Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon on the arts funding crisis and the importance of criticism

In April this year I started working part-time at the Australian Design Centre, in the wonderfully nebulous, newly formed position of Creative Strategy Manager. ADC has been around for more than fifty years now – it began it’s life as the NSW Craft Council back in the 1960s and over the decades has made some extraordinary contributions to the craft and design landscape of Australia. The opportunity to contribute to the organisation’s development at a moment of re-visioning and to bring my ideas and experiences and passions for making and education and partnerships was too good to be true. And then three weeks later we were one of the 100-plus arts organisations to lose our four-year core funding from the Australia Council for the Arts.

It was like being sucker-punched.

Yes, I despaired for the organisation – but mostly, that instinctive, from-the-gut howl of despair that engulfed me was the feeling, yet again, that the arts don’t matter. And that by extension, the things I stand for, the way I see the world and the way I understand the arts to be a vehicle for critical discussion, enlightenment, learning and community also didn’t matter. As Alison Croggon writes so deftly and angrily and articulately for The Monthly, “Part of the exhaustion of being an arts worker in Australia is that our very existence is continually in public question.” She articulates the fibres of every thought and emotion from the last six months of soul crushing keeping on carrying on with extraordinary eloquence. I can’t recommend her article enough and implore you to read it in full here.

Because she says it so much better than I ever could, I have re-posted sections of it below. Because now more than ever we need to be championing every dissenting, elegant, intelligent, critical voice we can. Thank you Alison.

Culture Crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia.” Alison Croggon, The Monthly, October 2016.

“The despair that characterises so much present discussion about our cultural future is about much more than money. What has been clear for years is that in general public discourse – as opposed to the preferences of actual Australians – culture is a trivial consideration. Part of the exhaustion of being an arts worker in Australia is that our very existence is continually in public question. Again and again, we have to assert presence and value. It is impossible to simply assume that culture is a common good: it must be constantly argued.

Outside the specialist world of arts discussion, Australia has two modes of talking about culture and art: the mockery from right-wing columnists who regularly attack artists (as well as other knowledge workers, such as scientists and university researchers), and the bathetic motherhood statements about art’s intrinsic worth that roll readily from the mouths of politicians. Art is considered a leisure activity, a luxury for an elite, an entertainment in the most reductive senses of the word, a value-free product.

Advocates even point out the economic benefits of a healthy culture, to combat the erroneous but widespread perception that it contributes nothing to the economic bottom line. (For the record, culture is a bigger industry than agriculture, and employs many more people than the mining sector.) But the danger is that these secondary issues become the primary justifications, erasing the reasons why culture actually matters.

Again and again, public discourse about art has taken the road of least resistance, preferring to shore up the status quo rather than to question, to expand, to educate, to inquire, to imagine better.

Criticism is a crucial part of making a culture. Critical discussion in all its manifestations – from the casual tweet to the considered academic essay – is the hinge that links an artwork to a public. Critique is what connects one work to another, and to the contexts – the histories and social meanings – that inform it. Argument is how we hammer out the value of a thing, creating over time a complex weave of consensus and disagreement. A healthy critical culture welcomes the new and strange, inviting those who might feel hesitant to step confidently into the rewards of not knowing.

Do we have this kind of public discussion in Australia? We do, but it scarcely exists inside our major media institutions. It’s fostered in small companies, on blogs, in forums and discussions that exist on the margins of mainstream discourse. Over the decades, our mainstream critical culture has failed to convince us – the public, our governments, even artists themselves – of the value of culture in our daily lives. It has failed to articulate why Australian art might matter as a public good, to individuals and to a broader society. And now, as Australian culture faces its biggest crisis, that failure is tragically manifest.

Under the newly constricted funding, small organisations and individuals – the sources of our most robust critique – are those who are most at risk. With a few noble exceptions, it’s always been those with the least institutional heft who have been the most outspoken. Indeed, small organisations and artists, rather than our well-resourced institutions, have driven almost all of the political heavy lifting in the turmoil of the past year. Just as the larger companies rely on the poorly funded independent sector to take the creative risks that generate new ideas and new talents, so the smaller organisations and individuals are those expected to stick out their necks to defend the whole.

It was grassroots-driven activism that had sparked a Senate inquiry, which attracted 2719 submissions from every section of the arts community, held hearings in every state and territory, and put the arts firmly, and for the first time, on the agenda in the 2016 election.

Likewise, our major media outlets have for decades relegated the arts to a fenced-off playpen, a subset of the entertainment section. The Walkleys, the premier awards for Australian journalism, have never acknowledged cultural journalism or criticism as they do, for example, the equally specialist journalism of sports coverage. In the newsroom, the arts have always been poor cousins, begging for space. The ideas that drive our best artists, the passion that informs their work and their desire to speak about this world, almost never make it into print or pixels except as bowdlerisation. There isn’t the space.

…..And yet we need a strong critical culture now more than ever.

The critic is the person who makes a major part of the public argument for culture. It is a critic’s job to discover and to advocate for new and exciting work, to estimate its success or failure, to elaborate its genesis, to call to account, to argue for worth and unworth. Ideally, the critic exists as part of a web of diverse voices, where differences of response can be adumbrated and explored. This dynamic interweave of argument is how a culture is made: as Mexican critic and poet Octavio Paz said, criticism is what makes connections and histories, a culture. Without criticism, what you have is just a whole lot of art.”