The logic of culture: the fate of alternative theatre in the postwhitlam period
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This article presents a general explanation of government subsidy to the arts, drawing on the historical experience of Australian alternative theatre from the late 1970s to the early 1990s - a period of expansion for the sector, but not for alternative theatre. It describes the strategic categories of measurement used by the country's major cultural provision agency at the time, the Australia Council, and presents an eight part model showing how natural language terms - 'excellent', 'innovative', 'experimental', 'accessible', etc. - were taken up and repositioned as functional operators of capture by the peer assessment process. Using the structural analysis adopted by Ernesto Laclau in the ground-breaking On Populist Reason (2005), most especially his theory of the 'empty signifier' and its role in organising 'equivalential chains', or broad-based alliances of social demand, it suggests how Australian theatre was fractured, fragmented and recuperated by the competitive grant system. 'Difference', an effect of creative activity, was expropriated as the mark of its value, a saleable symbol in a world of increasingly symbolic commodities. With the consolidation of the Australia Council's dominance over the theatre sector during the period, difference could be fed back as market difference with the government as a 'corporate regulator'. While the rebarbative rhetoric of alternative artists might have remained the same, a creusant in Mallarme's sense had taken place, a hollowing-out - and a return to the values that so many of them were trying to rebel against.
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