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The design dilemma

By Donald Richardson - posted Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Federal Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, is to be congratulated for launching a discussion on the future of culture and the arts in the nation. But his Department will have a big collective headache navigating through the submissions it receives because there is a woeful deficiency in the national understanding of the field. This is especially so with regard to the visual arts sector.

The responsible Department officers will have to rationalise the current point-avoiding and popular neologisms - some of which are already included in the discussion paper - lest the discussion bog down in arguing at cross-purposes. They will need to cut through this and agree upon - and use - only terminology that is rational and clearly defined.

The first of these terms is the concept of culture itself. The quest is for a 'cultural policy', but there is a challengeable intimation in the proposal for, as the discussion paper is worded, it strongly implies that culture equals the arts. But, surely, culture is a broader concept than this. The Macquarie Dictionary ('Australia's National Dictionary') defines culture as 'the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings which is transmitted from one generation to another.' Of course, the arts are part of culture, but culture must also include religion, sport, philosophy, business, science, cuisine and probably other things as well.


So – is the government looking for a culture policy or an arts policy? By discussing the arts as synonymous with culture it can expect reasonable dissention from, at least, the churches and the sporting and business communities. My guess is that what it wants is an arts policy, but that it is afraid to name it lest the philistines descend on it. Will naming it The National Arts Policy give it the kiss of death? Surely our (wider) culture is mature enough in this century to be frank about it?

Perhaps the discussion paper is mindful of the common use of 'culture' in the Aboriginal context – where it truly does mean the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and expressed through visual means - but this should not limit the policy, which should have relevance to the entire cultural world.

Part of the reluctance to be frank about this issue may be the vexed matter of money. Of course, everything - even the church – needs financing. But it is imperative that we recognise that terms like 'creative industries', 'cultural industries' (both used frequently in the discussion paper) and 'arts industry' contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. This is because true artists operate in no way like industrialists, or people in business, do. This was pointed out long ago by the late, much respected, Chairperson of the Australia Council, Donald Horne - but no one listened. However, he was absolutely correct, and it is high time we took heed. It is a simple matter of fact that industrialists only produce things for which they have already established that there is a sure market. But no one can know in advance what a true artist is going to produce and – hence – whether it will be marketable at a reasonable price or not. Thus, there is – can be – no such thing as an 'arts industry' or a 'culture industry.' The terms are as ridiculous as 'religion industry' or 'family industry' would be.

Labelling a function 'industry' will not of itself make it respectable in the eyes of its critics. Only rational discussion will do this. Everything does not have to conform to a business model. The recent suicide of US capitalism shows how hazardous such an assumption is.

And, when the discussion paper speaks of the creative industries and cultural industries, what does it mean by these terms? It must intend a deep meaning - as deep as arts, because the two are coupled as equals. But there is no published and agreed definition of them (neither of them is in The Macquarie Dictionary). There is an assumption in some visual art academic circles that the use of creative minds to develop computer games and other forms of digital entertainment is a great way for artists to get paid employment. And this is known as 'creative industry.' But it is, in reality, only a small aspect of our culture – however relevant and indispensable it may appear to some of our youth for the moment. If the usage of these terms were limited to the producers and publishers of the products of creative minds for sale in forms like movies, games and other entertainment, or advertising (all of which may truly be termed 'creative industries') it would have a legitimate meaning. But it should never be used as a synonym for the arts per se or an undefined, amorphous extension of them. The policy must be clear on this.

However, there is an arts market. This is the world of commercial galleries, box offices, literary and theatre agents, movie producers, and publishers - the people and institutions that sell the products of artists once they have been seen to be marketable (for a commission, or cut, of course). So the national policy must face the fact that the practice of the arts is a vocation, not a business, and that it is the arts market that sells the products of the arts. In spite of the popular view to the contrary, true artists operate more like priests and philosophers than business people. They are motivated by higher principles than monetary gain – though, of course, they are glad when their works yield enough remuneration for them to live on comfortably. But this only happens in the rarest of cases. In fact, most writers, musicians and artists (even the James Joyces, Vincent van Goghs and Ludwig van Beethovens) live their entire lives in penury. Matthew Westwood, in his articles in The Australian of 12/8/11 and 4/10/11, asserted the 'intrinsic value' of the arts. A very important matter.


So, the policy must distinguish the creatives from the industry – the artists from the arts market – and deal with each separately and according to its valid needs. But about this, the discussion paper is silent.

The discussion paper list the arts as: music, performing arts, literature and visual arts. No argument here. There is unlikely to be disagreement on what constitutes music and literature, at least. And, if it can be agreed that 'performing arts' includes the performance aspects of literature (i.e., drama) and music (concerts and opera) as well as ballet and all of these recorded on film and other audiovisual media, there will be no problem. But in the visual sector is a conceptual mess. The major problem is the position of design. The discussion will need to address – and rationalise - the complex relationship between art and design: the commonalities and the differences. But the government is undertaking a separate – different - investigation into a proposed National Design Policy through the Australia Council. However, the Council's record regarding design is an unfortunate one, to say the least: there have been at least three attempts in its history to include design, all of which have failed. This has largely been due to the fact that architecture is properly part of the field of design, and certain huge egos, combined with poor direction and theory, have caused the projects to be abandoned.

While a case can be made for art and design to be conceived as separate concepts, the policy will have to recognise that design is as important in the visual sector as 'fine art' is. There are many periodicals devoted to the various aspects of design. And most tertiary teaching faculties in the field nowadays call themselves 'art and design'. And these institutions have at least as many design students as art students. They study things like fashion, ceramics/pottery, industrial design, jewellery/metalwork, advertising and graphics. All of these are vital aspects of both our culture and our economy, so the policy must somehow rationalise their place in the scheme of things.

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About the Author

Donald Richardson is a practicing artist, art educator and art historian-theorist. He was formerly the Superintendent of Studies (Visual Art) in the Education Department of South Australia.

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