How we will rule the world #2: an advocacy agenda

Post by , September 17th, 2015

So the idea is that arts advocacy would look for principles upon which most artists agree. Some of the hot issues in politics would be based around these principles. Take up a hot issue and enter the fray with the best arguments and tactics our ingenious sector can come up with. Also invite reciprocal support from those involved in the wider issue.

Through this strategy, the arts sector becomes a player in the larger political game and is able to be more effective in arguing also for its own needs and beliefs.

We can test this approach by choosing some examples of things on which most artists would agree and seeing where they fit into the broader interests of governments and the public.

Freedom of expression
Artists do not want to be looking over their shoulders to see whether the government disapproves of what they are saying through their art. They want to assume that they are free to “say” what they want.

There is a widely held belief that artists are valuable to society because they see the world differently. They may record heightened perceptions of the world as most already see it. But some may perceive the world quite differently and as a consequence, challenge commonly held beliefs, perhaps show another way. This can be upsetting to some, including governments, who may respond by attempting to silence the artists. We cannot have the benefit of these artists’ work unless we guarantee their freedom of expression.


Freedom of expression is not just a matter for artists. Various UN agreements seek to guarantee freedom of expression for everyone, as partly documented in the Appendix to the first paper. Freedom of expression for artists is a special case because of the unusual qualities in that which they seek to express and the ways they express it.

In a society such as that of Australia, there is an assumption of the right to free expression within the limits of “community standards”. (“Community standards” are a matter for contest among interest-groups and therefore at their limits have very grey borders.) In such a society, often it is artistic works that transgress. Example: in the current sensitivity about paedophilia, some previously uncontroversial photographs of children by Bill Henson were seen by some as offensive and they claimed that Henson and his exhibitors did not have “freedom of expression” to show them. (Here, it was the borders that moved, not the art. By the way, our new PM defended Henson whereas then-PM Kevin Rudd condemned the works.) There seemed to be wide agreement among visual artists, who fought back through NAVA, their national association. The right to freedom of expression has remained a front-line issue for visual artists.

When you think about it, it is interest groups in the community or governments that seek to limit freedom of expression by artists – and their motivation connects with the wider political sphere. Henson ran into trouble because child-abuse became a hot political issue and protagonists were seeking legal remedies. They were also, for instance, making a public issue of sexualisation of young girls by the fashion industry and believed that Henson’s images were similar in effect. They argued that assertion of a right to freedom of expression by artists was not a sufficient justification. Contentions about freedom of expression for artists almost always involve larger political issues.

Since it is an abstract art, the content of music per se is not very vulnerable. Offending musical taste is not the same as offending community standards. Generally, when music has been in the firing line, it is more likely to concern lyrics or associated video presentations. Here, abstraction has gone and there are rich opportunities to offend.

In Australia, the arm’s-length principle which protects Australia Council funding decisions from direct intervention by politicians is intended to defend freedom of expression. Politicians are unable through Australia Council funding to reward or punish the expression of ideas by a particular candidate for funding. Of course, they can apply pressure to the Council or the artist in other ways (as has happened outrageously in the USA) but freedom is at least protected at that level. Advocacy by ArtsPeak, the alliance of arts membership organisations, has supported freedom of expression via defence of the arm’s-length principle and in recognition of the special value of freedom for artists to see the world differently and express what they see.

The actions of the present Commonwealth Arts Minister in raiding the Australia Council budget to create a fund over which he has direct control continue to get coverage. It was clear in Senate Estimates hearings that one purpose of the fund is to avoid the political constraints presented by the arm’s length principle. It is feasible that the Minister and his successors will use this control to suppress freedom of expression and vigilance is recommended.

Artists showing at the Sydney Biennale withdrew their artworks in protest against the dependence of the Biennale on sponsorship by a company that they believed was profiting as contracted administrator of the refugee detention centres. The furious Minister for the Arts instructed the Australia Council that artists that had refused private funding should be ineligible for government funding. The same Minister, in his role as Attorney-General, sought to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act because it constrained freedom of expression.

So this is interesting: presumably this champion of free speech would support the rights of the artists to express an opinion through their art but not the right to act on the opinion – even when the people suffering loss would mainly be themselves. Does freedom of expression include freedom to act as well as write or say? Is the action of artists confined to making the artwork and putting it before the public, or also taking those ideas directly into everyday life? For anyone, is there a dividing line between expression and action or is any expression also an action?

All of the examples above involve freedom of artistic expression. If advocacy were to extend into the right of freedom of expression for everyone, are there instances now of government suppression of that freedom?

Yes. The government has made it illegal for people who have been employed in asylum seeker detention centres to report publicly on what they have seen. Those involved decided to break the law and describe what they believe is unconscionable treatment of inmates. Is this freedom to report the same as freedom of expression or is that irrelevant? It is a situation that could be important politically especially if we set out to make it so.

Intriguing thought. What would be the legal situation if, say, there were a film or a theatre company production factually depicting the situations described by the detention centre employees? Where is that film when we need it?

Non- discrimination
At a multicultural arts conference a couple of years ago, a Greek actor told us that he had auditioned for a role as a Greek man in a commercial television drama. He was rejected. The director told him that he looked too Greek. An Anglo was chosen instead.

There have been complaints in the theatre sector that women are very under-represented as directors and in leading positions generally. Women are under-represented among contemporary music and jazz performers, classical composers and orchestral conductors.

There may be issues with representation of ethnic minorities on the theatre stage but they seem more or less to have disappeared in dance, orchestras, opera and musical performance generally. “Colour-blind” casting is good in principle but when a character represents a particular culture or ethnicity, it can strain credibility if it is not ethnically cast.

Over time, there has been a succession of movements in the artistic world to combat discrimination. Blind auditions were introduced in US orchestras to overcome discrimination against ethnic minorities and women. The complaints about the position of women in Australian theatre led to remedial action in some companies. In sum, we could expect that generally, although there are pockets where self-interest supports discrimination, artists would by now support non-discrimination, sometimes vigorously.

Are there issues of discrimination in the wider political sphere where the arts could take a position?

In recent times, the Commonwealth set out to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act so that a particular type of racist comment was no longer illegal. In the face of community opposition, the Attorney-General commented that people have a right to be bigots – and presumably therefore to make bigoted comments based upon race. It becomes both a racial discrimination and a freedom of expression issue. In this case and to make as confusing a start as possible, we would have been likely to support limits on the freedom to make racist statements. On the other hand, what would be our position on racist dialogue in a play?

It seems to the writer that most discrimination in Australia is not overt. It has to be inferred. Action might apply positive discrimination to contest the practices – or the circumstances – that result in disadvantage. For instance, is there not a single obviously Aboriginal person who could be appointed by a major network as a television news-reader? The arts could contest the inaction by governments on education for disadvantaged children. The arts could contest the glass ceiling, wherever it is found and to whomever it applies

Not so long ago, general opinion may have seen the arts as the main location for creativity and by extension, innovation – although the word innovation may be more likely to bring to mind industrial inventions, IP, and soft sells from the finance sector. The arts are advanced by many as the place to develop creativity in children although not, alas, in Departments of Education, which have the arts on the back shelf even while pushing the need for students to learn to be innovative to meet industry’s demands.

Innovation is not universally popular among artists and their presenters. Artistic innovation can leave the audience behind. Classical music provides a very good example. The large organisations – orchestras and opera companies – find that large audiences like familiar music and do not much support musical innovation. We don’t really have a good sense of the orchestral musicians’ views. The Music Trust manages the Freedman Fellowships for classical instrumentalists and we find that the majority of high level candidates are working as soloists or in small groups and do have a commitment to new music, in principle innovative. Young opera singers, on the other hand, churn through a very narrow traditional repertoire, most with little evident desire to break out.

So although innovative artists may be fervid in support of innovation, we might not expect that the arts sector generally would support political advocacy for innovation more broadly except, possibly, the use of arts in schools to build creativity in students.

Where is innovation more generally a political issue? Government’s and industry’s willingness and ability to address a world that is rapidly changing because of forces that lie beyond their control. Are governments sufficiently supporting scientific research? Do regulatory structures support or inhibit risk-taking by commercial interests on innovative products and processes? (What would be the effect on the arts if society and business were more given to experimentation than safety?)

In the writer’s experience, there is very strong agreement in the music sector on the importance of music education in schools. There is not such unanimity on the importance of education in other art forms but when you get artists from many disciplines together, the overt self-interest tends to melt away into a united front. Arts subjects are disadvantaged in many ways and so there is a need for continuing advocacy on their behalf.

There are people in the music sector who are proudly self-taught. “Never had a lesson in my life!” I don’t know how numerous they are nor whether they are as dismissive of education in general.

I believe that we could expect that most in the arts sector would strongly support effective education for all children rich and poor in all subjects, including the arts. Education is always in the news, it is important to most of the electorate, and there would be plenty of opportunity for advocacy. Overall, important issues include accessibility, equity, scope, quality. There are more specific issues involving, for instance, educational pedagogies. Do students sing only other people’s songs or invent their own? Is science delivered as a set of facts or as participatory experimentation? Is NAPLAN testing and teaching to the test encouraging rote learning or new thinking?

There might be less unanimity about tertiary arts education. It is indispensable for the high arts but there are very successful contemporary musicians, for instance, who have little or none. One would think that there would be strong interest from the majority and this could be extended into advocacy for accessible, affordable, excellent tertiary education for all who want it.

The music industry has suffered major digital disruption and there have been energetic attacks on copyright, both de facto through piracy, and argumentative, where people who do not have copyright works and income at stake advocate the disbandment of copyright.

Every artist whose work can be reproduced in some form has at least a potential stake in a fair and effective copyright regime. It is a natural interest for the arts advocate.

Principles applied in support of copyright in artistic works would also support copyright in non-artistic work. This is a technically difficult field, made more complex by the continually evolving digital spheres of creation, communication and commerce. The basic principle of ownership of the outcomes of intellectual effort would underlie advocacy arguments.

Broadcast media
The main media issue for Australian artists is whether their work will be broadcast. Broadcastable work is available from around the globe; broadcasters must choose what to broadcast and Australian artists must compete for broadcast time. However, they have faced systematic exclusion which has been countered only by government regulations in favour of Australian content.

The problem for television stations is that they can fill broadcast time with rented foreign shows, especially those from the USA, at a fraction of the cost of producing new content in Australia. The solution has been imposition of regulations obliging them to devote a percentage of broadcast time to Australian content. Australian productions are still more expensive but there is a level playing field for broadcasters: all must suffer the cost of a specified minimum of Australian content. A good part of the Australian film industry has been sustained by the resultant production for television.

Commercial radio would prefer to broadcast from the foreign Top 20. These tracks have already been culled by foreign audiences from the enormous number released and so Australian broadcasters are spared the cost and risk of culling from new Australian tracks, with benefits to the bottom line. So Australian music also has depended upon Australian content quotas.

The situation is changing with broadcast audiences falling away in favour of various forms of direct online purchases of content by consumers. Governments cannot require their purchase of Australian content, nor can they require that Australian content is offered on these services since the largest and most popular are based overseas.

We would expect that Australian artists would support Australian content regulations. But the circumstances for the present content regulations may be disappearing.

New regulatory support may depend upon quite different considerations and may take in much broader regulation of the media industry at a time when it appears that governments are inclined towards deregulation. The arts sector may need to find common political cause with non-arts interests.

Live music and regulation of venues
Live music in liquor-licensed venues is claimed by the Live Music Office at APRA to be worth $5 billion a year, or $15 billion including a multiplier effect. Musicians have a strong motivation to support regulatory change in support of this live music production.

The key issue to date has been noise regulations which allow venue neighbours to close venues emitting a level of noise to which they object. The solution gradually introduced around the country is named “agent of change”. The most recent arrival – the resident as a new neighbour to an existing noisy venue, or a venue newly established or newly emitting noise, loses in any legal case.

Such regulation of venues mainly concerns musical artists. The arts or music sector might support the hospitality industry in reasonable modifications of venue regulations and their enforcement, even when these do not directly affect musical presentation.

Social service benefits for episodic workers
In some artforms, especially performing arts, episodic employment is normal. Actors are hired for a show or a film and may be unemployed for a period when the production concludes.

In some countries – e g France – there is a benefits structure that recognises this and sustains the artist through some down time.
Such arrangements could be confined to the arts, recognising the special value of artists’ contribution. Or they may extend to other classes of episodic worker.

The arts sector could be expected to agree with support arrangements for artists. Its advocacy might be extended to other types of episodic worker so that they are taken care of and as importantly, the general principle becomes more widely accepted.


Others more politically astute and connected than this writer may be able to paint a more convincing scenario. That might encourage a sense of possibility and even action.

It is difficult to conceive of concerted action by the arts sector. Years could be spent herding cats. Probably, it would be necessary that a small group takes the running with effective action on a small number of issues on which artists mostly agree and which have political impact. Through its success it could draw in more support. Is it possible?

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