If We Build It, They Will Come

December 5, 2007 at 11:37 pm (Uncategorized)

There are positive noises coming from the new Rudd government that promoting the cultural health and profile of Australia is part of Labor’s agenda. Phew. That would be really great. The Arts Minister Peter Garrett announced the new Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and they’re not mucking around – very lucrative stuff for the lucky winner/s. I take author David Malouf’s point that the problem with literary awards such as this is that one writer scoops a fat wad of cash whilst the rest miss out completely, but gosh, it’s a hell of a start just getting such a prize on the Australian publishing calendar.

Personally, I really wish people would stop invoking the idea of elitism around phrases like ‘culture’ and ‘the arts.’ It’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you keep saying ‘the arts are elite,’ it actually creates an atmosphere where people believe it to be so. And yet it’s really just utter bollocks, and the sooner we drop the word ‘elite’ from the discussion, the sooner we get more people to the table prepared to admit that actually, yes, they do quite like painting or live music or reading or sculpture or dance or whatever cultural practice takes their fancy. What makes people uncomfortable is the idea that they’ll be pursued around the room by ponces and poseurs, not that they might like what they see.

And that’s the other thing about calling something ‘elite’ – it’s a deeply disappointing truth that if you call a group ‘elite’ often enough, some members of it will actually start believing their own press. I’ve met plenty of arts wankers. They’re definitely out there and they think they’re awesome. They really do. They’re very self-congratulatory about being in an ‘elite’ group of ‘talent’ trying to ‘save’ a ‘suspicious’ Australia from the ‘sports fans.’ They’re kindly ‘rescuing’ us from the ‘cultural abyss,’ but despite their ‘dedicated efforts,’ none of the ‘philistines’ in this reality-TV-loving country really give a shit.

Well, rubbish. I just don’t buy it. Aside from the power of suggestion, the only thing keeping the arts from being an accepted part of the Australian mainstream is money – some of it is prohibitively expensive. Sydney Theatre Company, the Sydney Opera House, Belvoir St Theatre, the Ensemble Theatre and many, many more venues right round the country all offer excellent, exciting programs, but often (due to an endemic lack of funding at the level of government, as well as perhaps an entrenched mentality within the arts that leads to poor institutional financial management) it’s simply too expensive for people. Llew and I are regularly among the youngest in the audience by several blue rinse decades. We don’t do nearly as much as we would like to simply because we cannot afford to. But the notion that people aren’t interested in supporting the arts is false. All sorts of cultural festivals around Australia – and I mean everything from the Tamworth Country Music Festival to the Brisbane Writers Festival, are just getting bigger and bigger every year. Look at the Sydney Festival. There are always plenty of free events, and incentive-based ticket purchase options for families, and there’s also the terrific tix-for-next-to-nix scheme, where a limited number of seats to every event are sold on the morning of the performance for a fraction of the full price. All these festivals are pulling big numbers, and I just don’t accept that it’s an ‘elite’ scene.

We also have to drop the expression ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ from our national vernacular. Using it keeps it alive. I guess I’m revealing myself to be someone who believes in the power of positive and negative reinforcement. We have to stop telling ourselves our culture is crap – it’s not. On the contrary. Australia has every right to be enormously proud of its artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and thespians. We are a very small, insignificant little country in population terms, but boy have we turned out some world-beaters. We have to stop believing we don’t like to see ourselves succeed in these areas. I don’t think we’re actually, deep down, so quick to disown our best and brightest, but we are very quick to say we do. And over time that becomes the same thing. That message has been drummed into our national psyche, and maybe it’s hard to get it out. But can’t we just reject that attitude and start championing our best instead? I do believe that if we start making positive noises about the arts, instead of continuing to invoke worn cliches like ‘tall poppies’ and ‘elites,’ the culture will thrive.


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