The uses of art: constructing Australian identities

By Lisanne Gibson, University of Queensland Press, July 2001

Reviewed by Tim Rowse

© all rights reserved

A history of cultural policy in Australia, The Uses of Art is mostly about the rhetoric of policy advocacy – statements of intention and purpose. Gibson calls this tradition of speaking and writing about what governments could and should do ‘the discursive organization of the relations between art, government and the people’ (p.107). This phrase repays close attention. Gibson is not concerned with what artists and art consumers actually do. ‘Discursive organization of the relations…’ does not include ‘practical organization of the relations…’. Whether what is envisioned discursively comes about practically is not her topic. She asserts that ‘culture is about, and has been used to shape and govern, identity’ (p.4) and that the value of art can be understood as ‘its ability to equip publics with particular capacities’ (p.74).

However, the reader will not learn from her study whether Australian experiences of ‘identity’ or Australian publics’ ‘capacities’ have been affected by what governments have decided to do with this or that art gallery or cultural program. This is a book about intentions, not outcomes, though sometimes Gibson muddies this distinction by referring to the ‘logics’ of cultural programs. ‘Rationales’ – another term that she is fond of – is perhaps less misleading because it points us back to the discursive, rather than the practical, relations between governments, the arts and the people.

Gibson shares the conviction that unifies all the figures in her book – that ‘culture’ and ‘art’ are instrumental to the aims of government. Only late in the book does she make the useful theoretical point that government policy is effective in constructing ‘possibilities’ (p.106) that may or may not be taken up (by artists and consumers) in the ways intended by policy advocates and by governments. She is wrong to summarise her narrative as having shown ‘the variety of uses to which art has been put in programs funded by the federal government’ (p.119). She has shown only the social uses envisaged by policy intellectuals – useful history nonetheless.

She starts with mid nineteenth century advocates of Mechanics Institutes and Schools of Arts. For them, ‘the development of cultural institutions with a “popular” remit was specifically connected to the transformation of the colonies from convict to settler societies and then to the provision of civilising influences in the face of “gold fever”‘ (p.12). The Mechanics Institutes did not attract their target population, she notes, but as ‘community halls’ they provided a ‘discursive space’ (p.22) for middle class people to assert the importance of their own cultural interests and to suggest that the colonial governments provide ‘local libraries and technical education’ (p.26). Gibson attributes this missing of the intended target to the Eurocentrism of the cultural providers. She implies that the ‘mechanic’ classes’ cultural interests lay in a different direction, but she does not speculate about their substance.

Gibson’s account of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century focuses on art galleries. Those who wished to build and fill art galleries in Melbourne and Sydney argued that an appreciation of fine arts enhanced the civility of the populace. By the end of the nineteenth century they were collecting and displaying works by Australian artists. In the first decades of the twentieth century, she identifies ‘the development of an Australian art industry and infrastructure which has currency with a broad public’ (p.45). The Great War stimulated official patronage of painters, whose subjects were popularly patriotic. She quotes artists and others extolling the need to nurture a national tradition of painting. Department stores retailed such paintings.

The next period to attract Gibson’s attention is the 1940s. No particular art forms exemplify what she has to say about ‘war and reconstruction’. The advocates of government support were particularly likely, at this time, to suggest that art ‘could be mobilised in training for participatory citizenship and for (responsible) leisure and consumption’ (p.49). Institutions promoting this view included the two art galleries already mentioned and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). Strangely, she thinks that ‘the immediate postwar period was characterised by a broad-based consensus about the direction the reconstruction effort should take’ (p.50). This was hardly the case. The votes on Labor’s constitutional referenda in these years were split close to 50/50, and Chifley’s nationalisation of the banks was intensely controversial. Gibson cites intellectuals who were more embattled in their vision of state powers than buoyed by ‘consensus’. When they spoke of ‘responsible’ consumption and leisure, they sought a consensus theme – for who could find fault with a new social order imagined with such fine words? She has interesting material on the Army’s education of soldiers in an appreciation of the arts and on CEMA’s aspiration to make certain experiences of the arts more widely available through regional tours of theatre, music and visual arts.

Happy in work, useful in leisure – these were the Labor decade’s characteristic arts advocacy themes, according to Gibson. Yet, the Chifley government was not moved to take up the advocates’ policy suggestions. Would a different projection of art’s governmental utility have done the trick? one wonders. Lloyd Ross thought that Chifley might secure the middle class vote if the Commonwealth funded ‘culture’, but even that rationale failed to persuade. It is strange then that Gibson refers to this period of failed advocacy as ‘the Australian governmentalisation of art after World War II’ (p.72).

The State-funded Sydney and Melbourne galleries, as she shows, were much more interested in enhancing citizenship through exposure to the arts in the 1940s. Why them and not the Commonwealth? Gibson does not ask this question. Each of these two cities included cultural elites that had been cultivating a sense of their educative responsibility since the late nineteenth century. When Coombs established the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954, he built on that tradition of bourgeois leadership and extended it by fostering the evolution of the performing arts to semi-professional and later professional status. He persistently lobbied the Menzies government for financial support, so successfully that, by 1964, the Trust was being called to account as a ‘public’ arts patronage body. Unfortunately, Gibson has almost nothing to say about the Trust. Again, I find this strange, as she professes to value and to be interested in public-private ‘partnerships’ as an institutional platform for cultural development. The Trust is the outstanding instance of such partnerships in Australian cultural policy history.

Having skipped the Trust, Gibson lands in that rhetorically rich period 1967-76. Due largely to the stimulus of the Industries’ Assistance Commission’s 1976 critique of performing arts subsidies, advocates of patronage began to portray the arts as an ‘industry’ whose contribution to the ‘economy’ was measurable. A competing ‘humanistic’ discourse persisted, with a new emphasis on the arts’ contribution to a plural society. While she concedes that the ‘culture industry’ theme has brought welcome attention to issues of taxation, intellectual property and working conditions, Gibson argues that the rhetorical prominence of economic value has had the effect of ‘downgrading…social and cultural arguments for support’ (p.83). Arts support should envision ‘social justice’ and ‘cultural development’ outcomes, not only economic benefits, she insists.

The economic and the humanistic arguments may converge on the same program emphasis – the ‘audience development’ strategies of the 1990s. But even here there are distinctions to be made. Gibson points to sociological evidence that the public’s educational profile maps the limits of audiences for certain cultural forms. To extend those limits requires providers somehow to ‘develop’ the new audience’s capacities for consumption, not just ‘saturate’ the pre-given audience. Quoting Gillian Swanson’s point that ‘the social value of culture’ includes its ‘developing sustainable communities’, Gibson argues that this developmental effort must include not only the remedying of what audiences lack but also (and much more important, for Gibson) reconsidering what can and can’t receive public funding. This is more a matter for government policy than a responsibility to be placed on each cultural provider organization.

One forceful reassertion of the social and cultural rationales of the arts was Donald Horne’s presentation of ‘cultural rights’ in the 1980s. The key concept here, says Gibson, is ‘self-esteem’. ‘Once art was connected to “self-esteem”, access to and participation in art could be claimed as a right of self-defining communities and identities’ (p.104). However, Horne’s vision of government activity, complains Gibson, did not project the possibility of partnerships with private sector commercial providers of entertainment.

Why should it have done? you might ask. Gibson’s answer is that if cultural policy is to be equitable, it should benefit youth more. Youth participates in many commercially provided cultural activities that could be enriched by some kinds of public support. She eschews the ‘civilising’ rationale for such enrichment, preferring to insist on the duty of governments to recognise and nurture a diversity of ‘communities’. As well, she refers to the usefulness of cultural policy in addressing ‘problems as diverse as the effects of industrial restructuring on inner-city areas, the consequences of increased global migration for local and national communities, and … the negative effects of unemployment’ (p.122). In practice, what has to happen is that ‘the traditional arts funding structure … build sustainable and productive partnerships with commercial cultural organisations’ (p.126). Such arrangements, she is at pains to add, must not be so focused on the consumers that they neglect to secure the working conditions of the ‘arts workforce’.

Although Gibson’s historical interpretations are sometimes questionable and although her book needed a tighter edit to eliminate a few silly and obvious errors, The Uses of Art is valuable as a guide to the Australian cultural policy literature. Gibson’s intentions go beyond simply recording the themes of advocacy. She has her own view of the contemporary ‘uses of art’, and as her book shifts from history to advocacy it becomes a thoughtful instance of the tradition she has set out to examine.
Tim Rowse was one of the earliest students of Australian cultural policy, with Arguing the Arts (Penguin 1985). Since then he has worked mainly on Indigenous history and policy. His latest book is Obliged to be difficult: Nugget Coombs’ legacy in Indigenous Affairs (Cambridge University Press 2000). He is in the History Program, Research School of Social Sciences, ANU. This review was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

The uses of art: constructing Australian identities by Lisanne Gibson was published by the University of Queensland Press in 2001.

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