As a Government our great ambition has been to bring cultural issues into the mainstream of our national life and national decisionmaking. On the one hand, this is because no economic or social decision is without a cultural consequence. The quality of our lives, the opportunities for self expression, the integrity of our heritage, cannot be left to chance. On the other hand, the more we succeed in encouraging a creative spirit and the flow of creative ideas, the more we will succeed as an economy and society. Paul Keating
In launching the Commonwealth's cultural policy, Creative Nation, in October, the Prime Minister made it quite clear that culture is the business of government. But. as the statement above indicates, the Government's role is not solely to provide some sort of buffer, protecting culture from the vagaries of social and economic policy decisions. For culture generates it own "consequences", and so the Commonwealth also needs to take a pro-active policy stance in relation to the role played by cultural activities in social and economic development. This position seems to mark something of a shift from that outlined in the 1992 Discussion Paper, The Role of the
Commonwealth in Australia's Cultural Development, which established the tone for its inquiry by stating the "fundamental point" that, while a policy for cultural development "now seems timely", "the paths followed by authentic cultural development can never be predetermined.”
Within the arts, the idea that cultural activity should be kept outside the direct control of government remains strong, but then so does the view that the arts should not be simply abandoned to the uncertainties of the free market. Of course, whatever the government does will necessarily involve policy options-non-intervention in the cultural sphere is as much a policy choice as deciding that the minister should be responsible for allocating grants. However, to imagine that cultural policy is just about handing out arts grants, building public museums, or giving tax breaks to corporate sponsors, would be to take far too narrow a view. In this respect, it is worth noting another significant shift between the 1992 Discussion Paper and Creative Nation.
While the Discussion Paper set out to provide a framework for a cultural policy, its approach to the issue was limited by the scope of the activities managed by the Commonwealth Arts portfolio. The panel of "eminent Australians", appointed in July 1992, to "advise on the formulation" of the policy, also had a strong "arts" leaning.
Significantly however, their early recommendations, included in a "preamble" prepared before the 1993 election, recommended that a new Ministry of Culture-to include arts and broadcasting-be established, and that this Ministry be at Cabinet level.
By early 1994, under the guidance of the Minister for the Arts and Administrative Services, Senator McMullan, the policy "was close to being finalised", and its "focus was squarely on the arts and heritage".3 All of that changed, however, after the Cabinet reshuffle which saw Michael Lee appointed Minister for Communications and the Arts, for while this new arrangement was in keeping with the recommendations of the advisory panel, it appears to have produced a
major shift in the orientation of the policy document.
In addition to the anticipated focus on the arts, with an emphasis on organisations like the Australia Council, and on funding for particular traditional art forms, the policy also gives a good deal of attention to broadcasting and to new multi-media technology. it adds a concern for the cultural impact of policy in respect of "information, computing, telephony and broadcasting", that in the past tended to
be seen "purely in an industry or service policy context". (p. 55) Also,
its orientation shifts away from a focus on direct support for artists
and other cultural creators, to greater emphasis on mechanisms for
the distribution of cultural products.
In summarising its broad vision for the Australia Council, for example, the policy states:
the Government believes that the Australia Council needs to employ an increasing amount of its resources in areas of audience development, linkages with broadcasting technologies, marketing and sponsorship stimulation and international
In other words, rather than simply providing more direct funding, the objective is to improve the economic viability of arts activity through an injection of funds from non-government sources. Although it should be noted that "the Government will increase the Council's base funding level to provide additional assistance for individual artists".
The discussion of direct support for the visual arts through the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council, also emphasises the need to give a greater attention to "encouraging demand for the arts and distribution of the arts". (p. 34) While this might involve touring exhibitions, or strategies for the development of markets for the sale of original works, probably the most significant signal given by the policy statement concerns the issue of digital reproduction. it is suggested that as a result of new technological developments, the source of visual artists' income may shift from the sale of original works, to fees collected from the sale of reproduction rights. In the light of this, in addition to reviewing certain aspects of the Copyright Act relevant to visual artists (particularly photographers), the Commonwealth has provided $1 million "to support the establishment of a copyright collecting society for the visual arts"
it is the potential to link the management of the visual artists' intellectual property rights, with the push for the development of new multi-media products that may well have the most significant longterm impact on the visual arts. Many artists are already examining the possibilities offered by new technology, and it is the Commonwealth's aim to encourage this exploration, with the objective of providing "content" for the new digital media-CD ROM, online PC services, and broadband interactive services.
Of course, it is important not to overlook the fact that any attempt to move to broader markets via these various modes of digital reproduction will depend upon consumer interest, and the distribution mechanisms that are put in place. For those working within the contemporary visual arts some thought" needs to be given to the existing levels of interest in visual arts exhibitions and publications-will producing such material on CD ROM or on-line formats necessarily produce major changes in market interest? Perhaps it will be necessary to rethink the place of art in a digital environment-forget the limited possibilities of painting, or even installation, why not just make screen-savers?
While the emphasis on multi-media might suggest great possibilities for visual artists, it is worth considering the state of an existing "new technology" form-"video art". Given the fact that Australia has a very high level of VCR penetration, and that over one-third of total household cultural expenditure (almost $2 billion) is allocated to
t1elevision and video goods and services and cinema admissions" (p. 81 ), why is it that nearly all video art requires subsidy, and seems to have no clear market outside the limited art gallery and festival screening circuit? Try finding a "video art" section at your local video rental outlet. Is this lack of wide interest simply a matter of poor distribution and marketing, or is "content" the issue? While the Commonwealth proposes a number of initiatives to stimulate multimedia development, the policy has little to say about the nature of the "Australian content" that it seeks to foster. Certainly, the educational market will be tackled, with ten CD ROMs, "that focus on
national cultural institutions", to be produced under the Australia on CD program.
The focus on multi-media seems to have two aspects, one emphasising the ''window of opportunity" that is currently open for the development of an internationally viable, content oriented, production industry, the other more concerned to provide local content to counter the "assault from the homogenised international mass culture". (p.1) In this second context, new developments in information technology are seen as a threat to "distinctly Australian" culture, with the international nature of digital communications networks dovetailing neatly with the recent moves towards global free trade. Thus as policies of cultural "protectionism" are eliminated, and the international information network makes cultural traffic across national borders more difficult to police, the only way to protect local culture is to compete on the open market. What this also seems to suggest is a shift away from selling the barbecue or the sausage, to selling a "distinctly Australian" sizzle.
In this context there is some irony in the way in which VI$COPY may operate as a new contributor to the Australian visual arts industry. To begin with, its financial contribution to artists' income will be determined not in relation to the value of works as unique objects but as a result of the extent to which they are reproduced and distributed on a mass scale. The ubiquity of an image will determine its value. it is also ironic to note, given Australia's current status as a net cultural importer, that VI$COPY's initial main source of operating income (aside from the Commonwealth's contribution), will probably result from its role as an agent in the collection of fees related to the reproduction of non-Australian art works, in particular those "modern masters" marketed and merchandised via blockbuster exhibitions. In a further twist, from a nationalist perspective, and perhaps a cultural one as well, these international artists are being constructed now as "the competition".