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The arts could revive our still-born national identity

Stephen Sewell

We need the arts if Australian identity is to be anything more than pallid myths of self sacrifice and chest-thumping assertions of our sporting prowess.
The arts could revive our still-born national identity

The debate about culture in Australia typically follows a familiar pattern: a commentator laments declining cultural standards and narrowing opportunities and looks for someone to blame. The usual suspects scatter, leaving the artists to respond by pointing to inadequate funding and whining about their generally unappreciated status in contemporary society.

On a slow news day, this gives shock jocks the opportunity to whip up a frenzy about luvvie parasites expecting hard working Australians to support their incomprehensible and traitorous gibberish before the Minister says something about the need for Australian stories and everyone slumps back into their dark and resentful corners to binge watch Game of Thrones. Or more recently, with the politico not even bothering to do that because everyone knows all anybody cares about is the State of Origin anyhow.

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Meanwhile, the arts are cut, museums mothball whole galleries in the name of a non-existent efficiency dividend and artists flee overseas, joining the planeloads of scientists, technologists and innovators of all sorts being driven from the land by a Government seemingly indifferent to anything but digging holes in remote places and appeasing members of parliament who think the world is flat. Or should be.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s favourite description of Australia as an innovative nation bursting with bright ideas, the picture of the future currently emerging from the gloom of the Cabinet Room looks remarkably like one of those giant driverless trucks terrorising the outback of Western Australia to satisfy the insatiable Chinese appetite for Australian iron ore. Built overseas, needless to say, because Australians are incapable of producing anything more complex than a rock.

But is it true? Is our culture in decline? The facts seem irrefutable: a cut of $70 million – nearly a third of the Australia Council’s budget – imposed in 2015, and coming on the back of years of white-anting and neglect provoking the wholesale collapse of theatre companies and dance troupes across the country on the back of the continuing cuts of more than $50 million and downgrading of the film industry, despite it being able to demonstrate adding $3 billion to the GDP; as well as the gutting of visual arts organisations producing the loss of hundreds of jobs with an inevitable decline in the audience.

Yes, it’s had an impact, with fewer new Australian plays being produced, a smaller proportion of its films being seen and artists’ incomes collapsing to the point of unsustainability.

Bangarra Dance Theatre: Australian culture beyond the jingoistic 

So why isn’t such a disaster more obvious? Annual Federal Government funding of the arts as administered by the Australia Council and Screen Australia amounts to less than $300 million (just over a half a kilometre of Sydney’s West Connex motorway). These are the arts as normally understood: orchestras, theatres, films, opera, dance, visual arts and literature.

By comparison, the Government spend on promoting its own programs in 2015 topped $100 million, including $6 million for a feature film made by a self-confessed “propaganda merchant” aimed at dissuading refugees from becoming boat people. That is, while the Government is cutting back on the work of independent artists, it pursues its own political agenda through marketing that makes the Federal Government the third largest single advertiser in Australia, after Coles and Woolworths.

Jingles and Anzacs

Australia as a whole spent nearly $10 billion on advertising in 2015 employing more than half a million “creatives” – ten times the number of professional artists - to produce the images, music, performances and drama used to sell things to Australian consumers. So is it any wonder the comparatively paltry sums spent on making movies, putting plays on and getting books published is hardly even noticed when its gone? Because this is the way most Australians receive their art.

Not through theatres, concert halls and galleries, but on billboards, television commercials and radio jingles telling us how good the Government is and selling stuff. In the words of academic Peter Higgs, advertising’s products 'touch the lives of almost every single Australian every day of the year. They are all around us – in our media, banking, health industries, in our work and recreation' and for many people it is the closest thing to art they ever get.

But that is not the end of the story. Any anthropologist will tell you the culture of a country consists of the values, institutions and practices that imbue its people with a sense of identity and difference.

From this perspective, the Army is an important cultural institution, justifying Anzac celebrations costing almost twice as much as the arts budget, more than half a billion dollars, and aimed at promoting values that in the hands of perhaps less constrained artists might have received a more thorough examination. Which, of course, was not the point.

The armed forces, the Churches, schools and universities, the banks, business organisations, the parties and media – from Clive Palmer to Rupert Murdoch - all the many different institutions all promoting their particular concerns and what it is to be a “good Australian”, or even “Australian” and all employing “creatives” to achieve that very specific and frequently dubious goal.

But of course, all that is obvious. Australia is a capitalist country whose capitalist values pervade even our ordinary language. Time is “money” that can be well or badly “spent” - “wasted”, “frittered away”, “gainfully employed.” And just as the language reflects the values of capitalism, so too the arts are expected to conform to its standards.

Art must “pay its way”, “prove its worth” by “putting bums on seats.” Art only has value insofar as it is a product that can be bought and sold. Artistic notions of the sacred, the strange and mysterious aspects of existence are irrelevant and useless to people whose only metric is dollars and cents. But in terms of dollars and cents, most of human life, from the birth of your first child to the meal you share with your family to the death of your father is absolutely worthless.

The only love that economics recognises is the sort you can buy in a brothel. But human life is not measured in dollars and cents except by slave-drivers and it is perhaps not coincidental that the rise of the neo-liberalism that now holds the world in its thrall has seen the return of slavery, even here in Australia. 

Yes, there are slaves in Australia. As well as hundreds of thousands of exploited workers on 417 temporary visas being underpaid, sexually abused and threatened with deportation if they speak up. But you’d never guess that from Tourism Australia’s glossy promotions. In fact, you’d never guess that from anything the Government says at all.

Is it the role of art to expose such practices? Certainly, some of the greatest art historically has done exactly that, and the terrible injustices of our society, from the rape of children in detention on Manus Island to the murder of aboriginal people in police custody cry out for artistic expression, if only to give such ghastly crimes a place in our national consciousness and help us see ourselves for what we are in the face of the constant barrage of jolly and uplifting images we’re flattered with by people trying to sell us junk.

Reflecting a society and its values

But no, art is not required to be the conscience of a society, it’s just something any self respecting society might ask of its artists, along with all the other things we want our artists to do. Reflect our society and values, and in this reflecting, giving us the chance to reflect on ourselves and our society as well. And indeed, that was the function of drama in Ancient Greece, the rise of which coincided with the golden age of Greek democracy. 

Theatre there was not a diversion or entertainment – it was not the bread and circuses it later became in the decaying Roman Empire - but on the contrary, was an opportunity for citizens to reflect on notable moral and political issues of the day and whose attendance was regarded as a crucial duty of citizenship, the neglect of which was punishable by its loss.

Theatre in particular, and art in general, were crucial to the political and social life of Athens at its height, when actors and playwrights were paid by the state to write and perform in dramas we still perform today, and painters and sculptors achieved heights not reached again for another 2000 years. And whose work was corrupted and finally destroyed by the same forces that destroyed its democracy, something which should be a warning to anyone who values their freedom. 

But Athenian democracy seems a long way from our own pale shadow, and contemporary writers and artists would be bold to compare themselves to the Greeks. No, contemporary practice as encouraged by the various Ministers of the Arts we have seen over the years is closer to the bread and circuses of the later Romans - something to keep the people diverted, preferably spectacle - and this is perhaps appropriate, for in truth the Australia of my mothers and fathers is being eclipsed by something else, something stranger, nastier and altogether uglier.

For when my parents’ generation went to war, it was in the name of freedom and democracy and in the hope that their victory would be a victory over war itself, not merely the prequel to another war; but war in the hands of today’s politicians has become a way of life, something hardly even debated, but undertaken after a phone conversation with a great and powerful friend.

We are not a country anymore, we are a dispatch box receiving orders from overseas. And what does a dispatch box need art for? Or science? Or education? Or anything, really, other than a willingness to serve.

Nationalism still-born

If there is a crisis in culture, as Alison Croggon has recently asserted, it is part of a much broader crisis, the crisis of our own nationalism, indeed the crisis of our national identity.

The wave of nationalism rising in the struggle against conscription and Australia’s involvement in the American war against Vietnam that brought the Whitlam Government to power in 1972 also brought Williamson, Romeril, Hewett, Moorhouse and all those other writers, performers and artists thrilled by the prospect of creating a genuinely Australian culture and making our own way in the world, and that collectively came to be seen as the new wave of Australian writing and culture.

It was in the optimism of this period that both the Australia Council and the Australian Film Commission were conceived and forged, but that optimism is now gone, long since swallowed by the realism of politicians who, unlike their New Zealand counterparts, have no faith in our ability to make it on our own and have strapped us as tightly as they possibly can to a country that seems firmly set on ensuring its own destruction.

And so, still-born, our nationalism has to make do with pallid myths of self sacrifice and chest-thumping assertions of our sporting prowess. So why would Australia need any art other than the art of self-promotion? And why would any Government want to pay for it?

But artists still come, because we share the same humanity that inspired the Greeks. Croggon is right: our culture is in crisis. It is a crisis cutting deep and hard across our whole nation, forcing us to confront some of the most basic questions we as a people could ask. 

And it doesn’t stop with “how can we continue to sustain a critical community when nobody cares anymore?” – a question akin in my mind to sitting in the state room of the Titanic questioning the quality of the duck à l'orange – but begins with the question, Does Australia even exist anymore? and won’t stop till we get some answers to extract ourselves from the terrible night into which we’ve been plunged.

Our leaders have failed us, appallingly, grotesquely – across the whole gamut of concerns charging down on us we are met again and again by people not up to the challenge telling us there’s nothing wrong and we should go back to sleep.

But people going back to sleep now do so at their own and their children’s peril. For now is not the time to go back to sleep, but to wake and sit bolt upright, and the only people we can trust to wake us are the artists who have no vested interest in telling us anything but the truth.

The Conversation

Stephen Sewell, Head of Writing for Performance, National Institute of Dramatic Art

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

About the author

Well-known for his film and theatre work, including his AFI Award-winning script of The Boys as well as plays such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, The Secret Death of Salvador Dali (Best Show of the Adelaide Fringe, 2001) and Myth Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America - A Drama in 30 Scenes (Playbox Theatre; State Theatre Company of South Australia; The Orange Tree Theatre, London; Schauspielhaus, Dusseldorf, Theatre de Poche, Brussels), Sewell is one of the most celebrated and experienced writers in Australia. In 2000, he formed ISM Films with partner Ian Iveson and their first film, Lost Things (written by Sewell), has just been released to considerable critical success. Sewell chaired the Australian National Playwrights Centre for a number of years and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a two year Australian Council Literary Fellowship and the prestigious ANPC Award for Significant Contribution to Australian Theatre (2004). His most recent work, the multi-award winning Three Furies - Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon opened to enormous acclaim as one of the featured productions of the 2005 Sydney Arts Festival and after a successful tour to the Auckland Arts Festival in March, played at the Adelaide and Perth Arts Festivals in 2006. Myth Propaganda and Disaster has been awarded the 2004 Green Room Award, the New South Wales and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, and the Australian Writers Guild Award for Best Play, making it the most awarded play in Australian history. Sewell has just directed his own play, The United States of Nothing, in a season at the SBW Stables in January. Sewell will be directing his first feature film later in the year.

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