NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Edition 10, 2017 – Art and Politics: an inescapable bond

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 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.

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.