The Right, The Arts, and Control

Scene 1: Intro

Hey guys, and welcome back to Quoth the Raven. Sorry that it’s been so long, I’ve been juggling a lot of stuff lately, like a few personal issues and also a whole entire Honours thesis… but today I have a bit of a story. Well, it’s a thing that happened to me at a few different points in my childhood and early teens, and even though I can’t remember the details – and don’t want to name names – it seemed to go the same way every time and I wanted to share it. I used to get asked a lot by adults, especially when I was like… 13 or 14, what I wanted to be when I grew up. You know, what I wanted to do for a living. And I’m an honest person so I was always like, “I want to be an artist,” and no matter what adult I seemed to talk to, the response was always “get a real job,” or “don’t get your hopes up.” I’m pretty sure I got laughed at once or twice. And it would always bother and upset me, and it filled me with spite and just… even more determination to make something of myself with art. So I guess I have people who don’t have any faith in creative jobs to thank for my Creative Industries degree with distinction, my merch sales and commissions, my Patreon supporters, my work for The Living End and involvement in local animation projects and festivals, and for the fact that several real people now own a shirt that looks like this [ID: a joke Redbubble shirt]. But though my own art career seems to have finally made its first steps, I’m worried that the Australian arts industry is taking its final ones.

Scene 2: The Death of SOCI

Hi. I’m Raven. If you’re new to my show, welcome, and if you’re not… I’m sorry about the sudden change of pace. I’m trying something new with this series, and I feel like I need to be face-to-face for this one. Now, let’s start.

On July the 4th I found out that my degree – see, there was a reason I mentioned that – will no longer be offered at the university where I studied. This was not brought to my attention by staff even though I’m doing a related Honours degree, but by fellow students, and I went digging and found that the only place it had been reported was the Newcastle Herald, who hid their online article behind a paywall. There’s a lot to be unpacked there, but first, here’s some context.

Back in around 2015, 2016 when I was taking my HSC, which is like the GCSEs or BAC for my European friends, the University of Newcastle was drastically defunding their arts and humanities courses, and melted down its fine art, music, writing, and other creative degrees into one huge mega-degree. This was the Bachelor of Creative Industries, in the new School of Creative Industries, and I got my degree with distinction, so I think I was pretty good at it.

Now, I was in the very first cohort for the Creative Industries. We were the first people to study it, and we literally got called ‘guinea pigs.’ And our lecturers and tutors were absolutely wonderful. They were funny, they were helpful, they wanted us to succeed as academics and creatives, and they knew so much about their respective fields. Some courses were an absolute blast because of the people who taught them. The course program itself, however, left a lot to be desired.

And I can back this up from personal experience. Myself and my friends in the degree noted that it seemed pretty chaotic; plans would change mid-semester, there was confusion around assessments, and in the case of people who did painting and drawing courses like me, we had to bring most of our own supplies – since high-end machinery and materials that individuals can’t normally access on their own obviously had to take priority in the dwindling budget.

That being said, I definitely learned things at uni, and though course choices were sometimes rather pitiful, they helped us build useful skills and pushed us to make actual business decisions. By the end of the degree I’d helped put on a whole concert, been in art shows, we got so many opportunities! The degree had potential! And that’s what made the news it’s being cut so devastating to me. They killed the new arts degree before it had the chance to actually be something good.

Now I did find a free to access version of the article, I’ll link it below, so let’s take a look. A couple of friends from my cohort were quoted, with Keighley – a writer involved with student media for the uni – saying she was “a little bit disappointed because as much as there were teething issues I think the degree had a lot of potential, it just needed tweaking in some areas.” And Kristen, a painter and printmaker I’ve had the pleasure of working with on group assignments, talked about how the business side of things was really helpful, and she “had a spectacular group of tutors and technical officers who have been incredibly supportive and a key part in [her] development as an artist. It’s really saddening that other creatives won’t have the same opportunities as I have had.”

So yeah, it looks like I’m not the only one upset about this. However going through the article, it appears that they’re planning to funnel the entrepreneurial elements of the degree into other, pre-existing degrees, with Paul Egglestone, the head of the School of Creative Industries, saying that “rather than having necessarily a separate course that kind of just focused on enterprise and entrepreneurialism, it made sense to combine the course discipline skills with enterprise and entrepreneurial skills.” On top of this, the article also says the uni is going to continue with building new creative facilities in the inner city.

So, what they’re actually doing is called ‘teaching out’ the degree. I got information from a faculty member about this after I researched the rest of the video, and I shouldn’t share too much, but the situation isn’t quite as bleak as the articles paint it and I want to admit that instead of intentionally withholding information. Now, what teaching out means is that though the degrees won’t be advertised, they will continue to teach current and enrolled students until about 2023 so they can finish their programs.

There’s also a bunch of new majors and stuff being developed for the School as a whole that focus on design, communications, and media arts, which explains why they’re continuing with building the inner-city facilities.  But, the traditional fine arts – stuff like printmaking, sculpture, or painting – are still lacking from this new plan; like, they’ll be accessible within design to an extent, but not as their own programs. I know people who, again not naming names, are worried they’ll lose their jobs. And since they started teaching out fine arts in 2016, I can’t see it coming back. I also don’t know what’s happening with music or writing, so let me know if you do! And there is a problem here that runs far deeper than hard-to-read articles or the dismantling of traditional fine art in one local university. And it could affect us all.


Scene 3: The Liberal Party and the Arts

Now let’s zoom out, look at the bigger picture a bit. My state, and my whole country in general, has been slowly killing off the humanities, or at least, the parts of the humanities it doesn’t like. The most recent stage of this was in retaliation to the Covid-19 epidemic; while HECS fees for education and health degrees were reduced, humanities fees doubled. I don’t think this will affect me personally since I have my Honours year now then I’m basically done with uni, but it will leave a lot of future students in the lurch. I wonder why barely anybody enrolled, huh, Paul? Are you paying attention Paul-?

Don’t get me wrong, medical staff and teachers are obviously people we need a lot of and we shouldn’t just start defunding everything else instead, but maybe we should be subsidising courses or providing better education instead of charging so much in the first pl- anyway; this isn’t the first blow towards the arts industry from the Australian government that’s happened recently. An article from the end of last year reveals that funding for the creative industries, which encompasses fine art, theatre, music, design, and more has been sufficiently lowered. This has been further backed up by articles on The Conversation and Government News, which report some interesting findings.

Government News notes that a report by the think-tank A New Approach entitled “The Big Picture,” which looks into public funding for arts and culture, discovered that although spending on arts and culture actually peaked in the 2017-18 budget, it isn’t quite so simple. The peak doesn’t match population growth, meaning per capita, total expenditure on culture is going down, and reduced by almost 5% that decade. Local and state governments have been left to pick up the slack, but from what I’ve seen they don’t do that very well.

On The Conversation, and in the report itself, it goes even deeper. It mentions that “culture in Australia employs around 400,000 workers and represents A$112 billion of economic activity,” and yet the Morrison government didn’t bother with a cultural policy at all.

For a snippet of what the report uncovered, let’s look at this graph here, which shows the combined cultural funding by all levels of government over the decade in question. It’s pretty fascinating. For one, when you look at the amount when it’s adjusted to the June 2018 wage price index it suddenly looks a lot less impressive and went through a dip sometime between 2013 and 2016. And on top of that, the Conversation article, by Ben Eltham, notes that “there is a hole in the time series throughout the report, with data for several years after 2013 missing. That’s because Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey cut funding to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2014.” [Dead-inside stare at camera before sharp cut]

The move from simply calling us ‘the arts’ or ‘the humanities’ to Creative Industries, too, is motivated by a desire to appeal to big business. As artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah tells us in one of the articles cited, “this discriminates against the arts in favour of technology and design, it privileges industries that are easily quantifiable and makes it so much harder to talk about art as a cultural endeavour.” So what does that all mean?

Well, it means that the arts are becoming undervalued. And I don’t just mean how – aside from some local efforts during the pandemic – they’re getting less funded per capita; I mean how they’re valued by people. I’ve given you my little sob story about how people around me think art isn’t a real job, which is honestly fair; it’s hard to make it as a full-time artist, especially if you don’t have the financial security of being part of the upper class. But what isn’t fair is how the role of the arts is undermined in the process, because art is everywhere.

As Abdul-Rahman Abdullah reminds us, it’s a cultural endeavour; the arts are, and always have been, intricately connected to culture – whether it’s traditional views of ‘culture’ or modern pop culture. Art doesn’t have to have market value to mean something to people, it can just be, and this has always been the case. But focusing on the arts as an industry, we are making the pretty pictures for galleries and fancy plays for fancier theatres, sure, but we’re also the people that make the music you listen to, and the movies you like, the branding for the products you consume, the books you read… the video games you play… Just as much as art is a luxury, its connection to society and culture means it is also an essential service.

In fact, looking at some statistics from Australia, you can see how important the arts are to our economy as well. The Bureau of Communications and Arts Research released a working paper in late 2018, which showed that cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion to the Australian economy in the 2016-17 financial year, forming 6.4% of our GDP. Of that, the ‘creative’ part of ‘culture and creative activity’ was a majority. For reference, the Minerals Council of Australia says that mining, without the inclusion of related industries, came in at about the same amount of GDP, or 15% when equipment and technical services were added, and mining is one of Australia’s biggest and oldest industries.

This, however, stands in total contrast against how these industries are funded, with the arts repeatedly receiving the short end of the stick. Even in this pandemic, despite some respite from state governments, the federal government isn’t really doing that much for us compared to other, much smaller, industries; for example, the South Australian news platform InDaily reported in April that while aviation contributed $18 billion to the arts’ $111 billion, it is receiving significantly more pandemic funding. In contrast, the Australian government has pledged $27 million to the arts, part of which was reappropriated from grants, but pledged $165 million to aviation. The short-term contracts and irregular income structures that dominate the arts also make it difficult for many creatives to sign up for individual income relief schemes like JobKeeper.

But on top of that, we’re dealing with the stigma and difficulty around being a full-time creative; most of us, especially artists, operate within the gig economy, taking commissions and working on short-term jobs either as a freelancer or part of an agency. Job security just… doesn’t exist for a lot of us. This gives off an image of creatives as ‘starving artists’, which in a world that’s driven by individuals needing to make themselves marketable, discourages creative outlets even as a side gig. This uncertainty is also one of the reasons that arts jobs were disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside the reliance on theatres, galleries, and studios. Basically, it’s really hard to make a living out of being a creative due to how volatile the industry is, even without the disappearing funding and recognition, and reducing access to arts education isn’t going to help.

So, even though creatives are contributing pretty significantly to culture and the economy, we get thrown under the bus a lot. And because of this, I think some more funding coming back our way from the federal level would help improve awareness of what the arts do, give us back our reputation, lead to a bigger economical return in the long run. But “Raven,” I hear some of you say, “if you want the arts refunded, where will the money come from? Won’t it mean taking money out of government programs, or STEM?” Well, as I discussed earlier, the ABS has taken a bit of a hit, and STEM…?

[ID: Screenshots of news headlines about cuts to climate change and CSIRO funding by the Australian government.]

[Pained laughter] Where is this money going?? Where’s it gone?? This wasn’t originally going to be part of the video, but I was talking about it with friends and one of them brought up that there were CSIRO cuts and I’m – if the money’s not there either, where is it? Tony? Scotty???? Where’s the-

Scene 4: Past and Future

Now let’s zoom out again. If my decision to take mostly theory courses during my time in this degree was good for anything, it’s how it gave me the gift of prophecy. Or, the gift of being able to predict future art trends through critical thinking and historical context. Anyway, it’s come in handy recently. I was already noticing by the time I started my degree that not a lot of people in positions of authority and power seem to value the arts; I mean, if my university downsizing the arts into one school with a focus on the business side said anything, it was that people don’t want to care about art beyond how it’s marketable to other, more “professional” industries. I’ve already covered that in this video, though. Now, I want to suggest a potential reason why, and for this, we need to look at history.

I hope I’m not saying anything radical by telling you that the arts are extremely valuable, both to other industries and of their own accord. The arts give us entertainment, buildings to live in and clothes to wear, a way to pass the time, and a means to communicate. Since the beginning of humanity it’s been how we express emotions, record history, advertise, and a very effective means of protest. So whoever controls the arts kinda controls how we see the world. And so, how a government treats the arts, or ‘Creative Industries’, will influence how much control they have over their nation. Now, I don’t actually want to accuse the Liberal Party of anything, but looking at how reducing arts support has played out in history… I think it would do us some good to keep watch.

Art, both historically and now, would often be commissioned by the rich and powerful to exhibit their wealth, their faith, or to push certain political and economic values. The Medici’s, social realism, and paintings of famous leaders are good examples of this. In a nutshell, art is good propaganda. And a good way to protest or create shock, too. I won’t spend long on this either but artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ai Weiwei are great examples of social commentators. They use/slash/used their artmaking to create incredibly compelling comments on the world around them.

Basquiat’s graffiti-style work was an incredibly poignant statement about his life as a black American, up to and including how police brutality threatened him and his community, with one of his works being about the death of a colleague due to injuries sustained from police abuse. I was actually meant to see an exhibition of his and Keith Haring’s work in Melbourne just before Easter as a late birthday thing, but… Corona. And Ai Weiwei is an artist and activist still with us, whose open criticisms on the Chinese government have gotten him arrested. So, yeah, art is a powerful tool that makes sense for governments to control. So, let’s look at some historical examples.

When the Nazi Party were in power from 1933 to 1945, they did an awful lot of work to make sure certain works of art were exalted, while all the rest were censored and devalued. On one side of the coin, there was what Adolf Hitler referred to as ‘true art’, which was conservative in aesthetics and very effective as propaganda for presenting Nazi Germany as an idyllic society. The accepted style was modelled on Greco-Roman art, and typically depicted scenes that romanticised pastoral peasant life, romanticised militarism, and of course, championed the Nazi idea of racial purity. It also had to be simple enough that average German citizens didn’t have to think about the work when they looked at it.

Meanwhile, anything that wasn’t perfect was labelled ‘degenerate’. The more famous examples of degenerate art include pretty much anything Modernist; among the thousands of works seized from German museums, many of which became the fodder for the Entartete Kunst exhibition, were paintings by people such as Kirchner, Klee, Picasso, Matisse, and even van Gogh. This work was considered un-German and inflammatory, and the exhibition they were put into was intentionally framed so that people who visited would be inclined to mock the artworks within it. I say framed, but a lot of the paintings were removed from their frames, actually, and divided into categories depending on what was deemed offensive about them.

Now, the thing about Modern art isn’t just that stylistically they weren’t Hitler’s cup of tea; it encourages people to think about art and what it’s for, instead of just giving you a literal representation of a thing for you to go “oh, yeah, that’s a… pretty landscape, those are some gorgeous Aryan youths, yes, this is what Germany is all about,” or something. Because if art encourages critical thinking or isn’t overtly in favour of the state, it could be Jewish, or Communist, or offensive to our troops!

Now this clearly isn’t censorship in the traditional sense – except for how the Entartete Kunst was age-restricted – but it restricts our worldview in a similar way. By telling us exactly what kind of art is valuable to society, and what kind isn’t, you affect how people think of the arts. You may draw that line, for example, according to conservative values and anti-Semitism as the Nazis did, or perhaps, you might choose to alter how you refer to the arts so that the types of creative work that are deemed more profitable for other industries are held in a higher regard by the general populace.

A different approach, however, was taken in the 1980s and 90s by Margaret Thatcher, the then-Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the Conservative Party. But it achieved similar things. Thatcher’s approach to the arts was, well, to slash its funding. Under Thatcherism, the Arts Council, which had been set up to bring culture to the public after the atrocity of the World Wars, had its funding gradually stripped away. She was also extremely in favour of deregulating the market, focusing on industry and profitability. That being said, her party screwed over employment in other sectors too, but who cares about workers am I right?

This doesn’t mean Thatcher hated the arts by any means, and I’ll talk about how she sort-of encouraged the arts in a bit, but she sure didn’t pin much value on them. For one, her taste, like her political views, was conservative and orientated towards entrepreneurialism. She prioritised stuff that was traditional, or that made money, as opposed to schemes that directly fostered innovative thinking and creativity. The Guardian gives an example of her taste in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber, saying that the zeitgeist of musicals “represented Thatcherism in action: what it celebrated was the triumph of individualism and profitability.” Now, people familiar with my show know I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Webber’s work, specifically with, um- [Montage of me suffering while trying to explain Cats] – but I digress.

Before I continue with the doom and gloom of politicians defunding the arts, let’s talk about the Heaviside Layer- I mean, the bright side, of Thatcherism. And this bright side is due to the fact that barely anyone working in the arts actually liked her. Another article by the Guardian, as well as one by the Straits Times, both elaborate on how creatives channelled their outrage at Thatcher into their art. The Jam’s song Town Called Malice, for example, addressed the riots and unemployment rates that dominated the early 80s in England.

There were also benefit concerts, a plethora of plays and films about Thatcher, and the genesis of countercultural art initiatives like the Saatchi Gallery – which spawned the art of the now very famous, and very wealthy, Damien Hirst. Hirst himself seems to be symptomatic of a system that favours profitable art, I mean, look at that skull, and he has a pretty bad track record with things like art theft, but let’s keep going. Thankfully, what Australia is doing is much closer to Thatcherism than to , you know, Nazis, but it does reveal a trend in conservative and right-wing policies. And that trend is to mismanage the arts, whether by deeming certain kinds as more acceptable or reducing funding, in a way that benefits the government instead of the people. And as I tried to illustrate, what governments tend to see as beneficial is what can be used for capitalism and profitability. So if they’re not able to bend the arts towards revenue or propaganda, why would a right-wing government bother to nurture creativity? Well, they don’t.

Scene 5: Conclusion

So, with all that in mind, let’s fast forward back to now. Obviously, none of this means the Australian government is intentionally censoring the arts and pushing fascism, but it is a little concerning that they’re treating the arts in a similar way to other right-wing and fascist governments. And even if it’s all a coincidence, you can tell that treating the arts as lesser to other industries is already ingrained into our society. So, people tend to underestimate the power of art as protest and propaganda.

So, where do we go from here? Well, we can’t really undo the decisions made by the University of Newcastle, but my friend Keighley has a few suggestions for how they should have handled it; in an article she published through the uni’s student magazine Yak, saying that they “should be seeking advice from their recent graduates and current students on what worked from the program, and what didn’t,” which seems obvious, right? She also has a list of potential improvements: a better balance between the entrepreneurial courses with the creative-based ones, better options for the different disciplines, and compulsory work placement, which was a thing in the defunct Communications degree. Keighley sure put a lot more thought into this than I did. Hi Keighley…

But coming back to the bigger issue of the arts being defunded and tightly controlled, however, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what a person without much power or authority, or a big platform, can do to change how the world and its many governments act. But I don’t want to end this video on pure despair, so I want to suggest something. And that something is… keep creating. Keep making art, keep singing, keep writing, keep doing creative things that make you happy. And it doesn’t have to be marketable. A hobby artist who doodles stick figures in the margins of their notes or paints figurines or only ever sings in the shower is still an artist. And if you are trying to turn your creative work into a source of income, like me, that’s valid as well. The way the arts are stigmatised and mismanaged by right-wing governments affects hobbyists and quote-unquote “professionals” alike.

But at the same time, don’t underestimate the power of creativity when it comes to making yourself heard. There’s a reason the arts are defunded by certain types of governments over others, even if the Liberal Party aren’t doing this entirely on purpose. And just as artists used their skills to respond to how the Nazis and the Thatcher government treated them, we can say something about how the arts are being treated now. And remember that the image of right-wing politics is governed not just by right-wing artists, but by a reliance on violence and control. In the words of Walter Benjamin, “this is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” Thanks for joining me comrades… and have a fantastic day.

[Cut to credits]

References and Further Reading

A New Approach. “The Big Picture: Public Expenditure on Artistic, Cultural and Creative Activity in Australia.” 2019.
Australian Academy of the Humanities. “New report presents the big picture on government arts and culture funding.” September 10, 2019.
Australian Government. “Budget 2019-20.”
Australian Government. “The economic value of cultural and creative activity.” Bureau of Communications and Arts Research, October 19, 2018.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1935.
Billington, Michael. “Margaret Thatcher casts a long shadow over theatre and the arts.” The Guardian, April 9, 2013.
Boland, Michaela. “The Australian Government has an arts problem that starts with the word itself.” ABC News, December 11, 2019.
Bradford, Keighley. “Creative Industries Axed by UoN.” Yak Media, July 14, 2020.
Caust, Jo. “Why Australia’s arts sector needs urgent targeted support.” IN Daily, April 21, 2020.
Cheng, Amy. “Government arts spending drops.” Government News, October 1, 2019.
Climate Council. “Climate Cuts, Cover-Ups and Censorship.” April 30, 2019.
Eltham, Ben. “Federal arts funding in Australia is falling, and local governments are picking up the slack.” The Conversation, September 30, 2019.
Eltham, Ben. “We are witnessing a cultural bloodbath in Australia that has been years in the making.” The Guardian, April 6, 2020.
Florida Center for Instructional Technology. “Art Approved of By the Third Reich.”
Florida Center for Instructional Technology. “Degenerate Art.”
Gregory, Helen. “University of Newcastle announces restructure details.” Newcastle Herald, August 18, 2020.
Gregory, Helen. “University of Newcastle cuts Bachelor of Creative Industries.” Newcastle Herald, July 4, 2020.
Gompertz, Will. “Margaret Thatcher: An inspiration to artists?” BBC News, April 9, 2013.
Harris, John. “How Thatcherism politicised the arts in Britain.” The Guardian, April 9, 2013.
Hunter, Fergus. “Students face 20 years of debt under university fee changes, modelling finds.” Sydney Morning Herald. August 30, 2020.
Khan Academy. “Art in Nazi Germany.”
McIlroy, Tom. “Dozens of jobs to go from CSIRO energy unit.” Financial Review, March 13, 2020.
McClinton, Dream. “Defacement: the tragic story of Basquiat’s most personal painting.” The Guardian, June 28, 2019.
Meyrick, Julian. “Remember the arts? Departments and budgets disappear as politics backs culture into a dead end.” The Conversation, December 6, 2019.
Minerals Council of Australia. “Driving prosperity.”,contributor%20to%20the%20Australian%20economy.&text=In%202016%2D17%20resources%20exports,of%20Australia’s%20total%20export%20revenues.
Unknown. “Thatcher had “phenomenal” impact on Britain’s cultural landscape.” Straits Times, April 8, 2013.

By draweththeraven

My name's Raven, and I'm a writer, animator, and theorist.

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