By Professor Su Baker, President, Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts
With a quick scan of the status of higher arts education around the country, and indeed the world, we see some hopeful signs and many looming dangers and this allows for flights of fancy and doses of reality.
We do now know that the previously illusive and much touted “impact” measures will play a role in the next ERA 2018 round. As many of us have hoped, case studies will become a feature as they have been used in the UK REF process, to some positive effect in the creative arts. While we have to be careful what we wish for, with this we have been provided an opportunity to give important context and some real measures of what we know is a genuine engagement with the public, the profession and our related industries. Without the end point of engagement with audiences and broader publics the arts have no life or meaning. What is music if it not heard? What is art if it is not seen? The research and education of artists in and with the works of art is our core business. This necessarily relies on an active connection with people as ‘end users’. Is it possible that we could achieve a broader understanding of the value of arts education as an education for life and all its uncertainties and vicissitudes, and indeed pleasures.
It remains for us to be vigilant and alert to government policy and importantly public perceptions of the value of what we do. At present it is hard to see to what end, and even harder to predict what may emerge as the next policy focus.
The ongoing destruction of a leading art school in Sydney is evidence that ‘playing the ERA game’ and securing success in the stated criteria of the higher education system is no protection against individual university decisions about the value of visual arts education. Sydney College of the Arts achieved 5 in ERA and produced a string of highly successful graduates. It is disheartening, if not downright depressing, that such wilful disregard for the profession and the large and vocal supporter base can happen in 2017. The city of Sydney and the state of NSW should have a vibrant arts education scene not a dwindling and soon to be impoverished one. The scale of this has not yet been felt but it will be, and we will regret it.
Who would have thought the forces of darkness would come from within the higher education system. Who would have thought we would eat our young! We always expect it to be external forces that impact on the delivery of our education and research work but can we predict what these forces are and how they will effect us? Probably not.
But we can still imagine, and perhaps realise, a stronger future.
We have long imagined the formation of a Learned Academy of the Creative Arts, one that finally recognises the standing that the arts have in our culture, the central role art plays in many cultures including the longest living culture in the world that of Australian Aboriginal culture. The post-enlightenment West had many epistemological categories to box knowledge into and so we have had some pretty bizarre distinctions made between forms of thought and practice. The marginalisation of the arts, most notably in the 19th century British culture made the distinction of the manual work of the artisan and the intellectual work of the scholar. We have been living with this ever since.
Would it not be something if we, the Creative Arts, could have the status of other fields of practice, research and scholarship and that this recognition was to take the form of an Academy of Creative Arts. This would be the realisation of a longstanding desire to bring together great artistic minds and sensibilities, and to demonstrate the, as to yet unseen, strength and power of the arts in Australia. Seen by some as anachronistic to the wilful, contentious and maverick behaviour desired by artists, perhaps a 21st Century Academy can avoid the funny handshakes and the regalia, (although dressing up is fun!) and the inherent exclusivity in a select group. It could be instead an advocate for excellence in the arts and provide leadership – intellectual, artistic, emotional and social – that reinforces the benefits of a cultural education to societal structures and conditions. This is something that we can only now do in a very ad hoc way.
Wouldn’t that be something to behold. Shall we do it?