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Robyn Archer

Platform Paper 4

Politics and the Performing Arts in Australia Today

Robyn Archer

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In this intensely personal and political statement, Robyn Archer, Australia’s most celebrated festival director and cabaret singer-songwriter, accuses Australia and its political leaders of having sold the arts to marketing and ‘the myth of the mainstream’. She identifies a preference for pure entertainment over intellectual challenge, a ‘failure to follow things through’ and an adherence to uncomplicated, clear-cut solutions; ‘while in their own families this so-called mainstream is allowing for difference, tolerating compromise, allowing a son or daughter to talk them round on an issue of race or sex or music or exploitation. But in public the beast of the mainstream denies these quiet acts of deliberation and change—and that’s the danger, especially for the arts, where most of the changes they effect are not monumental, but quietly and seepingly subversive.’ ‘Australia is a world of ordinary people’, Archer writes, ‘happy to gossip on talkback radio, but not to ... develop our critical and analytical powers … Superficiality and public deception do not provide fertile ground in which art can take root and grow.’ She calls for balance, more rigorous performing arts, systematic reinterpretation of the classic repertoire and a greater understanding of the creative process. In short, for performance not dictated solely by populism but by healthy co-operation dedicated to interpreting the diversity of Australian life.


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About the Author

Robyn Archer, AO, is one of Australia’s best-loved cabaret artists, a playwright, songwriter and columnist.

Marketing the myth of the mainstream has been a con­venient way to back people into association through the lowest common denominator, and while they’re fenced in they can be branded—for us or agin us. The word ‘mainstream’ has taken on pernicious and equally mythical attributes such as ‘Australian’, so that being ‘outside the mainstream’ is seen as being ‘un-Australian’. 


Deborah Klika on the mainstream and the margins

The recent papers by Julian Meyrick (Trapped in the Past) and Robyn Archer (The Myth of the Mainstream) raise some issues about the need for greater debate about how the arts are funded in Australia and our expectations of Government funding agencies.

Meyrick gives an honest and personal view of the development of theatre practice over the last thirty years. In short he claims that the cultural storm troopers of the 1970s have become the cultural gatekeepers of the noughties. It felt like Mark Davis and Ganglands all over again. Meyrick's analysis explains how and why the change took place and the effect on the cultural landscape. And while Meyrick may be focussed on the losses, his in particular, his paper highlights the need for a broad spectrum of artistic practice and funding that encompasses both old school processes and New Wave values. Robyn Archer's paper extends the theme; that a broad spectrum of arts practice is essential for a thriving (artistic) culture. Further, that any narrowing of that practice will ultimately produce conservative, safe, work that slowly but increasingly becomes bereft of ideas and creativity. Which brings me to this response.

Robyn Archer is right to debunk the myth of the mainstream; there should be no mainstream, but the reality is that there is only a mainstream and nothing else. We have managed to cut off (or at least under-fund) the margins, and consequently the space in between where work gets developed, supported and our identity celebrated. This space 'in between' is where many artists work, whether it be a physical or psychological or sociological space. It is where the risky, innovative and new forms of artistic practice develop and, if funded, flourish. These are the margins, where ideas bubble up from small spaces, diverse cultures, personal experiences; stories, images; performances that tell us how our society is really travelling. It is where those cultural storm troopers came from thirty years ago. Margins exist, like the mythical but real, mainstream, and each is defined by the existence of the other. It is no longer just a binary opposition of old and new; we are experiencing a shift in how art is created and experienced. A shift some describe as moving from 'models' to 'systems'; maybe from 'form' to 'process'; maybe a combination of both. Whatever the shift, it is a challenge that we all need to debate.

Which brings me to the recent Australia Council for the Arts decision to abolish the Community Cultural Development and New Media Arts Boards and fold some of the work into other Boards. In light of the broad overview and themes being articulated by Meyrick and Archer this restructure by the Council raises some questions.

The Community Cultural Development (CCD) Board and the New Media Arts Board were the two areas of Council that explored, and had connections to, those margins, those new areas of arts practice and ideas. They were the research and development arms of cultural and artistic practice. They explored processes, systems and new collaborations. The work of those Boards reflected what is increasingly becoming common artistic practice, as Archer points out-hybrid arts that cross, even refuse to be bound by, traditional boundaries. Boundaries that Archer says should be abolished. Boundaries that the Council has long recognised make it difficult for much arts practice, namely youth arts and cross-art-form work to be funded. I applaud Council in attempting to correct that difficulty with the establishment of the Inter Arts office, but would argue that such a move will not address the issue and is done at the expense of other, important, work that connects us to our culture and to the future.

The CCD field has been around for over thirty years. It is based on a philosophy and practice that reflects the deep Australian reverence for democracy, community and giving a voice to the voiceless. As a practice and philosophy it produced significant advances in artistic practice and policies such as Art and Working life, Art and Wellbeing, access and equity to the arts and support for the less-seen parts of our society. It championed and supported multicultural arts, circus performance and youth arts. It laid some fundamental philosophical frameworks for cultural development, including social capital. And while as a practice and philosophy CCD needed to be revised and re-articulated, it is a unique and distinctly Australian practice that is recognised worldwide. By abolishing the CCD Board the Council has lost an important tool that enabled it to truly shape the cultural landscape. Folding that work into other Boards has not worked previously and dilutes the focus of CCD. It is to the credit of the CCD and New Media Arts sectors that they have managed to retain some of the programs and work in subsequent consultations.

In its defence the Council says it wants to be a strategic player in the arts, to be flexible, and to fund significant projects under the banner of Community Partnerships. Community Partnerships are an important aspect of community cultural development, often bringing large organisations and communities together. Or they can be road shows that come into town, leaving after they have done their bit. Funding them as 'lighthouse' projects means they need to be successful; to be successful they need to be risk-averse, even conservative-one of Archer's fears. But what is really surprising is where Council has now situated this work. In Marketing. The arts as commodity (and audiences as consumers). It is an easy trap believing that marketing artistic and cultural product is cultural development. It is not.

The Council has every right, in fact a duty, to revise its structure and to position itself to best serve the arts. I welcome change and applaud the Council for having the courage to try to make things better. But does this restructure reflect the cultural shift we seem to be going through? Shouldn't we be concerned that our major arts funding body has deleted the words 'new' and 'culture' from its list of Boards or divisions? What is the purpose of the restructure? To be flexible and strategic-to what end and for whom? Audiences, artists or as producers?

Of course, there is not enough money for the arts, and there is no single funding model that satisfies all parties or practices, but unless we start having debates about ideas, cultural identity, and creative practices and keep seeking the best ways that serve Australian artistic practice and the development of our culture we will end up just marketing old ideas.

Raymond Gill on myths, the mainstream and the press

Robyn Archer is such an enthusiastic advocate for the arts that one always expects a certain amount of hyperbole in her pronouncements. While her embellishments are goodnaturedly accepted, if not expected, when she's spruiking an arts festival, one would expect something more researched and thought-through in an essay importantly titled The Myth of the Mainstream: Politics and the Performing Arts in Australia Today. Instead, she offers up a random series of thoughts and impressions, then shoehorns them into an argument about how media, government, the major arts companies and compliant audiences have allowed the 'mainstream' to swallow culture in Australia, rather like an artistic 'Blob'. Oh, why can't Australia be less like the 1950s and more like Iceland, where Archer recalls its 'phenomenal economic success [...] and that an Icelandic parent's proudest experience is seeing their offspring become a poet' (no reference given)!

While she makes some valid points about the dumbing down of culture, a lament anyone over forty living in any Western country would share, Archer overlooks some fairly obvious changes in Australia-changes she has herself brought about in her role as director of many of our arts festivals. She fails to note the proliferation of arts festivals around the country in the past twenty years, festivals that have brought work here that I would consider to be, in the main, innovative and tough. Such work has exposed audiences, critics and artists to ideas and work that they would otherwise have to travel as extensively as Archer to see. At the same time, substantial funds have been made available to festivals to commission, from local artists, new work that is precisely not the sort of 'mainstream' work we are used to seeing our state and national companies present in their annual seasons. There are now scores of artists who make work solely for festivals, not only in this country but around the world; another factor that helps bridge the gap between Australia and the rest of the world.

The success of arts festivals has contributed to what I would consider a broadening of the mainstream, as opposed to Archer's view that the arts and culture here have contracted into a bland middle ground. How else could one explain the routine acceptance by audiences and coverage by the media of areas of the arts that would once have been considered marginal?

Queer-film festivals, underground-film festivals, fringe festivals, foreign-language cinema, artist-run galleries etc. These are covered by all the broadsheet newspapers in Australia, something I believe would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. But Archer has not even noticed that the space made available for the arts-at least in the case of the Age-has almost tripled over that period.

Archer has a genuine complaint when she levels criticism at some of the arts criticism published here. But, in my view, it applies to only a minority of critics, and her complaints are little different from those we hear from critics in the United States, or, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, where the impact of a critic is less because of their sheer number. But to compare what newspaper critics must do-communicate to the broadest audience in succinct and cogent language-to the criticism that appears in the local industry publication RealTime, written by and for arts practitioners, reveals how ignorant she is of the 'mainstream' media. Archer would have us believe that print arts coverage is only about arts page reviews rather than features, news stories and photographs. It might not occur to her that a page-three photograph of an artist or arts event will have far more impact on creating a culture that embraces the arts than will a thousand words of criticism.

Robyn Archer's Coda, 6 May 2005

My research into daily newspapers is extensive-pretty much every day, and sometimes, in the course of a month, in five states in Australia and three or four countries overseas. I am on planes a lot. This last month it was Tasmania, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. The dominant page-three article on the arts in this period was about the Archibald Prize, a well-known and much loved portrait-painting competition. The longest piece I saw by Ray Gill- a full-page in the Age-was about the production/ commercial aspects of The Lion King, which is coming to Melbourne. The most interesting were in the Australian Financial Review. I know exactly the demographic that a daily needs to reach, and exactly why Virginia Baxter and Keith Gallasch [of RealTime] made the hard personal and financial decision to create and sustain something which had the capacity to respond to art-particularly to new and adventurous art-giving it the attention that this kind of work demands.

There are many people in Australia who have stopped reading dailies because they target a potential audience for whom space, content and language are dictated by the notion of a mainstream. I believe that the very dictates Ray has outlined in his response to my essay are those corresponding to a political climate that encourages middleof-the-road thinking and work that's on the edge and hard to deal with. I have vast experience of international festival publicists desperately trying, and frequently failing, to place stories about fantastic original local work, stories which don't stand a chance of being noticed if they are put next to a high-profile puff.

It is for exactly the same reason that many people also find the changes in the ABC disturbing. This week, having approached an ABC interview about the essay with equanimity, I was astonished to find myself in a commercial-radio-style heckle, in which I was introduced as 'grumpy' and within minutes described as 'whingeing'. Talk about being marginalised and patronised! With tiny sound bytes allowed and a nervy eye being kept on the clock, It seemed as though I was being asked why a successful entertainer- I was 'remembered' as a 'cabaret singer'-and effective artistic director whose own chutzpah could drum up audiences aplenty would find anything wrong in the world. There were moments akin to being at a drunken dinner party: 'Come on, give us an example! Where's your evidence?' A bit like Ray's demand for evidence and references.

There's evidence aplenty. Just go and talk to the legion of Australian artists who don't get offers from major arts organisations and who are scraping and working so hard to produce works of quality, that still manage to have immense appeal outside Australia. And go to Iceland and talk to people there, too-I did! You can use the internet to research their economy.

I titled my essay The Myth of the Mainstream. The important-sounding subtitle: 'politics and the performing arts in Australia today' was added by the editor, and too late for me to argue about the dangers of seeming selfimportance. And I would be inclined to take to heart accusations of being grumpy, ignorant, a whinger and poor researcher, were it not for the large gatherings I recently addressed in London, Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne, where the very kinds of things I said in the essay, and expressed in exactly the same tone, were greeted with prolonged applause and rewarded with further invitations.