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Newsletter 347

Published July 20, 2020
Scott Morrison shows his appreciation of the arts

As a new surge of cornonavirus cases in Victoria threatens to plunge us back into lockdown, I’m starting to wonder when normal service will ever be resumed – and I’m speaking as someone who has enjoyed the seclusion more than most. The obvious danger of a second lockdown is that many businesses will find it extremely hard to survive, and jobs will be lost forever. It’s obvious the government can’t provide cash bail-outs indefinitely, but there’s no ideal time for turning off the tap.

It’s a wonder Scummo isn’t more sympathetic to the arts because his entire political identity is an act. He’d like us to think of him as just an ordinary guy who loves his family and his footy. And Jesus, of course. My personal problem is that I can only see him as a preposterous phoney who would do or say anything to prop up his re-election chances. More precisely, he’ll do as little as possible while inviting us to congratulate him on his largesse.

Look, for instance, at his $250 million arts recovery package. The venue for the Arts announcement was a theatre in Rooty Hill – hardly the epicentre of arts activity in Australia. What great cultural figure did he have riding shotgun? Pop singer, Guy Sebastian – the poor sap.

And what about the substance of the package? $75 million in “competitive grants”; $90 million in ”concessional loans”; $50 million to film and TV producers to help them “access insurance”; $35 million for “Commonwealth-funded organisations”. Much of the money won’t be  accessible until venues are able to draw large audiences again. The package is hardly more than a pantomime.

In Scummo’s mind the working classes of the western suburbs and the arty types can be lumped together – as disposable beings to be fobbed off with a bright announcement or two. It seems his entire idea of “the arts” is to do with “shows” which have be gotten “back on the road”. One suspects that his ideal arts event would be a nice night’s entertainment at the Rooty Hill RSL. Did the idea of an art exhibition even cross his mind?

Does this sound horribly élitist? I hope so, as there’s no percentage in dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator and calling it “the arts”. If Guy Sebastian is your idea of a great artist it suggests a pretty low threshold of expectation.

In his funding announcement Scummo seemed more concerned about supporting the tradies who build stage sets and the people who tot up the accounts. Individual artists may as well resign themselves to getting zero from this package, but by now they already know the form.

What I dislike most is the pervasive smugness and stupidity involved. A Prime Minister that couldn’t give two hoots for the arts announces a threadbare recovery package and expects to be showered with gratitude. This is the point we’ve reached in Australian culture. The technical term is “nadir”. The criticisms from the Opposition benches were understated or under-reported, as is the case with almost every arts story. It was precisely this sort of complacency that allowed the NSW government to waste $46 million on a completely futile scheme to “move” the Powerhouse Museum. There’s nothing to be proud of in being utterly ignorant of cultural matters, even if some politicians see it as a badge of honour.

As a postscript to this, late last week the government announced a further $400 million in cash grants to film and television productions, which sounds great until one realises the money is meant to lure big budget Hollywood film projects to Australia to create jobs in the industry. This may be good for those involved in the production side of things, but it continues the trend whereby Australia becomes a venue for overseas film productions rather than a creative force. I’ve spoken with critics of the industry who argue the Australian Film, Television and Radio School is now a TAFE instead of an incubator of aspiring directors. We still make far fewer movies than we should, for a country of 26 million people, and the general standard is not great. Having said that, Shannon Murphy’s just-released Babyteeth is one of the few quality films to emerge in recent years, so good things do manage to grow through the cracks in the concrete.

This week’s art column goes back to the commercial galleries, albeit with slightly more depth than my previous excursion. This time I’m down from eight galleries to four. Given another month and I’ll most likely be devoting an entire column to a single exhibition in a commercial venue – just like the old days before the museums took centre stage. It’s fortunate there’s plenty of quality art to write about, although it may only last until the next wave of COVID-19 panic sets in.

The film column is still able to travel vicariously, this week to Iceland, for A White, White Day – an intense, impressive drama about a man trying to cope with both the death of his wife and the realisation she had been deceiving him. In its claustrophobic way, Iceland has one of the world’s most interesting emerging film industries, following its success as a global exporter of music and literature. It seems that it’s actually possible to be a remote island, far from the rest of the world, and possess a lucid understanding of the value of the arts.