Art for Art's Sake
Money for God's Sake

Copyright © Paul Brown 1997
All Rights Reserved
This is an expanded version of a presentation given at the Australian Commonwealth Department of Communication and the Arts (DCA). The Forum was called Australian Culture Online: Online and new media access to Australia's cultural resources and was held on Thursday 9 October 1997 at the department's offices in Canberra.


"Good afternoon everyone. Today I'd like to address three topics.

  1. I'll start by discussing how artists are using internet;
  2. then express concerns about how artists are used and abused in the new information economy;
  3. and finally reflect on the fact that new media are emergent.

fineArt forum - an artists gateway to the internet

"fineArt forum is possibly the longest running art `zine on the internet. It was established in April 1987 and specialises in news and information about art & technology. Over the past decade its main format has been a monthly email digest. Most of our back issues are online and so we also provide a primary research tool for anyone interested in the history of art & technology.

"fineArt forum is primarily a data resource with two sets of clients: those who provide information and; those who consume it. For our email digest both those clients come from the same group and are mostly creators and theorists with a professional interest in the field. Currently the email digest has about 1500 subscribers and this figure has remained pretty stable since I took over as editor in 1992.

"In January 1994 we launched as one of the first web-based art `zines. Our readership quickly grew and we now estimate that we have upwards of 15,000 readers each month. So our information consumer client group has grown and now includes a majority of people with a more general interest in art & technology.

"Our content has diversified and been modified to reflect this change in readership. When we launched on the web we included a gallery space. Although it has lain fallow for some time it hosts the international indigenous art site Trophies of Honor (which featured in the Australian Embassy in Washington's newsletter last year) and Neil Degney's Mail Art Archive. Both of these are independently curated and maintained.

"We recently established a relationship with the Communication Design Department at QUT. This offers the opportunity for young people to work on the publication. Our current student interns range in age from 16 to 30 years old and they bring a wealth of lateral skills to the project. They range from computer science undergraduates to mature students with experience in broadcast television production.

"The department itself was recently established (within the experimental ethos of QUT's Academy of the Arts) in order to specifically address the paradigm shift that will be generated by the increased assimilation of digital communication technologies within society. The Communication Design field is also refreshingly free of the pretentious avant-gardeism that still epitomises much of the fine arts.

"It is an excellent home for FineArt Forum and I remain optimistic that this new relationship will enable us to remain at the leading edge of the communication revolution during our second decade.

"With this new support we have launched a reviews and features section. In the long term we have an ambition to become a online art and technology magazine. A major problem is how to pay contributors. Currently all fineArt forum workers are voluntary. Although this is fine for the news and information section I believe that for commissioned features and curated gallery shows we must pay professional level fees.

"Like many internet `zines subscription is free. We want to keep it that way and so have to find alternative ways of funding our activity.

fineArt forums web resources section

"fineArt forum's most popular section is Web Resources which is moderated by Jeliza Patterson at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA. It's a listing of art sites on Web. Although it's certainly not comprehensive it's nevertheless very useful. Organisations like Christies and the Getty Foundation use this resource and refer it to others.

"It provides an interesting window on how artists use the internet. Apart from use for research the two categories are pretty obvious:

  • artist who are putting work online to attract audience and;
  • artists who are using the web as a unique creative medium
"In the first case it's very easy to put a web site together. All you need is a one day short course or one of the many tutorial books that address the area. For the most efficient solution ask your kids to create your web space.

"Currently internet accounts are cheap and most include a "free" web space of between half and five mbytes. Alternatively many artist are using web hosts like Geocities who offer free space.

"However, just putting your page up on the `net is a bit like publishing 10,000 colour catalogues then leaving them in the spare bedroom.

"It's not easy to get an audience to see your work. Sending announcements of a site to online listings like fineArt forum will help. Our monthly Web Spaces section features up to 60 entries each month and is probably just the "tip of iceberg". Just like in the "real world" it's marketing and promotion that will get your site the hits.

"So now we are seeing a new service industry. People who market web sites. Some call themselves "galleries", others are just promotion agencies. All of them cost money. Typical fees range from US$50 to $500.

"From what I see I believe that very few of them work in terms of a return to the artist such as increased sales or offers of exhibitions. It concerns me that artists are being exploited in this way.

Cultural Tourism

"There is a rapidly increasing use of the internet for both regional and national promotion. As some of you know I was the IT consultant (working with Helen Tyzack) to the Mackay Regional Heritage Network Project funded by this Department in 1996

"As part of my research I discussed tourist promotion with several local councils. The Mayor of Mirani had flown down to meet me from Cairns. He commented that planes leaving Cairns that morning for the Islands were full to capacity whilst the Mackay flight that he had caught was mostly empty. He speculated that if just 10% of the tourists decided to rent a car and drive down the mainland before catching a boat out to the islands the economy of the seaboard towns would improve dramatically.

"We discussed promotional web sites which would include local cultural industries and heritage organisations who could add significant value and would directly contribute to the promotion.

"This is not without it's problems. Many of the regions heritage museums are housed in insecure properties and a web site could offer a "shopping list" for criminals together with an indication of the best time to break in.

"Nevertheless I believe that there is a significant chance of success in these cultural tourism initiatives. That success can be measured in different ways like national prestige or increased tourism.

"But here again - who benefits?

"It `s obvious that hoteliers, car hire companies, petrol stations, restaurants, bars, tour operators and the local council will directly benefit from increased tourism.

"But will the cultural and heritage sector benefit? It seems clear to me that for most the benefits will be insubstantial or non existent.

"100 more visitors to the wonderful Greenmount Museum in Mackay represent a $400 per annum increase in revenue to the Heritage Society. Whilst such a sum will be welcome let's compare it to the $7500 per night revenue that those 100 visitors represent to the local hotel industry. If we estimate that each tourist is worth $150 each day to the community then the benefit to Greenmount is less than 0.01% of the total. It's a figure that is hugely disproportionate to the museum's value to both the local and tourist community.

"So here again we see the creative and heritage sector investing significant energy in supporting a promotional initiative. They contribute something of real value (if only their volunteers time). However this substantial investment is unlikely to have a direct or proportional return.

"It's my opinion (and I speak as an ageing modernist socialist) that the way forward is to tax those members who do make profits and redistribute this tax revenue to support members who don't directly benefit.

"We should recognise that the Cultural Sector is an essential component of a healthy society and, despite all rhetoric about Cultural Industries, we must also recognise that many components of the cultural sector do not (and cannot be expected to) directly generate profit. The inverse of this is equally clear. We cannot measure the success of the cultural sector in terms of its ability to generate profit.

"As I'm sure you, of all people, are aware this is not a popular message for conservative governments with their rational economic "user pays" policies.

New Paradigm

"Like many others I believe that the development of new media will represent a major paradigm shift and introduce an entirely new way of recording and commenting on the human condition.

"I have been searching for historical models since user friendly interfaces first commercially appeared in the early 80's.

"The development of the wet plate process by Daguerre and Fox-Talbot was followed by a forty year hiatus before the portraits by Margaret Cameron establish a unique photographic aesthetic. In cinema the invention of the motion picture transport by the Lumiere brothers in France and Edison in the USA needed a forty year transition before `Russian montage' evolved and the language of cinematography matured.

"In the early days of photography artists made pastiches of their academic paintings. In cinema the camera was pointed at the theatre's proscenium arch and the action was filmed from the audiences perspective. Improved lenses allowed close-ups then conjunction by montage, or editing, completed the `grammar' and the new language was, essentially complete. We watch feature films of the mid 1920's and see complete works that are in essence little different from today's cinema narratives.

"Now we see new media being used to mimic traditional ones. Are we within a 40 year process and, if so, when is it likely to come to term?

"Forty years is precisely the time it takes for the technology to mature and, more importantly, for a new generation of artists to develop who haven't been influenced by the previous paradigm. It would seem that this can't be condensed. Forty years is it.

"The languages of computer graphics and hypermedia begin in the mid 1960's. So I expect that somewhere in the middle years of the next decade we should begin to see the new language, the new aesthetic, a new paradigm emerge.

"We are already seeing web sites that explore new concepts - things that can only be done in this new meta-medium

"I believe that the goal we have set ourselves with Commonwealth policies like Creative Nation and projects like Australia Online are rather like handing someone cine camera on the day after Edison invented it and asking them to make a full-blown feature movie - something they wouldn't be able do for at least 40 years. Although this is a major reason why these initiatives are not fulfilling their goals I believe that a more important reason is the economic imperative that underlines their expectations.


"You will have to forgive me but with so many bureaucrats in the same place at the same time I'm unable to resist the temptation to get on my soapbox. As some of you will know I have been very critical of the way that recent funding for new media initiatives has been distributed.

"Historically between 1988 and 1992 the Australian Network for Art and Technology (redistributing funding from Australia Council) and the Australian Film Commission's New Image Research fund gave peppercorn grants to artists. At that time Australia was one of the few countries where artists could get support for experimental work in new media.

"This work was seen at international festivals like ISEA, SIGGRAPH, IMAGINA and Ars Electronica and in consequence the global community was astonished at the quantity and quality of work being produced in Australia. Several overseas artists moved here to live and work (I'm one of them).

"It's likely that the total amount of money distributed by both those funds over 5 years was between $1-2 million at most. A relatively small sum. And just look at the return. In the early 1990's the international community was looking to Australia for leadership in this new field and Australian artist were being applauded everywhere.

"It's my opinion that the more recent Commonwealth initiatives have wiped out that success. We are no longer at the head of the pack and our artists and graduate students are increasingly going overseas to live & work.

"These more recent grants are much larger and are not "philanthropic" or "experimental" but are part of a rational economic initiative intended to ensure Australian participation in international new media developments. As I have said elsewhere I believe these initiatives have failed or, at best, are failing.

"Why is this?

"I'm pretty appalled that so much of the $84 million funding distributed under the Creative Nation policy went to people in suits. People who look "responsible" and who can write good business plans (and who can afford good accountants and lawyers). They are also people who's sole or main interest is how much they can personally profit from new media.

"I'm equally disgusted by the fact that so little of that funding has gone to the creative sector - the people who are in this business because they love it and who are not primarily concerned with profit. To people who are not asking themselves how much they can get out of the process but how much they can contribute.

"To people who feel that they are part of this emergent process, the midwives or gardeners who are planting the seeds of new media and then nurturing them so that one day they will grow into a magnificent new species of which all Australians can be proud.

"A species that can generate profit for our entire nation and not just a few cowboys in suits".

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