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Our Curious Relationship with the Arts

As a country we have a curious relationship with the Arts.

We quite like the Arts, in their place.

We love the Arts as practiced in our schools. We attend school plays, exhibitions, concerts, performances and screenings in droves. We marvel at our children’s talents and the “professionalism” of the work. The fact that some schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these public displays of our children’s artistic talents is never questioned. Magnificent state of the art theatres and galleries are designed and built to accommodate the Arts in the better appointed schools.

Throughout the country students participate in rigorous study of a range of art forms culminating in final year examinations in the form of performances and exhibitions. These are complimented by searching written examinations requiring a deep understanding of the role of artistic endeavour in questioning who we are and what we believe in.

Every year thousands of our children graduate from secondary schools with a deep appreciation of the Arts and the role they play in a sophisticated society. Many develop such a burning passion for their chosen art form that they continue study at a tertiary level or at one of the ever increasing number of ‘schools’ offering classes in everything and anything. Those who survive with their passion undimmed then ply their trade in an increasingly hostile and suspicious environment. What is curious about this is that the kind of work that was applauded in senior secondary school is lambasted by sections of the commentariat if it is continued to be explored by young adults. It is as if exploring contemporary art forms is seen as a right of passage that young people will grow out of before they begin careers in the traditional art forms.

We approve of traditional art forms. They are safe and we are comfortable with them. They don’t ask questions about the way we live in a contemporary society. They don’t challenge our attitudes. The irony is that a lot of them did. A lot of the art we are comfortable with now was seen as revolutionary in its time. Much of it was created by artists who were yet to be “established” in their chosen art field. That is why we need to support artists who are developing their craft.

The response to the Governments decision to transfer $104m from the Australia Council to the newly established National Programme for Excellence in the Arts has been one of disbelief from those involved in the small to medium and independent sectors who are most affected. This isn’t surprising. They are rightly worried that a Minister’s Office might not understand their work or what they are trying to achieve. It is unlikely the Minister or his staff will be as on top of current trends in a range of art forms as the professionals who made arm’s length assessments of the work for the Australia Council.

Many Australians are clearly suspicious of the Arts, especially art forms,

“whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature”.

It’s hard to work out why.

Maybe it’s the example set by our politicians. Very few politicians have more than a passing interest in the Arts. You are more likely to see a politician jogging around Lake Burley Griffin or working out in the Parliamentary gym than you are to see them attending an exhibition or performance of their own accord. This applies particularly to the kind of experimental work that many of them applauded their children for producing. Our Prime Minister has shown not the slightest interest in the Arts. His political antennae and personal preferences clearly show that the Arts are not on his bucket list.

Footy? Tick. Cycling? Tick. Surf lifesaving? Tick. The Arts? Eh? What?

Our relationship with the Arts is Spartan. We prefer chest thumping to soul searching.

Those politicians who have had a genuine interest in the Arts have been forced to balance this by pretending to like sport. Their minders have dragged them kicking and screaming to sporting events so they can wave the flag for the Spartan way. If their aversion to sport has been reported they have been lampooned as being un Australian.

The Australian Way is a Sporting One. It is definitely not an Artistic One.

Like many things about us, this is perverse. We leap to our feet and applaud artistic endeavour from our children but don’t seem to understand why anyone would continue this endeavour into adulthood.

The problem with this, in fact the contradiction, is that many of these schoolchildren who are nurtured in the Arts develop a life long passion for them.

I can personally vouch for this because having spent what seems like a lifetime teaching and examining Drama in schools I have seen many of those students continue their engagement with the Arts as practitioners and audiences.

The Arts are like that. They are addictive. That is why all around the world, since the dawn of time, human beings have been drawn to the Arts and used them to question the world around them. That is why totalitarian governments have persecuted artists and done their best to stamp out artistic movements that challenge their regimes. That is why contemporary artists create work that might be uncomfortable and even seditious.

Arts Funding needs to be independent of government. We don’t tell our kids what to do when they create their work. We encourage their right to self expression. We need to do the same if they choose to pursue this out in the world at large.

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