Culture in the Age of Howard

May 26, 2004

Culture is not an exclusive game played by artists and their admirers, it is an ongoing conversation within and between communities. It is a meeting place for different arguments and perspectives, an arena in which large and small problems are ventilated. When we speak of ‘cultural progress’, we assume that some resolution or compromise has been reached by those who hold different points of view. So what has happened to Australian culture during three successive terms of John Howard’s stewardship? There is general agreement that the economy is healthy, that the nation is prosperous and stable, but the cultural conversation has become a monologue – a barrage of platitudes with the capacity to inflict long-term scarring on the national psyche. In the past eight years, Australian culture has become insular, increasingly one-dimensional, intolerant of criticism and controversy.

The problem begins with the decline of public language, a malaise that has been analysed by Paul Keating’s former speechwriter, Don Watson, in his book, Death Sentence. One need not be one of the Labor party faithful to recognize the justice in Watson’s observation that “John Howard’s language rarely steps far from the ordinary for the good reason that ordinary language is what people use. Very likely he also calculates that underlying the sound of ordinariness is the message of common sense, which to a literal mind means the sense of common people.”

In this, Howard is the antithesis of his Labor predecessor, who believed that a big occasion called for a memorable speech. Keating gave us the Redfern speech, the Unknown Soldier, the Placido Domingo, and so on, but it would be hard to put a name to any of John Howard’s feats of oratory. From the moment he comes out with his trademark, “My Fellow Australians”, he presents himself as the embodiment of the man-in-the-street – one of those decent, hard-working Australians who believe in ideals such as ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’. If Keating wanted to inspire his audience to greater strivings, Howard wants them to feel satisfied with the status quo – remember the pre-election pledge to render us “relaxed and comfortable”. We already live in the best of all possible worlds, so there is no need to seek radical change. More than anything, he wants the electorate to recognize that his government has been looking after them in a highly-professional way. He prides himself on being a responsible manager rather than a visionary leader. This is reflected both in his language and in Josonia Palaitis’s photo-realist portrait of the Howards in the National Portrait Gallery, in which they come across as Mr and Mrs Ordinary.

John Howard is one of those gifted speakers who can talk with perfect fluency on any occasion, and say nothing memorable. Time and again he merely glances at the words prepared by his speech-writers, before slipping the text into his pocket and improvising on a theme. That theme is almost invariably the intrinsic goodness of Australians and the Australian way-of-life. His examples are drawn from the Anzac legend or various sporting contests. If he refers to the Opposition it is to point out that they are very “negative”, critical, irresponsible people – and this, by clear implication, is un-Australian. Those would-be intellectuals who oppose his views, are seen as members of “the chattering classes”, or the “elites” – a group of snobs who reside in ivory towers and look down upon the masses.

In Mark Latham, Howard has found an adversary who is just as willing to use the same feel-good clichés, saying recently that he aims “to give this country a government every bit as big and warm-hearted as the Australian people themselves. A government as big and generous as the country we love.” The implication is that the Howard government is small and cold-hearted, unlike the mythical Australians who attract Latham’s admiration. It goes without saying that we are supposed to make the physical association that Latham is big, and Howard is small, as if bigger is naturally better. (As in “My house/yacht/bank balance, etc. is bigger than yours”?) It seems that the next election campaign will be a battle of the platitudes, with battlers pitched against aspirationals. It may be worth noting that so far the Opposition leader has shown no more interest in the arts than the Prime-Minister.

In that realm, the Howard government gas shown a distinct preference for managerialism over vision.  Where Keating, with his “Big Picture” rhetoric, made the arts into something that seemed powerful and sexy – Keating’s 1995 Creative Nation statement may have been shambolic, but there was no doubt it sought to put the arts at the forefront of the nation’s cultural life – his conqueror took a more defensive line, striving to show that he was not anti-arts, or anti-culture. This resulted in policies that kept arts funding at comparable levels, with a greater emphasis on responsible management of finances. Howard’s one big cultural election promise was the establishment of a new National Museum of Australia, in Canberra – an institution that has since become an ideological ping-pong table in the debates over indigenous history.

Howard’s major innovation with cultural institutions may have been the imposition of the Accrual Accounting system, which had the surprising result of providing a much greater level of guaranteed funding than that allowed by the Keating government. This was achieved by the laborious process of putting a monetary value on every item within an institution – from the smallest pencil sharpener to Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Funding was made commensurate with the level of annual depreciation. This meant that Brian Kennedy, at the National Gallery of Australia, was gifted more than $20 million for capital works, in contrast to his predecessor, Betty Churcher, who had been made to practice the most stringent economies to pay for repairs to the gallery roof.

After seven years of this system, the government is reconsidering the way money is allocated to cultural institutions presumably because they feel the money could be more usefully spent in other areas. Last year, news leaked about about a review of cultural institutions, but typically no details or terms of reference were revealed. This, in itself, is an indicator of the way the arts have lost the momentum they once enjoyed, even though there have been no disastrous funding cuts. In the mid-1990s, the arts had a very different profile to the one they display in 2004. Over the Howard era, the arts have become entangled in corporate and bureaucratic models that have had an unpleasant levelling effect on our collective ability to make value judgements. Criticism has become largely indistinguishable from Public Relations, with many writers believing that it is their duty to be ‘supportive’ of the arts; to inform readers about cultural products, not to make evaluations.

Of course many of these trends are international – for instance an emphasis on fiscal responsibility and management has been a feature of governmental reviews of arts companies in the USA, Canada and the UK in recent years. Neither has the inexorable eclipse of so-called ‘high culture’ by popular culture, been confined to Australia. the point is how perfectly, in all of this, Howard has suited his times, as he famously prophesied he would.

Australia’s most prestigious cultural exports of the moment are probably its actors, but the Hollywood success of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts or Hugh Jackman, has taken place against a backdrop of a local film industry going down the gurgler. This has not prevented the Government from issuing a press release whenever some celebrity attains an overseas honour – as Senator Kemp did recently, in toasting Hugh Jackman’s Tony award. The implication is that the Howard government is somehow responsible for this blossoming of talent, but it would be more accurate to say it has recreated the conditions at home that existed prior to the Whitlam years. Australians actors are once more obliged to travel overseas to seek success. Once that has been attained, the actor might condescend to return and star in a local feature, for a special discount rate.

In the visual arts, the Howard years have witnessed the growing power of the marketplace in the fabrication of artists’ reputations. A work of art is viewed as little more than a commodity to be bought and sold. Its value is largely a matter of the price achieved at auction, with no consideration of aesthetic issues. This has created a highly artificial environment in which a dealer will place a work into an auction, buy it back for twice the estimate, and use the pseudo-sale to double the artist’s prices in a forthcoming exhibition. The same operators and their captive art consultants will be able to point to the auction price as proof that the artist’s work is a sound investment, leading naïve clients to spend large sums on works of dubious merit. This is the process called “ramping”, and it has become commonplace at the auctions. The success of this tactic has been abetted by changes in legislation that have allowed works of art to be bought for superannuation purposes. This has created a feeding frenzy for the works of well-known artists, with clients buying without the slightest knowledge or discrimination, causing crazy blow-outs in prices. It is entirely likely, with the inevitable fluctuation in artists’ reputations, and without the helping hand of a ramper, that many works will actually decline in value.

A friend who works for a well-known auction house says that he no longer considers himself to be part of the art business. “I’m basically a commodities broker,” he says. “Even the word ‘collector’ has disappeared. Nowadays, everyone is an ‘investor’.”

It is a sign of the times that one may read reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald in which the term “blue chip” is used as a way of attesting to an artist’s importance. Such terms would previously have been confined to the saleroom column, but now value in a monetary sense is value in an absolute sense. It should also be said that in the not-too-distant past, many of the advertorials that pass for reviews would have been rejected by more scrupulous editors.

Figures such as performer and festival director Robyn Archer have felt moved to point out that arts and entertainment are not the same things, but this does not reflect the approach taken by the daily newspapers and much of the electronic media. It is a trend that mainstream broadsheets have devoted increasing space to the fashion industry in what used to be called the ‘arts’ section. Almost all the papers have developed the habit of including a number of tiny ‘notices’ in place of genuine reviews, making the arts pages into a gig guide rather than a forum for informed opinion.

All of this in perfectly in tune with the ambience of the Howard era: an Age of Accountancy, not an Age of Accountability, in which everything has a price but please don’t mention values. Neither have the art institutions and bureaucracies put up much resistance. Organisations such as the Australia Council spend a disproportionate amount of their funds on consultancies and market research surveys, intended to justify their own existence in the eyes of the government. The highlight has been Australians and the Arts, a report by Saatchi and Saatchi, which for a hefty swag of taxpayer dollars, revealed “while some Australians love the arts others do not feel so positive about them.” The report also found that “people who feel positive about the arts engage with them for a variety of reasons.” The Prime-Minister might have taken heart from the claim that 66% of people surveyed said they would feel more positive if there were “less elitist attitudes within the arts.”

There are fewer possibilities nowadays of government funding going to individuals the rather than institutions. There is less possibility of a maverick project making its way through the sieve of bureaucracy, and there is a whole lot more management-speak drowning out the discussions about artistic merit. To be fair, many bureaucrats would argue that it is only through using the jargon, commissioning the consultants and constructing the pie charts that their claims are taken seriously by the government. Here, they might cite the success of the Nugent Report into the Performing Arts, and to a lesser extent, the Myer Report into the Visual Arts. Yet what begins as a tactic soon becomes a habit, with vast amount of time being spent on the construction of a cumbersome climbing frame for human creativity.

The institutions of art education have also learnt to play the game, realizing that funding can be accessed for a range of corporate-style activities such as conferences and seminars. There are many courses that purport to train curators, administrators, and even critics to take their place in the “art industry”. Those undertaking studio-based courses will still be subjected to a unit or two of ‘Professional Development’, aimed to impart necessary skills, such as ‘How to write a CV’, and ‘How to lodge a grant application’. Although there is an unspoken understanding that an artistic education is one of the least-reliable guarantees of a steady income, the colleges – and many students – play out this solemn farce as though graduates will be slotted straight into the workplace.

In areas of corporate governance, cultural institutions have come to mirror the dismal record of the business community. Prior to the Howard ascendency, the Board of Trustees at the National Gallery of Australia might have included an indigenous representative, an artist and an art historian, but none of these functions have been represented for at least five years. Instead, Board members have been chosen from the business world, on the assumption that the gallery was fit to make its own decisions on artistic matters. The result has been a series of highly-expensive purchases of dubious merit, ongoing debacles over air-conditioning and the construction of a new entrance; and the collapse of exhibition programming. When action was required, the Trustees – with the exception of Rob Ferguson, who resigned in protest – were unwilling to act in a way that might displease the Minister.

At the nearby National Museum of Australia, corporate governance has taken the opposite course, with one Trustee, the Prime-Minister’s biographer, David Barnett, being vocal in his criticisms of the museum’s “left-wing bias”. This was the stimulus for two independent reviews, both of which failed to substantiate the charge. Meanwhile, the NMA became a battlefield in the debates over Aboriginal massacres and dispossession, between the view espoused by historians such as Henry Reynolds (that John Howard likes to call the “black armband” version of our history), and the revisionist account of Keith Windschuttle. The chief casualty so far has been the NMA’s inaugural director, Dawn Casey, who was dumped without a reason being given, then presented with a public service medal in recognition of her achievements!

Perhaps the most bloody conflicts have been fought at the ABC, which deserves an article in its own right. At present the national broadcaster boasts a Board in which members are at each others’ throats, while REHAME is busy tallying up the blows traded on ABC TV all the way to election day, to ensure they meet with its political masters’ notions of ‘fair and unbiased’.

Meanwhile, over at Parliament House, the outspoken criticism of the art collection put forward by Liberal members, such as Tony Abbott and Ross Cameron, has led to Betty Churcher being hired to write yet another review. What makes this so tedious is that the “avant-garde crap” denounced by these militant philistines would be seen as highly conservative by most art experts. It is yet another sign of the government embracing the views of the “ordinary” man, with his utterly ordinary preference for naturalistic landscapes and portraits. In her report Churcher noted that some members “object to all abstract art – seeing it as elite and not representative of broader Australia.” In this they unwittingly echo the Russian workers who objected to the abstract art of Malevich and Rodchenko, ushering in the era of Socialist Realism.

The Australian Everyman is also the ideal audience for the far- from-ordinary, Professor David Flint, whose recent book, The Decline of the Elites, is rapturous in its praise of John Howard, and the transformations he has wrought on our culture. With a dazzling lack of self-consciousness, Professor Flint finds the term “elite” to be a useful way of describing anyone who has a different political opinion to himself or the Prime-Minister. In summarizing the arguments of these elite adversaries, he is so amazed at their temerity that his text becomes a forest of exclamation marks! I doubt that the late Christopher Lasch, whose book, The Revolt of the Elites (1995), provided Flint with his inspiration, would have authorised this ad hoc division of the nation into nasty elites and nice government.

In spokesmen such as David Flint, and the self-appointed art critics of Parliament House, one may see how brazen the cultural outlook of the Howard era has become. It may have begun defensively, but the culture of mediocrity has grown confident and aggressive. It might seem logical that this triumphant ordinariness would call forth some powerful responses from artists and intellectuals. But the truth is that the avant-garde fringe of the visual arts has become a refuge for every kind of self-regarding triviality, masquerading as radical experiment. On the evidence of the ‘Cool to be Corporate’ approach to this year’s Biennale of Sydney, and the shapeless mess currently showing at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Federation Square complex, called 2004, which billed itself as an overview of contemporary Australian visual culture, it seems that contemporary art is at its most complacent when it gets closest to the ‘cutting edge’. For venturing such a thought, I expect to be called a “conservative”, which is the most severe form of abuse one may endure in the artworld – perhaps because conservatism is a school of thought with a proud tradition, and contemporary art requires the total suspension of long-term memory. How else may one re-invent the wheel from one exhibition to the next?

It would be wrong to characterise the Howard era as a time of conservatism. It has actually been a time of rampant change – a period when the culture of ordinariness and conformity has attained a new perfection. Australians have grown more prosperous and materialistic, without any corresponding growth in cultural refinement or curiosity. On the contrary, culture has been commodified. We no longer ask: “Was it any good?” but “How much did it cost?” Or “How much is it worth?” We only want to hear positive, flattering reports about ourselves. But a culture that has grown phobic about criticism is a barren place, a field in which nothing good will grow. We have allowed ourselves to be talked ourselves into the Small Picture mentality of the Howard era, we now need to talk ourselves out of it.

Published for The Australian Financial Review Magazine, 2004