Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lies, damned lies and statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released its report on Cultural Funding by Government, Australia, 2007-08.

Total funding was up from $5.6 billion to $6.3 billion. This represents a return to increased funding per person after the preceding year saw a drop in funding per person. But, as Michelle Gratten notes in Melbourne's Age newspaper, most of the funding, and most of the increase, goes on "environmental heritage".

Why is the funding of environmental heritage not a matter for the environment budget and the corresponding statistics? National parks and the like have a cultural element, but their environmental significance is greater than their cultural importance.

The over-extension of the word "culture" is common today. Just think of the debate around the nature and definition of the term "cultural industries". The anthropological argument is that everything is "cultural" because everything exists within the framework of a system of shared beliefs and social processes that is at the heart of culture. The danger in this all-inclusive definition is that it irons out differences of degree. While everything may exist within a cultural frame, not everything contributes equally to that culture. These differences have been lost as the arts in particular pursue a misguided attempt avoid the label "elite".

So, in the case of the present statistics, the funding of environmental heritage is listed as "cultural" alongside libraries, museums, dance companies and arts centres. The result is that the funding of "culture" appears substantially higher than the portion that goes to "core" cultural activities, those whose primary focus is the creation of shared meaning, beliefs and experience. The use of the word "culture" is about more than semantics. With it come official statistical reports and the decisions that are often based on such numbers.

© Brian Long 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nationalism and art

Installation View:
Liam Gillick
How are you going to behave?
A kitchen cat speaks

La Biennale di Venezia 2009
53. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte
German Pavilion
Courtesy Liam Gillick

The Venice Biennale is one of the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions. It features nationally selected artists who use their country's pavillion to exhibit their work and generally the artists are chosen by some sort of national process. In Australia they are selected by the Australia Council for the Arts, the Federal arts funding and policy body.

So it was quite a departure from tradition when the German pavilion at this year's Biennale featured a British artist, Liam Gillick (born 1964). What a daring move! This is a clear break with the nationalist tradition of the Venice Biennale. And the Germans were not alone in taking this new direction. The Curator of the Hong Kong pavilion was a German, Tobias Berger.

The pavillions in Venice are themselves part of the artistic experience and today many works are site-specific. So Gillick spent a lot of time coming to terms with the history as well as the architecture of the German Pavillion. It was originally built in 1909 and has seen many transformations reflecting Germany's troubled political history.

Nationalism and art have never really been happy bed fellows and it will be interesting to see whether other nations follow the German example at Venice in 2011. Somehow, I doubt few will.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Strength in numbers

Arts organisations frequently fail to exploit possible synergies between them. Often they see themselves as competitors when in fact they have more in common than they think. What is more, visitors and audience members don't usually buy into such rivalries. Brand loyalty is not really an issue in the arts. The same people who visit one gallery or exhibition, will just as easily visit another "competitor" museum a few weeks later.

So it is good to see a host of major British museums, galleries and arts companies combining their resources to create a new online shop called Culture Label. Museum online shops have up to now been pretty basic when compared to other major online shopping options. Online selling via a state-of-the-art website can be expensive and resource intensive. But museums and galleries are becoming ever more dependent on their retail departments for cash as funds from the public purse become scarce. So an initiative like Culture Label may be an important step in the direction of greater profits and better service for shoppers.

The site is still in the Beta testing phase, but it allows shoppers to buy products from the Tate, The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Barbican, Shakespeare's Globe and many more. The site seems well organised and user-friendly and the range of products on sale reaches from homewares and kids clothing through to original artworks. The Director, Peter Tullin, says that the "time for cultural shopping has arrived". Maybe the arts industry is about to discover strength in numbers is better than a lone-wolf existence.

For more info' check out this YouTube video.

© Brian Long 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reading the past

I love reading old newspapers. It is a great way to get direct access to the way people used to think. It also bypasses hindsight as we see the strength of opinions held then that now seem laughable. Anybody who reads old newspapers will take today's opinions and truisms with a slightly bigger pinch of salt. Old news also teaches us how little genuinely new there is under the sun.

Take The Times exactly one hundred years ago today. Back then the Times reader could delve into articles such as 'The Importance of Art', 'Works Of Art And The Tariff', 'Literature In The Colonies', 'Mr. Shaw's Play In Dublin' as well as the announcement of the establishment of the Imperial Arts League.

Public debate about the arts was clearly alive and well. Back then censorship was the cause of many debates. One of the most heated on this day a century ago concerned the production of a play by George Bernard Shaw, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet downloadable here or readable online at Google Books). The censor was unhappy with the portrayal of prostitution on the stage and concerns were also raised about the use of certain phrases from a religious context.

Perhaps what is most conspicuously absent from the article is something that does set the cultural climate of 1909 apart from that of today: the lack of threats to withhold funding for the offending play. In 1909 theatre was almost exclusively a commercial operation. Governments did not fund the arts. Today, when almost all - especially controversial - art relies on state funding, the possibility of such funding being withdrawn as a result of public controversy has the potential to assume the role of the government censor in Shaw's time. The process is more subtle and less overt, but the outcome more or less the same. Self-censorship is often the result as controversial artists today rub against the boundaries of social norms, just as they did in 1909.

© Brian Long 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The ultimate bad guys

Quentin Tarantino's latest film Inglorious Basterds shows that Nazis retain their stranglehold on the role of pop culture's "ultimate bad guys". During the Cold War they still had some competition from the Communists, for example in James Bond films. But today the Nazis clearly dominate the evil stakes. This should not be so.

Why doesn't the Japanese treatment of the people of occupied China in the lead up to and during World War II get them some credit as evil-doers? Why don't we have any films (or computer games, for that matter) about great escapes from Soviet gulags? The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom a book by Slavomir Rawicz recalling such an escape a trek across Siberia during WWII would be a good candidate.

In his book Manufacturing Consent, Naom Chomsky argued that Cold War America's obsession with Anti-Communism meant that people's lives were differently valued. He showed that the death of an anti-government priest in Communist Poland was, in terms of US news media coverage, many times more important than the death of an oppositional priest in US-dominated Central America. Likewise, our obsessive use of the Nazis as the bad guys without equal implicitly undervalues the lives lost at the hands of other evil regimes.

Indeed, you might think that with the passing of time the cinematic potency of the Third Reich would slowly diminish. Far from it. The number of films - both facts-based and fictional - that feature Nazis is on the rise. Historians talk of us now being in a "post-memory" era, a time when most people have had no direct experience of the National Socialist dictatorship. In this phase of historical awareness our knowledge of the Third Reich (and of World War II) is mediated by film, TV, museums and the education system. For his part Tarantino, portrays the Nazis as stock-in-trade bad guys and many reviewers agree that Christoph Waltz steals the show as an SS officer. The film is an entertaining black-humoured action-drama that leaves you wondering when Hollywood is ever going to expand its list of stereotypical bad guys. Don't hold your breath!

© Brian Long 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Melbourne International Arts Festival 2009

The program for the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival has hit the streets and immediately set itself apart from the programs of the last Artistic Director.

Brett Sheehy is the new Artistic Director following on from stints as festival director in Sydney and Adelaide. His first Melbourne festival has all the hallmarks of a nicely rounded, if perhaps somewhat "safe", contemporary festival.

The London Philharmonic will play two concerts from the heart of the orchestral repertoire and the local symphony orchestra also features. The theatre and and dance components seem, however, curiously dominated by performers from Germany. Sasha Waltz and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg are the headline acts with the latter performing Sebastian Nuebling's production of Simon Stephens' play Pornography. It does seem a little curious to invite a German company to perform a contemporary English play in Australia in German! It is a pity there will not be an opportunity to see some of the work of Germany's young writers in Melbourne. Even some Georg Büchner or Heiner Müller (both in the repertoire in Hamburg) might do more for the expansion of the horizons of Melbourne audiences than a British play in German.

© Brian Long 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009


So it is forty years since Woodstock. That makes the age of the average member of the crowd now about 60. What is left of the mythical summer of love? Not much, you would have to say, apart from the nostalgia for lost youth. The popular music industry has long been subsumed by the multinational corporations. Back then rock 'n' roll was seen as a serious threat to Western society's moral foundations. Now it has been tamed. Or maybe it was never a threat in the first place. A generation of kids dropping out never was going to trouble corporate America too much. And soon enough the hippie drop outs were dropping back in, just in time for the yuppie 80s.

It is curious that one of places where popular music really did have a political impact was on the other side of the iron curtain, in the Soviet bloc. There, listening to rock music was seriously rebellious and more than a little dangerous. As it covertly penetrated into the East, Western popular music carried a highly charged political message of freedom, individuality and intergenerational rebellion that eventually helped unseat the ruling regime. Most importantly it was something that the Communist authorities had no hope of countering or emulating with homegrown alternatives. Western popular music was (and is) as much part of the capitalist system as General Motors, IBM or Westinghouse. But it was easier to see that from Moscow
than from the mud at Woodstock.

© Brian Long 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Making cash from art

Australia is close to introducing a Resale Royalty Right for visual artists. Former rock-star turned Arts Minister, Peter Garrett, introduced draft legislation to the national parliament in November 2008 and the relevant committee has given the proposed law conditional approval. Parliament has not passed the draft law. Under the proposal five percent of the sale price would go to the creator of the work as royalties. There is no cap on the royalty amount but no royalty is payable on the first sale. But Garrett has fallen out of favour with supporters and opponents of resale royalty rights. Visual artists feel that the scheme has been watered down to please auction houses and dealers while art sales industry maintains its deep-seated opposition to the administrative burden that comes with such a scheme. In Australia the most howling discrepancies between the price paid to the artists and the prices on the secondary market have occurred in the case of indigenous artists and it is Aboriginal painters who probably stand to do best out of the new scheme. The market for Australian aboriginal artwork has grown very rapidly over the least two decades and accusations of unscrupulous, exploitative and fraudulent activities are rife. The introduction of a resale royalty right is not going to stamp out crook practices but it may help make artmaking a little more lucrative for Australia’s Indigenous artists and is for that reason alone worth supporting. Further info:

© Brian Long 2009