The fear of speaking up in the arts world

Koraly Dimitriadis

Koraly Dimitriadis Photo: Kit_Haselden_Photography

I staggered into the Australian arts world six years ago, naïve and alone. Having followed the cultural norms mapped out for me all my life, it took 30 years to claw out of my culture to be an a artist. What finally drove my emancipation was the blind faith that – despite not seeing any art that echoed the my frustration – there were other women out there like me.

The spoken word community soon became my refuge. What a relief to connect with other artists! I emerged from my culture like a volcanic eruption, so when my observations and personal experiences began to reshape my perceptions of the arts world, I was vocal. But what I didn't know then was how fragile that goodwill was. There is a harsh reality when you speak up in the arts world: hold your tongue or risk being shunned.

In theory, the arts should be a radical entity – but it's not. Radical art exists on the fringes, underground, while the safer and 'cleaner' art – which bores me – also tends to get promoted and reviewed favourably. The first time I understood this was when a publisher praised my unpublished manuscript for its well-formed characters, strong story, but had reservations about the 'literary nature of the book'.

This idea of 'literary merit' and 'excellence' is influenced by England and the classics. Maybe some decades ago that was the face of Australia, but it's certainly not the case today. Yet our perception of excellence hasn't shifted.

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Year after year I've scanned the list of recipients to awards, funding and residencies, and I always see the same names cropping up on the lists, the same calibre of art. Feeding into this, major publishers, theatres, broadcasters, film companies and associated festivals and establishments can be like gatekeepers to the industry. They, in conjunction with a select group of critics, affect the tide of what gets pushed to the forefront and exposed to the public.

Arts commentary allows artists to self-evaluate and – theoretically – evolve. But what happens in reality is that many critics only end up making negative commentary against the establishments and art they can afford to do.

For example, can a reputable theatre critic who is also a theatre maker afford to slam an independent show about the repression of migrant women, made by someone who is not well connected in the arts? Absolutely.

But can a female novelist of colour write literary critique about how our most celebrated literary prize for women's writing has been awarded to white, university educated writers year after year, and that the chair of the judging panel has not changed since the inception of the prize? Or that last year's winner was published by the founder and chair of the literary prize?

Not unless she never wants to win the prize.

And good luck if anyone you speak up about is on any kind of panel where your work is being considered.

The arts scene can sometimes operate like a member's only club where you need a blazer with a crest and a special key to get in. Succeeding in the arts is a game, an Olympic one. It's a race. In one lane, the marginalised and the disadvantaged, in the other, the privileged. In the race, the lane of the marginalised – as I have experienced firsthand myself – is riddled with hurdles.

Ethnic arts organisations are sectioned off from the main arts beast. The fact that I can count on two hands our celebrated non-white Australian artists is a problem. Creating a diverse art scene is paramount to the well-being of our society. It has the ability to heal our deepest wounds. It helps our marginalised and underprivileged see artists with similar experiences to their own tackle them and succeed.

When the art delivered to the masses doesn't reflect the culture, this breeds segregation, racism – a disjointed society.

But diversity in Australia has become about ticking boxes. People of colour are often used as tokens, invited into clicky groups for guest appearances so everyone can stop complaining that there is no diversity and move on.

This two-dimensional approach breeds the problem and further segregates. There need to be specific programs funded by the government, where the criteria is that the art must somehow tackle the current problematics of the Australian society.

Instead, our government has gone to the other extreme, creating a national program of excellence, stripping Australia Council of funds and hindering individuals to apply. The creation of this body will only further worsen the situation. We've already got enough elitism and excellence in the arts in Australia, thank you very much!

And here's the harsh truth: this industry is not built for people like me to succeed. It's built for the privileged. When I realised this, I stopped being angry. I stopped waiting to get the green light from people who I knew would never understand or approve. I took control of my own art and carved my own way.

But I'm one of the lucky marginalised ones who had savings to live off. What of the others out there not being heard? Australian arts, one has to wonder sometimes, if it liberates or oppresses.

Koraly Dimitriadis is a poet, writer, actor, performer and filmmaker.www.koralydimitriadis.com