Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The importance of cultural activities

An article in the Australian Financial Review by Katrina Strickland, Why arty just ain't as farty as it once was, refers to the release of a new Australia Council report on Australian participation in the arts. However, the article also drew my attention to an earlier story that I had missed.

Apparently, a week back, the Australian actress and theatre director Cate Blanchett delivered a speech pleading for greater arts funding in which she said, among other things, that the arts were more than just an industry, more than key performance indicators. Here she said in part:

What I'm saying I don't think anyone would deny, and yet no one seems prepared to constantly value that we give people the chance to make sense of the experience of their lives, their brief lives, and the tool to communicate that unique sense in another person or people.

The speech attracted quite scathing criticism. You can see the nature of the responses if you follow the above link through and look at the comments section. Two examples will give you a feel.

"...that we give people the chance to make sense of the experience of their lives...". Possibly the most elitist clap-trap I have ever read. Cate, if you are so concerned about people exploring the meaning of life, please fund it from your own fortune, right now I am more concerned about paying my mortgage than have your mate rudd take my money off me to fund people prancing around in tights.


Rah rah rah, lok at us, we're so bohemian, special and important! Not like those philistines the great unwashed. Apparently Cate and her possie of luvvies change history, government, and humanity itself. Pass me a bucket please.

Presumably the punchline, which was edited out, is that these oh-so special precious artistic petals need lots more of the tax dollars from us ordinary peasants so they can give us meaning to our 'brief, unimportant lives'.

Newsflash, Catie Me Darlin' - You are an ACTRESS. A very talented one for sure, and yes you provide entertainment and amusement, but that's it. You ARE just another industry, and a non-essential one at that. You could be substitued by the cricket, the pub or even the pokies quite easily. I have much more respect for doctors, nurses, teachers and firefighters than i do for self-indulgent artists.

I found the savagery of the responses interesting, if a little depressing.

An earlier post, Train Reading – Jonathan F Vance’s History of Canadian Culture, introduced the work of this Canadian cultural historian.  In the last part of the book, Vance deals with the post Second World War period, tracing the rise of the Arts bureaucracy, along with the idea of culture as an industry and of expenditure on the Arts as something that can and should be justified on economic grounds. Reading the book, I was struck by the similarity with Australia. As I noted later, Canadian wording and program structures could, with relatively minor wording modifications, stand as Australian examples.

Cate Blanchett's speech could certainly be classified as special pleading. Further, the responses it attracted are not in fact new. It's just that the internet provides a new vehicle for their expression, making them more visible.

There is no doubt in my mind that Australia's cultural activities have greatly enriched Australian life. In ABC and music in country Australia I referred to two posts by Paul Barratt reflecting on the importance of ABC concerts in bringing music to country Australia. In Paul's case, it gave him a love of music that has continued to the present day.

When I look at my own girls, they have had access to a far greater range of cultural experiences than was the case for Paul or I and have benefited greatly as a consequence. It has become part and parcel of the way they see and respond to the world.

Eldest's experience as an actress and in production not only gave her poise in public, but the capacity to see situations clearly in a sometimes ironic way. She can also write with great clarity. Youngest's experience with English, art and drama gave her, among other things, a good visual eye, a wicked eye for dialogue and the capacity to write with great fluency, if not always great spelling or grammar! These are not minor things for a girl whose parents were once told might struggle to complete the HSC because, among other things, of her inability to write properly.

So my daughters have gained not just through personal enrichment of their own lives, but also in a practical working sense.

Each person is different and gains in different ways. At a personal level, I cannot share Paul or Marcellous's love of music. I enjoy it in its place, but it is still a limited place. On the other hand, my interest in oral and written English, the desire to write, was formed in part through my reading, in part through the same English teacher who inspired Australian playwright Alex Buzo, in part through my attendance at school and then university drama productions.

These things are clear to me as a person and as a father, but they are not easily measurable. Of themselves, they do not justify any particular level of or direction of Government support for cultural activities, broadly defined. They do point to the way in which such Government support has value extending beyond simple metrics such as numbers attending, employment, value of ticket sales or value of output.   

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