It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Opinion

When I pitched the idea for this column it didn’t really have a conclusion. Like most of what I write I assumed that I’d find the ending after I’d started typing, but then fate intervened and I had a conclusion even before I’d begun.

On 4 July 2020, it was announced that the relocation of Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) – better known as the Powerhouse Museum – was off. Instead of its highly controversial move from inner city Ultimo out to Parramatta in Sydney’s west – and the breakup of its collection and loss of a heritage site, and the destruction of yet another – MAAS will now be two venues. The NSW State Government spun this spectacular backflip as a gain. The Liberals will also spend money saved on renovating the Ultimo site. It’s a win/win!

The MAAS had been on my mind as I happened to drive past the museum on what was meant to be its last day in Ultimo. Its closure was just one more blow against the arts during this wretched year.

And, dear god, what a lot of them there have been.

There were the staff cuts at the ABC and the National Gallery of Australia and the consequent cuts to programming at both institutions. Then there was the paltry $250 million announced by the Federal Government for arts, months after the initial Covid-19 stimulus spending had overlooked the sector. Meanwhile, universities and their arts schools were still excluded from support, shedding jobs, barring international students from entry, and restricting most classes to online lessons.

There’s a line I like to drop into discussions that’s a kind of rhetorical show stopper: the left won the culture war.

Everything we’ve witnessed in the last 30 years has been a rear-guard action by the right to reclaim their lost ground.

The problem for the right wing is that they have nothing to offer to counter what they see as the Marxist takeover of public institutions and public debate. The talking points of the right are predictable and bereft of original thinking – name a single successful conservative or neoliberal philosophy of recent times. It’s all reactionary economics and blow-hard culture warrior stuff.

Of course, the idea that the ABC is run by communists or that universities are in the thrall of Marxism is laughable. Australia’s most visible public institutions are carefully middle of the road, searching for fake ‘balance’ and ‘both sides’ debates while most museums and galleries deploy curatorial philosophies that were old hat 20 years ago.

Indeed, in Australia the left won the culture war in the early 1990s, and it has been downhill ever since. The left became complacent and we let the bastards run us over as they reversed their Land Rovers over the arts.

You’ll notice that the Liberals in this country, be they State based or the Feds, do not as a rule have an arts policies. It’s something that can be made up as they go, or at the minister’s discretion. You’ll remember Senator George Brandis and his partial defunding of the Australia Council to set up his own renegade spending program. (Of course, not a hint of that was mentioned before the election). In NSW, the Arts Minister Don Harwin overruled advice for the funding of organisations for his own spending program. And again, this was at the minister’s discretion. Policy and accountability be damned.

It’s true: the bastards grind us down, and like good lefties everywhere, we blame ourselves first, and the other guys last.

With this avalanche of bad news I began to despair. I drove past the MAAS and thought, well, there’s another victory for stupidity. It was such a stupid idea, and so demonstrably so, that I had to marvel at the sheer gall of the NSW State Government trying to sell off valuable real estate and dress it up as a gesture to the much maligned Western suburbs and its appalling lack of art museums. If you were against the move you were supposedly against the Western suburbs. It was clever politics.

My original point for this column was this: no matter how much the right wing conservatives try to wind back the gains of contemporary liberal culture, the more we must resist. I know, it’s a hard sell when it’s nearly all bad news, and very tempting to think that a backflip by a government is a win for people power.

While there was significant mobilization against the move of the MAAS, with petitions, demonstrations and online agitation, the backflip decision to stay in Ultimo stank of a factional deal. The aforementioned NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin had been demoted from cabinet and stripped of his ministry when he was dobbed into the press by the right wing of the Libs when it was discovered he’d been living in his holiday home during lockdown, when travel was restricted.

Well, guess what? Harwin is back in cabinet and restored as Arts Minister. Huzzah for unaccountability! On nothing but my own suspicions, I reckon the deal was something like: “You can have your Arts Minister and factional boss back as long as you ditch this ridiculous MAAS move.” The State Premier Gladys Berejiklian had to agree.

But here’s why the MAAS story is universally relevant.

The backflip could only have happened because of the protests. Had we meekly gone along with it, the whole fiasco was a done deal. But resistance to the plan stretched across all demographics, through the media, over the airwaves, and online. I even experienced the weird and upsetting feeling of agreeing with Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald when he lambasted the deal in a well-timed op/ed piece.

So here’s the actual conclusion of this column: we must fight, and we must resist, and we will win again as we have done before.

Thank you, comrades.

Andrew Frost