Miscellany: What’s wrong with the arts?

What’s wrong with the arts? (1)

One of the fundamental problems with the arts in Australia (and other places) is that those who administer them are progressively doing more and more damage to the English language.

Indeed, many of the statements and documents produced by arts bureaucrats resemble an awful amalgam of the worst managerial language blight excoriated by Don Watson, Julian Burnside, George Orwell and others.

A recent example is an article by the Australia Council CEO, Jennifer Bott, in The Age on Monday January 10 justifying the Council’s recent axing of two boards – the Community Cultural Development and New Media Boards.

The article is full of the usual managerialist guff : relevant, challenging, dynamic, change, flexibility, enhanced leadership, rapidly changing environments, etc etc.

One paragraph is a gem of the genre: “the council embarked on a reform process to ensure its structure, processes and funds were being used to maximum impact and to drive arts innovation.”

This is all so predictable that it’s a wonder Microsoft, advised by various PR operatives, has not developed a software program which spews this stuff out – merely changing the titles of the publishing organization as required. Such a program would automate the existing work done by administrators in re-arranging the buzz words into differing sequences for different sentences and different documents. The money saved could then be spent on something more useful – like poetry.

Needless to say the article devoted significant attention to how the Australia Council was seeking to ensure taxpayers got “value” for their investment, particularly in terms of the role of the arts in the new economy.

It was interesting to compare the article to a personal essay published last year by the British Minister for Culture, Media and Sports, Tessa Jowell.

In the essay (available on the Department’s website) Jowell referred to the Beveridge Report’s attack on the five giants: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. She said arts should address the sixth giant: “the poverty of aspiration”. Now Jowell was not using aspirational in the sense it is used in Australia. That’s the sort of aspiration associated with Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety where he says: “a sharp decline in actual deprivation may – paradoxically – have been accompanied by a continued and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it.” Rather Jowell was alluding to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy with a bit of a nod towards Ruskin’s Unto the Last, which was so influential with Old Labour.

Jowell says of the arts; “it is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being.”

…and as for justifications, says: “too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas…or in some instances almost apologizing for our investment in culture only in terms of something else.”

Instead, Jowell says, we ought to value culture “for what it does in itself”.

The Australia Council is seeking comment on its review and will “incorporate any constructive views into our thinking in coming months” – although you don’t need Watson, Eco, or battalions of semioticians to work out what that phrase actually means.

What’s wrong with the arts (2)

It is not easy raising money for the arts and it is about to get very much harder.

The ATO has decided – announced in a draft ruling before Christmas – that most of the arts friends’ funding structures are not eligible for tax deductions. Most of these programs rely on relatively small donations from lots of people. Almost all the programs also offer – for an additional payment – various benefits such as preferential booking and invitations to various events. The ATO says the benefits are actually all bundled up and if you give $100 and pay $25 for the benefits the deductibility of the whole sum – not just the $25 – will be disallowed.

Now you can attend a fund-raising dinner and you get part of the cost as a deductible amount but not the cost of the food – great for all those people who love charity events but not so great for those of us who can’t stand them. The principle seems the same to Miscellany but not to the ATO.

Expect significant angst on the topic in the next year or so.

The British are also taking a similar line on VAT according to Private Eye. There Customs and Excise officers are waging a legal battle against the Longborough Festival Opera. The Festival is under-written by its founder, Martin Graham, and aims to “bring some Wagner to the Cotswolds” according to the Private Eye’s music correspondent Lunchtime O’Boulez. . The under-writing of losses is the problem apparently. The VAT collectors say that this gives Graham a direct interest and that he is “enriched” by subsidizing the losses.

As we said earlier the arts ought to be judged on factors other than just economics but this gives an entirely new meaning to “enrichment”.

Strange religions

There seem to be no end to strange religions – and that’s just counting the more evangelical versions of the mainstream.

However, the quirkiest Miscellany has come across for some time was one set up in the 19th century in Bolton Lancashire where a group decided to worship Walt Whitman. They wrote off to him and he was quite chuffed – as you would be.

…and on reflection there are worse things to worship than Walt.

This one was associated with various mill owners apparently although many were also part of the series of leftist political grouplets descended from the Levellers and others during the English Civil War. Which, totally incidentally and tangentially, provides the reason Miscellany has always admired Dr Geoff Gallop. His PhD is probably one of the best analyses of such grouplets written in the post-War period.

Of course, with an election coming up – and in WA – it’s probably wiser for the Premier to hide his significant intellectual accomplishments. No doubt others are giving similar advice, at this moment, to Kevin Rudd.

Ricardo, Ray Evans and Adam Smith

On the subject of strange religions and West Australia, The H.R.Nicholls Society and Ray Evans are lumbering into action – reminding us of a group who talk much about Adam Smith but act as if they really believe in David Ricardo and Karl Marx.

Miscellany hadn’t thought much of them recently until Andrew Cornell of the AFR rang asking for a quote on Ray Evans – H.R.Nicholls heavy, Knopflemacher acolyte and former Hugh Morgan speechwriter – in the light of what he was seeking to achieve post-July 1 when the Tories control both Houses. We weren’t really able to give a quote for. Cornell’s piece (which appeared on Janauary 8) but it prompted us to ponder a bit.

First, the neo-liberals and the H.R.Nicholls group are a bit like the Greens. They suffer from a semi-religious monomania which distracts attention from the major issues in their field. Thus the Greens are obsessed by trees – particularly in Tasmania – while the real environmental problems are elsewhere. It is arguable that the tree-hugging obsession has actually damaged the environment by diverting attention and resources from more important issues (BTW The author declares an interest -many years of work for the forest industries). Similarly the H.R.Nicholls Society is obsessed with IR reform even though there is much empirical evidence that other factors are more important in improving productivity and generating prosperity. It is this misplaced emphasis which has resulted in the fact that Bill Kelty has probably contributed more to constructive work practice changes leading to greater prosperity than all the neo-liberals combined.

You also rarely see the neo-liberals going beyond mantras to analysis. The closest you get is that IR reform has lead to greater prosperity and reduced unemployment. The latter claim is based on the laughable Australian household employment surveys in which you are considered employed if you worked for an hour in the previous week. Tony Nicholson of the Brotherhood of St Laurence (The Age December 17 2004) estimates that if the figure used was one day a week as denoting being in employment the actual unemployment rate would be closer to 12 per cent.

Ask the neo-liberals which has higher per hour workforce productivity – France or the US – and you will probably be greeted with silence, obfuscation or the wrong answer.

On the subject of productivity comparisons, Europe’s total factor productivity is also higher than that in the US. The fundamental difference is that the US work more hours, live in sub-standard social infrastructure and use their limited leisure to consume junk food and junk culture while Europeans have chosen somewhat different priorities.

The second curious thing is that while the neo-liberals are always quoting Adam Smith, their focus on the workforce is much more reminiscent of David Ricardo and Karl Marx’s emphasis on the labour theory of value. It’s as if they are the last Marxists – focused firmly on the divisions between capital and labour and desperate to demonstrate that competitiveness stems from the working classes toiling harder for less.

One wishes they pursued, with even half as much vigour, the many Australian management mediocrities rewarded with millions for destroying shareholder value.

We noticed that John Quiggin did give Cornell a quote and referred to Ray’s  Astroturfing record – setting up lots of different “astro-turf” grass-roots bodies. The latest is named after Lavoisier – the French chemist and tax farmer – guillotined for his tax-farming past. Naming an organization after a tax farmer-general who took the post as sinecure to fund other activities seems a curious choice for a New Right movement but then they’re curious people.

Neo-liberal come-uppance

While Ray Evans got a page and half in the AFR Patrick West and his attacks on the West’s (that’s us, not him) “conspicuous compassion” has been getting pages of regular thrashing from Gerard Henderson, Tim Colebatch and empirical reality post-tsunami.

West’s thesis is part of the Right’s revived Social Darwinist attack on welfare, aid and almost anything else which might demonstrate that people are motivated by generosity and humanity rather than narrow commercial selfishness and neo-liberal assumptions.

The question is though: how much of the rest of their ideology is equally wrong and why aren’t there more thrashings and fewer triumphal reviews of similar claims –particularly in the Murdoch media?