In this guest blog, Amy Mansfield questions whether we should be celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, when, as she puts in, we still live in a ‘he-state’. Amy describes the finite games of the ‘cultural sector’, in which artists compete with each other for funding and children are trained to produce ‘cookie-cutter’ works. Why do we so often crush the creativity at the centre of culture? Why do we overlook the play of women – as artists, nurturers, teachers, and volunteers? Has women’s suffrage really transformed our nation into one in which the talents and offerings of women and men are equally valued?
125 years of suffrage is a good time to come together to commiserate about the he-state of our nation.
Just as access to the voting booth does not presuppose access to justice, nor does it grant access to the arts, which continue to be the realm of the private-lessons privileged on the one hand, and the impoverished, art-for-arts-sake margins on the other.
We might have a political democracy, but a cultural democracy we do not.
The leaders of our cultural institutions – organisations charged with protecting and growing our culture (note: singular), whatever that may be – are mostly male, mostly unrepresentative, mostly programming the old and new masters. We get so used to their taste, we don’t stop often enough to question why their menu tastes the same as last year’s, or where the mighty mistresses are. Fearless leaders aren’t usually in their positions for as long as ours typically hold theirs. We have an oligarchy of ageing top-dogs who have no place to go in the stasis of our cultural sector – no well-paid directorships or consultancies like those their corporate sector counterparts enjoy.
To the extent Money talks – and by some measures, measures we are forced to take, it’s the only one talking – the money our democracy, via its funding bodies, pays its artists is arguably dirty: it’s the takings from gamblers and addicts, pokey-machine peoples hoping for a windfall despite the odds stacked so against them. It props up our lottery-dependent institutions, their ‘high’-culture-plus-mandatory-outreach programmes, their not-as-fair and fearful salarymen leaders. It gets packaged up into grants and residencies we make our artists scrap for like Spanish bulls in an unlevel arena actually called a round, and it goes round and round. We don’t talk very much about where it comes from.
The fringes of our democracy are peopled by un-salarywomen. Contractors, part-timers, volunteers. People who are more likely to be on a ‘contributions holiday’ from our democratic product, Kiwisaver, and will be worse off in the long run as well as the short, people who are looking after children and elders and other fringe-dwellers in between ‘gigs’, chasing payment of their meagre invoices late into the night. If they have a voice, more often than not it’s a part-time voice, and they have to shout harder to be heard in the centre. They womansplain things in terms of #metoo to deniers, who populate the comments section of just about every article reporting a female success or a programme of positive discrimination. They have to pretend they believe in a meritocracy when the stats show the modus operandi is to reward the masculine regardless.
Everyone’s a guy these days. It’s hey guys, you guys, those guys. What about the dolls? The talk of diversity – in which more than half the population is defined as ‘the other’, lumped together with every other ‘identity’ interest group – is invoked left, right and centre within our cultural institutions, but the walk ain’t walked. If it were, they would be truly flexible for those (mostly) dolls with care responsibilities; they would have space, or make space, for diverse needs to be played over, not out, within their buildings, so these dolls and their charges were visible, audible and constant, not remote and ephemeral.
A cultural democracy would produce an education system that was flowering, not floundering. What use is the idea of universal when universities, which should be about everything in the universe, are increasingly interested in nothing, when one tertiary institution after another, led by austere, appointed men, decimates its arts faculty, citing their own neglect and a failure to look like other faculties, missing the point that not doing so is, and should of course be, the point? Advocates for these withering faculties desperately talk about the revenue the creative industries contribute because they can’t penetrate the glazed looks penny-pinching bureaucrats adopt when they talk of other measures, other currencies, other ways of conceiving of an economy. It’s all about the numbers: What’s the bottom line?
Our underpaid, mostly female teachers, charged with indoctrinating our children with our his-tory, our democracy, are given a pittance of training on the arts, then we are surprised when the best our underfunded schools can do is once a year present an offering of cookie-cutter children’s art which PTAs, peopled mostly by volunteering women, expect parents to fork out for at auctions. Nobody questions the message this gives our children, namely that we manufacture art-product inside the lines and then we commodify it, and that is the only way we do it, and we celebrate that with an event. Even these limited attempts at promoting creative expression within the educational setting are more an exercise in oppression.
Our education system, bleating on about the 3Rs plus technology, is designed to churn out coders and yes-men, not critics and naysayers. Why nurture a critic anyway? The space for them is squeezed like the lemons they are. It’s New Zealand, so you have to be nice (if you’re a woman), or funny (if you’re a man), or both (but then whaddarya?). It’s a small country, and people have long memories.
But we should be grateful we’ve got the vote, eh? Remember that.
Yeah, right. We have far to go.
Amy Mansfield is an independent producer and writer with a background in law, literature and music. She has worked in a variety of roles across the art forms in the New Zealand arts sector. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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