Hey Mr Garrett! Time To Get Off Our Arts And Do Nothing

If everything goes to plan, soon Australia will have its very own national cultural policy.

This is great news if you have been concerned that Australian literature, TV, music, film, theatre, painting and performance art is a bit, well, aimless. Sure, cultural products inform and reflect our views of ourselves – but so what? What’s the end game? Think of what our culture could achieve if it had a policy!

Announced recently by Peter Garrett, what the national cultural policy lacks in ambition, it more than makes up for in discussion points.

Right now it’s just a website, described pompously as a “national conversation”. But the publicly funded arts community has wanted some sort of grandiose policy for a long time. They have always assumed that “national policy” is code for “buckets of cash”. They’re probably right.

According to the Arts Minister, culture does pretty much everything – it creates jobs, attracts tourists, harnesses “understandings” (yeah, I’m not sure what that is either) and lifts our fragile economy. So in Garrett’s opinion, it should be co-ordinated by him.

But when government mates with culture, it breeds bureaucracy. Unless there is a big change in direction, a national cultural policy could easily make this worse; filtering Australia’s artistic output through yet another mesh of subsidy and red tape.

The Commonwealth Arts Council talks about culture as if it can be reduced to key performance indicators – “strategic priorities”, “aims”, “outcomes” and “outputs”. Let’s say you want a few grand for your interpretative dance version of An Inconvenient Truth. I suspect the government would quite like that idea. And once you slog through the 11-stage grant application, provide the dozens of pages of supporting material, CVs and letters of support, you’ll find out if they do. After you successful defend your idea at an assessment panel meeting, of course.

Certainly if we’re going to give money to artists, we might want to run a background check on who we are giving it away to. But government policy seems be aimed at taming our wild culture, burying it in a pile of red tape, and keeping it alive with taxpayers’ money fed through a tube.

After all, it isn’t just bad luck that Australian movies are routinely commercial failures. Filmmakers have realised it’s more important to please funding bodies with depictions of the hollowness of contemporary society than it is trying to please audiences. (I mean, come on, not every movie has to expose the “dark undercurrents of suburbia”.)

But there is an alternative. If Peter Garrett really wants his national cultural policy to make a difference, he should adopt just one principle: Australia’s culture can look after itself.

Which culture would you consider more vibrant: one in which artists are entrepreneurs – testing their work against an audience and in a competitive marketplace, or one that shepherds them into a departmental grant application process?

The entrepreneurial spirit should be as central to the art world as it is to the economy.

It’s not like the marketplace can’t produce culture. Even high culture can be popular. Nearly 40,000 people came to see Andre Rieu’s Docklands show last year. The National Gallery of Victoria puts on exhibitions all Melbourne lines up to see. And while the largest share of Arts Council funding is spent on expensive things such as orchestras, there are privately funded orchestras around the world. Profit-making culture just takes an entrepreneurial passion.

Anyway, there has never been a more futile time to try to define and direct a national culture. The very the idea of an “Australian” culture seems outdated. The internet has put the globalisation of culture into hyperdrive. Most importantly, it has allowed us to choose cultural products that are important to us as individuals, not as a “nation”.

Culture comes from the meanings that individuals derive from art, dance, theatre or film, not from a departmental funding matrix that allocates money to politically favoured art forms. So let’s scrap the idea of a national cultural policy, and embrace our 21 million individual cultural policies. A vibrant culture will come from what people want, not what the Commonwealth funds.