Attacks on the arts miss their value



Recently, The Daily Telegraph published a front-page article criticising public funding for the arts during a pandemic. One of five female artists named and ridiculed as self-indulgent in the article was Claire Bridge who received a $10,000 grant for a collaborative multi-channel video work with Chelle Destefano. Their project, What I wish I’d told you brings together Deaf voices and centres Deaf perspectives, language, culture and agency. This year, distancing and isolation has created a number of barriers to connection, especially for people living with disabilities who depend on face-to-face interaction and for whom community is vital. The artists were thrilled to receive financial support for this project and to promote it this week as part of Reaffirming Deaf People’s Human Rights, the theme of this year’s National Week of Deaf People and International Week of the Deaf. The disheartening comments made in the newspaper reiterate the value of this type of artwork.

White night installation (Pramuk Perera/Unsplash)

Attacks on the arts sector from the media repeatedly target what authors deem invaluable and unnecessary recipients of Australian taxpayer dollars. Artworks produced by public funding recipients (and notably in this case only women artists) are often highlighted as ‘objectionable’ due to controversial content — whether it be a critique of coal mining’s contribution to climate change, or an exploration of feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues — to incite public debate over social values.

A major flaw in The Daily Telegraph article is that it is laden with sensationalised untruths about what the arts grants are being used for, taking words from the artists’ bios or statements from their other works out of context. By simplifying and altering artists’ intentions, the article opened them up to public ridicule, as evidenced by the readers’ comments. The funds allocated to many of the named artists were in fact COVID-19 emergency-relief grants in the context of financial hardship, largely due the loss of billions of dollars in expected self-generated income across the industry. The situation for the sector is all the more alarming now, given a great deal of the arts sector were not eligible for the various government subsidies. One of the grants brought to question provided funding of $2,000, which is equal to 3 weeks on JobKeeper, a program that roughly 6.6 million Australians have benefited from since April 2020.

A common argument from conservatives is that publicly-funded artists take unnecessarily from the ‘average Australian’. In the current international crisis, this argument fails to recognise that artists and arts workers are just as deeply impacted financially by COVID-19 as the ‘average Australian’ in other industries. Data released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in April showed that the Arts and Recreation sector has been the hardest hit by the Coronavirus pandemic with more than half (53 per cent) of businesses ceasing to operate.

Art can offer us a deep perspective on the past, a vital perspective on today, and a compelling perspective on the future. The contemporary arts offer rigorous, ethical and valuable approaches to rethinking our priorities. Art can also make us happy. Particularly in times of crisis, people turn to the arts for support, community, entertainment, comfort and inspiration. During the pandemic, 73 per cent of Australians have said that the arts have improved their mood and quality of life. Since the pandemic, the number of Australians who believe that arts and culture should receive more public funding has only increased. These figures all suggest that comprehensive public investment in arts and culture is in the public’s interest.

The Coalition Government’s 2020-2021 Budget reinforced its disdain for Australia’s arts and culture workers. Despite Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s promise in the budget announcement last week to prioritise jobs, his speech made no mention of the job-rich arts sector. Despite it being the first and worst hit sector, the peak government funding body, the Australia Council for the Arts, received a funding increase so small as to barely even cover basic administration costs once adjusted for inflation. The $250 million support package committed in June 2020, which will do little to restore confidence in the arts sector, is yet to come to fruition for any arts organisation. This comes off the back of disproportionate exclusions from existing income support measures, cuts to local content quotas for Australian TV, and the increase of arts and humanities degree fees.


'Urgent and ambitious funding for the arts will be welcomed by audiences all over Australia. Yet in spite of the demonstrated preferences of "average Australians", commentators insist that arts funding is not of value to Australians.'


The false, but nonetheless popular, argument that arts and culture contributes nothing to the economy is made repeatedly in public discourse. In Australia there are 48,000 practising professional artists, 57,477 people employed in the arts, and 600,000 people employed in the broader $111.7bn cultural and creative activity sector. The arts and cultural sector is a bigger industry than agriculture, and employs more people than the oil and gas, and mining industries. For every million dollars in turnover, the arts and entertainment sector creates 9 jobs, as opposed to just 1 in mining or 0.36 in oil and gas extraction.

The central importance of the arts industry to the national economy is stressed further when you consider its intrinsic relationship with tourism, accommodation and hospitality. These industries rely on arts and culture for their own success, especially in regional areas. What’s more, arts tourists are high value tourists: they travel further, stay longer and spend more than domestic tourists overall.

And the sector is not without an engaged audience. New research from the Australia Council for the Arts has shown that prior to the pandemic, almost every Australian (98 per cent of us) is engaging in the arts in some way, and 63 per cent of Australians believe that arts and culture should be financially supported.

This is one of Australia’s most employment-intensive industries, with strong industry interdependencies with tourism, accommodation and hospitality. The Australia Institute argues that ‘in addition to the short-term welfare, cash flow and wage subsidy measures that have already been announced, the government also needs to provide ongoing support to the structure of the economy.’ They propose evaluating the efficacy of several potential stimulus projects according to 8 principles including targeting domestic production and those most impacted by the crisis. The creative industries align with every one of these principles. The Australia Institute goes on to reason that comprehensive investment in the creative industries will be an ‘effective form of short-term stimulus and potentially provide a source of creative assets of benefit for decades to come.’ 

Urgent and ambitious funding for the arts will be welcomed by audiences all over Australia. Yet in spite of the demonstrated preferences of ‘average Australians’, commentators insist that arts funding is not of value to Australians.

Yet the fatigue felt by artists and arts workers in response to public discourse on the arts cannot be constrained to issues of money and funding alone. In between the mockery from media personalities, and the increasingly results-oriented, quantitative approach that characterises public policy evaluation, the value of art is more often than not discussed only in consideration of its financial potential. 

Public debates on the contribution of the arts to the economy — or even public health — distract us from the possibilities of what art can offer: connection, understanding, political engagement, ways to hold things to account, to unpack and confront the social meanings and changes in our times, and imagine and welcome ideas and voices that are new, strange and exciting.

The true value of art cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Artistic creations engage passionately with the issues of the contemporary world and challenge our ways of life. An artwork can mean many different things to many different people and nearly always elicits a response. As Andrew Brooks reminded us in February 2020: 

‘An artwork is not a riot or a strike or a blockade or a commune. And we must be careful not to forget that the future we desire will not be won in the gallery but in the streets and through collective struggle. But art is one of the primary means in which the structural conditions and inequalities that are produced by the infrastructures of the settler state can be revealed, analysed, and critiqued.’

Because expertise in the arts is not valued in the Australian media landscape, most people don’t hear about the arts from specialist journalists and news sites. Rather, the arts are routinely associated with deceptive and harmful stereotypes (such as the elitist taxpayer-funded bludger) and shrouded in misleading inaccuracy. The media’s antagonism towards the arts — when discussed at all — is one of the biggest hurdles preventing the arts from attracting larger audiences. The media could do with more people committed to meaningful conversations with the arts and culture sector — ones that challenge artists and arts workers to imagine new territories.



Leya ReidLeya Reid is the Communications and Advocacy Manager at the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA). A writer and researcher, Leya has been published in The Guardian Australia, ArtsHub, Screen Education, and Vertigo. She holds a Bachelor of Communications (Social and Political Sciences) from UTS.

Image credit: (Pramuk Perera/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Leya Reid, arts, arts funding, Australia Council, 2020 Budget



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Existing comments

The Arts sector is prone to the perception of many as highbrow and largely funded by arty philanthropists and thus exists in another realm. There also may be a perception of artists enjoying the struggle to produce quality work rather than live a life of mediocrity which significant sections of the population must endure. All this is far from reality but may help explain why Arts funding is such a contentious issue. The truth is obvious: the more we invest in the creative and the imaginative the greater (and sublime) improvement in everyone's quality of life.
Pam | 13 October 2020

Critical comments about how money should be invested can reflect a perspective that there has to be a FINANCIAL return to the investor. Google 'art in public places australia' and read what has been happening in Australia for more than the past decade. State arts programs have been providing a range of opportunities for artists to enhance construction in ways that once would have been thought unimaginable. People with creative talents are needed almost as much as our 'frontline workers' to help us through the current pandemic. Sometimes when I hear various comments from certain people I'm reminded of a joking question that my husband Peter used to ask: 'What did you say your degree was in?'
Paddy Byers | 13 October 2020

"A common argument from conservatives is that publicly-funded artists take unnecessarily from the ‘average Australian’." So, artists are not average Australians?? Clearly people who peddle that thoughtless comment don't know any artists. Artists are not only everyday Australians like you and me who are not creative enough to try to make a living from our art, but they are also among those most disadvantaged by the current Covid-19 lockdown and resultant recession. Meanwhile, 'elite' sportspeople, mostly men, have all the support they could want from the Federal and State Governments who make special allowance, special permits, to ensure they can continue their lucrative careers despite the pandemic and the recession. Does 'The Daily Telegraph' consider them 'average Australians', or does their particular career path entitle special allowance? They are a much smaller number than performing artists struggling with loss of audiences and venues. Do the elite sportspeople need part-time employment just to keep bread on the table? The artists I know certainly do; and their part time work has also evaporated in the lockdown. Australia should support all Australian artists, as entertainers, and as contributors to what it means to be Australian.
Ian Fraser | 13 October 2020

While this country is run by the Neanderthals, don't expect any better outcomes in the future as what has happened in the last six months. Arts was the last cab in the rank to get a small amount of money from the Australian Government, and its inept minister has been slow to get it out of Treasury coffers to artists. What more could you expect when this government is more focused on sport and games at this time of year?
john willis | 13 October 2020

The 'arts' is not one solid block and requires discernment and even criticism to sort out the better parts and practitioners from the escapist and ugly.
Charles Rue | 13 October 2020

Unfortunately, today everything is “art” if it expresses some feeling, no matter how vulgar or ugly. The German philosopher Deitrich von Hilderbrand rejected the notion that beauty is unimportant in nurturing a civilization. The Catholic poet, Dana Gioia, notes that the postmodern position implies “the complete rejection of beauty in any positive sense.” Asked by Sean Salai S.J. what he would like to say to Pope Francis about Catholics and the arts, Gioia replied, “Pope Francis understands the purpose of art…So I would say to the pope: Don’t forget that beauty is one of the ways God speaks to us, a way that leads people to things of the spirit.” Dostoevsky too knew: “Beauty will save the world.” But Andrew Brooks’s quote suggesting using art to attack “the infrastructures of the settler state” to enable winning “in the streets” with a “collective struggle” implies a raw political agenda. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar knew that abandoning beauty also meant abandoning truth and goodness: “she [beauty] will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” Not all “art” is deserving of taxpayer funding.
Ross Howard | 13 October 2020

The adage "they know the price of everything and the value of nothing" says nearly all that needs to be said about the philistines who criticise arts funding in Australia. Not a lot has changed, though, since my youth; when nearly every artist and performer I knew went overseas (usually to Europe, the USA wasn't a lot better than here in those days) if they wanted to be any more than a part-timer.
BJ | 14 October 2020

What a fantastic summary of the crucial importance not the arts, both economically and for the human spirit. This should be compulsory reading for politicians.
john bartlett | 14 October 2020

What political agenda is more raw and blatantly biased than one that will not fund the arts unless they subscribe to a turgid and reproductive norm, Ross Howard? Surely the essence of originality is to create an art piece that says something new.
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 14 October 2020

The Australian psychological, spiritual and cultural landscape without the Arts? Look no further than the disturbing book: Wake in Fright (1961) by Kenneth Cook: John Grant is a young, bonded schoolteacher who has been assigned to work a gruelling two-year post as the schoolmaster of Tiboonda, an isolated, three-building township in the outback of western New South Wales. Upon finishing school in time for the six-week Christmas holiday season, Grant catches a train to the mining town of Bundanyabba – known by the locals as "The Yabba" – to await a flight home to Sydney, where he hopes to spend his vacation swimming at the nearby beach.. ...Were the Arts absent, desolate hedonistic and vacuous living would be rampant.
AO | 16 October 2020

How true, Charles Rue.
John RD | 16 October 2020

Although they had significant differences of opinion on the subject of aesthetics, both Dietrich von Hildebrand and Jacques Maritain were agreed that beauty is no simply subjective thing and that art is recognisable and definable by objective criteria. It is debased when used merely as a political tool, and measured exclusively by its utility as such. GM Hopkins SJ conceives God in some of his best-known poems as the supreme Artist (e.g., "The Windhover", "Pied Beauty").
John RD | 16 October 2020

Congratulations on a serious and convincing case for government support for the arts. The Morrison government has shown a stubborn disdain for the arts in all their forms, apparently unaware of their value in mental health and social cohesion, let alone the pleasure they bring. We all knew of Prime Minister Paul Keating’s enthusiasm for music. One wonders what members of the present parliament do for recreation, apart from yelling at football matches.
Juliet | 16 October 2020

Yes, AO, at their best the Arts are a civilising influence, but I think we should be wary of making them a substitute for faith in God as is fashionable in the contemporary Australian and American art scene. Oscar Wilde recognises the inadequacy, indeed futility, of aesthetic pursuit dissociated from moral and religious truth in works such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and perhaps his best work, "De Profundis" - there's nothing, as he once quipped like the thought of death for concentrating the mind (advice reminiscent of the long-standing spiritual counsel given by various saints that, when faced with an important choice, we would benefit by imagining what to decide if we were facing imminent death - a far from macabre or morbid thought as our choice radically affects both how we will live in the here-and-now and our eternal destination.
John RD | 17 October 2020

John RD should pause to take stock before he posts his other-worldly fervorini on this topic. After all it was Hitler and Stalin who emerged in the last century as the ultimate champions of those committed to cleaning up the arts and divesting them of unclean and debauched influences.
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 17 October 2020

Yes, John RD. I am in agreement with all you have said. Though, I see the Arts as stepping stones to the Faith, not a substitute for the Faith, and for very many including believers: a medium, a deeper appreciation magnifying their Faith. For unbelievers, Faith may be a too much of an abstract, intangible, reality for 'them' to 'grasp' to experience directly, if not 'initially' via the senses and the intellect. Funny thing I have noticed very many times, the Last work of Art (before the artist's, his/her death) is always the 'most complete'. Like Beethoven's Last Symphony: Ode to Joy. Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, K 626, requiem mass by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, left incomplete at his death on December 5, 1791. About Death itself? And how we are to live it? The nightingale's Last Song in Oscar Wilde's, The Nightingale and the Rose. Had a pretty good idea. As did all the Saints. Turning his/her death into a love song. A work of Art. Captivating the whole spirit of his/her life.
AO | 17 October 2020

Wake in Fright (1961) by Kenneth Cook. As a stepping stone to the Faith? This work of Art gives us an idea of Hell. Well it did to me, anyway.
AO | 17 October 2020

I wonder, from his former trenchant ES-declared opposition to the Ramsay course since taken up by the Australian Catholic University, when Michael Furtado refers to a "turgid and reproductive norm", whether he has in mind Western civilisation's tradition of the arts and humanities, so extensively and appreciatively valued and promoted by Jesuit education since the Society of Jesus' founding years? I also wonder what makes "originality" the defining characteristic of the arts and humanities - I'd have thought aesthetics and the pursuit of the good and the true in a wide range of disciplines would be significant elements of any appropriate definition.
John RD | 17 October 2020

JohnRD's assertions about the Society of Jesus and its defense of Western civilisation are sadly stuck within a Chester-Belloc time-warp in which it can safely also be observed that his theological and philosophical views are mired. Since their foundation the Jesuits have generally demonstrated a canny uniqueness and independence of mind and spirit as well as an openness to inquiry that runs counter to much of the pinched and crippling cultural straight-jacket that John would seek to enforce upon the rest of us - a metaphor that I have heard used to describe a company of men who have taught many thousands of us globally how to dance our way out of the atrophied view of culture that John seeks to impose on so much that he writes about. As for the ACU and the Ramsay course, this was accepted attendant upon the payment of a very large bribe, turned down by the most eminent universities in the land, which include in their profile of scholars a great many academics and other 'eminenti', prized both for their Jesuitical connections (which ACU does not, regrettably, have) as well as their breadth of vision to recognise that Christ transcends all cultural boundaries.
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 18 October 2020

There is art as expression of humanity and art as a money earning con job. Taxpayers who have to work for their livelihoods shouldn't have to fund the latter. Examples of the latter, to be expected , come from the USA most commonly where everything is measured in dollars not talent, Examples? Christo, Pollock, Warhol and the bloke who takes photos of naked people in public places and whose name escapes me.
john frawley | 19 October 2020

I wouldn't have thought admiring Chesterton and Belloc (the reading of whom has led many into the Catholic faith) automatically lock one's tardis into their time zone; much of what they wrote transcends their own era. If "time-warps" are to be the order of the day, the views of my perennial critic here, MLF, so demonstrably proficient himself at labelling (e.g, "Hobbesian", "Jansenist") seem to me a combination of 1960-70s' undergraduate unreceptivity to legitimate authority overlaid with a facade of French and Germanic postmodernism (e.g., Foucault, the Frankfurt School) whose writings are not renowned for encouraging a favourable disposition to things Catholic, and the former of whom received a classical Jesuit education. My same long-time critic has also expressed surprise in ES at my reading and appreciation of authors like Camus and Ionesco, who don't quite fit this latest mould into which I've most recently been cast. (Little did I realise I'm such a complex person - perhaps one who should take postmodernists who like to think of persons as onions, more seriously).
John RD | 19 October 2020


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