Changing the Culture

Changing the Culture

I’ve got my dander up.

Earlier this month, the Sydney Morning Herald printed a story about authors pushing for tax-free status on literary prizes. The Australian Society of Authors has raised the point after noting the discrepancy between the Prime Minister’s [tax-free] Awards and the Premier’s Literary [taxed] Awards (among private awards). To me it seems like a redundant activity to spill money out of one pool and then take a bit back, but my dander is not concerned about about the efficiency of financial transactions. What really got me with that article was the the comments section, showing vitriolic disregard for the plight of the artist, and a general lack of social conscience (in the context of literature, anyway). Are Australians really this hostile about the value of the arts?

There were many comments which suggested artists don’t deserve any kind of assistance, best summed up by Seamus who writes:

I can’t buy this argument. So if I don’t earn enough money from my chosen career I should be given tax free status for any “gift” income I derive from it?Whatever happened to suffer for your art? Must everyone in the country be seeking a handout?

It’s true that some artists need to become better business people, but let’s start with the fact that they were primarily talking about awards. Not everyday income tax. They are literally pointing out a logical inconsistency between two parallel government awards. But beyond that – the question is not whether or not any given chosen income ‘deserves’ to have tax free status. It’s about whether we, as a culture, value the product in the context of its independent capability to be sustainable. In this case we are talking about writers, and more specifically, some national literary awards: industry standard awards in their field.

To illustrate a couple of comparisons: We, the Sporting Nation, allow (probably support!) Olympic medal incentive payments to be considered “not assessable” by the ATO. Athletes can follow their chosen career path and if they happen to get a nationally recognised award, they are provided with tax-free status on that amount. (Shall I call it a ‘handout’, Seamus?).  Separately, in the early 2000’s the Australian government wanted to boost the wine industry, so they introduced a rebate system for small-to-medium wine producers. These robust rebates “were estimated to cost the Australian Federal Budget $A300 million in 2016”, and suddenly saw all of us (or our accountants) answering questions about wine on our annual tax returns. Why can’t we help the struggling arts industry in the same way? To provide another angle: Lottery winnings are tax free. So we have tax respite for drinking, gambling and sports without evoking hostility from the SMH-reading public but not for creativity, expression and beauty. To me, the latter things are the highest peaks of what it means to be human, but they are also things – perhaps because they are innate to the core of our beings, like air and sunshine – that we are least willing to pay for. And Seamus wants them taxed too.

The word ‘handout’ really stuck with me from Seamus’ comment. Doesn’t pre-tax award money belong to its recipient? Doesn’t that technically make tax a hand ‘in’? ‘Handout’ has very derogatory connotations which illustrate Seamus’ apparent despise of the arts, and which brought me to question what our social conscience is around keeping the arts sustainable. I almost typed ‘self-sufficient’ there – but it’s not, and it’s not going to be. Social conscience means we value things collectively as a contribution to what humans are, not just whether we personally engage with it. Seamus’ comment appears to be an overly simplistic reduction which misinterprets the original intent of the statement and forgets that fairness isn’t about everyone getting the same treatment. It’s about everyone getting what they need.

However, I would like to take it a step further and talk about income tax for artists. Being creative involves a lot of no-output down time. Artists need time and space to experiment. Writers re-word and edit things after sleeping on it. Musicians practice hours a day with just that one paid gig at the end of the week (if they’re lucky). Visual artists paint several studies before coming to their final product. It’s this stuff that we need to fund – not just the one glossy product you can purchase. And after spending time in visual arts galleries – where I can see a painting (quite rightly) for sale for about a month’s wages (because that’s how much time it took to create) – I can see why it’s worth that much. Providing some kind of respite to artists would help bring the cost of art down, make it more accessible, and help it build a wider (more sustainable) audience.

Fairness isn’t about everyone getting the same treatment. It’s about everyone getting what they need.

I have been mulling over how to improve the arts funding landscape, and part of that has been wondering how to lobby for tax-free status for artists. You know, like churches get. Since artists tend to make such little money in the first place, and anything they do make is put to good use by either enabling them to stay in their profession or (at best) broaden and expand their projects, low (or no) tax status for artists seems like a no-brainer to me.

The underlying message from government has been that artists need to be more self-sufficient, more resourceful and find their own funding. With AP, artists can do that and I genuinely believe that a good arts funding strategy is a diverse one and not dependent on any singular stream. So let’s at least have parity with the taxing of arts awards alongside athletics, if not parity with the wine, lottery, sporting or religious industries.

Or perhaps just a little rebate now and again. Strong Art. Strong Culture.