Distinctively Aussie arts

Editorial by Dr. Richard Letts, Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 4 (August 2012)

The people who reviewed the Australia Council, Australia’s national arts funding body, proposed a new statement of its purpose. It got us thinking.

Here it is: ‘To support and promote vibrant and distinctively Australian creative arts practice that is recognised nationally and internationally as excellent in its field.’

The idea of ‘distinctively Australian’ art has stirred hearts and minds for decades. The charters for a number of national government organisations, including the Australia Council, have seen them as having an important role in building ‘Australian identity’. The Australia Council Act says it should ‘foster the expression of a national identity by means of the arts’. The regulations that require Australian film and radio stations to broadcast Australian content include the idea that Australians should be able to hear Australian stories.

So we have had TV series like Neighbours and A Country Practice which do serve to reassure us that we exist and are not located in Los Angeles or London. But though A Country Practice depicted a medical practice in the Australian countryside, did the way the stories were told build a distinctively Australian arts practice?

The fact is that if it were required of grant applicants to the Australia Council that they demonstrate a distinctively Australian arts practice, most would be ineligible. That will be discussed in a moment.

We do not, in sport, seek to foster games with the purpose that they are distinctively Australian. Excepting the AFL, we are enthusiastic about games that have an international set of rules and international competitions and we are very pleased to play on those terms. It is part of our national identity that we want to win in cricket, football, swimming…

In the arts too, there are international codes in which we participate with distinction. They include many forms of popular music, classical music, ballet, modern dance, theatre, the various literary forms... Our success in these international practices has built international profile and respect and economic benefit for Australia. Most of our art, including our new art, fits with international arts practices.

Australian stories on television or in theatre are told in ways that fit international practice, not a distinctively Australian practice. Australian narrative or visual content does not suffice to make a distinctive Australian practice. A practice is also about forms, styles, procedures.

Aboriginal visual art is certainly distinctive, Australian and a source of admiration and pride. We could agree that it constitutes a distinctive Australian practice in its forms, styles, procedures and, as it happens, content and recognition as Australian. It demonstrates the possibility but is not an art in which most of us can participate as creators.

Much of Peter Sculthorpe’s music is intentionally ‘Australian’ and is regarded as successful but, although he has influenced other composers, it’s fair to say that their works do not sound like Sculthorpe’s nor are thought to exhibit ‘Australianness’ to a significant degree. It is his music and practice.

A distinctively Australian arts practice would be a practice shared by a number of artists, recognised by a significant number of others as Australian.

If we developed a really distinctive Australian sound in rock music, it is possible that we would take over the rock world. But there is an even stronger possibility that to the extent that it is distinctive, it would be too unfamiliar to international rock audiences and it would not be successful outside Australia. Success in creating a distinctive Australian practice could be a limitation on its international viability. However, this is not intended as an argument against the objective.

Part of the dream of a distinctively Australian arts practice is that it would be totally ours, totally us, and that foreigners would love it. Strangers – discerning strangers – would love us for who we truly are. It is time to grow out of this adolescent dream. The point of a distinctively Australian arts practice, if it has one, is that it fits us and nourishes us. If we set out to impress foreigners, a lot of other factors come into play and we can be designing our distinctively Australian art to satisfy an international marketing plan. Those who see the arts as business may find nothing exceptional in that – a reason that we should resist the business takeover of the arts.

How could a distinctively Australian art practice emerge? We will not know it at first sight. If we encourage innovation, an innovative work may appear and something about it may be emulated by others, in such numbers and with such acceptance that it might be thought of as distinctively Australian and not just distinctive personal practice. (If circumstances lead to rapid adoption overseas, it might become international before it can become Australian. Modern communications at work.)

In any case, the old idea of a single national identity has gone. We now grapple with a more difficult concept: that our national identity is multiple and various but that somehow we can feel that it is shared. Distinctive Australian arts practice is likely to be multiple and various. How does an artist set out to create it?

The creation of a distinctively Australian arts practice is in a sense not a meaningful objective. All we can do is create a situation that encourages innovation – and not judge it only by criteria accepted internationally.

We can support in principle the aspiration to build a distinctively Australian arts practice but suggest that the Australia Council statement of purpose should embrace both the distinctively Australian practices and international practices. This would bring current reality into the statement of purpose for the Australia Council and add an equally appropriate aspiration.

- Richard Letts