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Determing our Culture – ‘Arguing the Arts: The Funding of the Arts in Australia’ Tim Rowse

9 Jan

Arguing the Arts: The Funding of the  Arts in Australia by Tim Rowse, Penguin, 1985. Review Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406), 11 December 1985.

Tim Rowse’s new book, Arguing the Arts: The Funding of  the Arts in Australia, is a long overdue study of the role funding bodies play in determining the future development of culture in Australia.

Rowse traces the development of government patronage showing how the changes reflected changing attitudes and expectations about the role of culture in Australian society. Although commonwealth patronage of the arts had begun before the First World War, the major funding bodies, such as the Australia Council and the Australian Film Corporation (AFC), are legacies of the Whitlam government.

Rowse identifies three distinct stages of government patronage. The first of these he calls “voluntary entrepreneurship”. This period can perhaps be seen as a time of “cultural missionaries”. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s touring policy, according to Rowse, reflected the cultural assumptions of the time. It was assumed that Australian society was “characterised” by a “good natured but resourceful philistinism which could be challenged by the presentation of the best of European culture”.

The next stage of patronage Rowse calls “statutory patronage”. This period saw the creation of the Australia Council and the AFC. These organisations made grants to “cultural activities” which they deemed to be worthy.

The concept of “worthiness” or “excellence’ took on new importance during the Fraser years when the real income of the Australia Council fell by over 30%. Because of its adherence to the notion of “excellence”, the Council continued to support only those activities it saw as the ‘best’. As Rowse points out, “The more acclaimed you already were, the more you got”.

The third level of patronage, and the one which is causing the ‘flagship’ companies so many nightmares, is what Rowse calls “decentralised patronage”. This sees alternatives to existing concepts of “culture” and seeks to demonstrate or cultivate community support for a wide range of cultural activities.

This concept is perhaps best reflected in the growth of community theatre and writing, the Art and Working Life programs and the success of the Community Arts Board, the Craft Board and the Aboriginal Arts Boards of the Australia Council.

Rowse goes onto examine a number of issues which he sees as central to the current debate on arts subsidy and support. These issues include the thorny problem of excellence, notions of “popular culture’ versus “high culture”, the distribution of cultural products and the new technologies and the increasing emphasis on the arts as an “industry”.

Returning to the notion of “excellence”, Rowse makes a strong case for the elimination of the word “excellence” from the vocabulary of public cultural policy. He argues, for example, that the term has always been available to those who could lay claim to it under the prevailing cultural ideology.

Towards the end of Arguing the Arts,  Rowse looks more concretely towards the future. In attempting to find a “new rationale” for commonwealth cultural policy, he examines the dichotomy between “popular”, commercial entertainment and “high” subsidised culture.

He argues that, in many ways, these distinctions are false. They tend to be supported at one end by the commercial broadcasters who have a financial interest in what is regarded as “popular”, and, at the other, by the subsidised  arts who seek  continued protection from what they perceive to be the vulgarity of popular taste.

One of the major points which emerges from Rowse’s study is his belief that the arts should make greater use of recording and electronic media in general. He points out that the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal already has the power to ensure that independent films and videos are shown on commercial television. He is also concerned with the minor role the ABC plays in the distrution of culture.

A refreshing aspect of his brief look at the role the domestic satellite could play in future cultural policy is his sympathetic examination of the cultural needs of Aboriginal people. He points out that “some outback people are Aborigines with an interest in the survival of their languages. They need the same choices as white city dwellers much less than they need the choice of not receiving English language broadcasting”.

Overall,  Arguing the Arts  is an impressive study of the cultural policy of successive Australian governments and highlights the conservative thinking which has held back creative development in many art forms in Australia. It contains a wealth of information which I have only been able to touch upon. It is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how government policy can shape the future cultural development of Austral