By Naomi Riddle
29 May, 2020
‘Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed—with a harsh, unrelenting clarity—what had already been lost.’
Leslie Jamison, ‘When the world went away, we made a new one’, New York Times Magazine, (19/05/20)
The world of Covid-19 is a world where Donald J. Trump rolls the dice on a re-election bid and decides 100,000 deaths are 100,000 expendable deaths (minorities and non-Trump voters). The Morrison Government refuses to review the JobKeeper payment system despite a sixty billion dollar accounting error. The same government is considering introducing legislation to prevent businesses from paying benefits to long-term casuals. The fight for a vaccine is now an exercise in nationalism. Britain pretends it is under strict lockdown and that it is not conducting an experiment in herd immunity, though it appears, in reality, to be conducting an experiment in herd immunity. Beijing takes this opportunity to ratify a security law that will undermine Hong Kong’s one country-two systems policy, levelling a death blow to the democracy movement. Economists debate whether we are in a V or a U bend, repeating the phrase snap back ad infinitum.
Enter the Australian ‘arts sector.’ Enter an ‘arts sector’ already limping along after decades of non-support, haemorrhaging stable incomes and future job prospects; an entire industry predicated on government funding in order to function, and one that sees its continued existence in its current form as an inherent right. Enter the art market and the practice-based PhD and the social media campaign directed @ key MPs. Enter the online viewing room. Enter Rising, a new multi-million $ international arts festival: ‘Art is infinitely adaptable. Art will endure. Art will defy all notions of the essential by rising up regardless.’
‘The pandemic is a portal,’ wrote Arundhati Roy in April, but what if the pandemic isn’t a portal and just a thawing permafrost? The scars and cracks and sinkholes that were already there, resting, are now exposed; what may have shown up as a hairline fracture mid-2019 is now a clean break.
Combatting the severe economic stress that arts workers now face (read: those on the lowest tier of the payroll) must be our focus, providing assistance and care wherever possible. The NSW Government finally announced $50 million in funding support for arts companies impacted by the pandemic, which can also be used for rent relief and salaries. As is the case with so much emergency funding, how long it will take to trickle down remains to be seen. It’s also possible that the budgeting error will force the Morrison Government to extend the current JobKeeper system to those previously excluded, such as temporary residents, arts workers and those employed by universities. (Temporary residents, in particular, are also locked out of many other grant schemes.)
But chastising successive governments for inadequate arts support, at both a state and federal level, has been a recurring theme since 2015, when George Brandis announced massive cuts to the Australia Council and the creation of the National Program for Excellence. Aside from Brandis’ surprise budget reveal, there have been other instances of ministerial interference in recent years, such as the former NSW Arts Minister, Don Harwin, redirecting Create NSW funding to the Sydney Symphony or pork-barrelling $44 million into Coalition electorates. Other than axing the National Program for Excellence in 2017, there has been scant political will or enthusiasm to address any of these concerns. Neither does there seem to be much appetite across the broader electorate to increase financial assistance.
If anything, the general Australian public remains suspicious about the types of artistic activities paid for by the taxpayer, a feeling that will only increase during a period of deep global recession. And, when our ‘back-in-black’ loving treasury pivots to recouping its Covid-19 losses, there can be little doubt as to where the scalpel will cut first.
The arts community, then, continues on in a state of unending precarity. But a consequence of this tenuousness is a refusal to reckon with its decades-long reliance on government subsidies, philanthropic donations and corporate sponsorship.
At the same time as arts funding has dwindled—and artists/makers/writers/art-handlers/art invigilators survive off one-off invoices or casual incomes—the bureaucratic machine continues to expand. Most of the salaried jobs positions in the arts sector are for directors, administrators, grant writers, curators, designers, marketers, communication managers, philanthropic engagement officers, accountants, and digital developers. Carving out a ‘career’ as an artist requires the ability to be ‘adaptable’, to write in grant-speak, to arrange the act of making in a way that can be translated in applications (before the making has even begun), to compete for art prizes and residencies, to secure exhibitions at regular intervals, and to maintain a high degree of visibility. (And, for those who are able to perform all these necessary tasks, financial security does not necessarily await.)
In his article for Crikey, Guy Rundle writes that the collapse in financial support, and the depletion in cultural policy, began not in the Liberal Howard years, but during the Hawke/Keating Labor governments. As Rundle suggests, it was the policies of the 1980s that saw ‘universities…yoked to simplistic notions of national development, and the culture industries to national identity and branding.’
‘The relationship between a general and thorough humanities education and cultural creation was lost. Arts faculties became course supermarkets, under pressure of new funding models; creative schools swung towards the market and the multiplex.’
As much as Rundle is correct in identifying the corporate tertiary system as a critical factor in our current predicament, he does not account for the dramatic upswing in postgraduate study among artists.
While art schools closed, or were swallowed by universities; while there were mass budget cuts, redundancies and layoffs; while departments were asked to calculate how much income they contributed to the university slush fund, there was a simultaneous explosion in the number of artists enrolling in research programs (the most common being a practice-based MFA or PhD). Much of the reason behind this explosion has to do with the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship (RTP), an award that offers some means for sustaining artistic practice during the years of study. The RTP scholarship may not be enough to live on—$28,092 per annum—but it does provide an artist with time and resources to make new work.
Talk to any number of artists currently undertaking a PhD, and you will find most of them disgruntled, stressed, unsatisfied and confused by the expectations of their chosen academic institution. A PhD thesis, whether practice-based or otherwise, is examined not solely on artistic merit, but on its original contribution to academic knowledge. Therefore, much of the labour involved in practice-based research does not concern making work, but investigating its contexts, precedents, and theoretical frameworks. Part of the deal in signing up for an RTP scholarship is that, far from wishing to continue as a practicing artist, the student should be concerned with the validity and impact of their academic research. Many students begin a PhD without an awareness of how such an agreement might compromise the basic tenets of making—experimentation, play, and creative intuition. And, although it’s no wonder that so many artists pursue postgraduate study when economic prospects are limited, it is disingenuous for art departments to spruik a degree’s potential when the prospects for academic employment post-PhD are slim to none. As Ariana Reines suggests, ‘I guess if you want to learn how to operate a supercollider or manipulate statistics, by all means, go to school. But the way we teach and acquire the practice and experience of the arts has got to change.’
It’s impossible to avoid the fact that the number of artists undertaking postgraduate study has altered Australian contemporary art, and its ability to resonate with a non-arts-educated audience. There is now an ever-expanding genre of art that perpetuates intellectual trends and aesthetics that have credence only in closed circles.
With this comes the inevitable charges of elitism and deliberate opaqueness. The artist can no longer be thought of as ‘anybody.’ The artist must now be classified as a postgraduate who has spent a minimum of six to seven years at an academic institution. (For context, only 1.1366% of the Australian population holds a doctorate.)
Underneath this corporate buzzword sector, then, is a vast array of competing interests: call them the art prize industrial complex / the arts administration industrial complex / the tertiary industrial complex / the grant application industrial complex / the art career industrial complex / the managing director industrial complex / the arts festival industrial complex. Pull all of these together and we arrive at our ‘community’: hesitant, self-interested, reactionary, anxious, cliquey and broke, with an ever-present set of KPIs, community-engagement outputs, market optics, and terminal degrees.
Is it any wonder that when some of us hear the phrase ‘art sector’ combined with ‘unprecedented times’, we find ourselves without the capacity or the belief or the will or the desire to invest whole-heartedly in ‘saving’ it? ‘I don’t want a seat at the table’, writes the poet Momtaza Mehri, ‘I want a deck-chair from which to watch the table’s long-overdue burning.’
Is that what I believe?
But now I’m stuck.
Where do I go to after that quote?
The problem in walking all the way down the road to this ‘long-overdue burning’ is that it also conjures up a series of pesky oppositional qualifiers and clarifications.
That was unnecessary, say these little ghosts.
Enter more ghosts:
Do you want art to be about what’s popular? Do you want everyone working in the arts to lose their jobs and their careers and their livelihoods? How can you want to dissolve a grant system this publication has benefited from? Isn’t it one of Running Dog’s principles to always remember who your audience is not? Aren’t you committed to supporting casual workers’ demands?
Don’t you, as an editor, know how important it is to foster work that is unpopular, and inscrutable, and esoteric, and don’t you yourself rile against bitterness and exhaustion and cynicism and the flat statement that none of this can be changed?
And what of those who have been left out and denied this art world—would you begrudge them the moment they enter into it, or claim they do not have the ability to remake it? Do you not want artists to earn money for the work they do?
Yes yes yes yes yes yes.
This is my recurring failure. All I can muster is a topological survey of the fissures without charting the endpoint. How to not feel trapped in the cul-de-sac? How to not bounce between leaping to defend art and despairing of it at the same time?
And there’s another aspect to this endless rotation too—an awareness that the kind of critique I’m attempting is not an aberration at all. Writing about dissatisfaction with the arts and its institutions is a genre in and of itself, with a receptive home in the Twittersphere. It’s another form of signalling that generates its own cultural capital, and it’s most often received with a kind of benevolence.
In their two-part essay, ‘Another Art World’, Nika Dubrovsky and David Graeber argue that for all it may speak of community and disruption, the artscape we inhabit is still driven by an underlying Romantic belief in the individual genius and the value-habits of the commercial market. ‘Much of what is called the art world consists of an endless speculation on the rules, which are always in flux and under negotiation,’ write Dubrovsky and Graeber. ‘No one claims to be responsible for them, everyone claims they are just trying to figure them out. It becomes all the more complicated because exposing, challenging, or breaking the rules is now the main substance of art itself [my emphasis].’
What can I offer you then, as a form of conclusion when I don’t want to repeat the stock phrases about the resilience of artists, of our unending ability to adapt, of how we continue making in times of crisis, of how we can offer hope in uncertainty. What to tell you when the truth is that I dislike every one of these tropes and the way they put a ring around artistic creation, elevating its labour and value rather than making it ordinary—a part of a life.
‘What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless?’ asks the poet Sabrina Orah Mark, after an unsuccessful attempt at yet another university teaching position:
‘‘I have no real job,’ I say. ‘Of course you have a real job,’ she says. ‘I have no flour,’ I say. ‘Fuck the bread,’ says my mother again. ‘The bread is over.’
I reread the mother’s phrase again and again. I repeat it in my head on the phone to the ATO. I repeat it as my sessional teaching contract reaches its expiration date.
The place I’ve arrived at is one of relinquishment: of giving in, of avoiding the squabble over the ever-shrinking pie, and the outrage at the inadequacies of government arts ministers. To even have the conversation, or even begin the online petition, assumes the recipient will be moved to act. I wish to give in to the possibility of collapse. I wish to give in to the possibility, to quote Bartleby, that I’d prefer not to.
Or, I can put it a different way. In an effort to explain reflective consciousness, Sartre refers to a group of people at a bus stop. We don’t change our consciousness while we’re all standing together, waiting for the bus to arrive. We don’t even shift our consciousness when we’re all travelling inside of the bus, having chosen our individual seats. The moment our consciousness moves towards reflection? When we’re all waiting for the bus, and it turns the corner, and refuses to stop.
The bus has gone past.
The bus is speeding away even as we throw out our hands and shout after it.
The bus remains indifferent in its decision to continue.
The bus refuses to adjust its route.
Fuck the bread. The bread is over.
Here we are, on the side of a curb—together and waiting.