes:

… the purpose ofthis special issue is to revisit the definition and implication of creativity in culturalpolicy, focusing on three considerations.

First, creativity is an essentially paradoxical process. Since 1997, when the UKgovernment endorsed ‘creativity’ as a central aspect of cultural policy, creativity hasindeed been associated with an individualistic, spontaneous and ungovernable freespirit – closely allied to Romantic theories of art and to the myth of individual creativegenius. This western theory of individual creativity has been exported to other countries with very different intellectual and cultural traditions, such as China. However, the consensus in scientific and academic studies of creativity has shifted definitions of creativity from an individual trait to a collective social process. Since the 1990s most of the literature on creativity has been concerned with sociocultural context, systems theories, networks and organisations – not with creative individuals. It is the combination of these two apparently contradictory aspects – individual personality and social process – which can cast fresh light on cultural policy. Seen from this perspective, ‘creativity’ becomes a touchstone through which we can interpret contradictions in policy. As Jonothan Neelands and Boyun Choe indicate, these contradictions are especially revealing in the UK, where the rhetoric of creativity in cultural policy first took flight. They can also expose flaws and contradictions in organisations as in Philip Schlesinger’s account of the BBC, or in general theories of management. And the tension between individual freedom and socialstructure is especially pertinent to discussions of creative labour.

The second consideration for this special issue is that the paradoxical, contradictorynature of creativity extends into contingent legal, social and economic aspects ofcultural policy. The tension between individual and collective forms of creativity areespecially pertinent to questions of copyright, where legal definitions of intellectual property reflect western theories of originality and individual authorship, in marked contrast both to eastern traditions and also to the expansion in open source, Web 2.0technologies and user-generated (or user-distributed) content (Kawashima). Individualand social forms of creativity also challenge approaches to education, and mightlead us towards an alternative model of cultural policy based on ‘social creativity’ (Wilson).

Finally, creativity in cultural policy further extends the disciplinary base ofcultural policy studies. Whilst cultural studies and sociology have already broadenedour understanding of this field, psychological theories of creativity have tended to lieoutside current cultural policy debates. Robert Weisberg has been writing criticallyabout the ‘myth of genius’ since the 1980s, but his work is little known in cultural policy studies. Legal definitions of authorship and copyright also bring a fresh perspective to cultural policy studies – as Nobuko Kawashima indicates, much is to be gained by looking at copyright from a cultural policy perspective rather than as a purely technical, legal issue. And management perspectives on creativity and innovation, whilst often considered to be alien or even antithetical to cultural policy, can address policy questions from an unexpected angle. Erich Poettschacher approaches creative organisations from the pragmatic perspective of a business consultant, yetimplicitly opens up alternative methods and policies for intervening in the creative economy.


Cultural blogging in Australia

Yesterday, I participated in a fascinating full-day “unconference” at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas on the topic of cultural bloggers and online criticism.

As the Wheeler Centre’s website notes:

Unconferencers set the agenda on the day of the event so it kicked off with a discussion of the “amateur” status of bloggers. This was inspired in part by Alison Croggon’s article “The Return of the Amateur Critic” asking why bloggers are often thought of as amateurs. This led into a discussion of money and how bloggers can monetise their places on the web.

Games writer Paul Callaghan led a discussion of how criticism could be applied to video games, including concepts such as establishing what makes a “good” game and how appropriate it is to create a canon of games or get non-gamers to review games because they bring ideas from film or arts criticism. Reference was made to New Yorker article by Nicholson Baker in which he looks through the eyes of a gamer and non-gamer.

Angela Meyer led the discussion on Twitter and how it can be employed as a critical tool. She’s had some success getting followers to write reviews and then retweeting them.

Croggon’s recent piece for the ABC is worth drawing your attention to. For those of you who don’t know her work, Croggon is one of Australia’s most widely-respected (and yes, even feared) online theatre critics. In her piece, she observes that those forecasting he death of Criticism, Literature and The Humanities As We Know them are profoundly mistaken:

I’ve been a keen netizen and observer since the mid-90s, and I figure that, as with the Bible, everything you might say about the internet is true. Yes, it is a bewildering sea awash with trash, populated by subterranean creatures with the social graces and charm of Darth Vader’s TIE fighters. Yes, it represents late capitalism at its most pornographically decadent. Yes, its crassness and illiteracy can surpass belief.

And yes, the internet is where I can find some of the most dynamic and intelligent commentary on art and society. This is especially true of discussion about theatre, which as a sub-section of Showbiz has always been poorly attended in Australia’s daily press. As a nexus for various arts – music, performance, visual art, literature, digital design and so on – theatre is an outward-looking culture. Unlike literature, its public is always present in the flesh. These immediacies mean that some of the most stimulating and profound thinking about art, culture, literature and society I’ve been reading in recent years is going on in the theatre blogs.

Interested readers should also check out blogs such as those of Richard Watts,  Angela Meyer and Paul Callaghan.

UPDATE: Noises Off, The Guardian’s theatre blog, weighs in.

Creative destruction in the media industries: Adam Carr on the fall and rise of New York media

The New York Times‘ media writer, Adam Carr, has a great column in the Times about the “fall and rise” of Manhattan’s once-great media empires, like Conde Nast and the Times itself.

Beginning with a parable of the golden olden days of media work, he points out that the new landscape emerging is flatter, more diverse, riskier and more opportunistic:

Historically, young women and men who sought to thrive in publishing made their way to Manhattan. Once there, they were told, they would work in marginal jobs for indifferent bosses doing mundane tasks and then one day, if they did all of that without whimper or complaint, they would magically be granted access to a gilded community, the large heaving engine of books, magazines and newspapers.

Beyond that, all it took to find a place to stand on a very crowded island, as E. B. White suggested, was a willingness to be lucky. Once inside that velvet rope, they would find the escalator that would take them through the various tiers of the business and eventually, they would be the ones deciding who would be allowed to come in.

As we all know, those times are over. Continue reading