IN SEPTEMBER 2008, I was in London during the Olympics and the English press was rampant with joy that Britain had beaten Australia. Not shouting about beating Germany or France or Spain – countries with comparable populations. The front-page gloat was entirely about beating us. For several Olympics in a row, Australian athletes have performed remarkably, beating countries with much larger populations and bigger economies. Australia has earned a well-deserved reputation as a sporting nation.
The reason this happened is that we put money – lots of money – into sport. On a per capita basis, Australia spends more on Olympic athletes than any other country. This has been a deliberate plan. Following what was seen as the disaster of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when Australia barely won a medal, the Commonwealth Government was persuaded to set up the Australian Institute of Sport and fund programs to find, train and support elite athletes. The recent success by British Olympians happened because the government bumped up funding for sport, copied Australian methods, and headhunted some of our trainers. Spending money in the right way produces positive results.
Australia is still at the top of the international league table when it comes to support for athletes. But the level of support for the arts is at the bottom. This is not to say that we don't spend money on the arts. We do. When you add up – as governments like to do – all the elements which could fit under the general heading of ‘the arts', including broadcasting and film financing, more money is spent on the arts than on sport. But the same can be said of the countries with which we compare ourselves.
Our image as a sporting nation undoubtedly does us a lot of good, both nationally and internationally. Believing that we are a young, fit, healthy and competitive nation is good for the way we feel about ourselves and presents a good face to the rest of the world. The spending on sport doesn't actually seem to have made us any healthier – Australia is second only to the United States when it comes to rates of obesity. That's a pity, but it still doesn't hurt to have a strong image of youth and health.
BEARING THAT IN mind, wouldn't it be good to see ourselves and to be seen as clever, creative, innovative, intelligent and cultured? Wouldn't such an image benefit us in trade and tourism? Wouldn't people around the world want to do business with us and come here to visit? Wouldn't talented, creative people want to come and work here and take part in a thriving, prosperous, internationally respected creative community? Wouldn't this add to the vigour and vitality of our economy? And couldn't we do this without giving up any of our well-deserved reputation in sport?
Why is it that arts funding seems to need never-ending argument in its favour? Are we culturally prejudiced against culture? Or maybe we're just happy that the world sees us as a nation of sporty miners and farmers.
As a way of illustrating the polarity in our view of sport and art, which of the following two descriptions is often used as an insult? Sporty type? Arty type?
And as a further demonstration of what might be a national prejudice, why is it that ‘intellectual' is often a pejorative, especially in sections of the media? Why isn't a description of someone as an intellectual always a tribute of the highest form?
Obviously a lot of people do think that the arts are important. Of the five bank notes in our currency, three feature Australian artists: Banjo Paterson on one side of the ten dollar note, Dame Mary Gilmore on the other, David Unaipon on the fifty and Dame Nellie Melba on the hundred. That's four out of eight. The others on the banknote hall of fame include a pioneer businesswoman, medical aviator, feminist politician and a soldier. There is no sign of reverence for sport on our money. The dollar value of the artists also reflects the levels of funding for poetry ($10) and opera ($100).
In the early twentieth century, Banjo Paterson was one of the most highly paid writers in English, second only to Rudyard Kipling. His first volume of poetry, The man from Snowy River, sold out in weeks and went rapidly into four reprints. Banjo lived well on his income from writing. At the same time, sport was largely an amateur activity. Cricketers and football players had proper jobs and trained and played in their leisure time. Today, while there are many very well-paid sports stars, I doubt that there is a single poet who can live from writing alone.
There are some obvious reasons for this. At the start of the twentieth century, poetry was a popular form of entertainment, and there wasn't a lot of competition for leisure time – no radio, television, cinema, internet, email, MySpace, YouTube, podcasts, vodcasts or any of the growing number of distractions that take people away from the simple pastime of reading a book. Television has created a huge demand for sport and attracted advertising revenue of such incredible amounts that players have been able to demand, and get, the sort of money that poets can only dream about.
THE WAY THE government money is handed out varies greatly between sport and the arts. To demonstrate the difference, if sports funding were handled in the same way as the arts, individual sportsmen and women would apply for assistance with coaching, travel, equipment purchases, making an often lengthy and detailed case in their application. They would wait for some time to hear the result, not knowing whether they could go ahead and make arrangements for, say, a trip to London to compete at Wimbledon. The amounts in each case would be small and seldom enough to cover all the expenses involved in taking part in the competition or reaching the next level of training. Applications would be assessed individually and reviewed by a committee that could well include their direct competitors, with no reference to any overall goal or plan.
But if artists were treated like sports people, there would be talent spotters who would offer places to gifted individuals at a major training centre, their projects would be fully funded and they'd be prepared for entry into competitions, biennales, eisteddfods, as part of a national plan to develop and showcase Australian creative talent.
Instead arts funding more closely resembles welfare. If you take away the funding of major companies a large amount of money is doled out in very small amounts to as many people as possible. This may be a good political move. It keeps a lot of people happy-ish; it would take a very brave government to change this approach.
I'm not arguing that this approach should be dropped. My argument is that there should be more money for the arts and that any increase might be handled in a different way. More money should be spent on the arts. First, the economic argument: while traditional manufacturing is shrinking, the creative industries are growing. The copyright industries – film, television, music, games, the internet, publishing, business software – amount to about one eighth of the entire American economy. Similar growth is happening here.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said that we need to look to a future beyond the commodity boom and develop other parts of the economy. As the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, said in All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, a 1999 report on creative and cultural education: ‘Our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty-first century – where we compete on brains, not brawn.'
The world of ideas and creativity is highly competitive. Australia won't have a place in it if we leave it to individuals themselves to develop their talent to the highest level. The same arguments that led to the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport can be applied to the arts. We have to move past the point of seeing the arts as a leisure activity. They are a growing and major area of business.
There are, of course, cultural reasons to support the arts. We no longer make television sets in this country. We buy them from China, where they can be made more cheaply. But if we don't make our own culture, no one else will. I can't imagine many people supporting the idea that we not make our own culture; rely entirely on imports; that we cease to create our own images and sounds; no longer tell our own stories to ourselves and to the rest of the world.
We're a creative species. Throughout the long history of civilisation, we've produced works of art. It is through our art that we say who we are and what we value. We interpret the world and make sense of it and we give expression to hopes, fears and a sense of wonder and astonishment at what we see around us, from the tiniest atom to the vastness of space, from the birth of a child to cruelty in war.
When the Prime Minister was presenting the Science Awards in October 2008, he departed from his prepared speech to say: ‘I was speaking to those at my table before about one of my favourite paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery ... Essentially his painting is of that very message, that there's nothing in contradiction between the wonder of creation and the wonder of discovery. It is a beautiful thing ... It is through the arts, through the sciences themselves ... [that] we actually conduct our national discourse to once again capture the nation's imagination about the world and the wonder of science as being part of our imagination of our nation's future.'
A simple example of how art affects the way we see the world around us is the changing perception of the Australian landscape as presented by a succession of painters, from John Glover to Hans Heysen to Tom Roberts to Albert Namatjira to Arthur Boyd to Fred Williams to Rover Thomas.
WE TAKE IT for granted that if we don't want sports people to excel, to achieve the highest level of performance, they need to be able to commit to training and preparation without the distraction of earning a living doing something else. This is certainly true in elite sports. But in the arts, we accept that an artist will supplement their income with teaching, taxi driving or table waiting. This might be fine at the start of a career, but it's no way to sustain a professional career and make a major contribution.
Those who still believe in the power and ultimate good of the market argue that talent will win and that money and success will flow to those who make what people want. The problem is that often people don't know that they want something until it has been around for some time, until they've got used to it and the artist has gone broke or died or both.
When The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913, the three creators, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, had to escape in a taxi to avoid the wrath of the crowd who mostly hated it. The design for the Sydney Opera House was almost universally mocked. If you believed the popular press at the time, Australia was going to be a laughing stock if that building went ahead. According to the critics, it just didn't look like an opera house. The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind were all box office flops when first released. We should remember this: box office is only one measure of success and, given the often extremely short periods of release, is really only a measure of first reaction.
Cutting-edge or avant-garde art is not popular, almost by definition. It is ahead of public taste; where we're going next, but don't know it. And it's rarely supported by the market. If we want to improve competitiveness in the growing creative sectors, then perhaps there is something we can learn from the way we've achieved success in sport. We didn't do it by giving little amounts of money to a large number of people with no overall plan or strategy. We did it by being bold enough to spot talent and hothouse it, giving continuing support to those who demonstrated the willingness to commit themselves to excellence in their field.
We could start with education. As the former UK secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Chris Smith, said in the All Our Futures report: ‘We must change the concept of creativity from being something that is "added on" to education, skills, training and management and make sure it becomes intrinsic to all of these.' In the same report, the then UK secretary of state for education and employment, David Blunkett, said: ‘Our top priorities must continue to be literacy and numeracy. Without these basic skills, no child can gain maximum benefit form the rest of the curriculum. However, in the workforce of the future, I have always recognised that creativity, adaptability and communication skills will also be vital.'
There's a further strong reason for supporting more arts and creative subjects in school education. Research in California has shown that students with high arts involvement perform better in standardised tests than students with low arts involvement. Participation in the arts at school develops beneficial mental processes, which strengthen performance in other subjects. Beyond school education, we need to develop new and better models to support art and creativity. We've achieved great success in sport, success that has been recognised and copied. Imagine if we were able to achieve the same success for the arts.