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Image: Jason Lander, Flickr (CC BY 2.0, digitally altered)

‘Art is a really bad word here.’

—John Cassavetes

‘If you want to destroy something, a standard method is first to defund it.’

—Noam Chomsky

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For months now, art has lived almost entirely on the internet. Museums battened down. Ticketing revenue from cancelled cultural events vanished. Major cultural institutions made frictionless, robotic virtual gallery tours their go-to method of adaptation. And as unemployment in the arts soars, the Federal Government’s late stimulus package—tiny in comparison to the size of the industry, precluding basics like hardship payments, still unspent—expressed contempt for practicing artists and the sector’s grassroots. The recent federal budget has reinforced the Government’s tactic: turning away from whichever sector it deems to be an ideological opponent with fatal indifference.

One of the earliest cultural responses in this country to the COVID-19 catastrophe was to bunker down and look inward: with the suspension of air travel, touring and international acts came a call for insularism, to enlarge ‘the breadth, calibre and impact of Australian stories that our festivals could help commission, nurture and unleash every year.’ A column in the Guardian quoted festival directors putting together programs that discuss ‘what it means to be Australian’ and celebrate ‘our place and our home.’

It struck me as puzzling. A festival can program an author or activist to speak via Zoom from anywhere in the world, or commission newly produced podcasts and radio plays by authors whose book tours have been cancelled. Video artists can collaborate remotely with their editors and sound designers to cut together new projects. Writers can work on scripts across borders and hold Skype meetings with international mentors. You can activate your VPN and click onto a trove of world cinema. Digital curators can open up access to new art to anyone, anywhere in the world, 24/7. And yet amid this internationalisation of culture, in Australia, the same tired, milquetoast cultural narratives about art’s service to national identity were being rehearsed.

I know what you’re about to say: I’m indulging in the cultural cringe. But I’m beginning to think many of us have lost sight of what that term really means. And that may be the whole problem.

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A.A. Phillips’ seminal essay on the cultural cringe first appeared in Meanjin in 1950, describing an internalised inferiority complex, mainly regarding literature; Australian writing at the time was not thought worthy of undergraduate study. ‘Australia is an English colony,’ wrote Phillips, at a time when Australians were still British subjects by definition, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had not yet won suffrage. ‘Its cultural pattern is based on that fact of history or, more precisely, on that pair of facts… But the fact of our colonialism has a pervasive psychological influence, setting up a relationship as intimate and uneasy as that between an adolescent and his parent.’

The cringe’s historical origins lie in the material reality of colonialism, producing what literary academic Emmett Stinson has since called a wider set of anxieties about Australian culture in relation to the world around it. Colonists denied and evicted the cultures of this continent’s custodians and supplanted it with their own. That process cemented a displacement of culture at Australia’s heart—art lost its origin—as well as a tendency to look abroad (at first to Britain, the culturally dominant hegemony, then to the US) for cultural confirmation.

When we talk about the cultural cringe, we’re really talking about the colonial cringe.

What we are seeing this year is the arts sector grapple, or rather, refuse to grapple, with its decline and gradual rejection as a federally funded public project.

Today, though, the term stands in for a form of reflexive reverse snobbery—a lazy satisfaction with the status quo and whatever is made here. Contemporary usage of the term is cut adrift from that understanding of colonial culture, which was key to Phillips’ argument: that Australia’s subservience to overseas cultural values, specifically, British cultural values, came from it’s ‘umbilical connection’ to the literature, art and ideas of its colonial parent. Consider that the Art Gallery of NSW didn’t consider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art worthy of collection until the 1950s; that Queen Elizabeth opened the National Gallery of Australia as late as 1982.

Phillips confessed that at times ‘a raucous nationalism’ had led to excessive ‘over-praise’ for Australian works. Indeed, the popular interpretation of the term now is used to shut down discussion, to automatically praise local culture with an uncritical eye, such that it is almost impossible to advance a critique of Australian culture without being dismissed as an unthinking imbiber of the cultural cringe.

That’s the paradox—that the term cultural cringe is now called upon regularly with the same assumed anti-intellectualism that Phillips wished to challenge. I still believe that the best, or rather, only way, to grow the standing of the arts here is to engage with it critically and rigorously—to discard the implicit idea that anything Australia produces is above critical engagement simply because it is Australian. The question then becomes how to investigate the history of art and culture when, historically, there have been few institutional channels here to do so?

What we are seeing this year is the arts sector grapple, or rather, refuse to grapple, with its decline and gradual rejection as a federally funded public project. As this happens, it should reckon with where it first drew its power and what it replaced—what A.A. Phillips called the ‘colonial dilemma’. This cultural estrangement will continue, until the problem of colonialism is materially addressed. The centre of this society is missing a knowledge that should have been omnipresent. How will we choose to live, with such emptiness?

*

These things set in motion 250 years ago are still bearing out. The cultural subservience and intellectual timidity that Phillips described was baked into the structure of Australian life, from everything to the economy to citizenship. Australia never has kicked out the Brits. Still, it is the only colonial country that has not engaged in a process of treaty, truth-telling and justice on a national level (Victoria’s formal movement toward this is a necessary, heartening step).

That means that history isn’t finished with us. The defunding of the arts is of course nowhere near equivalent to colonialism and genocide, but they’re part of the same project—bending this country’s narratives and history backwards in service of lies to substantiate settler-colonial Australia’s existence and the sideswept racial guilt that haunts every aspect of life here.

Now, the art world is also facing the great failure of neoliberalism—of the logical endpoint of defunding, privatising, removing state influence and casting off formerly federal projects to states and councils. The parts of the art world founded on neoliberal economics—Carriageworks, namely, a private cultural enterprise that stayed afloat by way of venue hire to commercial activities—haven’t avoided catastrophe, rather, they’ve faced catastrophe first.

Rather, the art sector’s response to the twin crises of whiteness and defunding comes from its dedication to a tradition that promotes individual achievement rather than collectivism like political action, nonviolent organising, picket lines, marches. The impact of COVID-19 hasn’t been helped by the fact that, unlike the US arts sector, Australian museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and festivals—which usually conceive of themselves as physical spaces, events, collections and so on—have never developed much in the way of online infrastructure and expertise with which to commission and exhibit new digital programs.

Does the Australian arts sector have the strategy and power to get what it wants? Does the electorate care enough to act, and vote, and make the arts’ defunding politically unacceptable?

Does the Australian arts sector have the strategy and power to get what it wants? Does the electorate have faith in contemporary art and culture? If so, do they care enough to act, and vote, and make the arts’ defunding politically unacceptable? Many artists and advocates have made noble, decades-long attempts to patiently explain what art contributes to a social democracy. For those of us working in the arts, its necessity is almost too ubiquitous to grasp and too transparent to prove. Rehearsing the same arguments on the back foot is pointless—the art’s displaced basis here is material, in the foundation of how this society is organised to evict one set of cultures and overlay new ones.

At present, there is enough evidence to suggest that the attacks against the arts have already been successful. It has been a political project. Even before the coronavirus forced the cancellation of cultural events, the Australian public’s art attendance only appears high because it tends to be measured in yearly brackets. Diversity Arts recorded that 71% of Australians attended art events in the year preceding the study, which institutes a low benchmark for arts participation (there’s a dearth of data on regular—say, weekly—arts attendance). In more recent research by Australia Council for the Arts, one in four people said that there were no arts events near where they live. They live in an arts desert. Cost is cited as another thing preventing more people from attending art more regularly. This data is hugely substantial. It spells out a failure in arts policy to provide access to art to everyone regardless of where they are and how much they earn. If the arts sector is to win back its funding, it needs to rapidly expand its audience within the general public. Artists are good at envisaging an audience; now this audience needs to be thought of as the sector’s allies, agents and actors for change.

Art has, since 1788, assumed a minority status. Form-breaking, adventurous modes of artmaking like moving image, net art, hybrid and experimental arts and, until recently, digital forms of exhibition, have very little institutional support here. Depletion of funding leads to depletion of ambition, experimentation and innovation. Meanwhile, media outlets often run more opinion pieces bemoaning the arts crisis than they do critically reviewing new Australian work. The arts bloodbath has outrun the arts’ output—the crisis is the story. Artists are now starved both of their bread-and-butter and a wide critical responsiveness.

The arts sector has refrained for calling for restoration of public cultural aid to, say, 1990s levels. Its main tactics to appeal for relevance from middle Australia—comparing Australians’ support of the arts to its love of sport, arguing the sector’s value in neoliberal dollar terms and employment numbers—have failed to stem the blood loss. The remaining line of argument is that the arts are essential to who we are as a country. Holding up a mirror to our life as a nation. Examining who we are, our national identity. The narrators of our nation. What it means to be Australian. These words are generally uttered with goodwill, but a terrible conservatism haunts them. It must be said: this vision of an absurd, unhealthy, nationalistic identity has backfired. The history of the cultural cringe suggests that Australia’s national existence has been predicated on the eradication of particular forms of cultural life rather than its encouragement, and its importation from greater global powers. Being Australian is absolutely congruent with degrading, ignoring and deleting culture. Art and the people who make it barely figure in the imagined community of Australia.

I’m wary and worried about the way that many of us have internalised funding agency-speak of ‘celebrating Australian stories.’ I’m more interested in art that is a window to other places and ways of thinking.

Over the course of my time contributing to the arts and media, I’ve come to reassess the ways in which I naively contributed to what I now see as a kind of liberal, culturally nationalist conversation that says that the work of the arts should necessarily advance a national interest or even, in academic Julian Meyrick’s words, to persuade the nation to examine its own soul. Some artists may think of their work in that way, but art also precedes nations and borders and federations. I’m wary and worried about the way that many of us have internalised funding agency-speak of ‘celebrating Australian stories.’ I’m more interested in art that is a window to other places and ways of thinking, and culture as a project of enlargement, future possibilities and internationalism.

The arts sector’s response has also been separate from a concept of social justice beyond its spaces. It has no memory of collective power. From the top down, it values career development over social justice for its practitioners. The forces of economic segregation and sexism, austerity and racism, division and austerity bearing down on the world are the same as those in the arts. Curator Liz McNiven makes the point that the growth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmaking only took off after decades of pressured progress in civil rights, social participation and legal representation—the self-representation in Bla(c)k screen art we see today is not just a function of creative and industry forces. Lack of structural opportunity means that those with financial mobility, inherited wealth, parental generosity or spousal support—or those who can bear the poverty and hardship—can make a living in the arts. There’s no possible diverse, thriving, funded art sector without a materially just society that acts on issues like decommodifying housing and issuing a universal basic income. Diversity in the arts isn’t purely a curatorial project, it’s also a social justice project. It means the arts, and society beyond it, confronting its relationship to First Nations dispossession and the potential of sovereignty.

The most dangerous discourses are often the benevolent liberal ones that hide deeper systemic prejudices and allow oppressive structures to continue invisibly. Rather than automatically confirming and celebrating who we are as Australians, the arts need to critically engage with this continent’s history. It could also reject the idea that art here must address the concept of Australian nationhood, and work instead to think about regional, local, marginalised and community identities and how those identities connect to the rest of the world. It could even take apart the very concept of Australia and think beyond Anglo-founded empires. To this end, I’ve noticed that many of the most audacious young artists do not frame their work around a national vision, and often they’re not addressing Australia at all, but link their own very specific experiences of living across cultures to broader global narratives of diaspora, lineage and family displaced by movement. I’m inclined toward the view that the most interesting art is taking place outside a national lens.

Another glittering instance of this internationalism is Brook Andrews’ Sydney Biennale, NIRIN, a program that gathers the work of Indigenous and First Nations artists from around the world. Though many in the art world have reflexively read NIRIN as a decolonising project, Andrews’ curatorial statement makes no mention of Australia. Rather than nationhood, the NIRIN website speaks primarily about sovereignty; rather than trying to insert Indigenous voices into imposed colonial narratives, the works simply stand for themselves—a quietly radical shift in the discourse, moving away from national boundaries and borders.

The small screen sometimes offers flashes of insight as to what art can look like when it doesn’t automatically address Australian identity. Made in Arnhem Land, ABC TV’s short creative documentary series Black As is fascinating in that it does not really take place in the imagined community of ‘Australia’. Its situation is the Ramingining community, its language is Djambarrpuyngu and its collaborators—Jerome Lilypiyana, Chiko Wanybarrnga, Dino Wanybarrngu, Joseph Smith—are constantly honouring law and land in small ways along their epic, mundane, hilarious journeys across country.

There’s no possible diverse, thriving, funded art sector without a materially just society. Diversity in the arts isn’t purely a curatorial project, it’s also a social justice project.

As a nation where language and images are used to obfuscate and mislead, Australia has designated its own sacred sites since invasion: statues of Winston Churchill, King George V and Queen Elizabeth in capital cities, monuments to Captain Cook along the coast where he put English names to places already named. This is where art and politics bisect right now. Statues and monuments show the myths of the nation—what is deemed worthy of being remembered, who is seen as central to the stories a country tells about itself. Tearing down statues that unthinkingly celebrate colonialism, and instead, placing them in museums, whose purpose is to interrogate and contextualise the past, designed as a gesture of cultural compensation.

And yet 2020 is also showing us the limits of art and the necessity of systemic change. Change requires policies and legalities like defunding the police, abolishing jails, establishing free childcare so that domestic labour is socialised rather than delegated to women. What can culture do? Some of the work of truth-telling, some of the work of renovating our myths and heroes. There is not much in Australian history’s cultural narrative that would suggest to you that art predates borders and nations, and that people of all genders, ethnicities, sexualities and worldviews make art. But through engaging with the social world, art can guide us through its attendant dramas of colonialism, class, race, gender, sexuality, empire and capitalism. What is art if not a search for a collective memory? As curator and artist Djon Mundine said recently, art can help this place make ‘the conceptual leap to be honest about the past.’ That means the crimes committed against First Nations people and ecologies so that an Australian nation might exist.

I’m not here to depress you or to kick a sector while it’s down. How we change the ending of the arts’ sorry downward trajectory is still to be decided. I believe the sector’s future is tied up with art as a form of community mobilisation and political action as part of a shift in the national consciousness. It’s tied up with how social change happens, and how we change the ending of this country’s sordid relationship with colonialism. Formal recognition of genocide, compensation, treaties, the teaching of Indigenous history, culture and languages in schools, and the empowerment of First Nations communities to govern their own affairs are part of this historical and cultural reckoning. There could have been a hundred Emily Kame Kngwarreyes, a hundred Nora Wompis. There still could be a hundred Tracey Moffats.

I’m only pessimistic as long as the public conversation carries on in the current mood of bewilderment and paralysis. Through history, the most unthinkable crises have led to serious debates and movements in which the future is reassembled and real progress is made. If you’re tired, act. It might be the only way to pull yourself—and the culture—out of inertia. I used to traffic in the culturally nationalist, local boosterist reasons for funding the arts. Now, only one reason remains in my mind: I want to live in a smart country.