Cultural wars

I have transcribed snippets of a discussion on the ABC’s Music Show before the last election. What interests me is the current agitation of controversy over what might be called the institutional-individual divide in terms of claims to state support in the arts.

Prominent advocates or agitators who see themselves as championing artists outside the luxuriously funded arts institutions [at the head of the list being opera, and then symphony orchestras] are Marcus Westbury (whose talk on this topic due for 11 am (on the first morning of daylight saving) at the Opera House last Sunday, apparently struggled to attract paying supporters: I have to admit that even were I willing to pay to go, I would have struggled with the hour) and Ben Eltham.

In this discussion, convened by Andrew Ford, Eltham is joined by Richard Gill (who I always think of as having much good to say even if he can in public forums be a bit shameless to talk up activities in which he himself is involved – last time witnessed being Norman Lebrecht’s lecture in Sydney) and Michael Lynch.

The snippets start at about 16.55, after a long meander by Michael Lynch which includes a hedonistic justification of the value of art and manages to lassoo into the discussion the boat people state of the pre-election debate at that time. I think it all started with Marcus Westbury identifying the divide between institutional recipients of funding and others as one between heritage and non-heritage arts, and talking up the context of technology as a delineator of the distinction. I’ve not completely transcriped, but tried to confine more indirect transcription to those portions encased in square brackets.

Isn’t technology just a medium? [Isn’t the importance of art all about] patterns and textures, stories and songs. Whether you’re doing it in an opera company or on a computer in your bedroom it’s all the same thing.


That might be true, Andrew, but we employ large companiess of professional musicians in opera companies and there’s almost no policy, support or funding or really no interest for art at the computer side of it you just mentioned.

Andrew Ford: But do you need policy funding somebody doing something on the computer in their bedroom?
Ben Eltham: Well, why not?

I’m not sure if that answer is sufficient but I do think it is revealing. I hope to return to that point in a later post. Back to the snippets:

Gill: [at about 20.20 ]
It isn’t difficult to do new work if you really want to put your mind to it. [Proceeds to spruik his new work between Chamber Maid and Victorian Opera – this goes from 20.30-55] . Why aren’t other companies [ie, unlike Victorian Opera] doing that as well as the conventional repertoire? We don’t want division because [then] the government sees us as artists fighting amongst ourselves.


Ben: We are not all in this together. Cultural institutions suck up 95% of the funding and they dominate the cultural debate. [OK, Richard, I mean in general, not necessarily your particular institution [Marcellous: ie, present company excluded or at least not necessarily included, notice also cunning double meaning of “suck up”] Individual artists are outside the system, on low incomes and they struggle to create new work and very little interest is shown in this and I’d like to see more].


The balance used to be quite different….

In Australia there’s been no building of philanthrophic or commercial base…Where are the Australian billionaires?
Ford: Govt could take a lead and it wouldn’t even cost them there.

[Next week: talking to freelance musicians] [Finishing at pretty well spot on 24.’]

11 Responses to “Cultural wars”

  1. culturalpolicyreform Says:


    Happy to have a dialogue about what I meant in this context – I didn’t get a chance to elaborate during the discussion as Andrew moved on.

    In general terms, the cultural policy balance is weighted very heavily towards cultural institutions, particularly art galleries, operas, mainstage theatre companies, and orchestras.

    I think you’re trying to have a go at me for some kind of sinister subtext with the “suck up” remark, but actually I was being pretty straight-forward: cultural institutions grab most of the funding, artists working outside of an institutional context receive very little support.

    If we want to talk about why artists working in digital media, including in their bedrooms, I think support for these kind of artforms is every bit as justified as support for orchestras.

    Ben Eltham

  2. marcellous Says:

    Actually, I got the impression that Mr Gill thought you were having a go at him with the “suck up” comment, and my God didn’t he suck up to the relevant Victorian minister in the course of that discussion.

    I do accept that you were talking about sucking up funds rather than sucking up to funders.

    I’ll get back to you about the broader point when time allows. But as a starting point I don’t think “why not?” is an answer to “why?”

  3. culturalpolicyreform Says:

    Point taken, it wasn’t the most felicitous answer and I would have loved to have had a better go.

    If I could elaborate in a little more detail, what I was getting at was that the justifications for funding one form of culture can be used to justify funding other forms. If we fund opera, then why shouldn’t we fund new media arts? In fact we do fund both, but at very different levels – and what explains those different levels? History, essentially. The status quo of arts funding in this country dates back to policies put in place in the 1960s and 70s and has not changed in any great regard since then.

    What has changed is … everything else. The internet has been invented. Personal computers have become ubiquitous. Australia has transformed demographically. Culture itself has changed radically. But our federal arts policy settings are almost the same.

    The result is that certain types of culture enjoy considerable public support, while others languish. There is no stated, public justification for this, and within the arts sector, the justifications generally devolve down to arguments that one type of art is simply better and more worthy of support than others. You don’t have to be a radical postmodernist to spot the flaws in arguments about the “excellence” of Australia’s orchestras – audiences and critics are a discerning bunch and are often heard to complain about the declining standards of western arts music here.

    Ultimatelyl, I think the time when we consider that orchestras and operas are worthy of 98% of Commonwealth arts funding is coming to an end.

    • marcellous Says:

      I agree with your paras 2 and 3, though I don’t think it is just a question of History, or at least that is a pretty loose term. I hope to have something to say about para 4, and 5 may be true but as to whether this is a good thing or what should happen in the future that depends on what I hope to find time to say about para 4.

  4. Marcus Westbury Says:

    Hi Marcellous,

    The full text of my festival of dangerous ideas talk is up on my blog and i’d welcome your response to it. It can be found here:

    As for the relatively low attendance for my talk – as you will see i actually joke about it in the talk. As far as i could tell by the comments the entire audience worked operas, orchestras and the Australia Council. Although there were literallyl thousands of people up in Newcastle for This Is Not Art on the same weekend who may well have been the target demographic for the argument.

  5. marcellous Says:

    Marcus, I have already read your speech and if I may say I thought you were quite the pussycat compared to some of your more polemical approaches (I still think your attack on “cover bands” was fundamentally wrong).

    The fact that it was all the people who expected to have to defend themselves from the attacks they anticipated you would make on them who were present is interesting. I myself was tempted to go to your talk, specifically to argue against you as necessary. Then I thought: what kind of a moral extortion game is that? I’m damned if I am going to pay him for the privilege of disagreeing with him and the possible chance of asking some question (and I always cringe at the questions people actually get to make at the few such occasions I have attended). I wonder if the opera-Orchestras-Australia Council gang actually paid for their tickets? In some way at least their organisations were still paying for their time – of that you can be sure, and surely pleased that a bit of their state subsidy is at least indirectly going to such a worthy cause.

    But I digress.

    I am planning to read your piece more carefully for at least a second time before I venture a more considered comment than I could offer just yet. For me that probably has to wait until the weekend.

    On a cup of tea’s worth of just-home reflection (that’s a metaphor, no actual cup of tea was made at so late an hour) I wonder if my digression is not in a way exactly to the point about the low attendance, which I know you had the grace to acknowledge and joke about in your talk (actually, I first saw reference to it in a tweet from FromTheArseEnd). It’s really the flip side of your own comment above about FODI and Newcastle.

    As you say, the target demographic for the argument was at Newcastle. My guess is that it would never in a thousand years have paid money to hear a talk on a Sunday morning in the bowels of the Opera House. There will have been others like me who were interested in the argument, but saw no need to pay to hear your side of it.

    As a keen-follower of both classical music and opera, I obviously have an interest in the more technical sense. I can’t remember, for example, how much I spend on going to the opera each year, but I work on the rule of thumb that the government is contributing a bit more than the same amount again to my share of the cost of the whole enterprise. I try to urge this approach on friends who go to musicals or even plays: go to the opera! you get much more of the government’s money that way! So I benefit from the current policy by in effect a matching or a bit better of the money I put in.

    But it took an institutional interest to get your audience out of bed and in said bowels on a rainy first morning of daylight saving.

    I think there are historical reasons why, in particular, orchestral, ballet and opera performance are now especially dependent on an institutional basis. The Australian institutions are all really postwar establishments, so relatively recent and already economically obsolescent when they were established in their present forms. The obsolescence is the allegiance to art forms which reached their present forms somewhere in the 20 years or so prior to World War I, when the wage relativity between musicians and their audience was quite different. The dependence on an institutional basis has got a lot to do with the practicalities of getting a large number of quite highly and specially skilled people together (in the case of any ensemble, regularly) in real time. In fact, you really can’t do that, in Australia at least (or probably anywhere except London, New York, Los Angeles and some European capitals) without employing them. That’s when you get the institution.

    I will try to take this point further after I have reread your piece properly.

  6. Ben Eltham Says:

    Marcellous, I wold say neither Marcus nor I have an a priori issue with institutional culture … it’s more the distortions in cultural policy that an overwhelmingly institutional culture produces.

    It might be true that orchestral music requires a paid company of professional musicians managed along 19th century lines, but I’m somewhat skeptical … you might just as well say that motion picture production requires the same aggregation of talented people in the one place at the one time, and yet movie studios are organised in very different ways – largely as a collection of freelancers, contractors and seasonal self-employed professionals. In fact, contemporary music works like this too. Orchestras and operas are the exception in the cultural industries, not the rule.

    • marcellous Says:

      Mr Eltham,

      Motion picture production requires an aggregation of talented people at the same place and the same time for the production of the movie, which then becomes a mass-distributable commodity. In other words, the ratio of “artists” to audience is highly leveraged – a very few artists reach a very large audience, in comparison, at least to live performance.

      Just to consider movie music, in LA, there is a talented pool of freelancers (who get together, for example, as musicians, as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) but they don’t then have to be there in the cinema when you get to see the film. If it’s a question of orchestral soundtrack, the movie-makers can also piggy-back on the opportunity-cost economies offered by existing (and generally subsidised) ensembles – the “cheap” orchestras who lay down tracks for Naxos. They do that all in a studio at an economically convenient time months or even years after any actors strutted their stuff.

      Movies themselves are typically these days one-off economic ventures (ie, I think your identification of “movie studios” as the relevant venture is out of date though the actual facilities of sound stage etc still need to be available on an ongoing basis – that’s why the state keeps pumping subsidies and incentives into maintaining them) and in that sense ephemeral, but at the point of distribution and exhibition, they plug into more perennial structures.

      But back to orchestras.

      As for being organized on nineteenth-century lines, apart from celebrated ensembles such as the Meiningen Court Orchestra, few nineteenth century orchestras were salaried or even permanent ensembles. That was possible in part because of different wage relativities between musicians and the top end of their audiences, but also because of a tolerance of more patchy performance standards which, ironically, the example and availability of recordings from the metropolitan musical centres has done much to erode. In the Anglophone world, the salaried orchestra as a unit of economic organisation is pretty much a creature of the post-war welfare or semi-welfare state. As late as the mid 1960s, many US orchestras were only casually engaged and their members only employed for relatively short seasons. In the US, it was a combination of Ford Foundation funding and musicians’ unionizing (something which can only be done when there is an “institution” which can be put under pressure) which led to a shift. In Australia, symphonic orchestras coalesced into existence on the back of state broadcasting at just the point when their original rationale as studio orchestras for radio broadcasts was becoming redundant.

      I agree that orchestras and opera companies are exceptional and have received exceptional treatment. I’ll have to leave the concept of “cultural industries” to a further round of contemplation and comment.

  7. culturalpolicyreform Says:

    Hi Marcellous

    Fair point … perhaps you misunderstood me a little … I wasn’t aarguing that paid companies of musicians is by definition an economic structure that dates from the 19th century (although there is some excellent research by US sociologist Paul Dimaggio that tracks the rise of US orchestras as non-profit organisations employing musicians from the mid- and late-19th century, beginning in Boston). We can quibble on exactly when the practice became widespread but I think we can agree that the current structure of orchestral employmment is unusual in the rest of the cultural industries

  8. marcellous Says:


    Yes we agree that the current structure of orchestral employment is unusual in the rest of the “cultural industries”[your term]- the main aspect of that unusualness is that there is employment, that it is permanent, and that it is underwritten by substantial state subsidy.

    What I took you to be skeptical about was whether:

    “orchestral music requires a paid company of professional musicians managed along 19th century lines.”

    I took this to be a pick up of my point about the economic obsolescence (which really means: requirement of a subsidy as a condition of existence) of present-day Australian orchestras at birth. I said:

    “The obsolescence is the allegiance to art forms which reached their present forms somewhere in the 20 years or so prior to World War I, when the wage relativity between musicians and their audience was quite different.”

    I was really talking about wage and labour relations here. Dimaggio’s stuff about Boston in the late nineteenth century, which he says is a time and place where the processes of institutionalization of high culture appeared in particularly clear relief (see his article, at page 375 and note 1) is more about the institutional organisation of orchestras at the top and has less directly to say about the conditions under which musicians were employed.

    We needn’t quibble at this stage about when the current structure “became widespread” (though it isn’t quite the same in Australia as in the USA, and there was considerable variation between regions and especially between large and small centres even there), but the practical reasons why it did may be relevant when we consider the purpose and even justification of current state policies in relation to arts subsidy. One possible purpose is simply to preserve some cultural institutions and the art forms which they enable.

    The thing is, I don’t actually find the characterisation of symphonic orchestral music as a “heritage art” entirely derogatory. That’s partly because I think heritage has an ongoing value – a concept pretty well inherent in the idea, really.

  9. Pinchgut – L’anima del filosofo: Orpheus & Eurydice « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] the recent scrapping over government arts funding, Richard Mills was derided in the Westbury/Eltham camp as a reactionary […]

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