Richard Flanagan: ‘We must honour and sustain Australian creators.’

December 6, 2017

The following speech on creativity was delivered by acclaimed author Richard Flanagan at the Copyright Agency’s end-of-year event in Sydney, 30 November 2017.

“In 1964 a rising young Labor politician called Gough Whitlam told a senate enquiry that there was no such thing as a publishing industry in Australia.

In 1964 an Australian living in exile, dying of tuberculosis, impotent, alcoholic, published the book of his life, a book that, it could be argued, is where contemporary Australian literature begins.

Patrick White was a far greater writer, but My Brother Jack reflected the mood of a generation, and the determination to reinvent Australia as something better, something truer than what it was.

I have a first edition of My Brother Jack at home. Its cover was by another great Australian iconoclast, Sydney Nolan: a defiantly Australian image in umber smudges of a blank face wearing the light horse slouch hat. And on its back, a picture of its author, George Johnston on his home of Hydra and below it the biographical note, the first sentence of which curiously reads: “George Johnson is an Australian.”

What seems odd, even laughable today was, in 1964, something else altogether. His name is misspelt at the sentence’s beginning, but the sentence seems to be rising past this and all insults, all crippling rejections and deformities, with its declaration of defiance, that was at the time so powerful, so extraordinary and so shocking.

George Johnson is an Australian.

In 1964 those five words were as much a revolution as the book itself.

The law had only recognised Australian citizenship and nationality in 1949, and 15 years later Australians in law remained British subjects. What was Australia? And the short answer was that it was Nolan’s blurred face waiting to be invented.

We have come so very far. The face of Australia is not so diffuse as it was in Nolan’s 1964 portrait because of all that followed: the books, the movies, the songs and the art. We know far more of who we are, what we are, where we are from and so much of it because of our artists: our indigenous Australia, our women’s Australia, our ethnic Australia, our gay and transgender Australia.

And yet we artists remain unwelcome in our own land.

I don’t wish to overly dwell on the strange, almost unique situation of country whose artists have achieved so much in the half century since 1964 and yet where they are held in such contempt by power. But I know of no other country whose artists are at once so popular with their own, who so frequently bring international honour to their country, and yet whose government so frequently and assiduously act against their interests, be it in the last few years with the Napoleonic excesses of George Brandis, the enthusiasm to destroy Australian publishing with the recurrent proposal to end parallel importation restrictions—once under Labor, once under the Liberals—or the desire to cede significant copyright to the tech giants.

It is not a matter of personal offence, or personal desire, as to who respects whom. It is rather that as a society we can be only what we dream and what we hope. And more, that if we continually deny and dam our capacity to imagine ourselves more largely, more critically, more dangerously, and more generously, we cut off the possibility of changing for the better. We hand our future over to the dark dreams of corporate raiders, venture capitalists, tech imperialists.

The questions frequently asked in Australia about art and artist are the wrong ones. It is always framed about what can the government do for the artist. But that is not the real question.

The real question is whether governments will seek to allow art the powerful and good role it can have in shaping our future or whether it will continue to seek to deny it and destroy it. And if they deny it, it is weakening the very forces we need to hold us together, which is the most fundamental role of politics, because art is finally communal, a shared experience, that we need now more than ever.

As George Johnston understood, Australia is an idea. And that idea has to constantly evolve into something larger, or it will break or implode. This is not a nationalist argument. It is the pressing question of our time, as the rising miasma of growing inequality—and the social and finally political crises it leads to—transform into the nightmares we now see playing out in the US and the UK.

Nor is the question whether art and artists should be part of the Australian economy. It is that it is, and we are. It is not whether art can be central to our understanding of ourselves. It is that it is, from Highway to Hell to Possum Magic; from Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly to A. B. Original’s rage, from Paul Kelly’s love songs to Ben Quilty’s naked Afghan war veterans to Alexis Wright’s dark visions.

Australian artists have earnt the right to official recognition. They have earnt the right to support. And by support I don’t mean grants. And by recognition I don’t mean the occasional minister turning up at a prize evening or an opening for a photo opportunity, where they are routinely applauded for their insulting ignorance and patronising cant.

By support I mean serious engagement with what artist and writers need in the 21st century to do their work. I mean the recognition that we are central to our society and not peripheral to it.

By support I mean the end of the anodyne discussions about how to cut the least from the Australia Council and then how to reslice the stale, shrivelled salami there into ever smaller portions.

I mean the beginning of looking for a new model—or models—for arts policy in our country that are larger and more reflective of the achievements and the reality of art today than a mid-twentieth century model of mendicant patronage imported from post-war Britain.

For we face the spectre of our culture being the milch cow of the most powerful transglobal companies in history: the new tech giants, the four horsemen of our apocalypse: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple.

We don’t need our politicians selling out our artists to these companies, as nearly happened this year, a situation where the new digital publishers and broadcasters would pay nothing for our content and yet make everything out of it. And then evade paying tax on any of it.

We need new rules for this new world, not some gleeful trading of our ivory of creation for their tawdry cottons and mirrors. We need regulation that makes sure Amazon doesn’t destroy book retailing and book publishing. We need regulation to make sure YouTube doesn’t destroy the sales of music. We need regulation to make sure Facebook doesn’t destroy journalism and non-fiction. And we need politicians to recognise that arts policy must be broad ranging, affecting, as it does, other vital areas of government’s remit, from retail to educational policy.

Over the last twenty years our ruling class—the politicians, their apparatchik, and the media executives—have, in their growing obsequiousness to a perverted ideology of the market, lost all respect for the life of the mind, and an understanding of its necessity and centrality to a successful and harmonious society.

In consequence the life of the mind—which, is, finally, the food of the soul—has been under attack in Australia for well over two decades, be it the slow dismemberment of the CSIRO or the better aspects of the ABC, or be it the way universities were transformed into corrupted businesses.

And similar to corrupt monasteries during the last communications revolution six hundred years ago that took to selling indulgences to keep afloat, corrupted universities now took to selling degrees to keep afloat. And the degrees that didn’t sell to a debased international market began to vanish.

To give but one example: in New South Wales alone in the last ten years we have seen shut down the University of Western Sydney’s art school, and the University of Newcastle’s art school, while the Sydney University’s Sydney College of Arts has been downsized enormously, the University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts is under huge pressure and the National Art School—whose alumni include John Olsen and Margaret Olley—finds its future under a cloud. At the same time under the last federal Labor government funding for arts schools at TAFEs—an enormously important part of the arts education ecosystem, particularly for the poor and older women—was ended.

If there is no policy to even train artists—or, more precisely, if the effect of existing policy is to end the training of artists—what point is there in any government pretending to any fine art policy in Australia?

I began tonight with the assertion of a dying exile that he was an Australian; an assertion based in the idea that whatever he creates becomes Australia, is Australia. And underlying it was the realisation that Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather that Australia is an invitation to dream, and that this country—our country—belongs to its dreamers.

We have to recognise though that no politician, no minister, no prime minister is going to help us unless we persuade the people of what we ourselves know. If we artists continue to conceive of ourselves as beggars at the gate, we will be treated so: with derision, with contempt, or at best with the indifference of power. We have to recognise that you get the respect you grant yourself.

We have to fight. We have to persuade. We have to organise better. We have to create new groups larger and more inclusive than our existing industry and trade groups. We have to recalibrate our efforts to recognise both the scale of our achievement and the extent of the new threats to its ongoing existence. For that threat is finally not the ignorance of politicians, the rapacity of unfettered global corporations, or the failings of media, both old and new.

No. Rather it is our failure, our inability to see that as we are part of this world, we must stand up and assume our rightful place. We must respect our own worth, to see what we do not only as individual but a collective achievement of great power, of meaning, and of fundamental worth. Only if we recognise the scale of our achievement and its centrality to our society is change possible.

We have to stop waiting for the next existential threat to our existence—such as the parallel importation debate—and only then reacting. Because we cannot win every such battle, and we only have to lose once to be finished. We must get on the front foot asserting our worth and arguing for what we need, rather than waiting to be destroyed.

Since the marriage equality vote it’s clear that Australians are not a mean and pinched people as we had been persuaded and bluffed for so many years thinking that we were. We are not small-minded bigots. We are, as it turns out, people who care. We are people who read, who think, who are willing to make dreams reality. And if after over twenty years of ground hog day we are finally ready to once more go forward as a people it’s time our dreamers were brought in from the cold.

But it is the dreamers who must take the first step.”