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(Occasional postings of thoughts and opinion, by Bruce Dickson, on

Australian and American cultures ... and more.)

Saturday 29th November 2014

Is the ABC historically the vital intellectual heartbeat of Australia? Some thoughts on the astonishing and irreplaceable value to Australia and its people of that nation's ABC or Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the country's public broadcasting network) - currently under severe political and fiscal attack, yet again: Regardless of issues of budgets and debates over 'waste' of tax monies and the like, it is easy to overlook one totally impressive and vital fact about the historic civic & cultural role played by the ABC in relation to Australia and - more significantly - Australian's development as a nation and people. (A virtually priceless role and astonishing return on investment that totally defies any such puerile valuations based on costs and money alone!) ... And that is, the ABC's ongoing informational and cultural role as the populist (as opposed to elitist) 'intellectual' heart and heartbeat of the nation. A vital public discourse and public education role (played via the comprehensive content of particularly its widely accessible Radio National programming ... as well as the best of its television broadcasting) that in terms of its 'birth to death' impact on educating Australians (including all those consequently well-informed and remote rural, not just city people) makes the contribution of Australia's leading universities seem pale by comparison. This constant and comprehensive contribution to the intelligence, creative growth and cultural enlightment of so many 'ordinary' Australians - let alone to the health and progress of this country - is what is really being placed at risk every time a conservative liberal/national or labor government starts hacking away at is budget and weakening its capacities in such regards. Silencing the airing of diverse independent voices and retaliating against the exercise of free (and critical) speech may be one objective behind such unworthy political interference and acts (thereby strengthening the hand of the otherwise monopolistic, non- diverse and uncritical mainstream commercial media of Australia), but in reality these acts of malice are more than anything destructive actions against not the ABC, but Australia itself. And therefore if the word has any meaning, acts of 'treason' demonstrating a profound, disturbing and seemingly mindless lack of patriotism and devil may care willingness to hold Australia back by keeping it dumbed down. (It also pays to acknowledge that the ABC's broadcasting achievements are not only outstanding by Australian standards, but by world standards. And for once at least such a claim to be 'world class' - a terrible term - is completely on the mark!)

Tuesday 21st October 2014

Revisiting the myths surrounding ‘Doing a Whitlam’ - Gough Whitlam (R.I.P) Two final comments on the remarkable Whitlam-led Labor Government years in Australia. (Including using "Doing a Whitlam" as a means to kill initiative in subsequent governments.) (1) Revisiting his contribution to life ‘down under’ reminds me of just how symbolic Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam (1916-2014) is of a golden era of energy, optimism, caring and cultural breakthrough for this country. And after many stultifying and totally wasted years of rule under Bob Menzies and the conservatives (squandering so many opportunities and showing a total lack of vision and life). Whitlam in a way accurately represented the Sixties and Seventies excitement in new hopes and new thinking at the more conventional national level. (And also as always became the beacon for inevitable conservative reaction and distortion and negativity ... as opposed to optimism, hope and progress for the better.) (2) To his subsequent (Australian Labor) party's great discredit, a totally manufactured and false depiction of his record of achievement became the ongoing means and weapon used by conservative right wingers in the Labor Party to oppose any more significant attempts at social, political and cultural reforms in Australia. The simplest way to kill any policy proposals smacking of idealism or reform for the better within the Labor Party (tragically) was to simply say "We don't want to do a Whitlam". The self generated and misleading and destructive myth here (fostered by the unbelievably narrow minded and Canberra centric Press Gallery) being that supposedly Whitlam tried to do too much reform too quickly and this subsequently caused the Australian voter to reject him at the ballot box. Total lie. (One that apparently someone who normally knows better, like Mungo McCallum even buys into now.) As I very accurately recall, the opposite was true at the time and most Australians were absolutely thrilled and excited by the huge swath of needed and outstanding reforms that Whitlam introduced in his first year of office! Moving beyond political rhetoric and spin and taking real government action - while being active to genuinely improve the lot of the majority of Australians - actually worked to build citizen support not lose it (except amongst die hard conservatives and 'reaction'aries, again as always ... and by definition it would seem). The moral should have been do more ... not less. And do it as thoughtfully and idealistically as you can! Of course some of Whitlam's reforms did not pan out as well as hoped (the right to fail that all businesses claim on the way to greater insight and success) but the important thing was that the attempts were usually and visibly motivated by good intentions in relation to the welfare of voters ... something totally rare it would seem these days, where corrupted parties and governments rarely act in the interests of anyone but themselves and their big money sponsors. Where we have all gone since the Whitlam years in terms of government behavior and ways of (NOT) doing things - why have government in the first place? - exposes the real truth behind (and makes a mockery of) using such words as "Doing a Whitlam/Not doing a Whitlam" as a term of contempt. Whereas the real term of contempt that should dominate any progressive party's (is there such a thing any more?) thinking and actions should by stark contrast be "Doing an Abbot/Not doing an Abbott" ... or in the case of the US "Doing a Bush/Not doing a Bush" or "Not doing a Mitch McConnell"!  (READ MORE on Whitlam’s life.)

Sunday 29th November 2009

Priorities for a national cultural policy for Australia? For what it’s worth, reproduced are my comments in response to the consultation process and online forum initiated by the Australian Government over its development of a ‘national cultural policy’. The response has been made in relation to one of three questions asked by Australia’s Arts Minister, Peter Garrett (of former Midnight Oil fame). Note: Some of the cultural concepts mentioned like ‘tall poppies’ and ‘knockers’ may only make sense to other Australians. QUESTION: What do you think should be priorities for a national cultural policy? (1) Cultural policy? First, what is culture? ‘Culture/s’ flow from the energies and dynamics of activated, lively and self aware communities. The better the values fostered within a community, the better the culture/s. Culture can be both organically grown (bottom up) and artificially stimulated (‘top’ down) with combinations of the two of course also possible. Thus the genuine scope for a government role even though many may question this! Vibrant communities have usually benefited over time from a range of different catalysts to become this way. Anything from their responses to overcoming a crisis, or regional responses to climate and environment, to the vision and community leadership shown by particular enlightened and caring citizens over many generations. (Despite the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome and attempts to cut them down!) At their best, these communities will also have developed a deeper understanding concerning the true worth of their shared values. And they are constantly seeking to see these values manifested and expressed in even richer and more fulfilling ways. More often than not, this is done through the arts in all their diverse forms – including harmonious architecture, superior public place design & landscaping, respect for history & social traditions, stunning public art, greater access and exposure to music in their lives … all the way through to active engagement in local rituals, shared food experiences and colorful celebrations. And of course, this process can be facilitated greatly by thoughtful and truly collaborative partnerships with one another and all the relevant community resources – including those managed by government and private enterprise. Well conceived public funding support can not only help foster artistic activities of value, but also help enhance community support, participation and respect for their own culture, cultural life, and collective dreams. (2) Policy needs? The role of government should not be to determine what defines culture or what the focus of art or the artists should be, but rather to – with great common sense – help the communities define what forces help contribute to achieving exciting creative and artistic outcomes in all art forms and realms of life, for their own collective (and personal) enrichment. In terms of the outcomes sought, boredom should not be an option. Pandering to self centered artistic egos and artists or projects that have no sense of any meaningful connectivity of their art to other people should also – as far as feasible – be off the table. (Artists who are only interested in communicating to themselves and who blatantly don’t give a damn about anything to do with the wider community should not receive public support. However this should not exclude those making personal statements in ways which are also visibly reaching others, with their genuine blessing.) Instead, a capacity to excite and stimulate people should be a basic touchstone of success. Great, memorable art, no matter at what level it is practised, always possesses this quality. And achieving such outcomes invariably involves some level of skill and some level of evident power of the imagination, but also of ‘execution’ and ‘practical’ achievement and implementation. (Great ideas alone are not enough, if never brought to life.) Funding truly imaginative work and projects that ‘capture the imagination’ of a community and ‘take people’s breath away’ is the fundamental need and goal. Get that dynamic properly in place and everything else follows – creative standards rise, excitement increases, greater support and interest flows … and a willingness by individual Australians to more actively support the arts with their own wallets occurs. (That is, not ‘crass commercialism’, but instead loud, meaningful and active, monetary-based statements of appreciation!) It is important to also acknowledge that negativity and cynicism rarely excite people to effective sustainable actions and responses, whereas by contrast meaningful appeals to hope and positive advancement – if genuine results can be shown – have the power to move people to great personal and social ends. Therefore, achieving a better balance between supporting (a) arts and project activities that help celebrate and enhance life and (b) those that aim to focus on social evils and angst, should be deliberately fostered and incorporated into funding approaches. (A lesson most Australians clearly now wish would be applied to our ailing cinema industry.) (3) Sound funding principles, not fixed policies, needed The first key role for government arts agencies in generating such positive and beneficial cultural outcomes is to place the focus of their tax based funding support on funding the proven and most promising ‘innovators’ (for lack of a better word) in all art forms – but at their critical ‘developmental’ phase (when they have least means and capacity to fund themselves). Basically those innovators exhibiting great ideas, imagination, commitment and capacity to deliver … the genuine ‘imagineers’ amongst us all, if you wish. Help get such people through this early phase and the prospects for their work being more widely publicly admired and respected (and ultimately ‘commercially’ viable) increase dramatically … as does the health and creative power of Australia’s arts at large. Judicious and deliberate selectivity here is neither undesirable, nor necessarily exclusive of opportunity. Decades of cultural development experience In Australia have proved that those ‘artists’ with a capacity for truly imaginative ideas usually find these (when successfully manifested as completed works, no matter what the art form) also possess a special ability or power to excite and intrigue even those people frequently stereotyped as the most ‘conservative’ in a community. However, assistance to innovative, community oriented artists and imaginers should also be tied to several significant qualifying criteria. These would include strong evidence of self motivation, a commitment to results as well as ideas, and some pre-existing track record of personal achievement or evident level of competence and/or potential. Not to forget the final key element – a truly imaginative and inspiring proposal. The trick is to not unduly limit the artistic horizon, nor the creative vision and its proper execution … something that often does occur when governments spread the funds too thinly … or prematurely take fright at the predictable reactions of every community’s full time ‘knockers’ or naysayers (the true enemies of innovation). Better to do one project brilliantly than three or four poorly. (No one wins from the latter outcome, yet in the case of the former, success usually builds more success.) Such developmental phase assistance should in future constitute the ‘priority’ principle of government funding. Consideration should also in this context be given to broadening the developmental outcomes and benefits by the somewhat simple step of funding community apprenticeships and mentorships – to advance the skills of other promising and motivated artists whenever significant projects are approved. An ‘old fashioned’ and ‘traditional’ concept maybe, but one still used to great effect in highly creative communities such as those found in Bali. Australia should clearly learn from this experience and success. And incidentally, receiving a government arts grant should never be viewed as a right. (Sadly this is the way some in the community have wrongfully come to regard it.) What people are ‘willing to pay for’ does make a meaningful statement and should ultimately matter to a greater extent than it currently does in the arts. However it is equally important to acknowledge here that the ‘entry’ or ‘developmental’ phase of innovation is not usually one that readily gains such early ‘commercial’ support – thus the need for government, non-profit and private assistance to help play this critical support role, at this critical growth stage. Then, following this opportunity, we should certainly allow ‘market’ judgments and responses themselves to gradually assume the deciding and greater role. The second key role for government arts agencies should be as an enabler and facilitator at the arts marketing and selling phases – supporting every sensible professional means by which Australia can help to foster market growth and development for both our arts and our culture at large – particularly in relation to helping our best ‘imagineers’ and artists. This is the vital missing component – so often great work is created or done but never achieves its rightful ‘audience’ and market impact. And one reason for this is simple, many creatively minded and talented people either don’t have the expertise or capacity, time and focus to successfully undertake such marketing activities. Government can play an important role in conjunction with private enterprise to fill this gap and see the value of what is being created multiplied and spread more effectively, with benefits to all concerned. The third key role for government in terms of strengthening cultural policy is to address Australia’s single greatest failing – decades of disastrous design (or lack of it) in relation to urban and suburban (including coastal) ‘architecture’, public spaces/environments and housing. Not only do these lack harmony and appropriateness in relation to the beauty of their original natural surroundings and environments (Sydney being just one of the leading culprits here) but most of the newer suburbs and their developers and regulators have seriously failed their residents as well. Again, simply in terms of requiring and encouraging all those key place-making elements (including far more intense landscaping) and integrated services that facilitate the development of highly livable and healthy (mental as well as physical) community lifestyles and cultures. This is the level at which Australian culture really functions and develops – for better or for worse (outbreaks of violence being just one of the potential negative manifestations). And such lack of government attention – in the midst of diverting too much attention to greedy developers – may well ensure that it will lean towards ‘for worse’ … at least until the whole policy outlook changes here for the better.