Guy Rundle’s extraordinarily robust assault on Paul Keating’s cultural cred was irritating and thrilling by turns.

Irritating because of his doctrinaire dismissal of Keating’s ideas on creativity as being what you’d expect from a self-taught arts tragic who never had Guy’s formal grounding in the humanities. And thrilling because he spoke so much truth about how Keating allowed an odd combination of hard-nosed economic philosophy and personal aesthetic taste to dictate his government’s approach to arts patronage.

First the irritating bits — tut tut, Paul, for being an uppity Westy who had to earn a crust as a clerk at the Sydney County Council instead of submitting to the rigours of life on campus where you would have had drummed into you Adorno’s dictum about “no lyric poetry after Auschwitz”.

Give us a break, Guy.

Reminding us that there were orchestras in the death camps in order to condemn Keating’s alleged “uncritical celebration of high culture” is as preposterous (although nowhere near as obscene) as Keating comparing Geoffrey Tozer’s death to the bombing of Dresden.

Yep, we get the point that loving beauty doesn’t make you a beautiful person and that evil people can like beauty, too, but does that mean we should shun all beautiful things?

Just because the Nazis were a bunch of sickoes who used fine music as a form of torture, why should we stop enjoying the works of great composers?

Where would that leave all those Jewish fans of Wagner (Holocaust survivors and descendants among them) who travel the world to witness performances of the avowed anti-Semite’s Ring cycle?

I don’t like Charles Saatchi and the rest of the monied crowd in the art market but should I stop liking contemporary art?

While Keating is certainly a rusted-on arts luvvie, do we really know that his embrace of so-called high culture is without reservation?

Keating being as stridently opinionated as he is, it’s almost guaranteed that he has intense likes and dislikes when it comes to classical music and anything else that would go under the banner of high culture. And what is this high culture thing anyway? In 15 years of arts reporting, I’ve only ever known it to be used as a term of derision by people who have an axe to grind about traditional forms of art. When it comes to “ridiculous false dichotomies” that really takes the biscuit.

But Rundle is absolutely spot on in bringing attention to “the sort of world that Keating had done so much to create, a world of marketised outcomes and benchmarks”.

The economic rationalism that Keating imposed on the nation as a whole was also at the core of his Creative Nation arts policy, unveiled in 1994, although much of the arts community lacked the political nouse to see it. To steal a favourite Keating turn of phrase, most people in the arts allowed themselves to be duchessed well and truly.

Crikey reader Jack Robertson, writing on the website in response to Rundle’s piece, gave an eye-watering but astute account of how Keating’s seduction of the creative crowd continued a Labor tradition dating back to Whitlam’s It’s Time campaign.

“Lick arty bum and reap the re-broadcast returns over generations, across media, into all demographics. And really, artists, so fragile, so needy, so isolated, are about the easiest lot of all to hustle politically, they’re so desperate to buy into the soft whispered, back-room power play bulldust, the feeling of being part of a grown-up, real world adventure.”

And they were made to feel grown up because, under Creative Nation, what had long been referred to as the arts community rebranded as the “creative industries”. As I remember saying at the time, the danger of a Labor government calling you an industry is that a Liberal government will treat you like one.

But the arts didn’t have to wait for a change of government. As Deakin University academics Dr Katya Johanson and Hilary Glow have noted, the Creative Nation document was explicit in emphasising “the importance of the arts sector understanding the industrial context within which it must operate in a climate of reduced government expenditure. Instead of relying on the state purse, the arts must now increasingly look to private sponsorship, audience development, linkages with broadcasting technologies, and international marketing strategies.”

Creative Nation was also about picking winners. Let’s not forget the dreaded Major Organisations Board, better known by its unfortunate but appropriate acronym, the MOB.

Companies lucky enough to be backed by the MOB were given the security of triennial funding while the rest had to live with the uncertainty of going cap in hand every year. While there were some very odd and controversial exceptions to the rule, most arts companies were granted MOB funding simply because they were big, and bigness tended to mean traditional, which just happened to reflect the tastes of a certain French clock-collecting Mahler-loving political patron.

By guaranteeing the major companies a large chunk of the Australia Council’s budget, Creative Nation undermined the system of peer assessment, which had long been the model for federal arts funding.

That wouldn’t have upset Paul Keating; he’s been quoted as describing peer assessment as “a form of peer group pass-the-parcel”.

While there were muffled complaints about Creative Nation at the time, the arts sector (nee community) was, in the main, effusive in its praise and gratitude. And in the decade and a half since there hasn’t been much serious reflection about Keating’s legacy.

Perhaps it’s not surprising arts folk have such fond memories of Keating given what came after him. Leaving aside his old-fashioned tastes and regrettable tendency to anoint winners, at least Keating wanted to be seen as an impresario of culture, whereas John Howard, the maestro of the dog whistle, allowed his colleagues to demonise the arts as elitist.

However, there were some prominent voices in the arts prepared to challenge the pro-Keating consensus. Speaking in 2002. the late Donald Horne, who chaired the Australia Council in the late ’80s, described Creative Nation as “a mishmash of glitz and technocracy”.

But, hell, what’s Horne’s opinion worth in the (Rundle) scheme of things? Like Keating, everything the degreeless Horne knew about culture, he taught himself.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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