Ritual Cultural Policy

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

While they may never get a gig on the main stage, there’s no doubt that in the arts, just as in infrastructure or immigration, our public servants and politicians have become adept practitioners of a certain type of theatre of power.

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It was August, and the Australian government was launching yet another policy document.

It was glitzy, glamorous, and glossy. Australia’s most expensive hall for hire, the Sydney Opera House, played host. Uncle Chicka Madden gave a splendid welcome to country. There was a live webcast (just as well, as I was covering it from Melbourne). And, of course, there were many speeches. The chief executive of the Australia Council spoke. So did the Arts Minister. So, rather unusually, did the Foreign Minister, despite her pressing recent responsibilities in Ukraine.

But what was being revealed? A slim eight-page document outlining the Australia Council’s “strategic plan” for the arts in coming years. Details were few. Dollar signs were non-existent. Questions were many. Who would gain? Who would lose? How much? “Australian artists will be known for their expression, daring and skill,” we were told on page five. “They will create experiences that enrich lives, locally and globally. Arts organisations will enable artists to achieve great art.”

In places, the new plan veered towards satire. “We will foster experimentation and risk-taking in all art forms,” the document stated, in po-faced tautology, “by stimulating artists and organisations to experiment in their artistic practice.”

Meanwhile, tactfully but rather neglectfully, the plan omitted the most important recent development in cultural policy: the federal government’s $87 million cuts to cultural funding, including $25 million slashed from the Australia Council itself.

It was, as Angela Conquet remarked when asking me to write this essay, a kind of a ritual. The truth of her remark struck me immediately, even as I strived to unpick what ritual might mean in the context of modern public policy. Like so many words that we use daily, seemingly innocently and entirely knowledgably, “ritual” is a term often used and little understood. Rituals have abounded for all of human history, and academic debate appears to have argued about their meaning and definition for nearly as long.

The word itself doesn’t appear in English until Elizabethan times, but that doesn’t tell us much, as it is based on the Latin “rite” and may even have Sanskrit roots with the concept of “rta” – a notion closely tied to the Vedic notions of karma and dharma.

By the nineteenth century, rituals had come to dominate the early development of anthropology. As the respected religious studies scholar Catherine Bell reminded us, the elaboration and conflation of ritual with the study of religion became a central preoccupation of late nineteenth century thought. In particular, Frazer’s The Golden Bough was astonishingly influential. Wittgenstein, just to take one example, was an unabashed fan.

By the 1960s and 70s, cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz were building sophisticated theories of ritual based on the reciprocal exchange of cultural and symbolic meaning. Geertz, famous for his dissection of the complexities of Balinese society, was what we would today call a “social constructionist.” He believed that rituals, by acting as vehicles for this symbolic exchange, actually created social and political institutions.

Geertz’ idea of political ritual seems to me remarkably applicable to our contemporary theatre of public policy. He thought political rituals could be recognised by their function of creating political institutions and power structures.

According to Bell, “political rituals can be said to comprise those ceremonial practices that specifically construct, display and promote the power of political institutions.” Geertz went further, arguing that political rites were the very way power was constructed: in Bell’s elegant description, “elaborate arguments about the very nature of power that make this power intangible and effective.”

It’s a deliciously enjoyably way to view the sort of thing going on at an Australia Council policy launch. The hallowed venue and presence of respected Indigenous elders helped to sanctify what is, after all, the launch of a glossy brochure. Other aspects of political ritual were observed. The presence of the Minister (in this case, two ministers!) established a link to democratic power; attendance is restricted; a certain decorum is expected. At the end of the ceremony, the glossy brochure was handed out, like a clay tablet, for the symbolic consumption of the arts community.

While they may never get a gig on the main stage, there’s no doubt that in the arts, just as in infrastructure or immigration, our public servants and politicians have become adept practitioners of a certain type of theatre of power. Before I wrote about politics regularly, I was a working theatre critic. I have always been struck by the similarity of political analysis to performing arts criticism.

The whispers of power are often inaudible. But there is a subliminal hum that we may catch, if we are listening carefully.

While it is true, of course, that politics contains many ideas and concepts foreign to the practice of art, the assonances and congruencies are instructive. Examine at random almost any article by a Canberra press gallery journalist, and you will find many terms of art borrowed from the stage. Politicians are said to have a “script” (sometimes it’s a “message” or a “narrative”) and they are regularly judged for their performance, their diction and their dress. There are props, sets and costumes, generally from a cramped and clichéd vocabulary of everyday life: hard hats and forklifts, pie shops and aprons, spades and hi-vis vests. There are lights and stage cues; indeed, there are many more stage managers than you’d ever find in a working theatre. I was once told by a makeup artist working for Lateline about the time Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, seized a brush from her in the ABC’s green room, and proceeded to personally take charge of his foundation. But it is theatre, of course. The real decisions are taken elsewhere.

After the Australia Council launch, almost the next story I covered as an arts writer demonstrated a rather different construction of power. A small record label, Melba Recordings, had secured a quarter of million dollars of federal funding, apparently without peer review or a formal application process. The grant was never announced and only came to light after a felicitous tip-off.

Melba Recordings is scarcely known for its worldwide fame; nor has it set any sales records. But it boasts perhaps the best-connected group of Australian elites amassed by any arts organisation in the country. In a cavalcade of AMs and OAMs, former ministers and cultural luminaries, the label was able to accrue a concentration of cultural capital that proved only too fungible. This, clearly, was a different aspect of cultural power, the covert rejoinder to the Australia Council’s glitzy launch.

The whispers of power are often inaudible. But there is a subliminal hum that we may catch, if, like Don Watson, we are listening carefully. The pageantry and colour of policy launches, no less than the unsubtle celebration of values such as “excellence” and “ambition”, are in fact levers to influence perceptions, and structures to create power.

This is what we can see in so much of the public discourse culture and the state. It is what enables Melba Recordings Maria Vandamme to argue, with apparent sincerity, that her largely unknown label was “successful because millions of people thought it was important that Australians should be represented on the world stage.”

Such alchemy is pursued at all levels of the industry pyramid: by the working artist explaining her career choice to family, by major performing arts organisations justifying their special status, or by arts ministers begging for their meager public stipend from the Treasury. Indeed, Melba is interesting mainly because it displays such a glaring contrast between its rhetoric of excellence, and the reality of its elite social connections.

One of the pleasant joys of ritual is, to quote the anthropologist Roy Rappaport, the successful transformation of “the arbitrary and conventional into what appears to be necessary and natural.” And so perhaps we shouldn’t decry the existence of cultural policy rites. They are, after all, a very important way in which, in a penurious but none-the-less identifiable way, artists secure their patronage from the state.