The hub of the wheel of capitalist ideology is the rags to riches story: everyone can make it up the ladder with hard work and grit. The top of the ladder becomes, like heaven, problematic – where does everyone fit? – but it remains a key story and at its most banal involves buying the lotto ticket. There is nothing sadder than the queue at the supermarket lotto counter.
But that banality and grief turns to outrage when one realises that lotto funds the community, heritage, environment and arts sectors. When it comes to the community sector, the working class, via the rags to riches dream, funds programmes that are often necessary because of low wages and benefit levels and the dissolution that poverty causes.
When it comes to the arts sector the anger persists. The lotto buyers, who probably have never seen the inside of an opera house, fund Creative New Zealand, which gives out money which subsidises the lifestyle of the urban middle class who attend arts events, visit art galleries etc. As English writer, Justin Lewis, succinctly commented, ‘Public funding of the arts represents the redistribution of wealth from the working class to subsidise middle class entertainment and middle class aesthetics.’
When I wrote my thesis I did some number crunching and came up with the shocking supposition that in 1994 ballet attendance was subsidised by $47 a seat, mainstream theatre by $33 a seat and opera $18 a seat. I doubt that this has significantly changed. This scandal is based on the belief that the art object is something unique created by experts who need to be subsidised by the state and attempts then made to distribute that unique object as widely as possible (once again subsidised by the state). Prior to 1994, lip service was paid to the other ideological position, that the making of the art object is an activity that should be carried out as widely as possible (with expert assistance when required) and subsidised by the state on this broad and democratic basis.
Prior to 1994, lip service was paid to the latter position. There were community arts councils and regional arts council with this agenda. But with neo-liberal restructuring these were abolished and instead, community funding programmes set up and administered by local bodies, each with an annual fund based on 57 cents per head of population, and with none of this money to be spent on salaries or administration. This has resulted in 14% of Creative NZ’s money going to the community, 86% going to the middle class. Not quite 1%:99%, but getting close. And of course there’s lots of postmodern diversity spin to cover up the inequality.
The Greymouth/Mawhera based theatre group Kiwi/Possum Productions works as a community-based theatre group, exploring local issues and establishing in this way strong relationships within the community, and wider – we now have a following in Hokitika, Westport and Motueka. We have been grateful for Creative Communities funding – usually about $800 per project. This year we wanted to involve more people in a show exploring a sustainable economy. I also thought it would be good to give a koha to some of our people for the work involved, so we applied to Creative NZ for five grand. We were turned down, but the Dunedin Fringe Festival got eight grand for their opening party! There has also been a CNZ review of theatre where submissions often focused on trying to expand the theatre audience, and they are holding a Big Conversation in June to explore arts relationships with audiences. Our experience on the Coast is of no interest to them.
I therefore weep crocodile tears when I hear that lotto ticket sales have gone down significantly and that Creative NZ is going to have to pull in its belt. One day the working class might wake up to the fact that the rags to riches story is bullshit and instead make a revolution based on equality, and on the fact that all people are creative.