The arts, ecologically

Keith Gallasch

The debate intensifies

In Sydney there have been 2 recent forums focused on the state of the ABC, a Friends of the ABC Politics in the Pub session and a UTS Transforming Cultures Centre/Currency House seminar, Art by Stealth? The ABC & the Arts. The latter coincided with the launch of Liz Jacka’s comprehensive review of the ABC’s arts failings, commissioned by the Community & Public Sector Union (CPSU). In Melbourne, Fabian Autumn Lectures on the ABC were delivered by Fred Inglis, historian of the ABC with a revealing account of the reduction in ‘arm’s length’ between successive governments and the national broadcaster, and publisher Tony Moore’s incisive depiction of an out of touch ABC. The Artshub website has played a vital role in making these talks promptly available online as well as providing valuable editorial comment. What follows is an edited version of the paper I delivered for the UTS/Currency House forum. It’s an informal introduction to a longer paper on re-imagining the arts in Australia in ecological terms.

Life as a business

Among others, Don Watson in his book Death Sentence: the Decay of Public Language (Knopf 2003) has confirmed for us the appalling degradation wrought on language by managerialism. In education, the arts, sport and other realms, business terminology has invaded and distorted our lives. However, countering it is no mere matter of expunging words.

Accountability, viability, inputs and outputs, benchmarking, risk management, clients and stakeholders, export-readiness, core business, performance indicators and agreements, supply and demand…these surround us. They are rife in everyday speech as well as in bureaucratic esoterica. In a recent Australia Council report, small dance companies are referred to as “microbusinesses” (Resourcing Dance, An Analysis of the Subsidised Australian Dance Sector). Yes, they’re part of a “sector.”

This is a pervasive metaphorical condition in which one system is laid over another. But it not only explains the world in terms of business, it enacts it. It’s not just bad language. Children in schools, sports people and government-funded artists are increasingly entering into performance agreements with their bosses.

Now some of this is not bad. For a creative endeavour like RealTime becoming more business-like has had some real benefits if hard won (see p24). However, “business-like” sums it up, saying much about the governing business metaphor and its appropriacy, not least to art. Business is essentially about making money; art is and is not. In a business course RealTime staff did in 2001, 3 of the 15 sessions were about how to sell your business, not to love it or live it out as your life. Of course, for many business people their work is their life and they love what they do, but it has to make money. For artists this is not necessarily the case, but it is what is increasingly expected of them.

The overarching, metaphor of life as business has been developing for at least 20 years, with the rise of neoliberal, rationalist economics, the spread of ‘user-pays’, the pressure on the public sector to model itself on the private sector, a palpable celebration of greed and the increased push for privatisation—the Commonwealth Bank went from business-like to a business and Telstra is on the way.

Of course art has a sizeable commercial dimension, but the art that many of us care about doesn’t make much money, if any. While it can become more business-like it can’t go the whole way. What’s wrong with that? Well, if the dominant way of thinking is economic, there are things that this metaphoric model can’t explain about art, its makers and its audiences, let alone its costs. This is a system that is mostly incapable of dealing with art except in financial terms. By its very nature business is pragmatic. It is fundamentally conservative: risk is, above all, financial. Innovation must ideally provide a quick return, as in the Federal Government’s conditions recently imposed on research centres—partly rescinded after an uproar of protest. Increasingly the business model discourages risk in the arts as accountability (for ‘tax payers’ money’) takes precedence over vision. The business model takes talent, excellence and creativity as givens, as beyond debate and analysis; it has a limited grasp of the emergence of new forms; and it is incapable of providing a big picture of the arts. The business model cannot explain how integral art is to human nature because it can only comprehend it in terms of utility, or creativity when it is yoked to the word ‘industry.’ Art only becomes intelligible as a product in a market. Neoliberal governments therefore cannot take art seriously and will not properly invest in it, although sometimes encouraged by ‘economic impact of the arts’ surveys.

Better business practices will advantage artists but only if they have the staff and the resources with which to be business-like, and only if the business model doesn’t mess with vision.

There is however a bigger problem. For all its apparent logic and orderliness neoliberal economics is also deeply irrational, as Geoff Davies lucidly illustrates in his immensely readable Economia (ABC Books, 2004). The more we live out the business metaphor in the arts as an actuality, the more we will suffer its debilitating effects. Davies, like many others is turning to an ecological model to explain our economic behaviour and its impact on the quality of our lives and on the planet.

A new metaphor?

Do we really need a metaphorical model for the arts? We are economic animals, and arts animals, and also great users of metaphor as a way of understanding through analogy. We do this much more than you’d think, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have illustrated in their seminal Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980). Metaphor is, of course, elemental to artistic practice but also fundamental to science, for all its claims to the contrary. We’ve inherited from the 19th century a reductionist world view where the body, nature and the psyche are interpreted metaphorically as machines, a system that comfortably accommodates the managerial model. However, alternatives are emerging: “Both the new physics with its stress on self-organising, spontaneous systems, and ecology, with its insistence on the primacy of relationality, are at least potential rivals to the mechanistic paradigm” (Peter Hay, Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought, UNSW Press, 2002).

The ecological metaphor is in the air, it trips off our tongues. It is everywhere in discussions of new media, live art, science and, yes, business (think of shared concepts like sustainability and diversification). In Resourcing Dance, “Maintaining a healthy dance ecology” is listed second to “Promoting individual talent” in the grouping of recommendations.

Ecology is about finding patterns in nature and explaining them, which is what we desperately need for the arts. The good thing about borrowing from ecology is that it entails history and it is interdisciplinary (it can incorporate aesthetic, scientific, psychological, business and economic models from which it sometimes borrows). Ecology explores ideas, like emergence theory, which could have some interesting things to say about the ‘bottom up’ arrival of new artforms, hybrids and art movements (see Dennis Johnson’s Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software, Penguin 2001). And an ecological approach has creative dimensions satisfying for artists. It can address art directly rather than at the second remove of outcomes in the business model. Nor is it simply a matter of analogy. In his book The Blank Slate (reviewed, RT60, p5) cognitive neuroscientist Stephen Pinker urges us, in a dialectic played out between nature and nurture, to address just how much our lives are genetically and instinctually determined—art no less than gender, or politics or violence.

However casually deployed, the ecological metaphor is well and truly with us. But how far can we take it? Can it help us move towards a richer view of the arts? We can address habitat (local and ‘macroecological’ perspectives), the spread (‘dispersal’) of art, issues of ‘fitness’ and survival, emergence of new forms and audiences. Where does Richard Florida’s ‘new creative class’ fit in arts ecology, if at all? What is an audience for an artist? Nutrition? What is a critic? Nutritional or parasitical? Or is the relationship an example of ‘mutualism’ (mutual exploitation by otherwise toxic partners)? Population size is a key topic in ecology, but also the arts: what is the maximum number of (largely impoverished) artists Australia can accommodate (or ignore), how many tertiary arts courses (no wonder the job-oriented Creative Industries model has emerged), how many arts festivals? Are they just the compost from which great work will emerge? Or do they need to be ‘managed’?

Should art ecology be placed second to talent in a list of funding recommendations in a report on dance? American author Howard Gardner, reflecting on Mozart’s genius, has argued that without the right education, audience, artistic milieu and a pre-existing rich musical language for the young composer to engage with, talent might not have flowered into genius. It’s all ecological. A moot point but a reminder nonetheless of the variables that go into nurturing talent, and, more to the point, identifying it.

In the big picture of biodiversity, the issue is what do we preserve to keep the system alive and healthy and renewable. Is it worth supporting less ‘charismatic’ species in order to achieve a more balanced approach? What are the rarities; do we need to protect or rehabilitate them? What of intraspecies competition for limited funds: small companies against large ones in an artform area? The terminology starts to sound funny but the issues begin to constellate into a bigger picture.

Do the arts practice camouflage? Being business-like or community-oriented or running education programs can satisfy government funding criteria and be very valuable to the community but are they really what most artists are about? In the UK arts grants are now mostly conditional on a having ‘community output’ and some companies have adapted well to this requirement, others not.

The capacity to develop and adapt is a key issue eg innovating within existing forms or engaging with other forms (cross-art, multimedia) and absorbing new technologies to create effective hybrids, for which Australian artists have been internationally acclaimed. There is also interspecies adaptation to the emergence of competitive forms, for example infotainment and the rise of lifestyle media in the larger cultural ecology, a major issue for the arts.

The ability to disperse is important, to reach new audiences, realise new income, new responses, new ideas. Australian audiences are small, so artists, the Australia Council, DFAT and producers have worked steadily to explore overseas possibilities. For the Australia Council, this meant something of a switch from the supply to the demand side of the funding model, entailing the creation of the council’s Audience & Market Development Division. Limited arts funding has meant however, tour as they might, artists like Rachael Swain of the Stalker Theatre Company at the recent Australian Performing Arts Market (Adelaide, February) fear that if the primary work is underfunded the capacity to tour could diminish.

Using the ecological metaphor can be both serious and playful. Its main purpose is to defeat the fragmentary and utilitarian view of the arts that dominates, to make connections, to establish overviews of the arts that can be shared and debated. It could also, hopefully, initiate a shift away from the anti-arts elite attitude that came with the 1996 election campaign. This followed close on the heels of Australia Council Chair Hilary McPhee’s admonishment, “the Australia Council is not for artists, it’s for all Australians.” This sentiment was later compounded by the punishing ‘Saatchi & Saatchi Report’ (Australians and the Arts) which in large part seemed to blame artists for the apparently large number of Australians feeling out of touch with the arts. The education of those Australians and their access to the arts might have been critical to their attitudes toward artists.

A business-like ABC

The ABC is increasingly business-like: it doesn’t carry advertising, but it is ratings-preoccupied and relies heavily on a stable of personalities, increasing lifestyle and infotainment programming, and nostalgia, mostly delivered in its unabating commitment to British culture. Its management structure is strictly ‘top down’, reducing the independence of producers and departments.

There are two ways to look at the ABC in terms of the arts, first as an ecosystem in itself (as a maker and reporter of art), and secondly as part of the larger Australian arts ecosystem (commissioning and working with artists, representing Australian art), and of course these systems overlap.

The ABC provides a potentially nutrient-rich habitat, where art is reported and discussed. As Stephen Pinker argues, that’s half of what art is about—our response to and sharing of it. Interviews about and discussions of art are still strengths, if diminished, on Radio National, in the persons of Julie Copeland, Andrew Ford, Alan Saunders (bringing design into the field), Julie Rigg and The Deep End team. But Arts Today, 5 days of week, one hour a day of specialist arts reporting and debate is sorely missed. We now have 2 hours of Life Matters in the morning, and as important as some of that is, we have suffered a serious loss of national coverage of the arts of which there is so little in this country. We are again deprived of a sense of the ecological totality of the arts in Australia.

ABC Television’s Critical Mass is a small breakthrough, broadcast twice on Sundays. Compared with the arts magazines that preceded it, this talking head show is a low budget investment and, like the absorption of audiophonic work and new Australian music on radio into general programming, is typically generalist (and getting more so), that is to say, poor in terms of diversity. As is Triple J’s axing of its arts program Artery in favour of dispersing elements of it through the week as “one or two minute packages” and “occasional weekend specials.” The argument has grown too familiar: “the program only had a small if dedicated following” and “arts shouldn’t be pigeon-holed at a particular time.” The word ghetto has been used in another context to justify the removal of New Music Australia: the result is even further ghetto-isation and possible disappearance.

While this concern for a broader profile for the arts is laudable it also represents a diminution of choice. If you are interested in the arts how do you find out when to tune in? If you’re interested in punk, you’ll know exactly when to tune in—it’s the program replacing Artery. But this is also an issue of species competition: Triple J Station Manager Linda Bracken says, “New Australian Music is our core business.” The result: there is no place for the arts, no fixed address. It’s competition. Similarly the argument for removing The Listening Room from Classic FM was also that it was not a music program, although I would have thought that its credentials in the history of 20th century art and its hybrids would have secured it a permanent space, especially at only one hour per week. What is curious is an across the board generalist approach at a time of maximisation of choice online and on cable and numerous niche developments in most media. Even more worrying is the patronising ‘arts by stealth’ policy, seemingly based on a managerial belief that the arts are unpopular with listeners and viewers and should be presented in disguise.

As Liz Jacka’s report for the CPSU has revealed, an enormous amount of arts coverage has gone missing from the ABC. Certainly this is true of serious film discussion (which had its own significant space on Radio National before the advent of Arts Today). This represents a failure to respond to a film industry urgently in need of debate and profile. Other than SBS’ (now ABC’s) The Movie Show, a dash of Julie Rigg on Sunday Mornings and in The Deep End, and some film coverage on Triple J, what is there? We cannot regard The Movie Show as a serious contribution to Australian film culture. Where is the complementary program that addresses the range of Australian film and at length?

The ABC can also disperse art, spread it about: broadcast art nationally, to Asia, online and on-call to reach larger and larger audiences. But this will need commitment and an exploration of new channels of release. There is a huge archive to draw on which should be made available at minimum expense or free to users. There’s an impressive range of quality documentaries on Australian artists significantly added to over recent years by the ex-head of ABC TV arts, Richard Moore.

There are also other opportunities to screen the work of Australian filmmakers. But ABC TV’s engagement with Australian screen culture is again limited. Short filmmakers, animators and documentary filmmakers are being screened internationally and winning awards. For most Australians they don’t exist, save for a rare glimpse maybe on SBS. Dance film (not the documentation of dance works, but inventive creations often by Australian choreographer-filmmakers) is an emerging form with a growing international profile. Here and there over 20 years, the ABC has helped create film-dance works in this area (eg Microdance) but, and this is the issue, without continuity. In all these respects the ABC is out of touch with the larger arts ecology.

The art the ABC makes itself is to be found in series, telemovies and documentaries, largely co-produced. The second of the much vaunted mdTV music theatre films (the first was the Rachel Perkins directed One Night the Moon, the next is The Widower, with music by Elena Katz-Chernin) is rumoured to be on the way: it’s been a long time between shows. What of the other 2 ‘winners’ in the series? This has been a significant development and a potential boost for the struggling music theatre scene, but like other ABC arts ventures it will doubtless fall prey to discontinuity and fragmentation of vision.

Elsewhere the creative work is in audio art: it’s Radio Eye, inventive documentary essays with an audiophonic edge; The Night Air, a distinctive thematised blend of the audiophonic and documentary; and Radio Drama, an integral part of Australian theatre life, as well as realm for audio innovation. Radio was once a major part of the Australian arts ecosystem: for actors, writers, composers and musicians, for commissions, for performing, for learning about how to produce and innovate. Closing down The Listening Room was tantamount to species extinction. The withdrawal of stereo broadcasting for audiophonic works and radio drama can only be described as habitat deprivation.

We know that governments increasingly control the ABC through financial deprivation and political interference. But the problems to do with the ABC and the arts suggest an internal problem, a suspicion and dislike of the arts as difficult, and a total lack of vision that yields an abhorrent ‘arts by stealth’ strategy. The consequences are a diminution of audience choice and a reduction in the diversity needed to sustain Australian art as the ABC edges out of its cultural obligations, including the very art of radio and television.

Policies for the future

The ABC must develop policies addressing its ‘ecological’ relationship with the arts, as maker, reporter and documenter. It needs to plan for preservation and continuity, diversity and innovation. It must re-establish its relationship with Australian artists as a commissioner and employer. It must re-assess its relationship with audiences, refocussing on choice and encouraging audiences to engage with significant work rather than that which simply ‘rates’. The ABC must commit to a program of innovation, not initially concerned with audience responses, with which to create a sustainable future for itself, bringing new staff, artists and ideas to radio and television. This needs to be an area specifically budgeted for and protected. Yes, some of this will require funds that the ABC does not have, but much of it could be stated as principle and the process of reinstating the arts on the ABC initiated.

Such policies should result in the return of radio drama and experimental work in FM broadcast. This is work of international standing, prize-winning and often innovative and in line with developments in cutting edge new media and hybrid arts, and the work of new as well as established artists.

The overall issue is of reconnecting the ABC with the arts ecology of Australia, not just as a fixit job or ‘reform’, but a re-visioning of the ABC in terms of what art is now (a major discussion in itself), who exactly audiences are, and what precisely is entailed in notions of choice and representation. The thought and vision required cannot come from a managerial model.

UTS Transforming Cultures Centre/Currency House seminar, Art by Stealth? The ABC & the Arts, speakers Martin Harrison, Liz Jacka, Richard Letts, Tamara Winikoff, David Cranswick, Keith Gallasch, Jonathan Mills, April 4. Papers from this forum are to appear online.

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 4-5

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004
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