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Re-valuing the artist in the new world order

I can remember the first time a cultural discussion paper had that effect on me and those around me—the first was when David Throsby and Devon Mills’ When are you going to get a real job?: an economic study of Australian artists emerged as a research report for the Australia Council in 1989. The second time happened recently when I read David Pledger’s Platform Paper, Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order.
On the first occasion it seemed as though, for the first time, the Australian arts sector had a way of arguing its worth—and its pitfalls— in demonstrable economic terms. Just as importantly, this paper served as an indicator that the sector could be collectively defined in a cohesive way. ‘Back in the day’, as it was, when the Australia Council for the Arts used to pride itself on being a think-tank—one that commissioned such reports and one that was deeply committed to ‘grass-roots representation’ in terms of the number of artists serving on its committees and boards.
Even further ‘back in the day’, artists had lobbied hard to develop an arts infrastructure that could function as a network to sustain their practice. The Australia Council was NOT the architecture of the cultural sector’s infrastructure. It’s all too easy to forget that artists were the architects of so much of the Australian arts infrastructure; that artists worked at grass-roots levels to build, develop and, ultimately, work towards a more ‘professionalised’ arts infrastructure when ongoing local, state and federal support was needed to keep the organisations running from year to year.
It’s very important to remember this important aspect of history when you read David Pledger’s Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order, or you might end up making the mistake of thinking that somehow these ‘faceless’ organisations were just self-perpetuating from the start. Wrong. Pledger knows this, and he doesn’t let artists today off the hook; he places full responsibility on the failure of those artists who have ‘allow(ed) ourselves to be displaced from leadership, advisory and advocacy roles.’  Looking back, romantics could be forgiven for thinking that with the success of building an arts sector has come the creation of its own kind of monster.
Victor Frankenstein had been wrong too. But he’d also dreamed his dream of creation fuelled by idealism and vision. It may well be that the monster of managerialism has not been dreamed up by the Australian arts sector on its own, but its particular monster is its own incarnation, and Pledger makes a plea that we the artists confront the current problems face-on. Pledger is succinct, convincing and inspiring in many of his claims, and for the sake of brevity I name three important ones:
 (1) The arts sector has never been an ‘arts industry’ or a ‘cultural industry’ or an industry of any kind at all, and anyone who is still faffing round thinking they’re part of it should wake up to the stark economic reality. There’s a good chance that those who do believe this are part of the problem; read on:
 (2) The monster of managerialism has turned on artists so that they too have made the mistake of dreaming themselves into being little dependent ersatz managers. As Pledger points out, ‘artists spend disproportionately more time writing applications for funding their work than they do on making it’.
 (3) Risk-taking is a lower-heart-beat necessity to art-making; but risk-taking has begun to seem like a rare exotic urge in the climate in which we’re currently immersed. However Pledger wastes little time bemoaning the lack of understanding of the culture’s value for contemporary Australia; rather, he defines issues, identifies targets, recognises problems and offers solutions. And he is collegial and inclusive in doing so. He describes the important role that the National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA) has played as an effective lobbying and representational body to government. He alludes to the way Carrillo Gantner and Alison Carroll in their recent Platform Paper have defined the crucial importance that culture must play if Australia’s role in ‘the Asian Century’ is to be played out most effectively. He celebrates the bravado and entrepreneurial spirit of David Walsh’s MONA as an example of the best of what’s possible here. And he critically responds to the importance of the issues raised in the National Cultural Policy.
Pledger’s paper also has plenty of examples from other countries where the value of the arts is argued on the basis of ‘public good’ rather than as producers of commodities and cultural consumption. And he has examples of how Australia’s myopically cheap focus on the managerial indicators of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ has not served the country well.
Critical thinking lies at the core of creative practice and, while it’s a great practice for encouraging ingenuity, it can sometimes make the practitioner feel they’re afloat on a rocky raft of possibilities. Artists inevitably sway between swagger and self-doubt, yet Pledger’s paper leaves artists in no doubt that their practice matters. He reminds them, then he calls on them to act on this recognition collectively, cohesively and convincingly.
For too long now “Professional Practices” courses in tertiary institutions have been taught as a kind of Mendicant’s Manual for Fund-Seeking; where students are taught to be obedient form-fillers with little or no knowledge of the history that created their own little piece of managerial nightmare. Pledger’s paper should be included as a must-read for all students at tertiary institutions, a kind of starter provocation that lets students know that things don’t happen by chance, that structures can and should be challenged and, most importantly of all, that the chosen path they are paying so highly for does matter.
In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel the creator of the monster flees from the horror of his creation, refusing to confront the problems of his own making. Pledger makes a call for artists to face the demons they’re partly responsible for creating and, in so doing, to imagine a ‘new order’ in Australian culture—one that starts by demanding a recognition of the primacy and value of, and a respect for, the role of the artist.