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The colour of money is ruining art


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon </em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

I have been painting my back fence. Not rust prevention; pictures. Figuration for the new year. It's a stupid thing to do. The work is slow and paint is costly. Dogs pee on my genius and quite likely someone will come along and graffiti over it.

But it's fun. People stop and chat about Jeffrey Smart, pit bull genetics, the dark truths of public housing corridors or their days flying hash out of Cambodia and Kathmandu.

And though the piece itself is poor, it seems to me - quite irrationally - as valuable a product of my eight years' hand-eye training as anything from which I've made money.

Which raises a question. It's the same question that underlies the government's de-funding of all NSW TAFE fine arts courses from Monday coming. Why educate?

At first glance, the axing of TAFE arts sounds quasi-plausible. Boring, yes. Draconian even, but really, in hard times, what's more important, ceramics or real estate?

This goes to the heart of what we are about.

Fine arts courses are "very popular", the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, conceded when announcing the cuts in September. Yet "job prospects and completion levels … are low when compared with skills shortage areas such as health, community services, property and business services".

Job prospects? Completion levels? For artists? Square-shouldered power-breakfasts demanding more artists? Junior required for lifelong underpaid apprenticeship that could yield some unimagined earth-shatterer or could just go nowhere? Hello?

Certainly, job prospects would be low-ish for the 800 TAFE art tutors axed from Monday. Almost as low as completion levels for the 4000 students suddenly unable to finish their courses.

The arts community, rightly furious, rallies, determined to justify its existence in units these dullards will understand. Jobs. Dollars.

And there are studies - mountains of them - showing the economic contribution of the arts. We don't value the art or the teaching, but studying its dollar value, this is the university grant committee's cup of tea. Naturally, what such studies find depends on how they reckon.

But in any case, economic benefit is not the point.

Forcing the arts to justify their existence in dollar terms is like addressing the inquisition in glossolalia. It makes their point for them.

The Redfern gallery owner Damien Minton calls this a war on creativity. "Creativity will never fit neatly into an economic determinist Excel spreadsheet. The visual arts is irritating and the word culture immediately makes the eyes roll."

But it's not just arts-bashing. It's also TAFE-bashing.

There is a temptation, exacerbated by John Dawkins's 1990s ''universitisation'' of the technical colleges, to regard TAFE as a second-rate rump. This makes TAFE arts the lowest of the low; the gay whales of the education world. For the bully boys of NSW government (who cave in to shooters and private schools, attack refugees and artists), TAFE arts is the softest, easiest target.

Easy, but wrong. TAFE's skills-based education is no less valuable, and in some cases more, than universities' theory-based version.

In the fine arts especially, TAFE's skill emphasis plugs a yawning gap left by the ever more academic university courses.

Minton again: ''The vast majority of artists this gallery presents teach in the TAFE system, passing on their knowledge and skills for eight to 10 hours a week. Without it, their art practice becomes vulnerable and precarious." Further, "the first solo exhibitions by emerging artists staged at this gallery have invariably been recent graduates from TAFE".

But arts education is never solely vocational. It is a second-chance route back into society for people who have been marginalised, a rehabilitation, a balm for shattered souls.

If you don't believe me, watch Roy Faamatala's recent film about Sydney homelessness where, for ex-crim Gabriel, TAFE photography is the path to redemption.

This neo-Thatcherite arts-bashing is only the tip of what's proposed. In 2014, NSW will follow Victoria and Queensland into the so-called ''voucher'' system favoured by neo-liberal ideologues. Under the suitably Orwellian-sounding label ''Smart and Skilled'', it will license providers to compete with TAFE, with results, no doubt, every bit as reassuring as the deregulation of building certification.

They argue customer choice. Bollocks. How can a school leaver, a homeless person - or indeed anyone - tell which hairdressing or crane-driving course is the best? How will they even pay for it?

Such a system favours providers with advertising dollars, and students with money, since technical courses will cost like university courses.

It's not pro-choice: it's anti-quality. We will dismantle a grand, century-old institution simply to reinforce the corporate stranglehold on our culture. Why, after Thatcherism came so close to destroying the entire house of cards, would we trust it with our most valued, most precious asset, our education?

A Scandinavian comparison is instructive. In recent decades, Sweden and Finland have massively reformed their education systems, but in opposite directions. In 1992, Sweden adopted the Freidmanite voucher system while Finland, 20 years earlier, repudiated the competition argument and banned private schools. For 40 years, all Finnish schooling, from day care on, has been state funded. Teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their jobs are sought after; many are rejected, and 30 per cent of children receive some special learning assistance.

They teach as though it mattered; as though preparing children not for some career market, but for life.

The results? Finland, which neither streams students nor rates schools, consistently tops global league tables, in both Pearson and OECD rankings, while Sweden hangs about 15th and Australia hovers around 10th, two or three below New Zealand and consistently heading south.

What it shows is that education, like the arts, is not about money. It may depend on money, and it may make money, but money is neither its purpose nor its measure.

This is too nuanced for Treasury's bovver boys, who see arts as a soft option, signalling inadequacy. Who know only what they can kick.

It's hard to believe we still need to make these arguments. Look around. As happiness season kicks in, queues are forming for next year's clappy conventions, where high-achieving professionals pay hundreds of dollars to hear the Dalai Lama confirm there is more to happiness than being able to pay for happiness conventions.

There's art, for one. Your back fence to paint, and mine.

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