Comment

Why the arts debate is so binary and repetitive

Anna Rawhiti-Connell laments the slow erosion of arts and culture writing in this country by writing about arts and culture

I listen to classical music when I write. My haphazard approach to finding the right classical music to write to means I frequently end up defaulting to a Spotify playlist which inevitably throws a bit of Wagner into the mix. I sometimes end up breaking fingernails as I bash the keyboard too hard, at one with Brünnhilde. 

Keyboards other than mine have taken a bashing over the last few weeks, perhaps not accompanied by classical music but definitely in aid of it. The response to Radio New Zealand’s proposal to automate Concert FM and shift it off the FM frequency to make way for a youth-oriented station has been passionate, polarising, and predictable.

I say predictable because I have seen all of these arguments before. To work in the arts, as I have, is to live in a constant state of justification. And that’s sometimes fair and necessary. When you are asking for taxpayer or ratepayer funding, your job is to justify it, to spend it judiciously and frugally, and to clearly demonstrate why it matters.

But to see the same arguments put forward year after year, decade after decade suggests a lack of evolution, maturity, or even just forward momentum in our understanding of cultural products, audiences, and the landscape in which they exist. It suggests a deficit in information, dialogue, commentary, and knowledge. And look, I am as guilty of it as anyone. To suggest there’s a gap in understanding is not to call everyone who’s tweeted about the issue a philistine.

Commentary about the proposed changes, now partially put to bed after government intervention, has drawn out the time-honoured set of jabs and jibes seen and heard whenever the issue of arts funding hits the headlines. On one side, cries of ‘cultural vandalism’ and ‘dumbing down’ boom from arts aficionados. On the other, the organisation whose survival is in question is assigned to the pile of elitist, boomer pursuits that shouldn’t be funded anyway because other things should be. The discussion becomes binary and repetitive. Rest assured we’ll end up having it again about something else in five years’ time.

More than anything for me, the nature of the debate about Concert FM has highlighted the slow erosion of arts and culture writing in this country. This issue has had plenty of coverage, but most has been approached using a political or media industry lens. It’s news, I get it. This isn’t a hit on journalists doing their jobs. Nor is it an attack on those who are still doing the work of trying to cover the arts in a limited-resource environment. There are some very good arts writers in New Zealand and some outlets still giving it a worthy nudge. I treasure them.

And yes, it’s unfair to suggest that all of this be covered in the space of two weeks and yes, I am very aware of the state of media in New Zealand. I could probably write this very same argument in support of what they do, except I don’t need to because media are very good at writing about media. 

The issue remains however that arts writing has suffered as a result of what’s happened to media in this country and when issues like Concert FM or the demise of literary journals hit the headlines, it really shows. 

As of this year, there isn’t an arts writing category at the annual Voyager Media Awards. Following changes at Stuff in 2018, many arts writers were told the Stuff-owned papers would only be covering nationally significant events, leaving local creators, producers and audiences without coverage and critical review. Head to the site of one of the country’s largest newspapers and you’ll probably find a culture section that hasn’t been updated for days, or a story about romantic resorts.

What I’ve really missed in this latest cultural showdown are the broader discussions, the ones beyond the realms of personal anecdote, audience numbers, generational warfare, and media death by internet. The nuanced discussions of why Concert FM matters. What is its role in the arts ecosystem? Why does ongoing subsidy of different kinds of art matter? Contextually, what are the downstream effects of losing a distribution platform like this? What is the shape and state of classical music in New Zealand? 

One of the truly enduring gifts that working in the arts gave me is insight into how it works at a systemic level. You learn the landscape and the players. You know nothing is as simple as it seems and the real gnarly stuff lies in the nuance. You learn that subsidy of the arts in New Zealand isn’t because audience numbers are small, it’s the reality of a small population. You learn what it costs to get an orchestra in and out of a venue. You learn about the arts as an ecosystem and where some people see elite, ‘high-brow’ art forms, you see professional development opportunities, living wages, cost-sharing, a network of support, and an infrastructure that’s dependent on all its parts being in working order. As in the natural environment, killing off parts of an ecosystem - including arts media and arts writing - results in consequences and damage that can be difficult to repair.

All of that understanding shouldn’t remain the preserve of people who work in the sector. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea and perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been sustained, but it’s still important. If we value cultural outputs from our artists and creators for what they help reveal about us, we must value the essential bridges that arts writing and cultural commentary build into understanding and critiquing them.

Without consistent, robust and critical writing about culture, we end up with geyser-like bursts of interest and the same arguments that go nowhere on repeat. Without the visibility arts and culture writing provides, we end up with sector vulnerability and a lack of empathy. We end up with stereotypical judgments about audiences and we don’t move forward in our understanding. 

Unfortunately, I am not Jeff Bezos and cannot provide an immediate solution to this problem. These are the worst kinds of columns to write. ‘Here’s a problem. The Ride of the Valkyries has ended and I’m done.' But if the arts is an ecosystem and writing about the arts is a vital part of that, then hopefully I’ve at least done a bit of replanting. 

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