Your correspondent, too, has difficulty with the view that a difference exists between high art and commercial. A continuum is a better way of looking at it. Perhaps artistic upbringing, confused as it was, is to blame. The upbringing was eclectic enough to embrace the Kew City Band as well as the cello. Private lessons of course. There was no Suzuki and no orchestra, even though the school in question was one of Melbourne’s finest. One year ahead of your correspondent was a talented flautist, John Wion, who went on to a career in New York. He was given the grand title of Captain of School Music. The first ever. When asked what this entailed Wion said: “putting out the song sheets before assembly”. Playing in pits at the Lincoln Centre seems pretty commercial to me. But it is a true artistic career. There was also the skilful pianist who was thrown out of the top maths class because he was spending too much time practising. He went on to be a pillar of the Melbourne medical establishment. And the guy who thought he might try his hand at composing? He was told, by the newly appointed Director of Music, the first in the school’s history, not to waste his time. He finished up a producer at the ABC. So much for enlightened educational practices. But remember, it was a long time ago.
John Brack was, for a time, an art master. During his tenure the then headmaster challenged him to paint a meat slicing machine. I think the joke ended up being on the headmaster, as Brack produced a characteristic sneer at still life and modernity.
Earlier your correspondent’s artist uncle, James Boswell (http://bit.ly/gKl6W4) lived with the family. He had to mix his art with the commercial in order to live and in retrospect would see no conflict with having works in the Tait Modern and British Museum as well as having done film posters for Ealing Studios, design work for Labour’s 1964 campaign as well as editing Sainsbury’s house journal and working for the decidedly commercial Lilliput magazine.
Whether these experiences and early observations had any influence whatsoever is moot. Maybe your correspondent is, notwithstanding, just plain eclectic, having no problem with the populace at large embracing Andre Rieu or an arena spectacular Ben Hur. He may not attend himself, but is happy to see the industrial wing of the arts/culture business attracting audiences and sometimes make a lot of money. (Have you noticed? There is a guy doing Andre Rieu “covers” on the RSL Club circuit. But I digress.) The real worry are those “high arts on the sleeve” types who write earnest letters objecting to the publicity received by those perceived to be too commercial, who play Strauss waltzes or program classical orchestras to accompany comedians or iconic silent movies. Many of these same complainers wring their hands when it is suggested funding may be cut to some of the bigger and more successful outfits like the Australian Chamber Orchestra or Opera Australia. They would certainly complain about Australia Council funding going to new fangled areas like digital.
Of course what these types forget is that governments (for which read “the taxpayer”) support activities perceived to be of benefit to the country, economically, socially (and that includes culturally) as well as (pity help us) politically. Support for the major arts organizations is, from one perspective, simply industry support, not that different from that for the motor vehicle or textile clothing and footwear industries. All the right boxes are ticked. Employment; education; training; tourism; international profile. All of course with an eye for those who vote.
Digital arts? It seems we are rather good at some aspects. Certainly at the commercial end of the spectrum. It seems appropriate that industry funding go to support for new developments, education and training. What is the problem if most of the contemporary composition graduates from our conservatoria and universities finish up composing for computer games? They do what they love and make a quid. And help the economy along the way.
Is not the Australian film industry a great cultural force? Well, that is arguable, but it is a significant industry. Its high profile actors and directors may make much of their desire to maintain a tradition dating back to the nineteenth century as they hurry back to well paid work in the USA. But, when they sit down with State ministers to seek hand-outs, their arguments are about exchange rates, jobs, investment, maintaining skills.
Then there is music theatre. Australia is apparently a great place for a try out. Don’t forget, though, that the NSW taxpayer paid generously for Dr Zhivago. The money, it seems , came from the ”Major Events” budget. Well, OK. That’s industry support by another name. So was the $11 million spent on the Oprah Extravaganza. Not art you say? On what basis? Her performances and links with artistic icons such as the Sydney Opera House suggest otherwise.
Around the world there is a loud wailing about the lot of orchestras. How can they survive. But at the same time taxpayer money and in some cases significant sponsor or philanthropic money is being spent on performance space infrastructure. A new concert hall has just been opened in Florida. A couple of years ago Melbourne completed its new Recital Centre. And the Hamer Hall is undergoing a refurb. (Hope they fix that on-stage draft. It could blow the music off the stand. Honest.) The Mouse House in Los Angeles is also pretty new. These projects also tick the industry support boxes. And don’t worry. There will be orchestras around to play them. But you may have to put up with Roger Rabbit, Sting or Minchin alongside your favourite symphony.
So where does this leave Kathy Keele, Australia Council for the Arts Chief? In an Artery editorial headed “Evolving. Constantly Evolving” she says: “Our job is to help provide the opportunities for Australian artists to explore and to shine.”. If only it were that simple. Her job is to provide industry support and advocacy in a particular segment of the arts spectrum: part educational, part developmental. We should not expect too much of the Australia Council. They play their industry support role well in their narrowly defined areas. But they are one of many industry support arms of government, State and Federal. They are really a bit player in the broader arena of cultural industry support.