George Brandis looks like a dentist, which is good, because he is about to take on the dentist’s most essential of roles — funding culture. For decades, dentists have been the go-to people for indie film funding. They’re cashed up, they don’t know what to do with it, and they spend all their days looking at teeth, so they crave glamour. Ditto for dermatologists, etc.

They can be easily persuaded that what the country really needs is another road movie set in a post-apocalyptic landscape (Nhill) starring the director, or a young woman’s journey to self-awareness in an underlit, brick-veneer suburb, or some mash-up of both with a new character, “the dentist”. The money pours in; it rarely pours out again. The dentists do not appear to mind. The public might.

Brandis has announced he would be taking $25 million a year from the Australia Council budget for the next two years (about 15% of its total budget) — he announced four, but there’s an election in between — to create a separate stream of funding “excellence”, with a popular twist. Brandis flagged this months ago, and it’s another area of alleged left dominance they have long wanted to tackle.

Various sinister motives have been seen in this move, but it has more of the character of all the Abbott government’s half-arsed culture wars — obsessive, conceived in resentment that there might be some areas of life in which the left is regnant. Or, more exactly, in which being left-wing is simply a default setting. Brandis argues that the Australia Council is a bit of a mates’ club, appears to exclude some people, and has a bias against more popular forms.

The move has already brought a concerted response from the arts community defending the status quo. Which is necessary, but difficult. For arts funding should be hands-off from power. But, at the same time, everyone knows that the Australia Council process has elements of a demented racket about it. There’s a huge amount of log-rolling, back-scratching in the various boards that govern their own art forms, a degree of it simply arising from the limited networks of artists in Australia. “Incestuous” is the metaphorical term that applies. Except in dance. There, it’s the literal term that applies.

There’s a deeper problem beyond mere networks, etc, and that is a certain type of conformism to an artistic norm. Across theatre, novel, and other forms, there’s a certain style of approach, which purports to be literary or experimental, but is really a form of middlebrow, written/created by and for the intellectual middle classes. Though it purports to have no generic rules, it is as patterned and regular as a detective novel.

The expansion of this culture, and its lack of contact with a broader mass culture, has been a problem for arts funding for a long time — unless you’re unconcerned about subsidised culture becoming a middle-class racket. The intent, when the OzCo was established in the ’70s, was that it would quickly spread out to a wider group of people as education reduced inequality.

When equality started to go in the other direction in the ’80s, the process was left somewhat marooned. It’s been obvious that something radical needed to be done with the selection process — but it was difficult to know what. The Australia Council had been preceded by the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which had been run directly from the Prime Minister’s office, and had been used shamelessly for political patronage. Left-wing and especially communist writers were excluded, and since they were most of the best writers, that meant that a stream of forgettable drivel, more in line with our Sir Robert’s tastes, did get funding.

If Brandis is going to try the same thing, he is going to get himself buried under his own bookshelves. Sorry, our bookshelves. The whole rationale for this new funding scheme is confused. The whole point of a grant scheme is to fund that stuff that has no chance of getting investment, and little chance of getting a return. We give grants for these on the principle that it’s a social good to have difficult, etc, work created. Why exactly it is a social good to do this is another question, but once we determine it is, that’s what funding’s for.

Funding more “popular” stuff by grant is another question entirely. Where there’s a chance of a return (i.e. in film and TV), all serious funding tends to be done as investment. Giving a grant on the grounds of “popularity” is by definition, featherbedding — if it’s popular, it will get a return anyway. If it’s not, you were throwing your money away. Brandis has committed that mortal sin, picking winners.

Well, much good may it do him. He owns a hundred million dollars of the arts now, every decision open to scrutiny — scrutiny as to who got what, who they know, what their bias is. He’s also responsible for every dumb decision made, for every stoopid musical or exhibition invested in on the grounds that it might be popular, every rort and waste of the cash. He can be sure that it will be gone over with a fine variety of instruments. Open wide, George. This may hurt a bit.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey