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Katharine Brisbane's legacy: A critique of our stale arts sector

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Katharine Brisbane has been regarded as the Grand Dame of Australia theatre criticism (Screenshot via YouTube)

Esteemed theatre critic Katharine Brisbane has made observations on how the Australian arts sector has become sterile over the decades, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

APPLICATION FORMS for grants. Fictitious funding projections. The hideousness of identifying what the “outcomes” of the effort might be. The Australian arts sector, as it is coldly termed, has become a bureaucratised playground of dull, dumbed-down projects, all with a business model mind. It didn't need someone of the coruscating wit and observational sharpness of Katharine Brisbane to tell us that; but my, has it helped.

Brisbane, for some years now, has been regarded as the Grand Dame of Australia theatre criticism. From 1967 to 1974, she kept a beady eye on theatre productions in every one of the country’s capital cities, writing up her reviews for The Australian. That paper, unfortunately, replaced Brisbane for reasons of sheer quantity — the full-time devoted national critic of theatre was effectively replaced by localised part-timers.

Contributions subsequently followed for Theatre Australia and the National Times. But it was the founding of Currency Press with husband Philip Parsons in 1972 that would leave its enduring stamp on Australia’s performing arts.

The late theatre critic Helen Thomson saw Brisbane’s contribution to theatre and its critical thrust as unique, having first bathed in the New Wave:

‘...inventing a challenging, larrikin voice in plays that had first airings in Sydney at the Jane Street and Old Tote theatres and at La Mama and the Pram Factory in Melbourne.’

Thomson is also final in her judgment:

‘Never again will it be possible for any individual to comprehensively cover Australian theatre, and never again, I suspect, will there be a kind of creative revolution that we had in drama between 1970 and 1985.’ 

A truly plangent tone.

On 24 March, Brisbane’s last Platform Paper, ‘On the Lessons of History’, will be published by Currency House, a non-profit concern she founded in 2000. The previous 62 have featured contributions from an eclectic set of figures in the Australian arts from Robyn Archer to David Throsby.

The publication promises to be provocative, barbed and insightful. A depressive note is also bound to be struck by a sage who, as David Marr described it, ‘saw theatre as not something happening in the dark behind closed doors, but as a necessary part of this country’s story’

In an available extract of the publication, Brisbane reminds the reader of a previous Platform Paper, ‘Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order’ (2013) by David Pledger. ‘Artists,’ she writes, citing Pledger, ‘were integral to making sense of our changing global landscape. They were society’s antennae, the canaries in the coalmine of global change’.

Other Platform Paper contributions are also discussed, including Ben Eltham’s PP No. 48, ‘When the Goal Posts Move’ (2016). The gruesome account covered what has gone down in the history of the arts in Australia as the bloodbath of “Black Friday”. With no warning, the Arts Minister, George Brandis, defunded ‘a slew of Australia’s best-known smaller companies’.

If Eltham and Brisbane had read the tea leaves of the Coalition Government, they would have already detected an enthusiastic note to slash and sever — $87 million had already been removed from the arts portfolio in 2014. In 2015, $105 million was cut from the Australia Council.

For Brisbane, the cuts ‘affected all aspects of the subsidised arts, not least the Australia Council itself. It was widely thought that it would not survive and conversation began to turn to what would happen next’. The cuts also undermined the ‘Council’s reputation in the industry as an independent “arm’s length” agency of government. The longer-term effects are still playing out today’.

Anyone familiar with Brisbane will not find these observations new, despite their enduring, even disturbing relevance. In 2005, she broodily wrote about theatre companies becoming components of automation and automata, victims of a funding industrial complex. ‘It’s an assembly line,’ she penned with dismay in her collection of writings Not Wrong, Just Different.

She saw playwrights such as David Williamson become captive to the theatres he built. She lamented the emergence of a needless commercial and “high art” distinction.

Of the Howard Government, she had this faultless observation:

‘They believe a civilised community should have museums, orchestras and theatres but the process of actually creating art is totally outside their understanding.’

Her withering view of the evolution of the Australia Council is also worth its biting accuracy. It had not quite turned out in the way its founders hoped it would in the 1960s, morphing into a cumbersome and dispiriting bureaucracy. Over time, theatre became another lion to be tamed, safe in the reassurance that it would provide returns to corporate investors keen on exposure. Save theatre, she was already suggesting in 2005, from the Australia Council by linking it directly to funding from Canberra.

For Brisbane, the arts, which should be the turbulent medium through which a society can ponder, reflect and contemplate itself, has been made safe and innocuous.

In an interview with Guardian Australia this month, she observed that:

“The arts have been put into their own special territory and made harmless over the last 20 or 30 years and government regulation, along with government money, has contributed to that.” 

The Australian artist is part of a “sector”, to use the characteristically deadening language of government. Risk-taking has all but gone out of the effort “and anything that might be too advanced for the people who are in charge of the money to put up with”.

Where, then, to go? A living wage, perhaps something along the lines of a Universal Basic Income as a model abounds in sensibility. Liberating artists from paperwork in order to enable them to produce shifts the focus of value away from the dulling, unimaginative process of form filling and cutthroat funding to creating culture.

Brisbane hones in on Pledger’s prescient words: 

‘In short, if you want to know where you will be in 20 years, follow an artist. If you want to get there before everyone else, fund them.’

But in an environment rife with unimaginative utilitarians obsessed with commodities, products and market value, the artist remains a business holder marked by possessing an ABN, not a cultural producer. A dreary world, indeed.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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