By Justin O’Connor, Tully Barnett and Julian Meyrick
For those following the intensifying links between the economy, equality, sustainability and democracy deficit (clue: problems in the first three, create problems in the fourth), the absence of culture as a domain of serious policy attention is startling. Recently, Justin O’Connor wrote:
Globally, cultural policy is in a very bad place. Despite twenty years of creative economy, culture is marginalised in mainstream development discourse. Whatever the cultural sector thinks about the ever-more detailed compendia of metrics now available… policy makers do not take it seriously. The failure of culture to get its own goal in the [UN’s] 2015 Social Development Goals is telling. So too the ease by which culture was ignored in the recent pandemic, an ironic backdrop to its claims to be a cutting-edge economic sector.
The Adelaide-based Reset Collective acknowledges the marginalisation of art and cultural policy in Australia, but not just Australia, and not just in “cultural policy”. Its visible manifestation is the reduction of culture’s value to an economic rationale, in particular the tropes of “creative industries” and “creative economy”. More than insisting on tangible evidence of “impact”, these dissolve the deep imaginary of culture in a neoliberal economic agenda.
The tropes aimed to uncouple culture from “the arts” and democratise it by integrating it across public policy domains. That program has been a near total failure. The lack of concern shown by the Australian government for the sector during the Covid period was sobering. How could it ignore an industry worth $111 billion that employs more people than mining and construction? A sector brimming with human creative capital, crucial to a robot-proof industry 4.0?
Out the other side of the pandemic, the devastation wrought by official neglect is readily apparent. Yet those in the cultural sector appear to have lost their political compass as well. Debates about Green New Deals, just transitions, de-growth, re-nationalisation, direct state intervention in the economy (which Covid accelerated), UBIs and Job Guarantees, the return of Keynes, the return of social democracy, of socialism: a new (policy) world is being born. But in these discussions the voice of cultural practitioners is strangely absent.
In 2021, the ex-director of the Grattan Institute, John Daley, commented that economic arguments for the arts “were made by people who don’t believe them to people who don’t believe them”. It’s a good line, and it certainly describes Treasury wonks, who are sceptical. But the cultural sector does believe them, even when the evidence points otherwise. The truth is, one woman driving a mega-digger generates more economic value than a hundred artists hanging out in Fitzroy. The UK Chancellor was right, after a fashion. Go and get a better paying job. Lately that is exactly what many cultural workers have been doing, leaving in their wake an under-staffed, demoralised sector on the verge of meltdown.
Culture as part of the social foundations
What to do? The first step is to recognise that culture is not an industry. Culture is part of our common social world, a fundamental dimension of our lives without which we would not be recognisably human. Parts of the cultural sector are industrialised because of an economies of scale made possible by first mechanical reproduction, later digital code. Others are linked to a high-end consumer economy which can command soaring prices, like the global contemporary art market. Most of the sector, however, falls into neither of these categories.
The Reset Collective’s agenda includes making culture part of the “social foundations” i.e. a public policy domain alongside health, education and other essential services. What are the challenges in doing this, and what new kinds of thinking are required?
Following the lead of the UK’s Foundational Economy Collective, we can break down an aggregate “economy” into: household spending and gifting; material and service infrastructure (water, energy, food, housing, roads, fiberoptics, health, education, social services etc.); small scale everyday economies (local shops, cafes, car repair, gyms etc.); and a fully transactional “capitalist” economy.
The statistics in the UK and Australia show that most employment – 60-70 per cent – is in the material, service and everyday economies. During the pandemic, these were the zones on which governments focused as a matter of urgency, and they form the foundations of most “green new deal” initiatives now.
Art and culture are distributed across these zones. Most of our towns and cities thrive on the presence of state-funded cultural infrastructure (libraries, parks, theatres, community centres, museums and galleries, indie cinemas, music venues) and small-scale culture activities (record shops, books shops, small galleries, art spaces, dance studios, craft centres).
If we are deluded enough to apply the phrase “culture as industry” literally, public policy would try to move everything in the sector from the foundational and everyday economies, to the fully transactional one.
In Australia, the US and the UK, from the mid-1970s onwards, this is exactly what happened. Since the 1976 Assistance to the Performing Arts report by the Industry Assistance Commission (now the Productivity Commission), culture has been consumerized, corporatized and marketized. Participation in cultural life, key to a social democratic vision of the modern citizen, has been turned into a matter of price points and individual purchase.
Everything that can be privatised, has been privatised, and this has led, unsurprisingly, to the domination of US and UK cultural firms. The re-engineering of Australia’s communication system has been handed straight to Californian platform capitalists – again, without serious push-back from the cultural sector.
As a matter of urgency, the Reset Collective reasserts the category of public value, and the requirement for the state at all levels – local, regional, national – to take charge of essential services as the driver of a liveable society. Art and culture are key to sustainable communities and need to be accounted for in public policy as such. Recent evaluation exercises, such as the Melbourne Doughnut City Portrait, show that even when policymakers fail to consider them directly, they do not slip out of collective consciousness. The cultural sector must locate itself inside this foundational framework, as an essential component of a just society.
This presupposes a mixed economy over-determined by a concern for the public interest not an econometric “jobs and growth” mantra. It is plain to all what privatisation has done to our media landscape. The Twitter debacle is only its latest expression. Such disastrous outcomes are not the result of technological evolution but political decisions. How can cultural policy better serve the common good and be organised to do so?
Currently, such questions are barely asked. The cultural sector must turn this around and be at the vanguard of a new democratic settlement of which art and culture are a central part. In this, universities have an important role to play. They have laid down the conceptual barbed wire in which the cultural sector is now entangled: selling “creative industries” and “creative economy” as grant-getting concepts, cheerful graduate employment opportunities, and commodifiable research outputs. Now, researchers and university leaders have a strong obligation to help undo the damage those tropes has caused.
Full participation in the cultural life of the Australian nation is a right, not a market preference, dependent on willingness-to-pay.
Start pulling at that thread, the rest will follow.