NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Editorial: Art and Politics: an inescapable bond

In this edition of NiTRO our contributors consider the contemporary relationship between tertiary art and politics from the perspective of the role of art to engage with the political message, but also to explore how the political message, and political decisions that affect arts and education, are influencing tertiary arts.

By Jenny Wilson

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“It is important that artists are not outside the equation, we don’t stand on the sidelines. Artists are part of the story of a response, we cannot stand aside and let others make the response.”
— Anish Kapoor, in: “Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor lead London walk of compassion for refugees“, Mark Brown, The Guardian Sep 17, 2015

So said Anish Kapoor during a ‘walk of compassion’ in London with fellow artist Ai Weiwei to draw attention to the plight of refugees. Closer to home, and more recently, Leo Schofield challenged the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s original (now reversed) decision not to take a position on the current Australian same sex marriage debate on the basis that ‘they don’t want to politicise music’.  Schofield retorts ‘Utter drivel. Music, even in the pursuit of change, has always been political.”[1]

In this edition of NiTRO our contributors consider the contemporary relationship between tertiary art and politics from the perspective of the role of art to engage with the political message, but also to explore how the political message, and political decisions that affect arts and education, are influencing tertiary arts.

Designer and Honorary staff member at the University of Tasmania Tony Fry explains how his “Studio at the Edge of the World’ is seeking to address the role of design in creating an ethical and sustainable future;  Joseph Toltz (University of Sydney) reminds us of the political persecution of artists past, brought to life for new audiences through his Out of the Shadows  production.

In an extended interview with Gary Foley, one of Australia’s most recognised indigenous activists, colleague Edwina Howell (Victoria University) explores how his connection with dramatic performance has contributed to his role as an activist and academic.

A number of our contributors have focused on how politics, and political decisions are shaping tertiary arts; Julian Meyrick (Flinders University) in a hard hitting piece on the current Education Minister’s approach to higher education, considers what sort of culture Australia could end up with. Susan Davis (CQU) reminds us that while arts policy, and particularly arts collective action is shifting, the educational policy in relation to arts, despite parliamentary consideration, remains moribund. Domenic Redfern (RMIT) takes a broader context considering the impact of the underlying direction of economic policy upon education.

Australian higher education has historically been strongly influenced by UK education policy. We hear from two UK colleagues, artist Rob Gawthrop and Abigail Gilmore (University of Manchester), on the changes that have occurred in the UK and the influence that this has had upon tertiary arts in the UK.


[1] http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/leo-schofield-takes-aim-at-sso-for-failure-to-support-same-sex-marriage-20170927-gyq73m.html

More from this issue

More from this issue

Professor Gary Foley was a key member of the Aboriginal Black Power Movement and a critical figure in establishing the Aboriginal Embassy protest of 1972. He has been at the centre of major political activities in Australia for more than 45 years. In 2011 and 2012 he created and performed his one man show Foley with Ilbijerri Theatre, Jon Hawkes and Edwina Howell, for the Melbourne Arts Festival and the Sydney Festival. In 2015 he was the recipient of the Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award for a lifetime achievement in the Arts.   Dr Edwina Howell has worked with Professor Foley

The contemporary world faces an array of inter-connected daunting challenges - geopolitical, enviro-climatic, economic-developmental. While science and technology address many of them, their agenda is only half the story.

A bleaker aspect of writing for an intellectually self-conscious publication like NiTRO is the obligation to respond rationally to what are, in the end, irrational points of view.  As the political Right dissolves into its constituent pathologies, its policies transmogrify into a mix of prejudice and panic. . . This injects an air of unreality into the policy-making process.  “Data” is obsessively gathered, but selectively deployed.  Some areas of government expenditure must repeatedly account for their “impact”.  Others are judged of self-evident merit and anything that contradicts this is downplayed or ignored.

The DDCA’s 2017 conference took place at the Victorian College of the Arts during Melbourne’s recent respite from the cold weather - quite disconcerting for those of us from ‘up north’ who had dressed for the ‘polar extremes’ of our southern states. In a program designed to prompt discussion we welcomed a wide range of artists from within, and outside, academia to consider the theme ‘Beyond Research: Creative Arts in the Impact, Engagement and Innovative Agenda’.

There is a growing sense that something is happening in the arts and creative sector.  The sector is finding its collective voice at state, national and regional level, with terms such as ‘artist-led’, ‘artist-driven’, ‘sector-driven’ being used in the development of programs and policy. This visibility and attention to the arts and contribution of such to the sector does not appear to be similarly matched in education and learning realms.

A contingent part of the creative economy, tertiary creative arts education has a responsibility to its community of students, alumni and partners, to the broader arts sector and the political landscape that surrounds it. We are therefore subject not just to the politics of cultural policy pertaining to the arts, which affect the forms of support and types of arts forms and practices we include on our curricula, but to education and economic policies which shape the conditions under which we teach and undertake research.

The gradual shift from social democracy to neoliberalism in the west since the 1980s has significantly affected the apparatus of higher education. University and college heads have shifted their priorities from developing knowledge through education and research for social benefit, to increasing the wealth of the institution (and their own salaries) through competing for student numbers and positions in league tables.

In August 2017, I curated a week-long festival at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, entitled “Out of the Shadows: rediscovering Jewish music and theatre”. This was the fourth of five festivals staged around the world, part of a large research project called Performing the Jewish Archive, funded by the British Arts & Humanities Research Council.  Together with ten colleagues from three other continents, the research focus was the aesthetic creations of Jewish artists in the 20th century, artists who were affected by persecution, flight and internment.

Academics convinced of the folly of user pays systems of education have long complained about the steady decline of equity resulting from the ratchetting effect applied to the HECS scheme since its introduction. This is compounded by the attendant impact on quality as each school and program must approach revenue neutrality through a combination of fees and research income.