Art is often regarded as peripheral to our lives, something that offers little concrete value. This is reflected in the way that governments allocate budgets for arts and literature, such as the 70 percent reduction revealed last May in Australia Council grants. It demonstrates the prevailing framework around work and productivity which focuses exclusively on income and commerce.
But as Chris Berg, senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, pointed out on an ABC Radio National segment following the death of Prince: “Fundamentally, culture is significant, if not much more significant, than many of the things that we talk about. There are generations of people who view entire decades through the prism of music and the movies.”
Art outlasts the quotidian details of politics, distilling the themes that grip society in our time. It can clarify our past and provoke conversation about the future. In developed countries that privilege western, secular and written modes of engaging with issues, the visual and performing arts are sometimes the only spaces in which non-white artists can safely and powerfully deploy their critiques.
Art can be an instrument for making visible what is rendered invisible by a cultural order that centralises whiteness.
In the outer west suburbs of Melbourne, for example, a Wyndham Council-funded art gallery is currently running exhibitions, forums and performances on race. Artists such as Vernon Ah Kee, David Sequeira, Wani La Frère and Destiny Deacon are featured. The artworks explore identity and the challenge of honouring multiple identities. For instance, La Frère asks: “What does it mean to be a black man of African descent in Australia in 2016?”
It is a ponderous question in a municipality that is extremely diverse, with around 30 per cent of residents speaking a language other than English at home. Many refugees have found their home in Wyndham. Previous exhibitions at the gallery include work by Eritrean, Iraqi and Karen artists.
Art, then, can be an instrument for making visible what is rendered invisible by a cultural order that centralises whiteness. It involves real work undertaken by individuals and communities. It is not just about aesthetics and self-expression, though these are integral to the creation of art. Art, as well as literature, is an assertion of humanity from those who are systematically erased.
In this way, it creates spaces of neutral encounter and fosters intercultural dialogue. This partly informs European arts funding, which has been relatively stable despite financial and immigration crises. As a European Union strategic report on the role of public arts institutions puts it: “The issues at stake are not only social and economic, but also, and often above all, symbolic and cultural … By becoming spaces for deepening the understanding of different cultures and providing room for participative and creative encounters, cultural institutions may, in our opinion, play a pivotal role in connecting people and in building a more cohesive and open society.”
Toward this end, art serves two critical purposes. First, it dignifies those who create it. The creative process can be therapeutic and cathartic. It offers opportunities for artists to make sense of themselves and their world, regain inner control and imagine ways forward.
That may not necessarily speak to our conception of “productivity” but it produces positive outcomes. For instance Artful Dodgers Studios, one of the longest-running community cultural programs in Victoria, has been providing mentoring and studio spaces for at-risk young people for 20 years. It works because being able to create something beautiful and personally significant – a song or a painting – can be liberating for someone struggling to articulate the meaning of their life.
Art dignifies and liberates individuals, challenges a pernicious status quo, and creates opportunities for dialogue.
Second, art disturbs our tendency to comply. Artists such as Ai Weiwei, Banksy and Molly Crabapple hold so much contemporary importance because their work sits squarely within the unjust realities that we would prefer to ignore.
This was recently brought home by the Eaten Fish campaign launched by Australian cartoonists. They are urging the federal government remove from Manus Island detention a young Iranian cartoonist named Ali, who is suffering from multiple, complex mental health issues.
Given that art serves these purposes – it dignifies and liberates individuals, challenges a pernicious status quo, and creates opportunities for dialogue – it is only appropriate that the Victorian state government’s new funding policy for the creative industries prioritises regional, Indigenous and youth-based projects. Despite the catastrophic shortfall in federal funds via the Australia Council, 17 Indigenous organisations received grants in the latest round, including in remote areas.
We can only hope that as cultural tensions sharpen and funding for public institutions continue to be contested, that political will around preserving the role of the arts in a just society will endure.