The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the precarity of the arts in Australia. The government’s decision to not include arts workers in its JobKeeper package has put thousands of artists, musicians, actors, crew, writers, and technicians out of work. The lack of patronage has seen iconic venues like Carriageworks go under. It would be easy to blame this on the pandemic, but the truth is that Covid-19 has merely exposed the rot in the Australian arts sector caused by the Liberals’ mismanagement. From the disaster of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts under George Brandis to the abolition of the Department of the Arts by the Morrison government, the Liberals have proven themselves to be at best ambivalent and at worst contemptuous of the arts.
Eventually, the Covid-19 pandemic will end, but the Liberals' assault on the arts will not. It's important that the left's commitment to supporting the arts doesn't either. There are a multitude of reasons to support the arts. Of course, there is the economic benefit; the $4.2 billion that it contributes to our economy and the more than 100,000 jobs it provides. But limiting the worth of the arts to a dollar value does it a disservice. The many practises of the arts - theatre, dance, music, film, visual art - are all fundamentally variations of storytelling, and stories matter. They add colour to our world and allow us to make better sense of our place within it. Ordinarily Australians overwhelmingly recognise this value: the Australia Council found 85% of Australians believe the arts make life richer and more meaningful.
They let us freely make sense of the complexities of our nation and our world. Powerful art has confronted us with the injustices that make up Australia's past and present, from the dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, to the cruelty of Australia's treatment of refugees. The arts give us the potential to be an open and confident society, capable of addressing our failures and celebrating our triumphs. The commodification of the arts limits this value, restricting their availability to a privileged few, and the drought of funding for the arts under the Liberals only compounds this.
It is vital that the arts, so central to our national identity and wellbeing, are equally central to the left's vision for society. Our current neoliberal system is facing crisis after crisis, from coronavirus to climate change. It is becoming evident that a new way of life - one which values the public good over infinite growth - is not only possible, but necessary. Changing our way of life in this way will demand change at every level of society; in our workplaces, in our schools, in our homes, and in the arts. Our vision for the arts should be as ambitious as our vision for the rest of society: democratic and accessible to all regardless of background or income; made for the public good not private profit; and holding stark truth to our faults as a nation, challenging us to do better.
Felix Faber is a Young Labor Left member and recovering Theatre Kid.