Chinese Art. And what we can learn from it.

There’s a certain idea, a certain rumbling, that seems to rear its head every so often when artists get together and start tearing into government funding. It’s always presented as a half-joke, but usually spurns a new branch of conversation where this idea is fleshed out, debated, and goes on a quick jog into Willy Wonka’s factory before taking a hit of acid and tripping the light fantastic and ends with everyone convinced it’s a wonderful idea.

‘Centrelink, for artists.’


‘But why not? They do it in France.’

Um. Do they? I’m not sure that they do. A quick research mission comes up with nothing. The only pension and government support news out of France that I can find is outrage over cuts to basic services and pensions back in 2010 and 2011, as that bountiful purveyor of ‘fine arts’ Nicolas Sarkozy reacted, with the rest of Europe, to the crippling financial crisis. (If anybody could help me out with this I’d love your thoughts.)

I tell you who does have fantastic government support. Chinese contemporary artists.

Yeah. China.

The Chinese Government announced a plan in 2009 in which the cultural growth of China was deemed of great importance.

According to the Plan, contemporary art and artists will get the following support from the government: lower registration requirements for art businesses; tax relief; government direct investment (via schemes); and support from financial institutions (i.e. loans). (This info is from a fantastic and apparently credible British site, which also describes France’s cultural scene as actually quite stagnant, and resistant to the idea of the ‘creative industries.’)

This has paid off for China. According to the 2011/2 issue of ArtPrice, the well-established bi-annual market report on contemporary arts, China takes up 41% of global fine arts auction revenue. The USA is at 23%, the UK at 19%, and France at 4.5%. The other big cash earners are Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. Australia is in the remaining 7%, classed under ‘other’.

‘Great! That proves it then. Government interference in art helps that art market grow.’

True. In this case. However, I don’t think I want the government fiddling in my art. I especially don’t want the Chinese government fiddling in my art. China have a vested interest in improving their global reputation, and thus, improving their cultural output. I’m no expert on foreign relations, but I daresay Australia’s global cultural reputation is, while perhaps less elite than China, just as recognised and well-known. There are very few people in the world who don’t know what the Sydney Opera House is. An alarming amount of global citizens know where ‘Bondi’ is.

Wait, what was I talking about?

‘You still haven’t said why the Government shouldn’t support artists in a direct and meaningful way, with resources like a daily pension.’

Right. First of all, the implementation of the idea is nearly impossible. How do you classify an artist? How do you draw up criteria for that?

Secondly, the Chinese government support their artists with an over-arching agenda that is suitable to their global outlook and reputation. Australia is a different country. We’re not China. We’re not France. Part of our problem is that we don’t know who we are. Who would you prefer to answer the fundamental questions about national identity. Politicians? Or artists? Because, while some politicians are hard-working compassionate folk, they can be known to draw disturbing conclusions about the nature of art and culture. They, like large quandrants of Australia, might think it begins with the beach and ends with the Sydney Opera House.

We know it’s much more than that. And by putting out a hand to government and demanding payment simply for showing up with the promise of some great artistic product to come, we diminish the implicit pricelessness of the work we do and why we do it. Our value to society is important. But it’s no more important than lawyers, bankers, civil engineers, web designers or candle-stick makers. And none of them have a government pension specially laid out for them. If the government ever turned itself upside down to provide that for artists, the cultural growth of this country would be mortally wounded by the outrage that followed. And for assuming we’re more valuable in the first place, we’d be worthy of the shit storm that would come.