Social Change Needs the Arts: Funding Cuts in Australia

grat_jul_02Recent cuts to arts funding in Australia raise questions about the role of the arts in our society. Going back to ancient times the arts have been an important part of our social fabric. The UK Arts Council released an extensive report in 2014 “The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society” which outlines a clear evidence base for a social system richly steeped in all forms of artistic expression – and the benefits to our economy, our health and wellbeing, our society generally and our education systems.


Ron Eyerman Director of the Centre for Cultural Sociology at Yale University states: “Music, song, poetry and works of visual representation are important in creating and communicating a collective narrative, articulating who we are, where we come from, what we stand for and what we are against.” And Katharine Brisbane, from Currency House, talks about “the special qualities [of the arts] that are intrinsic to a forward-looking creative society”.


However it is the social change potential in the arts that is of most interest here – and now of great concern given the recent cuts to funding. There is a long history of the arts in social change movements and I suspect that this is because artistic expression is so powerful – and also so accessible. We don’t have to be rich to be an artist of any sort – visual, musical, performance, etc – in fact, most artists would suggest that one of the defining features of being an artist is definitely not being rich!!


Eyerman again – “Adorno famously wrote that all art is an uncommitted crime. What he meant was that as an exemplar of free subjective expression art challenges the status quo by its very nature. To the extent this is true all art is political.”


The role of music in social change movements is quite obvious – peace songs, protest songs, songs that express the views of those who feel dispossessed – folk, reggae, rap, blues, etc. And wall art or graffiti art has been a means of expression for centuries, especially for those expressing discontent and protest.  Similarly performance art, whether that be in the form of plays, poetry, dance or other artistic expression has been an integral force in social change over time.


Wikipedia calls it social justice art which “encompasses a wide range of visual and performing art that aims to raise critical consciousness, build community, and motivate individuals to promote social change” and that this occurs through allowing “people to develop agency to interrupt and alter oppressive systemic patterns or individual behaviours”.


So in true artistic form, dancers recently took to the streets in Sydney’s Hyde Park (and other areas throughout Australia) to protest these cuts. If you are unaware of how bad this situation is, here are the bare bones of the Government’s recent budget decisions regarding the arts in Australia – more than $100m has been cut from the top arts funding body, the Australia Council. This money is now going to the Ministry for the Arts – a government run department that will place decision making with the Minister rather than with those who are both independent and informed about the arts.


It is this loss of independence and expertise in decision making that is such a great concern for those who work in this industry. And rightly so. “With these reallocations away from an independent arts council and into Brandis’ own ministry, this government is betraying an ongoing habit of interference and favouritism when it comes to arts funding.” (Van Badham, The Guardian, 13.5.2015)


“Take the collective memory from our museums; remove the bands from our schools and choirs from our communities; lose the empathetic plays and dance from our theatres or the books from our libraries; expunge our festivals, literature and painting, and you’re left with a society bereft of a national conversation … about its identity or anything else.” (Peter Bazalgette, Chair, Arts Council England.)


If you feel inspired to explore more about social justice and the arts here are some great songs, pics and performance pieces to fire up your enthusiasm for change! There is also an online petition that we can all sign to register our protest.



Let’s keep lobbying to ensure the arts remains with the people and to foster creative expression in all.