Creativity under “short-sighted assault” in Australia – David Williamson

NTEU Newsrooom     |    16 November 2012

Playwright David Williamson says that creativity, the single most important driver of both economic growth and a rich and interesting life, is under short-sighted assault by both sides of the political divide in Australia.

Williamson made the comments as part of the hour-long National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Lecture presented to a packed audience at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle.

Entitled “Living dangerously: The future of creative arts education in Australian universities”, the lecture reflected on Williamson’s own career, traversed what is happening to the creative arts within higher education in Australia and put the case for greater funding and institutional support.

Williamson, the creator of more than 40 plays, studied Mechanical Engineering, which led to a lectureship in engineering at Swinburne Institute (now University) of Technology in Melbourne.

“I once heard myself being used as an argument against funding for creative training. This kind of attitude stems from a belief that some of us are born with great creative talent that will flower under any circumstances, that the creative act is spontaneous, a divine spark that has to be expressed, and will appear fully formed as an inevitable consequence of inborn genius,” he said.

“Looking at the history of creative writing, nothing could be further from the truth. Some people may be more innately gifted than others but without a testing ground and lots and lots of feedback and mentoring, that talent will find it hard to develop.

“I was lucky enough to be part of a ‘mini-Elizabethan London’ when small theatres sprang up around Carlton in the late sixties and early seventies, determined to find and express Australian voices, something almost totally absent from our own main stages which then overwhelmingly did English and American plays with the odd one from Europe.

“What happened in Shakespeare’s time is exactly what the best creative writing courses do now. They make students produce work not occasionally but often, and then have that work subjected to the beadle-eyed scrutiny, not just of their teachers, but their fellow students. Creativity has to be learned just like anything else.”

Williamson argued that Australia was blessed with some of the world’s best in their respected fields.

“People like Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Hugh Jackman, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Robyn Nevin and Baz Lurhmann didn’t come to their roles by accident. They had the benefit of a rigorous training that helped them become the true professionals they are today,” he said.

“It’s national short-sightedness to a culpable degree to cut creative arts training in our tertiary institutions. Our society needs artists and artists need training. The creative arts are about helping people to develop their own unique talents, giving them techniques that will help them create their visions, and showing them ways of getting to their destinations.”

Williamson attacked the state governments of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria which, he said, were hell bent on ripping money out of the TAFE system.

“The area in which the cuts are most savage is the creative arts. Creative courses on university campuses are under just as much threat, but here it’s not the bloody minded anti-arts mentality of conservative state governments that’s to blame but the gradual python squeeze of less and less university funding for which the federal government must take the blame.

“Despite increases in university funding by the Labor Government, these increases have not kept up with inflation or increasing student load and in essence our universities are asked to do more with less. Funding levels for higher education have dipped to just 0.7 percent of GDP as against the OECD average of 1 percent.”

According to Williamson,” there were several reasons why the creative faculties tend to do badly when money is short, even when it’s known that the arts sector contributes $30 billion a year to the GDP, more than agriculture, forestry and fishing combined.

“Funding in a university flows from the number of students you teach and how effective you are as a research institution. In creative arts the teaching often has to be one-on-one. Often space and infrastructure needs are larger in creative arts training than in other faculties. You can’t teach dance in a tutorial room. And you need a sprung floor to make sure your dancers survive into their second year.

“You can’t teach javelin throwing in a tutorial room either, but in the arena of sport, high quality one-on-one teaching and hugely expensive facilities are par for the course and never begrudged by governments. The overall cost of our Olympic gold medals was in excess of $17 million dollars per medal but that was thought to be not nearly enough investment by many who oversee our elite sports institutions.

“Why as a society we think it’s legitimate to spend huge amounts on our sportsmen and women, but seemingly don’t think the relative pittance we spend on developing a potential Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush is as justifiable, has to say something about our national and political priorities.”

Williamson argued that it was national short-sightedness to a culpable degree to cut creative arts training in our tertiary institutions.

“[The] effectiveness of arts training could be greatly facilitated if we noted Elizabethan London and got our creative arts students out into an apprenticeship situation. Just as lawyers do articles and medical students become residents, Australian creative students could benefit immeasurably from working mentorship in appropriate areas of the performing arts and film and television.”

Williamson said that the new national curriculum in the nation’s schools was being hamstrung by the lack of qualified music, drama dance and art teachers. “That is plain dumb,” he said.

“So, in summary, the creative arts are expensive to teach, and current funding models do not recognise the costs of funding those things that help develop elite artists. As a result, we are in danger of overseeing a significant downgrading of creative arts education at an elite level.”

The annual NTEU Lecture offers a free public forum for an eminent Australian to present unique perspectives on aspects of higher education and its impact on the economic, social and cultural frameworks of Australian society. The inaugural lecture was presented last year by Professor Ian Chubb, Australia’s Chief Scientist.


Living dangerously: The future of creative arts education in Australian universities.


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