It’s a lot tougher being an art critic in small-town Australia than
it ever was in New York or London.
In New York or London you're only competing with hundreds of other
extremely articulate well connected newcomers for column inches. In spite
of vigorous state and federally funded regional strategies to upgrade
contemporary culture's media coverage in the nation's provinces, In
Hobart, where I live, arts organisations are so unused to informative
critical feedback they tend to regard those of us supplying it regularly
for regional newspapers with little more than intellectual hostility.
Although the front covers of daily provincial newspapers often feature
pictures of dog shows and school outings, this shouldn’t confuse arts
professionals. Regional Australians have an appetite for stories relating
to immediate life in their various locations, but it’s no indication of
the thresholds of audiences' intellectual interest in new artistic ideas
given the incredibly swift pace of public acceptance for many challenging
forms of technology, among other examples of our population's flexibility
in the ever innovating marketplace. Yet, the limitations of expectations
for cultural growth and public outreach in Tasmania are loudly echoed in
provincial settings throughout Australia. In the months ahead, this column
will evaluate this awkwardly counterproductive phenomenon by investigating
contemporary solutions for overcoming the consequences of provincial
culture's unnecessarily low self esteem.
The City of Liverpool, UK, is often said to have preserved some of
Britain's deepest anxiety complexes. Yet decades of producing
ear-splittingly brilliant music, award-winning films and long-running
television series, plus recognition as the spiritual home for Mike Myers'
and Alexi Sayles' acute humour, as well as the Tate North (by far the most
lively member of the institution's decentralisation program, now in its
second decade of existence) should actively disprove enduring perceptions
that Liverpool is provincial and backward. As host to the Liverpool
Biennial of International Art and its deliciously anarchic Fringe
festival, together with the John
Moores Painting Prize (sponsored by Littlewoods, once the city's most
prominent employer) and the annual Bloomberg New Contemporaries
exhibition, you'd think that the lingering perception that Liverpudlians
are in some way not quite as bright as the rest of the population would
have begun to disappear from middle England's mind. Decades of industrial
strife have impoverished three generations of Liverpool families yet
they've welcomed risky contemporary art from all over the world to their
city with open arms. So who's doing this cultural hatchet job on some of
western Europe's poorest 21st century survivors?
Ten years ago, Lancashire’s severe economic and cultural difficulties
replicated many of the symptoms Tasmania, and indeed many regional
Australian centres are currently experiencing. Using the arts to help
reverse cultural self-deprecation in the provinces is potentially one of
Australia’s most powerful social tools for strengthening the nation’s
sense of international worth but this can only occur after an extensive
reappraisal of 21st century audiences. Until then, the net
effect of not reaching audience markets is exactly the same in the arts as
it is in all businesses.
From external perspectives, Australia’s idiomatic conviction of
itself as a captive urban market is a premature filter disqualifying a
variety of globally accepted social and cultural innovations which
actively contribute to the evolution of creative, intellectual and
economic growth elsewhere. It is certainly bad for the distribution of new
forms of artistic expression throughout this country. Australia’s
cultural economies are differently wired than US and European arts
markets. Historical perceptions of the impact of distance play an overly
determined role in developing contemporary audiences’ involvement with
the arts here. So, like all innovative products and new concepts entering
the Australian experience, either from outside or within our society’s
creative resources, contemporary art must perform a wider social function
in Australia’s many smaller population centres because there are fewer
comparisons to be made.
But it would be patronizing and economically dangerous to stereotype
the pressing national need for contemporary art to win more friends in the
provinces, as a particular symptom of regional cultural backwardness.
Breaking down tacit managerial dread of the visual arts as a problematic
cultural concept for provincial audiences means building public
inspiration for critical strengths and standards. That’s going to be
hard if Australia’s culture executives keep failing to understand just
how engaged contemporary art has become with mainstream life elsewhere in
Until contemporary art’s intrusion into mainstream imagery and
popular imagination is more carefully measured in Australian life, we’ll
go on missing critical fundaments in the industry’s strengths and
weaknesses. Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough's signature
contribution to the Liverpool's 2002 Biennial adds a healthy dose of
geo-political irony to Liverpool's decentralised cultural initiatives. Her
"Home Sweet Home (Forget Me Not)" was installed at the
Biennial's inaugural 1999 show and studs the word "Liverpool" in
intricate pinheads arranged as graphic lettering, now incorporated as a
symbol of the City's international arts profile. Similarly, Tate North's
support for local Liverpool designers' neo-pop fuzzy screen style
lettering, designed to link the Biennial with related events, have made it
south as London's magnificent Tate Modern's primary youth-orientated logo.
Certainly, Liverpool is overdue recognition for its substantial
contribution to British cultural growth. In reality, no matter how worldly
and successful Liverpool has become at staging these cutting-edge
international arts events, it will continue to struggle against big city
Britain's inverted cultural self-consciousness. Why is this?
In the early 20th century, Liverpool's new wealth fled the province in
droves to join the ranks of the south-eastern establishment. Provincially
based Australian culture industry professionals also crave big cities as a
more appropriate context for their artistic production. But isn't there
something slightly absurd if not wickedly craven about the notion that
being in a larger town somehow makes your art work (or your money) better?
It is a natural critical preference to prefer to view works in the context
of their peers and contemporaries but because Australia’s population
bases are probably never going to be quite as mobile as Europe’s, the
challenge to engage this country’s audiences has to be undertaken
In the meantime, dismissing regional audiences as a lesser priority for
publicly subsidised arts events is fairly insulting when it comes down to
it. Somehow, the serious problems caused by Tasmania's endemically
underwhelming arts institutions, dotted with dead light bulbs, grumpy
staff and out of date websites seems to be passing us by. Critics point
this stuff out in the sincere hope of provoking change for the better but
it’s often easier to shoot us before launching a lengthy departmental
inquiry about why people complain, than simply changing the bulbs.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.