In 2008, I attended my first World Crafts Council meeting in Hangzhou, China. I remember walking into an auditorium with rows of seats, each of which was festooned with a country’s flag. I was ushered down the front and took my seat in front of the Australian flag. I looked around and saw people pointing at me, saying “Look, Australia’s back”.
At that stage, I was just an individual hoping to get UNESCO endorsement for a project via support from WCC. Little did I realise that I was occupying a vacant seat for my nation. Since then, I have sat around the board table with the heads of craft organisations from Asian nations, representing Australia and its South Pacific sub-region. I have seen millions spent on events in Asia bringing craftspersons from across the world. Every country seemed to have pride in its crafts, supported by the national government.
Meanwhile, my own country had de-funded its national craft platform, Craft Australia. I saw the amazing opportunities for my country in connecting with this network. It was not only individual craftspersons who stood to gain, but also Australia’s place in the region. We had the capacity to demonstrate our respect for this dimension of creative life that is the subject of such pride in our neighbours.
With the support of some dedicated individuals, we have been able to resuscitate the World Crafts Council – Australia as a national link to this network. At the moment, it is a volunteer organisation, responsible for representing the nation at international assemblies. Seems a little odd, doesn’t it?
The divestment of state responsibility is not unique to the crafts. The erosion of funding to the Australia Council has rendered the organisation unable to develop a strategic plan for the sector. The little available funding is distributed by artists in a system of peer review. This tends to support artists making work, which is certainly critical. But there is little space for initiatives that might expand the audience for what is produced. This does nothing to counterbalance the esoteric tendencies in much contemporary practice and confirms the conservative opinion that arts are a narrow interest group focused only on themselves.
It could be argued that this abnegation of government extends to other areas as well, not the least of which is the responsibility for the health of the planet. There is a danger that the process of government is increasingly conducted in conversation with professional lobbyists and decisions are reduced to short-term interests. In previous years, I’ve been able to have conversations with arts bureaucrats and embassy officials about furthering our national interests. Recently, I’ve seen their horizon of engagement increasingly narrowed to the tasks at hand.
As a result, we’ve seen NGOs emerge such as the Climate Council that attempt to make up for this lack of long-term thinking. This is just as necessary in areas such as Australian craft. A nation’s capacity to skillfully engage with materials is a core element of its creative ecology. Craft involves a care and patience in dealing with the world. These are admirable aspects of our national character, at least much as tenacity and strength in sport. Yet, it is left up to individual Australians to oversee this national capacity.
What do we make of our “lucky country”? What will the future show for our time on this continent beyond a series of holes in the ground?
Returning responsibility for a nation back to individuals does have benefits. It provides a chance to critically examine whether something is worth preserving. In the end, is there a real community of concern? I’ve been to enough public forums on the arts to know that they inevitably end with calls for some kind of government action. This offers a plausible conclusion, but rarely are there government representatives present to hear this call.
That said, a domain that is governed by individuals can have trouble being accessible to the public. It tends to grow organically based on friendship networks. The formalisation of a state body is important for presenting a domain in the public sphere for general interest. It can also exercise the capacity of government to coordinate interests across the nation. We should never lose sight of this need.
For the time being, we continue in hope that neoliberalism is a temporary phase and future governments will be able to focus more on the public good. Now we are left “holding the baby”, we need to be resolute about the future.
There have been many other times in history which called for such fortitude. During the freedom struggle of India’s independence, activists fanned out across the country to raise awareness about the potential for liberation. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore composed a haunting tune, Ekla Chalo Re, for these to sing on their lonely path:
If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou unlucky one,
open thy mind and speak out alone.
This was Gandhi’s favourite song and he used it to inspire people to join the Salt March in 1930. This plucky independence struggle seems another world from our first world conditions today, but its resilient spirit still has something to teach us.