Sydney Morning Herald columnist Michael Duffy needs to get out more. In Saturday’s op-ed pages Duffy wrote one of the more generalised and least researched pieces I have read from him in quite a while.

“One of the mysteries of my lifetime has been the disappearance of significant Australian artists, in any art form,” Duffy starts.

“When I was at school, and an undergraduate in the 1970s, there was a pantheon of first-rate artists whose names were familiar to most Australians, at least among the middle class. Their work was widely taught or hung on walls or shown in cinemas: it was part of the national consciousness.”

Duffy complains that he doesn’t know of any artists of any “significance”. He longs for a time when there were names like Arthur Boyd, Patrick White and John Olsen. He even attempts to drag Australian culture to its glorious colonial past by quoting English writer John Betjeman who “visited Australia in the early ’60s and wrote that we were experiencing a new Elizabethan age”.

Unfortunately for Duffy, the artists out there creating and making and exploring — and the audiences that see and experience and buy artistic work — no longer need the approval of some authority from the motherland.

The fact is that Duffy ignores the great changes that have happened to artistic expression since he was a poor undergraduate. The time of the great exclusive artist who produces a “masterpiece” are thankfully gone as more and more people experience art in everyday situations. From community centres, to sold-out fringe theatres, inner city and regional galleries, alternative warehouse spaces, to street art and festivals, artists and their audiences are experiencing everything from cloth to film to dance and are making cities and towns come alive with colour and vibrancy.

Art is going on all around you Michael, with or without the support of you and your colleagues in the media. Australians attend more theatre and live performance than they do sport. But one look at our media organisations and you’d never know it.

I hope that Duffy took the time to read through to another section of the newspaper and he may have found the answer to why he doesn’t know any local artists. A quick glance at the Good Weekend magazine featured a very interesting article on the Australian Institute of Sport.

“The AIS produces the winners Australians love: by some counts, more than half the total medals at the last Olympics were associated with the AIS. And yet it produces them in exactly the way Australians like least: by creating a highly elite, exclusive, expensive system. So elite and exclusive in fact, it has to have a special mandate under the federal Anti-Discrimination Act to exist at all; and so expensive that its budget for 2007-08 is a cool $43 million, and each full-time scholarship is worth $30,000 a year,” the article explains.

If you tried to have this type of funding model for an arts training program you could guarantee that media outlets across the country would have a field day. But for sports it’s ok.

The artists are there, but as far as the media is concerned, sport is what we care about. Each night, close to half of news bulletins is made up by sport. Each day in our newspapers, pages and pages and pages of analysis, reports, previews, articles and opinions are dedicated to sport.

The world that Duffy portrays makes you feel as though artists throughout the country are getting money left right and centre. If only that were true. The Sydney Theatre Company, as an example of funding, gets just under $7 per ticket in funding for theatre.

Duffy goes on to make the wild claim that he suspects that “government funding has had something to do with this drying up of major talent. An artist who depends substantially on subsidies, even if just in the early years, creates work for those who give out the subsidies rather than for the general public.”

By that logic, if The Sydney Morning Herald stopped paying Duffy, we might get some better articles. Not a bad idea at all.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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