It’s never a good time to be a writer, but the next few years may well be the worst. The carnage was foretold in last year’s federal budget, in which $105 million was slashed from the Australia Council and siphoned off into a slush fund under the direct control of former arts minister George Brandis. The current arts minister, Mitch Fifield, has since restored $32 million to the Australia Council, but the damage was done. Now the effect of the cuts is beginning to be felt with last week’s news that 134 out of 262 applicants for Australia Council’s four-year organisational funding had missed out. In the literary sector, vital institutions like Meanjin and Express Media are now staring at a sizable gap in funding – the kind of funding that enables long-term strategic planning, professional development, job security, and remunerates artists for their work. According to ArtsHub, more than a third of applicants across the sector that previously received assistance from the Australia Council have been stripped of operational funding. Casualties are a certainty.
To be an artist of any kind is to be a masochist, to speak nothing of the current climate. The economics are unkind, the rewards (material and psychological) often scant. One develops over time a necessary tolerance for misery. Then there are problems of perception and structure. By perception I mean that art is routinely categorised by many as a hobby—made for love, not money—which has material implications for those who make it and for the industry itself. Doing work for the love of it, as the writer Miya Tokumitsu suggests, means that “actual conditions of and compensation for labour become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all”. There’s also the question of who can afford to be an artist, to create work purely for love. Precarious labour (not to mention unpaid labour and internships) is rife; it is no coincidence that the industry happens to be female-dominated. With less funding on the table to support young artists, art becomes even more of a luxury good, the provenance of the privileged. The barriers to entry will rise; it will be blander, whiter, safer. The public conversations it hopes to spark will become narrower, less ambitious. Art that serves the status quo seeks to reaffirm assumptions, rather than cast them in a new light.
The Brow has a long history of publishing work that is gleefully irreverent, genre-defying, and deliberately challenging. We are permissive of weirdness. I’d like to think we give space to voices on the margins, to conversations that have been denied an airing in mainstream channels. Like many of our literary peers, we rely on a combination of subscriptions, event revenue, and financial support from government bodies for survival, not to mention paying our talented contributors, who deserve much more. When the Brow started out in 2007, it was entirely self-funded with cash raised at events and from the pockets of its editors. Nearly ten years later, it still largely covers its own expenses, depending upon the work of both its unpaid staff and under-paid contributors. The infrequent funding we have received from Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria, and City of Melbourne remains a huge, material vote of confidence, and has allowed the Brow to undergo format changes, expand its contributor base, and distribute internationally, all the while seeing its readership grow. Crucially, this funding has enabled us to mediate an exchange between new readers of the Brow and the artists whose work we exist for.
The cuts to arts funding raise important questions about ‘grant culture’, as well as the role the state should play in funding the arts. It’s hard enough to articulate how a book or artwork might enliven or enrage you, and somewhat harder still to quantify that experience. It’s not ideal, for reasons financial or otherwise, that one’s livelihood be at the mercy of the government, given that art is often used as a political cudgel – against the bogeymen of intellectual elites, taxpayer-funded bums, the anxious lurch of modernity. In this light it’s hardly surprising that artists are often viewed through a lens of bitter enmity, even if, on average, one manages to cobble together an annual income of $18,000.
Are there alternatives to public funding? Philanthropic and corporate support overwhelmingly favours established organisations over those dedicated to young or marginalised artists. Crowdfunding, which blends appeals to populism with a low-stakes brand of venture capitalism, is an unsustainable way to cover costs and an individualist solution to a collective quandary. “Investment in arts,” Gough Whitlam once wrote, “will produce a fair amount of dross”. “It will attract its fair amount of charlatans and mediocrities.” He wasn’t wrong. Grant culture can be stultifying. It can keep obsolescent publications afloat for far longer than their natural shelf-life. It can deter people from taking risks. If there is little incentive for a publication to sell copies to the public, it may well breed complacency. But Whitlam also believed that the positives of funding vastly outweighed the negatives. A “healthy artistic climate”, he wrote, “demands the cultivation of ability and talent at all levels. It demands that everyday work, run-of-the-mill work, esoteric and unpopular work be given a chance; not so much in the hope that genius may one day spring from it, but because, for those who make the arts their life and work, even modest accomplishment is an end in itself and a value worth encouraging”. He almost doubled the budget for the arts upon entering office, a move that now seems unfathomable.
The economic case for funding the arts or ‘creative industries’, as market-friendly rhetoric would have it, can be easily made. As critic Alison Croggon noted in Overland in 2013, the arts sector is a boon to Australia’s GDP, contributing a share of seven per cent or $86 billion, with $13 billion directly attributable to literature and print media. It also “directly employed 531,000 people, and indirectly generated a further 3.7 million jobs”, making it a bigger employer than the mining industry, which also receives government subsidies. (Other recipients of government aid: banks, the agricultural industry, and fossil fuel producers.)
It’s hard not to read these attacks on the arts as a hostile gesture. This is especially true for young artists – as if the spectre of unaffordable housing, the accumulation of student debt and $4/hour ‘internships’ weren’t enough. If there’s a glimmer of hope in all of this, it’s that anger can be galvanising, even holy. Hardship may well inspire great work; some embattled organisations may find a way to survive against the odds. Still, this is meagre consolation for the political and cultural miasma that has enveloped us. Not that there’s ever a good time to be a writer or artist, mind you, but we’ve never needed them more.
Gillian Terzis is a Melbourne-based writer and a co-editor of The Lifted Brow.