The novelist and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul once explained that all his work began in panic. The panic lasted a long time. After that, you needed strength, to endure the ups and downs, which could be very painful and last for years. The only cure was “to lever yourself out of it, bodily, by sheer work”. And, he said, “you need luck all the time”.
Not long ago, Helen Garner raised another aspect of writing: “the massive amount of intellectual and observational preparation that serious writers have to do before they can start writing a book”. Much of this reading, wandering and thinking looked like “bludging” – but without it, “no one can write anything that’s worth reading”.
To make art, then, you must be able to fall back on your own inner resources; and you must be willing to live a life unlike that led by others. There is at least one more difficult element: you must be prepared to live without money. In a recent 28-page zine – listed by two writers in the Australian Book Review as among the best books of the year – the writer Anwen Crawford described with rare honesty what writers earn for their work. Her superb book No Document – shortlisted for one of the country’s biggest prizes and strongly reviewed – earned her a $4000 advance plus $1029.73 in additional royalties, as well as $5000 in prizemoney. It took her four years to write. This is not at all unusual (except for the prizemoney).
This morning, at The Espy in Melbourne, Arts Minister Tony Burke will announce a new National Cultural Policy. He will be launching into a strange atmosphere. The arts community is eager for a new policy. It is relieved to have a government that has seemed, so far, to be listening: Burke’s speeches show a granular awareness of the issues. But there is nervousness too because the need for significant change is so great.
Being an artist is always hard, particularly in Australia, with a small market and a sense of the arts as a minor concern. In the past decade, it became harder: the arts have been, variously, stripped of funding or ignored, a point predictably made by Labor but echoed by artists. Then the pandemic came: audiences vanished, venues shut. Many artists stopped being artists. The sector is in true crisis.
Already we have some sense of what Burke wants to do. In a speech to the Woodford Folk Festival in December, he said the streaming giants will have to screen a certain amount of Australian content. Last week he confirmed authors will, for the first time, receive money when digital copies of their books are borrowed from libraries. Funding processes will be changed to help writers and musicians, and arts funding will be conditional on safe workplaces, free from harassment. This morning he will not be dealing with grants for Hollywood – controversial because they bring money and work but also arguably displace Australian films – or institutions like the National Archives.
There are two large questions that hover over all this. The first is how much money the government is willing to spend. Ben Eltham, an academic and expert in arts funding, says the government has two large tasks: to address the current crisis, and to set the arts up for the future. To do both, there is no getting around one fact: “they actually have to spend money”. In his Woodford speech, Burke downplayed expectations: “There could not be a worse time to be going through the government right now trying to get money”.
How much money would be enough? It depends on how ambitious you are willing to be. As Eltham points out, the fact “artists are poor and have very precarious and insecure working lives” is not inevitable. It is “a policy decision”. Eltham suggests supporting 300 artists each year, for three years each, at the average Australian salary. After all, he says, the government supports hundreds of scientists and researchers: why are artists different?
You could go further still. In Ireland, the government recently began paying 2000 artists a basic income. If such a scheme seems outlandish here, it is because of the odd position of the arts. We love to see our own lives portrayed and take pride in famous artists. But there is something about openly discussing art as important that seems to set off a certain squeamishness among Australians, as though it is at odds with not taking ourselves too seriously, or our continuing pretence that we are all working class. Art is certainly not taken as seriously as in Ireland, not treated as an essential strand of society or identity. That is clear enough from our politics. Since the days of Paul Keating – who once, as prime minister, said he would describe himself more truly as “aesthete” than “politician” – there has been a latent sense that politicians, terrified of the ‘elitist’ tag, are embarrassed to admit they like art.
This, then, is the second crucial question: how seriously is this government willing to take the arts? Will it do good things, but only sotto voce – as though the arts were separate from society, a little over to one side – or will it attempt to change the way this nation talks about the topic? Burke says the latter: he talks of the importance of beginning now, even without all the money needed, in order to “change the trajectory and to lock in the place of culture in Australia”.
As with so much of this government’s rhetoric, it is too early to judge whether this will result in serious long-term political commitment or an endless deferral of more dramatic action. But it is worth noting that Anthony Albanese offered some hope of change when, in the first week of his prime ministership, he saw a play in Sydney. On its own, the gesture was just that; in the context of a strong cultural policy and actual money it may come to seem much larger.
In the longer run, Burke will be judged on whether the arts again becomes a field that people want to work in – a field in which workers are respected and paid properly for their work, however odd it seems to others. Helen Garner’s words, above, were taken from a brief submission she made while Burke’s policy was being developed. She thanked the Australian government for funding she had received: “the priceless gift they gave me when I asked for help”. “I urge you with all my heart to offer more of this generous and invaluable help to the writers who need it today.”
Sean Kelly is a regular columnist. He is a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
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