Austerity hacks into our cultural heritage

As I noted last Friday, the Australian government has announced it will be cutting a massive part of the budgets of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), both publicly-owned national media organisations as part of its mindless fiscal austerity push. The Minister claims there is plenty of fat in these organisations but the ABC news report (November 24, 2014) – ABC cuts: Managing director Mark Scott announces more than 400 jobs to go – tells us that nearly 1 in 10 staff will be sacked and programs scrapped to meet the funding cuts. The ABC and SBS are jewels in Australian cultural life. They support local filmmakers, musicians, artists, and advance a more sophisticated understanding of what is going on around us. I am very critical of the way they have succumbed to neo-liberal economics, but in general, the alternative is a mind-numbing Fox-type flow of game and reality shows and sensationalist news. The only thing that is worth watching on commercial TV is the coverage of AFL football and even then one has to turn the sound off and have the ABC radio commentary accompanying the TV coverage to ensure a quality experience.

The ABC is Australia’s arts and culture media institution apart from its broad coverage of international and national news and sport.

I have been thinking of the broader impacts of austerity in the last few days. Florence and Rome are both full of art obviously. It is hard to keep focused on one masterpiece on the side of a building when another catches your eye.

And while Rome pays little heed to the tourist in terms of providing infrastructure, the place is swarming with them, day-in, day-out – bringing millions of Euro a year.

But it is also clear that the austerity cuts to the arts and Italy’s art heritage are taking a toll.

I was told today that some of Italy’s treasures such as the Pompei ruins have become so degraded that they are unlikely to survive.

In 2011, one of the Roman walls at the Pompei ruins collapsed, which followed an earlier collapse of the gladiator house there.

At the time Reuters reported (October 24, 2011) – Wall collapse in Pompeii renews worries for site – said that “The UNESCO world heritage site has been hurt by poor maintenance and a lack of funds”.

In September 2012, the Daily Beast article – Italy’s Culture Falling to Ruins Amid Austerity Cuts – reported that:

Italy’s economy may be on the verge of collapse, but that’s not all that’s falling apart in the country. For the last several months, chunks of marble have been plummeting from the Colosseum, ancient walls have been reduced to rubble and even bits of the baroque Trevi Fountain have crumbled, changing forever the face of that illustrious monument. And that’s just in Rome.

The article documents further areas in Italy where there “is no money left in Italy’s tightened budget to take care of the country’s cultural heritage”. One could add that it is the World’s cultural heritage.

A walk around Rome confirms that many of the monuments and buildings are being closed to the public because they have become dangerous due to lack of maintenance.

The church at the top of the Spanish Steps is scaffolded and there is a huge advertising sign on the front as a means of raising funds.

The Daily Beast said that Rome is resorting “to selling advertising on building scaffolding to raise funds, even if it means giant posters on churches, monuments, and ancient ruins” and Italy, in general, is selling of historic buildings to raise funds for basic services as the Troika grinds the nation into the ground, aided and abetted by the surrender monkeys that constitute the Italian government.

The – Arts Council of England – provides a good source of research data on the value of the arts to the people and society, which after all is the purpose that economic policy should be directed at – increasing the value of all activities.

Their latest – Evidence Review – is interesting reading.

We learn that:

Life without the collective resources of our libraries, museums, theatres and galleries, or without the personal expression of literature, music and art, would be static and sterile – no creative arguments about the past, no diverse and stimulating present and no dreams of the future …

The inherent value of arts and culture is, in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers …

When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world. This is what we cherish.

In other words, the bean counters in Economic and Finance ministries struggle to come to terms with the value of the arts because they cannot put some asinine number on it.

The advantages of expanding the arts and culture industry include:

1. Employment and income growth. Tourism based on the arts in Italy, for example, brings billions in euros.

2. Research shows that “a higher frequency of engagement with arts and culture is generally associated with a higher level of subjective wellbeing”.

3. Social benefits include higher voting participation among those who “engage in the arts at school”, higher employability, and “participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger”.

4. Higher literacy rates and higher educational attainment in “reading and mathematics”.

However, with austerity dominating the policy mindset arts and culture funding is an easy target.

In 2012, the Dutch government cut national arts funding by 25 per cent and cuts were common in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal. The latter abolished its Ministry of Culture in its austerity mania.

The UK Guardian article – Culture cuts: where austerity measures are curtailing the arts – map – produced in August 2012, documented the funding cuts as a result of austerity across Europe and the UK by Museum, Theatre, Gallery, Orchestra, Opera, Ballet, College, Projects, etc.

It needs to be updated.

You can see a number of UK Guardian articles on the impacts of – European arts cuts.

The New York Times ran an article yesterday (November 24, 2014) documenting the downsizing of public orchestras in the US as a result of austerity cuts – Roll Over, Mahler: U.S. Orchestras Are Shrinking.

It said that:

Composers have long dreamed of bigger orchestras … But as some American orchestras struggle in the post-downturn economy, they are taking a page from the corporate world and thinking smaller: They are downsizing, shedding some full- time positions while making up the difference with less costly part-time musicians … [they now] … require a greater reliance on freelance musicians to play large-scale works … But musicians warn that an overreliance on freelancers endangers the things that make orchestras great: the cohesion that comes from playing together over many years, the performing traditions that are developed and passed down, even the ability to divine in a flash what a familiar conductor is seeking with a cocked eyebrow or a flick of the wrist.

I have played in bands for years and bands that stay together develop their sound which keeps them on the edge of creativity. Bands that get caught in a cycle of replacements, re-rehearsal etc struggle to keep a unique sound.

The Rolling Stones are an example of a band that is so honed from togetherness that they retain their edge even if the material is old (mostly).

Cutting staff and forcing them to rely on a casualised labour market to fill gaps – a strategy described as changing “labor from being quite as fixed a cost into a more variable cost” – is a sure way to reduce quality.

The New York Times article noted that:

Our belief is that no arts organization can cut itself to success, and that no business ever solved a financial problem by offering an inferior product.

Of course, the conservative neo-liberal bean counters are generally scared of the arts because it is a sector that is more likely to be critical of narrow “run out of money” policy cuts.

The former Australian Prime Minister John Howard actively sought to attack the arts including humanities in University claiming they were left-wing biased and were self-serving. What he really wanted was to suppress debate as he hacked into government support for the poor.

Austerity will leave massive human costs for decades to come. But it will also undermine the quality of life for all of us as it hacks into those sections of human endeavour that place us above the barbarians.

But then I guess the bean counters just want the rest of us to come down to where they are – in the swill.

The alternative would begin with a Job Guarantee – which could offer income security to artists, sculptors, actors, musicians etc and enrich our live in countless ways. But that would take a polity that understands the options open to a currency issuing government and also was motivated to act in the interests of all rather than a narrow section of society dominated by finance capital.

The ubiquitous and increasingly dangerous selfie stick

If there are at least 1 too many selfie-stick vendors in Florence, the numbers pales when you walk in Rome.

Selfie-sticks are long (telescopic) rods with some sort of frame for holding mobile phones on the end that allows you to take selfies with better perspective in front of a monument.

You stick the phone in the frame, hold it out in front of you, press some bluetooth connector I guess and the photo snaps. They are becoming a danger to public safety as one has to weave in and out and duck these sticks being wielded by selfie-snapping tourists.

The me-phenomenon!

I wonder what Shelley or Keats would have thought as they tripped over or were assaulted by these sticks at the Spanish Steps!

The sales staff are mostly migrant labour. I stopped to ask one of them what the conditions of employment were. His French and English was as poor as my Arabic (that is, non-existent) but in the words that did transmit between us with meaning I learned that they earn a few cents per sale and the mark-up of the supplier is huge (relatively).

Europe if replete with these self-employed, precarious migrant workers selling junk. Wages are very low and underemployment is rife.

Rolling Stones in Rome

When we went to see the Rolling Stones a few weekends ago, 18,000 people turned out to the vineyard venue near Newcastle. On June 22, 2014, 70,000 turned out to see the band play in Rome at the Circo Massimo.

There are signs like the one below posted all over Rome still protesting about the concert even though as an event it was evidently as outstanding as the show we saw in Newcastle.


The poster says that the Rolling Stones concert raised but the promoters paid the city only 7,934 euro for the use of the public space. Evidently, the public area around Circus Maximus was tied up for a week while the band erected their enormous stage.

This is what the stage looked like in the concert we saw – there are four speaker towers each with 54 huge cabinets (2 on either side). It is a mammoth construction.


Locals in Rome were dealt with by what the – local press at the time called a military occupation (“occupate militarmente”). The local roads were closed, public transport diverted and a G20 style “red zone” (“zona rossa”).

Local municipal staff and police were used to discipline traffic and the crowd and the Guardia di Finanza e Siae was deployed as an anti terrorist squad.

The culprit apparently is the Mayor of Rome. But the posters are somewhat misleading. The organisation putting them up all over Rome belongs to the Mayor’s rival.

And further investigation reveals that of the revenue of 6.5 million euros, around 4 million was allocated to clean up the area and pay for the overtime of the Rome police and security staff.


Tomorrow I am travelling back homeand unlikely to find time or connection to post.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2014 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. It’s of course ironic that Professor Mitchell should use the Arts Council England’s excellent summary of the benefits of the arts, given that their own budget and their grant budgets are to be severely cut over the years 2010 – 2015 (on top of earlier cuts).

    A little googling will show you plenty of articles and reports on this.

    The Arts Council handled the effects of the reductions, and attempted to keep the art show on the road, in a complex manner: for example their own administrative costs are to be cut from GBP 22m to 11m; while their grants to organizations were reduced in different ways. However the net effect was that many smaller organizations lost their funding altogether, and there was a general emphasis on making sure that the bulk of the funding that remained went to proven past success (to be fair, not necessarily ‘safe’ organizations, although it does help to be the Royal Opera House).

    There are plenty of interests in the UK that would be salivating over the hatchet job on the ABC, and seeing some great models for their ongoing onslaught on the BBC. Needless to say, some of these interests are the same people as those in Australia.

    I could go on, but I’ve just come back from a depressing visit to my local library, having found that the only periodicals they subscribe to these days are the sort that you could read in hairdressers. This is absolutely nothing against hairdressers or coffee shops or my doctor’s surgery, but public libraries are meant to provide something a bit more … er … difficult to read than ‘Let’s Talk’ – ‘East Anglia’s best loved magazine’. I won’t even start on the choice of ‘novels’ – but the words ‘airport lounge’ come to mind.

  2. Bill, when I was in Italy in 2012, we could see first-hand how many sites in Pompeii were closed off because of lack of funds for maintenance. One of the problems is lack of funding, the other is unfortunately corruption.
    Aside from that, we came across archaeological sites in Sardinia, that were dug up and then left aside. No effort was made to develop these places for their tourism/cultural potential. Tourism is clearly one area of a nation’s economy that needs the government to spend money. After all who is going to promote a country or region, the private sector? Not likely. If the Italian government were to invest money in tourism infrastructure, it would clearly help with the huge unemployment and desperation faced in some of the poorer regions of Italy, e.g. Sardinia, Calabria, etc

  3. The question needs to be asked: are the budget cuts imposed on the ABC and SBS simply part of the government’s mindless austerity program (i.e. because they are soft targets and in the firing line), or are these cuts being made specifically as payback for perceived (i.e. not necessarily real) political bias shown by these publicly funded national broadcasters? Either way, the Abbott government stands condemned for its short-sighted and destructive approach. And it was irritating to witness the respective ministers for finance and communications pathetically attempting to defend the PM’s untruth – that these bodies would not receive cuts during his first term of office. More annoying was their denial that these cuts are in fact cuts. What fools do they take the public for?

  4. It is very distressing that the SBS and ABC faces such severe funding cuts, but no overly surprising. Anyone who has done some research into the Liberal party’s recent history in their approach to managing the economy will see they tend towards austerity, regardless of whether we are booming or depressed. Like John, however, i wonder what the motivation behind these cuts are truly about. Is it just a simple but thoughtless slice and dice approach to any and all areas of federal funding or is it because they want the public to have less access to information that is critical of their policies? Possibly it is a little bit of both. It isn’t a hard stretch to imagine that any government that seeks to shut down access to information on policies such as those surrounding asylum seekers, whistleblowers or critical journalism, would have no qualms in cutting down a broadcaster that has generally held the government to account (both Labor and Liberal). The loss will be enormous, not just the quality of journalism that the ABC and SBS has consistently provided, but with the educational programmes and inform and enlighten viewers. With private broadcasters dishing more and more of the same mind numbing array of vacuous, narcissistic and sensationalist programmes and advertisements, Australia simply cannot afford to be less educated and informed. Sadly, i fear that the anti-intellectual movement is growing rather than receding considering the lack of rampant outrage levelled at Abbott and all his broken promises in contrast to Gillard’s one “broken promise”.

  5. Dear John (at 2014/11/25 at 13:17)

    You ask:

    What fools do they take the public for?

    The fools they are (excuse the tense clash!). We, the public generally, are to blame for the whole neo-liberal mess. And it is in our hands to change things.

    best wishes

  6. Thanks for that thought Bill.

    I was drawing attention to the transparent lack of logic (as well as honesty) in the statements of these two ministers. I would suggest that most people would understand the hollowness and lack of integrity. Certainly the journalists picked it up.

    It seems to me that there are at least two sorts of fools in this world: (a) those who are incapable of handling, or appropriately responding to, the use of logic in a discussion (I do not include the average person in the street in that category), and (b) those who are insufficiently aware that their opinions and understanding of the world are being deliberately controlled and manipulated by powerful vested interests who have grabbed control of most of the mass media (and in that category I would definitely include the average person in the street). George Orwell was correct in his prediction of the way in which future societies would be controlled; he simply got the dates wrong.

    The general public can only change things when their eyes are truly opened to the reality of what is happening around them and in the world at large, and they develop a determination to change it. We live within a matrix, in which what is sense is portrayed as nonsense, while what is nonsense is portrayed as sense. My point is that one cannot pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. In the absence of understanding, real change for the better is impossible.

  7. I am afraid I do not believe in state broadcasters.
    They are very much part of the problem.
    All export activity including tourism is likely to collapse soon – investment in such things is now a dead end.
    When the collapse comes large urban conurbations will implode.
    The true heart of Europe is village life , the simple things done well which is why the euro system seeks to totally destroy real market town activity.

    No offence bill but I much prefer the late keith Floyd as my tour guide.

  8. The last descent Irish state programme was halls pictorial weeklyfrom the late 70s era.

    It represented the people of the regions rather then what Dublin 4 wanted to project.
    It had that skibbereen eagle way bout it

    It was anti corporate , anti Europe and deeply suspicious of maoist productivity drives
    It was effectively shut down by the state apparatus during the early 80s euro productivity drive10

  9. When the Rabid Rabbott & Co were elected in 2013 it was obvious to Blind Freddie where they were heading. That was confirmed by Hokey’s first budget in May 14. This was a litany of broken promises.
    At that time I advocated,via my local Labor MHR and 2 Greens Senators,that the Senate deny supply and force the LNP to a double dissolution election which they would have lost.
    But no,they didn’t have the cojones for that so here we are stuck with a regressive and extremely destructive federal government.

    Failing an armed rebellion we will have to wait till 2016 to get shot of the vermin.

  10. ‘I am afraid I do not believe in state broadcasters. They are very much part of the problem\’

    I am afraid I do not believe in human beings. They are very much a part of the problem.

    Baby, bathwater. There are state broadcasters and there are state broadcasters. Even the worst are preferable to Fox.

    If the USA had had an active public broadcaster postwar as Aust enjoyed with the ABC, it would not have gone into Iraq and possibly not Vietnam. All sorts of awful outcomes could have been at least mitigated if not avoided altogether.

    One reason Australia has been so attractive for so long to outsiders is the cultural health fostered and developed by the ABC. If the government had the balls to run a referendum on cuts to ABC/SBS it would be on the receiving end of one of the worst floggings in democratic history, an historic own goal even they would not be stupid enough to kick.

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