The arts in Australia are under attack once again. Or should I say, the intensity of the attacks has intensified and a second front opened against writers. Not for the first time the beige advocates of supply-side economics are attempting to re-fashion the arts in their own image, reducing the creative impulse (and the appreciation thereof) to a simple matter of supply and demand.
The attack, as I say, is coming on two fronts. First, the inexorable shrinking year by pallid year of government funding for the arts (punctuated by the hollow fanfare of Premiers' and Prime Ministers' awards, arts prizes being the shriveled carrot at the end of a very long stick), and the resultant pyramidal nature of that funding, which leaves small to medium arts organisations floundering while the large headline-grabbing concerns such as Opera Australia have seen their generous funding locked in. From the bean-counters' point of view, of course, this makes perfect sense. The former organisations can't seem to turn a profit, while the latter, even if their profits are relatively miniscule in corporate terms, at least can afford those really comfy seats.
The second front of attack, aimed specifically at writers and their loyal local publishers, is motivated by the same ledger book mentality in which a reader (or a theatre-goer or art-buyer) is viewed as simply just another consumer and the writer, by logical extension, simply another supplier of a commodity. Thus, if said writer wants to enjoy all the fruits of this shiny free-trade neo-liberal utopia, then said writer is going to have to compete on a level playing field like all other purveyors of goods and services. What they face is a flood of cheap imports from London and New York crowding the shelves of bookstores across the country, elbowing local writers (and poets) out of what passes for limelight in a very tough "business". Oh, and while we're at it, the bean-counters drone on, we're cutting your copyright life down to less than a quarter. It's only fair.
Now, there is no reason to believe (as some of my colleagues have asserted) that the men and women who advocate these changes are evil, or even willfully philistine. They are simply convinced whole-heartedly of the new orthodoxy that can name the price of everything and the value of nothing. They are in the ascendancy and have been for many years. They are not going away, and much to the disgust of some rather abrasive and self-righteous colleagues recently, I suggested in a previous editorial that as artists and writers (and poets) we are simply going to have to face this repellent fact and do what we can to alleviate its worst excesses while at the same time exploring other ways and means of remaining viable both economically and artistically. Said colleagues' only response was that as a poet I am already to all intents and purposes an economic fringe dweller, thus unwittingly shoring up the bean-counters' case. I trust cooler heads will prevail in the long battle ahead.
There will be all sorts of petitions going around. Sign them. But do not, dear reader, be blind-sided by the old orthodoxies anymore than by the new. Artists need to remain flexible and not prey to the whims of politicians and their bean-counters. The stories still have to be told.