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Stop Funding Art?

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Should the government be funding the arts. And if so, is a new approach in order?

Artists are a pretty greedy lot. In Australia, arts funding is one of the highest profile, expensive and – if you believe some of the hand wringing – unprofitable public investments there is.

According to an article on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, arts funding totaled $701.3m in the 1998/99 financial year. Film and video got $117.5m of it, outclassed only by art galleries and performing arts venues.

At almost every stage of arts development in Australia's modern history (the media age of the 20th and 21st centuries) there's been government intervention in the form of protective action or direct investment. And if there hasn't been (if, for example, the men in power in the day had no interest in the arts), it was usually accompanied by artists' associations loudly complaining about the loss of income, erosion of the employment base, juggernaut of American media swamping our shores, etc.

In today's Blair Witch era, the kids inspired by the 70s and 80s blockbusters have picked up DV cameras and given Australian filmmaking a thrilling new dynamic – albeit no more profitable or stable than it ever was, in many cases less so. Still, you'd find few in academic, intellectual or liberal circles (to say nothing of your average filmgoer) who wouldn't support arts funding.

But it seems to be failing in at least one area – the Australian film industry is as reliant on handouts as it's ever been. Unless you're a TV writer with an idea for an extended sitcom for TV-style audiences (the sort of stuff bankrolled by the Channel 9/Macquarie Bank/Showtime-style consortia), the only option left to you is to navigate the egocentric and political minefield of the public funding bodies.

Not only do you then stand little chance of your idea and vision surviving through the process intact even if you do become a lucky recipient, recent experience suggests your film will be about as well received as the idiotic comedies that plagued our screens in 2002, 03 and 04. The praise heaped upon 2003's Somersault had less to do with any real accomplishment of the film itself than it did with there being no competition.

So with millions disappearing down the black hole of arts funding, maybe its time to change course. Maybe it's time to apply ruthless market principles to publishing, filmmaking and art exhibition…

After a frenzied decade and a half of deregulation and privatisation, we live in a staggeringly market-driven society. Services controlled by governments and seen as essential throughout most of the 20th century are just more financial market commodities to be sold to the highest bidder – from units of electricity to savings accounts.

Even the media itself – perhaps the most pervasive expression of the arts – is seen almost universally as being more about shifting product than disseminating art. And unlike the government-assisted filmmaking scene, broadcasting and publishing are as cutthroat as any other industry sector. If people aren't watching your show or reading your periodical, the press baron at the head of the boardroom table will put a big red cross through it with little consideration of cultural expression or social debate.

Plumbers don't get government grants. Why should poets or filmmakers? Plumbers train, they set themselves up in business, they market themselves and the consumers of their industry pay for their product or service. Plumbing might not be critical to the cultural make-up of the human race, but next time a pipe bursts under the kitchen sink at 11pm, ask yourself if it's an essential service.

Should we simply let film directors operate the same way? Let them source or write the scripts, cast the actors, hire the locations and equipment, shoot the whole thing, hire the editing facilities, hire a publicist, get multiple copies sent to theatres and wait? Then, if the movie doesn't recoup the cost, should we really give them a few million of public money to do it again? If a plumber can't get enough work and closes up shop, nobody complains about the lack of government assistance for plumbers. Isn't that what commerce is supposed to be about, supply and demand? If you produce something nobody wants, nobody's going to pay you for it and you have to find some other living.

And you may well argue that while a plumber only needs his tools and his van, nobody should expect an individual or independent body to have the funds necessary to produce a film (hundreds of thousands of dollars for even the smallest nationally-released movie).

But starting a bank or an insurance company is similarly out of the reach of the individual, yet nobody complains about the lack of public assistance for people who want to start their own bank, either. Sure, there might be enough financial services out there to adequately service the marketplace, but that's no reason to not have a grants fund for it; if the same rationale was applied to movies, there'd be far fewer of them. With all the films vying for our attention and $15, most people would say the global film industry is in a chronic state of oversupply.

Here's where we've gone wrong.

Funding for the arts is indeed essential. When civilisations of the far future look back on our history, our artistic expression will comprise our dreams and fears as a species. Before the days of the Roman Empire when widespread record keeping became a tool of social maintenance, the art of a people is often all we have left to understand them by.

Launching a program to catalogue the entire contents of the Internet a few years ago, a spokesman defended the decision to include all the adult content. Our predilection for porn speaks volumes about the sexual mores of our time, he believed, and the political censorship of history had no place.

That's the basis upon which we as a society should ensure our collective expression is given as much assistance as necessary to make itself heard.

The reason we've lost our way with arts funding is because it's stopped being about ideas. Instead, it's all about commerce. Don't misunderstand the intention of that statement. Media is all about commerce, and for media to be commercially self sufficient is a good thing and does indeed provide employment, entertainment and a cultural identity. But using public money to fund (or try to generate) such a system is taking the right action in the wrong direction.

One of the reasons so many Australian movies are failing is because for the last five or so years, there's only been two major voices in our industry; the TV-style comedy and the public bodies' pursuit of arthouse appeal, endlessly trying to recapture the New Wave of Australian cinema from the 60s and 70s that inspired our best filmmakers and gave rise to the current industry.

In both cases, we're trying to capitalise on an existing idea (or style, or brand – call it what you will) to make our money back. The director who bought us just one of the high profile Australian movies of the last 12 months reported her frustration at one of the better-known national funding panels and the icy reception she met when unable to tell them what other films her movie was 'like' (because there were none).

Building our industry up to be self-sufficient is a great idea, but what sort of industry do we want it to be? One that uses stock standard cinematic ideas and stories to build up media properties and milk them for every cent with licensing deals and media assets? Hollywood invented that system and works it very well. Do we want or need a little Hollywood, just with different accents?

Sure, you can bring up raw economics by quoting the number of people the Aussie film industry employs, but the local Baker's Delight has had a sign in their window for six months saying they need staff. The recession is long behind us and employment isn't that hard to come by.

And realistically, any protests from the arts funding movement that preserving culture is their agenda are baseless. Most of the desire for a healthy artistic culture in filmmaking is an industry that returns its investment (from the standpoint of the funding bodies) and the very human desire to be rich and famous (from the standpoint of the artists). Few of the hopefuls in our film schools would complain if they ended up on the publicity circuit touted as the next Tarantino, and few moviegoers would complain because they love Tarantino movies.

Who's left to ask the question; do we really need another Tarantino?

If we want to fund arts on the basis of giving the currently living members of the human race a voice, we should seek out avenues that maintain the integrity of our collective expression.

Fund art because it's something we've never seen before and because it challenges us and will continue to define what we're interested in, not what turns a profit. Separate art from media. Fund the meaningful instead of the flashy. Fund art, not commerce. Fund culture, not competition. Fund expression, not an endless stream of copycats.

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