Thursday, March 27, 2014

Yesterday is the new tomorrow

Australia's conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has reinstated Knights and Dames as Australia honours for people who make exceptional contributions to the country's public life.  It is part of a raft of "initiatives" designed to roll back progress to a time when racist language in public life went unchecked, when nobody had heard of climate change, when women did not hold ministerial posts (only one does in Abbott's government) and when financial advisers giving advice that was designed primarily to boost their own kickbacks was just part of the game.

Not since 1983 has anybody in Australia been anointed a Knight or Dame. On the assumption that the early months of the Abbott government are programmatic for its future plans, it should be possible to predict its legislative program for the coming years, not by reading the proverbial tea leaves, but by looking back through the history books.

In 1983 Alan Bond's yacht Australia II won the America's Cup. Bond went on to spend four years in jail for fraud. Nicole Kidman made her film debut in 1983, in a kids film called BMX Bandits. Back then, home-grown music could still top the pop charts. The biggest selling single of 1983 was Australiana by Austen Tayshus. The final episode of US TV series M*A*S*H flashed across our screens in that same fateful year. But perhaps the most important innovation of 1983 was the debut of Microsoft Word, the word processing software that would go on to revolutionise writing around the world.

The fact that Margaret Thatcher was re-elected to power in 1983 will no doubt make Mr. Abbott think he is on a lucky year for arch conservatives. But one last event in 1983 may give Tony Abbott pause for thought in his nostalgic drive to resurrect the past. In 1983 the conservative government of Malcolm Fraser was granted a double dissolution election and lost it to the Labor Party of Bob Hawke.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Minister for or Against the Arts?

George Brandis is off to a rocky start in his new job as Minister for the Arts. His first policy statement since taking office looks like being an attack on the Australia Council's funding independence. Comments in a letter he has written to the Chair of the Australia Council Board indicate that he does not understand the fundamental premise of government arts funding. Public funding of arts companies is actually not about doing arts companies a favour. Rather, it is there to ensure that the arts-loving public sees, hears and enjoys the highest possible artistic standards and the greatest possible diversity of arts performances, exhibitions and screenings.

He has also displayed a clear disregard for the arm's-length principle at the heart of arts funding. Instead he has been sucked into an illconceived response to an individual funding problem. As Julian Meyrick rightly points out, Brandis should realise that the the arm's-length principle is there to protect him, as arts minister, as much as anyone else. The “art" of the twentieth century dictatorships show us what happens when the arm's-length principle is trashed and politically compliant artists are the only ones who get public funding. 

Brandis needs to decide if he is going to be a Minister for the Arts or a Minister Against the Arts. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Can George Brandis paint?

Let’s hope he can. Because if he gets his way there may soon be a a lot of bare gallery walls around Australia waiting for someone to fill them. In a petulant response to the recent withdrawal of the Sydney Biennale from a sponsorship deal with Transfield, Brandis, Minister for the Arts in Tony Abbott’s government, has directed the Australia Council for the Arts to find ways of financially punishing a funding recipient who "unreasonably refuse(s) private sector funding, or … terminate(s) an existing funding agreement with a private partner”.

The Minister’s dummy-spit is a reaction to the Sydney Biennale controversy when a number of high-profile Australian and international artists said they were withdrawing from the Biennale because of the sponsorship deal with Transfield, a company that has business interests in running Australia’s refugee detention camps on behalf of the Abbott government. So if the Australia Council now introduces a requirement for its funded companies and projects to accept private sponsorship irrelevant of the ethical concerns of artists, we may soon see events such as the Sydney Biennale taking place with seriously curtailed artist roll calls. Many contemporary artists hold their political and ethical views quite strongly. There are few who ascribe to Brandis’ art-for-art’s sake worldview. And let’s be honest, most high-profile international artists do not need the Sydney Biennale (or similar Australian arts events) as much as it needs them. A 2016 Sydney Biennale with installation work by George Brandis as the main attraction is probably not what many people want. Even Branids as conceptual artist is unlikely to get many punters through the doors.