Friday, September 02, 2005
THE "ART" ESTABLISMENT SPONGES OFF TAXPAYERS WHO DON'T GIVE A FIG FOR THEM
Their work isn't popular enough to earn them a living, so our artists grasp the taxpayer teat. It's not how we should be spending our money. When the Bracks [Victorian] Government spends $96,000 to paint trees blue, you see again why politicians and bureaucrats shouldn't be handing your money to artists. This is what you get when someone takes your taxes to buy art no one likes enough to buy themselves. Just ask yourself -- when you heard 40 elms at Yarra Park would be painted the colour of sad, didn't you instantly guess government money was involved? Who else would spend so much on something so unwanted?
But let's not miss the wood for the blue trees. The real worry isn't discoloured elms, but distracted artists -- artists who are paid by governments to ignore their true audience, the public. It's bizarre. In fact, our biggest arts grants are now going to middle-aged or elderly artists who -- even after decades of "success" -- still seem not to have found an audience big enough to pay them a living.
This month the arts and craft board of the Australia Council announced another round of grants worth more than $2 million. The biggest handouts were four fellowships each worth $80,000, given to arty-crafty people of "outstanding achievement . . . to create new work and further develop their practice". The winners all had decades of work behind them -- Klaus Moje (born in 1936), Jenny Watson (1951), Fiona Hall (1953) and Joyce Hinterding (1958). All had also had huge success, or as huge as it gets in art-crafts. Between them, they'd won countless awards, folders of fawning reviews and earlier grants and fellowships. The arts establishment had also variously given them jobs as lecturers, stints as artists-in-residence and hanging space in scores of public galleries, here and overseas.
Yet despite all that, they still need our money -- not freely given, but extracted through taxation -- to keep making what they make. Given that Moje, a glass-worker, is now 69, can we ever expect an artist to stand on his own two feet -- or try another line of work? As I said, these are artists much praised, but when you look at what they do, you might understand why they still need a grant. The Australia Council says Hinterding, for instance, will use her $80,000 to "create, exhibit and perform with a series of printed graphic antennae". The advertising for her works describes them best: "(They are) based on celestial site recordings of magnetic fields and weather satellites made with custom-built antennae . . . The result is a complex universe of mysterious interference, ghostly transmissions from unfathomable places, disembodied static, and failed communication."
It sounds kind of interesting for 30 seconds, but must taxpayers be forced to give Hinterding $80,000 to keep producing examples of this failed communication Would they even care if her antennae never again tuned in to mysterious interference? Perhaps not, because if they did, they'd support Hinterding in sales, not grants.
I should add that I don't dislike her art, or that of the others. I even like the way Fiona Hall carves flowers from sardine tins, knits baby clothes from Coca-Cola cans and builds bird nests out of shredded US dollar bills. I just doubt many people would buy it, which may be why she applied for this fellowship. But why must we be forced to pay for art that we do not choose to buy? Why must we pay all the other art and crafts people who got smaller grants to create "a new body of work in transparent rubber", or "photomedia works based on Prato in Tuscany" (Tuscany again!) or "a series of lighting pieces conceptually based on characteristics of a dysfunctional family"? Why pay for all this?
Writer Rodney Hall, former head of the Australia Council, tried to justify it in a paper written last month for the federal Labor Party. "The arts make us feel better," he declared. Like aspirin, I guess. Or beer. If that's so, I'm surprised so few artists seem all that happy. In fact, Hall seems especially unhappy, especially when contemplating the arts that are meant to make him "feel better". In his paper, he groans that our books have got worse, and so have our films. Indeed: "It is glaringly obvious that international distributors are not at all interested in Australia (sic) products because they are Australian." And at a recent Opera Australia performance he was horrified to find singers could "not even sing the notes".
All this has happened as our governments spend more than ever on artists. Yet Rodney Hall, and our politicians, just don't see the link -- that as the state spends more, our arts tend to get worse (or so Mr Hall says). Hall instead clings to the conceit that popular art is trash art -- the poisonous conceit that explains why we keep funding the unpopular stuff instead. "Especially if it has power and lasting value, it is seldom immediately assimilable and therefore seldom immediately popular," he claims. Well, you might want to believe this too, if you wrote books as ignored as the grant-fed Hall's.
The truth is, of course, great artists must rarely wait to become popular. Beethoven, Dickens, Hemingway, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Verdi -- all were celebrities in their day, and didn't need the state's help to create. It's state money, direct to artists, that corrupts them, in part by helping them to forget it takes two for art to succeed -- someone to create and someone to enjoy. Take the audience out of that marriage, and art withers, flowers fade and -- heavens! -- even the very trees turn blue
From Andrew Bolt