Art for Art’s sake: Why Australia needs to do more to feed its starving artists

I lament the day when I walk down the streets of Sydney and I’m slowly closed in by the office metropolis, the hi-vis windows, the mega-corps, the concrete jungle. The day when bars no longer buzz with live music, when streets are no longer coloured with art, when crowds no longer bustle outside Enmore Theatre, when there are no longer any young Australian writers on Dymocks’ bookshelves. 

While these images seem disproportionately sterile, and a far cry from today’s reality, they represent just how pervasive our arts and creativity sectors are in our daily lives. From film and television to fashion, literature and cultural celebration, our creative sectors saturate many areas of our economic activity. They employ over 194,000 Australians every year and contribute to the burgeoning ‘experience-led’ economy. However, these images are also a sober reminder of the disenchanting possibility that may arise if we continue to treat these sectors and the people within them as the dispensable “lowest-rung” of our economy. That is, if government policies continue to regard the economic value of arts as “electoral poison”, an area that we reluctantly “have to address” rather than “need to address”. 

The Starving Artist 

2020 brought around the regrettable reincarnation of the ‘starving artist’, a reality that should have been left back in the 19th century. The arts and recreation sector experienced one of the worst setbacks due to the economic plunge, losing over 150,000 workers to unemployment in only 4 months and experiencing sales diminutions of 37.1 percent. Furthermore, according to the Australia Council for the Arts 2017 statistics, over 80 percent of our professional artists are freelancers. A term once popularised by Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story “The Hunger Artist”, now comes to describe the disconcerting reality experienced by casual artists and freelance workers who are ineligible for JobKeeper. 

In March, the creative industries banded together to call for an $850 million ‘arts stimulus package’ to counter the growing precipices of insolvency and unemployment. And yet despite the inexplicable growling voices (and growling stomachs) that cry out for government support, this year’s Federal Budget was silent on funding for the arts and creative sector. This comes as the $250 million emergency funding that was pledged in June, promising to reinvigorate cultural and film activity, has yet to be fully allocated. Effectively, only $49.5 million in federal spending has been issued, alongside the $50 million in state funding, with large arts companies like the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra retaining over half. Consequently, it’s the smaller arts initiatives, the freelance workers and the sole traders that fail to compete for the few drops of funding that trickle down. PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, Sport for Jove and Writing NSW are just a few. 

How Kafka-esque.

Writer’s block 

While these financial commitments are a good start, they seem to embody a policy pattern that remains cosmetic and tokenistic. That is, spending on arts and culture is often diminished due to the investment astigmatism that chronically plagues the Federal and State governments. Why? Simply because there is a misguided perception that Australian art and culture is undeserving of financial support as it fails as a short-term ‘money-cow’.  Last year, the Federal government’s decision to absorb the Department of Communications and Arts into the miscellaneous plunge pool of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications consolidated this top-down cultural message: the demotion of arts

I have experienced this personally. 

I am a writer. And I have been one since I was very young. I remember when my Year 5 teacher wrote on the back of my paper: “I’m sure you will become a successful writer in the future!” She knew that it was my dream to be an author. And yet, since then, I have never considered writing as a future career. Because I’ve been told time and time again that it’s not economically viable. The way our economy views those who want to make livelihoods from pen and ink: it’s a different kind of “writer’s block” to the one that we’re used to.

Quality, not quantity 

In times of economic downfall, it is natural to look to the tangible growth of the stock market, the contributions of mining and retail sectors to the GDP, and the effect of company tax cuts and asset write-offs in keeping commercial sectors buoyant. 

But the economic contributions of the arts sector are not as readily visible, and many times do not fall into the instrumental parameters of GDP and expenditure. It’s like taking a ruler to measure something that is in a constant flux of growth, something swarming and fluid. Especially considering that at the ground-roots, many transactions in the creative sector still take place as cash-in-hand work, with cash flows often coming through variably and fluctuating constantly. The multiplicity of ways that our interactions with the art and cultural sectors enhances our quality of life thus often go undetected by measurements that are displayed frontline in our economic recaps. 

This is not to say that the arts sector doesn’t contribute to our GDP at all. In fact, according to government statistics from 2017, cultural and arts-related activity furnished around $111.7 billion to our GDP, up 30 percent from the previous decade. Not only did international art tourism bring over 2.4 million tourists to our local museums, festivals and cultural events, but over 74 percent of Australians reported engaging with the arts in 2015. 

Food for the soul 

So, every facet of our economic activity has been saturated by artistic Australians; that is, spending in arts generally reciprocates in increased spending in other sectors. Increasingly attractive and artful cities contribute to growth in urban renewal, cultural festivals and concerts increase tourism, fashion and design boost retail shopping and subsequent movement around inner-city neighbourhoods lift transport industries. If anything, this demonstrates the enormous potential that creative industries have in contributing to our economy in a holistic way. Why stifle this with governmental inertia?  

Furthermore, art fosters what QUT Professor Stuart Cunningham celebrates as many dimensions of “social meaningfulness”, which can be translated into positive economic outcomes. That is, if our businesses are our economic muscles, then arts and culture are our animated life source. Creative sectors not only nurture powerful intra-cultural dialogue on social issues and policies, but also champion the importance of mental health and cultivate global relationships through universal affinities toward music, theatre and film. In short, it feeds our soul, so that we can do better and more meaningful work, bringing the culture of invention, creativity, and lateral thinking that we’ve absorbed from our artistic influences into our 9:00am team meetings. 

Art for Art’s sake 

Not only our government, but we ourselves need to invest more in “cultural capital”, the sinew that ties our society together, or else it will depreciate over time. Many of us still tend to divorce our daily consumption of services such as of Netflix, mainstream television and clothing products from the artistic ground-roots that they originate from. Art penetrates so many of the “essential” comforts of the human soul – things that we depend on to keep us going through our 9-5 working week. And yet the cultural perspective towards independent and emerging community artists still remains less enthusiastic. 

“I don’t think most people have necessarily seen the connective tissue between what they’re watching on Netflix and the people who earn a living from performing on stage and screen in Australia.”

Robyn Archer, Performer

Only with this broader cultural change, can we stimulate economic policy changes to help Australian ‘starving artists’ do what they do best. Because an artist, bounding with such creative gluttony, with an appetite so large and unfulfilled, when denied the financial and physical opportunity to express this, ceases to be an artist at all.