How do we value participation in the arts?

The ABC last week reported that the Australian Government has an arts problem that starts with the word itself. The article’s title refers to both the omission of the word “arts” from the name of the newly-merged government department said to be responsible for them as well as the Australia Council for the Arts’ omission of the same word in its new slogan creativity connects us. But the interesting aspect of all this from the point of view of this blog is what it reports of a speech from the Australia Council for the Arts’ incoming chief executive, Adrian Collette: according to him, almost half of Australians perform some sort of art (such as write or play an instrument) and nearly all of them partake of artistic works (such as read novels or attend concerts), yet his research says “overwhelmingly we think arts is elitist and not for me.” Collette thinks that Australians will feel more included by shifting the language to “creativity”.

Having not been present at Collette’s speech, nor being particularly familiar with the Australia Council for the Arts, I can’t say how he intends for the Council to support creative Australians beyond using a different word to describe them. Nor can I say for sure why all those Australians writing, playing instruments, and so on think that art is “not for me”. The most obvious conjecture, though, is that they think of “art” as something that appears in art galleries while what the rest of us do in our spare time is either just mucking around if we’re doing it ourselves, or “entertainment” if we’re going to a concert or watching a movie. I myself was recently taken aback when an artist asked me if I myself was an artist as I looked over the paintings that she had on display, because I ordinarily think of myself as an engineer (but on this occasion I mumbled something about being a writer).

The article also cites an artist by the name of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah lamenting that the term “creative industries” favours quantifiable activity (he singles out “technology and design”) over the cultural value of art. Indeed, after reporting Collette’s views, the article goes on to talk about how much money is spent buying concert tickets, visiting art galleries and so on (6.4% of GDP, apparently), in the manner that one might expect from someone pleading for the economic value of art. So I’m far from certain that replacing the word “art” with “creativity” will have the desired effect.

Whatever it might be called, one might suppose that if half of Australians are doing it and nearly all of them are watching it, it’s likely to be important to us in some way. One could even quantify things like how many people play an instrument or how long they spend doing it. But “creative industries” language affords it value only when it’s paid for. There’s plenty of scope for commercial art, as 6.4% of GDP attests, and I spent a good part of my previous blog lambasting the idea that computer users somehow had a right to access the work of artists and their publishers. But playing an instrument, writing a blog or knitting a jumper for the amusement of oneself and one’s friends has a value, too, and the point of this discussion ought to be to recognise it.

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