NOTHING HAS CHANGED: An Interview with Ian Milliss

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Paolo Magagnoli: Because its mission is “crassly political and programmatic,” Jacobin’s founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara has said, “we generally try to avoid cultural content,” particularly “avant-garde culture.” LAR aspires to a similar programmatic mission but it does so knowing that culture—even avant-garde culture—materially affects political outcomes. For better or, more often, for worse. What is your sense of the most promising developments—-in progressive politically-oriented art, theory, criticism and related practices—-during the last decade?

Ian Milliss: I don’t think things have changed much since the 1980s. It shocks me that anyone on the left still believes in art as an autonomous sphere of activity rather than just a business model, anyone who does should be ashamed of their own naivety. But the art world is still dominated by that neoliberal business model which thrives on a zombie notion of individualism and content manufacture. That means the most positive development I see happening during the last decade is the increasing dominance of artist collectives and collaborations, a sign that there is a move away from individualism and the recognition that real art, significant cultural production generating cultural change, is a community-based activity. That’s the kind of cultural practice I am most interested in and almost everything I did since the mid-1970s was collaborative. This collaborative mode is also prefigurative in the sense that collaboration is the only possible way we can solve the tremendous challenges the world is facing today. In other words, we cannot solve problems without bringing people together. Collectives per se are not transformative but they are the optimum way of working in communities, that’s why they have proliferated in as a vehicle for radical activity. There is no doubt the neoliberal art business can easily accommodate collaborations, it has done it for centuries in fact, but the point here is for those collaborative groups to work embedded in communities that will be both participants and audiences of their work. The objective is to model future organisational forms in every activity, not just the art business. This is the approach of one of my current major project, the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA). 

PM: An early New Left Review editorial summed up the emergent new left’s critical direction with the slogan “Too much ‘Old Left’; too little ‘culture’.” The epoch-changing redistribution of wealth and power over the last 50 years tells us that this inversion of priorities has failed. In our view, the new left’s “cultural politics” bypasses the institution-building steps between culture and politics that allows their relation to be progressive. Culture has become a pose of the professional managerial class that enables the right by serving as its loyal opposition. Long in the tooth, the cultural turn is now a vulnerability for the left, leaving it outflanked by cultural warriors and their funders on the right. This defeat invites a sober reconsideration of art’s relationship to institutions with the power to make change. In your view, what role, if any, can art play in addressing this problem?

IM: It’s depressing that the right wing has a much better recognition of the role of cultural change than most of the left. You cannot do politics until you’ve actually changed the way people see and think about the world, hence their absolutely correct mantra that culture is upstream of politics. But notice they say culture, not art. Unfortunately, I don’t think art institutions, galleries, museums, even educational institutions, are in the least interested in change or capable of generating it as they are totally captive to the neoliberal model of art as commerce and they are preoccupied with maintaining their own existence. What you get from the mainstream art institution system is at best an illusion, a sort of cosplay of radicalism designed to absorb criticism without it creating real change, so it does function as you say as a sort of loyal opposition that changes nothing and channels discontent into harmless posturing. However if you can successfully straddle the barbed wire fence you can get some access to grants and so on, but you must never allow the art world to be your primary audience or distributive mechanism, it is just one peripheral segment. But Australia is a hard place compared to US or Europe and even though I get a reasonable amount of institutional attention it comes with publicity benefits rather than funding. I always argue that if you claim to be creative you should be able to get your hands on the enemy’s money and use it against them, but I have been more successful at getting money out of coal companies than out of current art funding bodies. For me, ultimately, the real artists are those people that bring actual change through their creative use of the media, and you are unlikely to find them in the art world. That’s why in the past I have talked about innovative farmers as artists and trade union organizers as artists. 

PM: Is there anything artists, critics, theorists etc can learn from what art once did for unions, movements, parties and fledgling revolutionary states? Or what it did for labor and civil rights organizers? Can those contributions be redirected and retooled to address the needs of teacher, museum and university unionizers? 

IM: One of the points I would like to make is that the artists that contributed the most to the labor movement were semi-anonymous. Their impact on the movement stemmed from their participation in the organization from the inside. They were part of the trade union; they were embedded within it. They did not present themselves as saviors of the working class but as members of the working class. They worked as part of the organization offering their skills in the service of the membership. You must be prepared to discard the art world individualism associated with the mythical “artist-as-hero.” This doesn’t mean that you should not be proud of what you do. But don’t expect some sort of spotlight status, that only comes with being an art market brand name working in the service of capital.

PM: The relationship between art and politics has often produced stunningly ambitious works of art and has regularly redirected the field but by no means can we say that it has always succeeded. Do you have any regrets about any politically involved artistic initiatives that you have been close to or involved in personally? Do you have any sense of how these initiatives might have gone otherwise?

IM: I have recently written an entire essay about my lifelong failures! The trade union campaigns I ran were often very tough, you know, and they often didn’t work out. Certainly, I think the Art and Working Life program could have been more successful because it just didn’t go where I thought it should have gone. My biggest disappointment with Art and Working Life was that it rarely directed resources to the non-professional artists that were already members of the union. There were some projects like choirs but there could have been many others. In fact, there were many union members that had artistic skills and qualifications but were nevertheless outside of the official art scene for a variety of reasons. The clothing industry for example was full of women migrant workers who did not speak English but had incredible artistic skills and the construction and building industries also. This was the “dark matter of the art world” that Gregory Sholette talks about. I wanted to tap into the creativity of these workers, and I also wanted to recognize the creative nature of normal work. Unfortunately, while Art and Working Life provided workers access to the arts and gave professional artists a chance to contribute to trade union battles, it did not give expression to the creativity of many union members.

PM: Launched in 1981, Art and Working Life was part of the Australia Council of the Arts community arts funding stream. The programme earmarked funding for artistic projects situated within trade unions and it was seen by the New Left as an opportunity for linking culture to the politics of the labor movement. Yet, Art and Working Life encountered significant challenges as the relationship between artists and unions was not always rosy. Although a staunch advocate of Art and Working Life and political art, artist and critic Ian Burn lamented already in 1983 that “most practical initiatives in the programme to date have come from “outside” the union movement—from artists, arts administrators and officers. This reinforces the false idea that culture is something brought in from the “outside” and that the labor movement has no culture of its own. It has meant also that these initiatives tend to have been shaped by the traditional practice of middle-class art.” Was the art produced by Art and Working Life ultimately middle-class?

IM: Yes, it was. The Art and Working Life policy was supported by the head of the Australia Council for the Arts Dr Timothy Pascoe, who had been a prominent figure of the Liberal Party (which, for Americans, would be the equivalent of the Republican Party). He was center-right but very pragmatic, an interesting guy. He envisioned the programme as a means to improve accessibility to the traditional arts – in other words, as a way to widen audiences for theater, classical music and so forth. Consequently, the first initiatives of the programme were lunchtime concerts or plays staged in the factories or workplace murals. 

Later, we managed to convince the Australia Council to allow artists to work directly with unions to produce banners and posters. These projects fitted better with unions’ interests and needs. I also managed to push through a clause that forced artists to seek sponsorship from the unions. In other words, to have your project funded as an artist, you needed to put a joint application together with a union, which would have partly funded the project in some way. Each project essentially became a collaboration between an artist and a union. Unions had to be involved and consulted all along during the whole process. Initially, unions were often quite mystified by it all, but they thought that as long as the programme gave them something useful it was fine, and they didn’t oppose it. In fact, they soon increased their support and began to see the programme as part of their organizing processes. And that, of course, provoked a reaction from the right; in parliament conservatives raised questions about Art and Working Life’s political motivations. Over the next couple of years, however, the programme became bigger and bigger. It became successful in terms of audience because it addressed real concerns of more and more people. 

However, in the following years the relationship between artists and the unions became strained. Notwithstanding that quote, Ian Burn and others wanted to push more conventional artists into the programme. Ian spent considerable energy seeking art world publicity and validation of our work (his determination to get a lot of the work back into the art world became one of the major problems between us). This came about because Australia Council boards began to resent the money going to projects that they saw as outside their mainstream activities while there was increasing discontent among unions who felt they were obliged to deal with conventional artists that they were not necessarily in tune with. 

This conflict came to a head in a heated conference in 1990. The Australia Council had been unhappy with the preliminary discussion paper I had been employed to research and write, believing it too supportive of the union position. But the conference was delayed for a year by a major airline strike and by the time it happened I was working for one of the biggest unions and was on the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions, the largest peak body representing workers in Australia] Cultural Committee. I was genuinely shocked by how many artists had begun to appear who had no sense of social practice and just wanted no strings attached money to pursue their own fantasies. Eventually, a big lump of Art and Working Life funding was devolved directly to the ACTU to make their own allocation decisions. While resolving the immediate conflict in the unions’ favor, unfortunately this politicized the programme even more, giving conservatives an eventual excuse for calling it off. The policy continued for another few years before being slowly dismantled by the Labor government in the mid-1990s.

PM: It is ironic that the Art and Working Life program ended under a Labour Party government in the mid-1990s. In a paper presented at a 2021 Symposium on Media, Arts and Activism at Macquarie University in Sydney, you mentioned the Labour party’s approach to culture as one of the reasons for the unfortunate termination of the policy. The government’s new cultural policy was characterized, I am quoting from you, by “a rhetoric of excellence” that served to isolate the arts and prevent them being regarded as an everyday activity open to all.” Did this rhetoric ultimately reaffirm a middle-class notion of culture as a means of social distinction and elevation—a notion that contradicts the aims of working-class politics?

IM: That’s exactly right. When the leader of the right faction of the Labor Party, Paul Keating, came to power (1991-1996), the Australian Council for the Arts was given more federal government funding. Yes, more money was given to individuals rather than organizations like trade unions but it was accompanied by an emphasis on excellence as key criteria for state sponsorship of the arts. Unfortunately and inevitably the culture that was often associated with “excellence” was rather conventional stuff, like opera or the work of the ‘great’ artists of the past. This rhetoric of excellence is really about quality control for consumers, ultimately about legitimizing a certain middle-class taste. In my view, this was a mistake because funding should go towards the expansion of cultural production, regardless of its quality. Obviously, state funding for the arts must play multiple roles but the focus should be on subsidizing artists, not on subsidizing the audience. Maximize production and the rest follows. Predictably later conservative governments used the rhetoric of excellence to punish artists then take direct political control of arts funding and use it as a slush fund in marginal electorates.

PM: According to a survey carried out in 2018 by Macquarie University 58 per cent of Australian artists earn less than $10,000 per year. Do you think that the tougher economic conditions in which contemporary artists find themselves today will produce a return to labor and community organizing? Or are artists still captive of the sectional identity politics that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s?

IM: It’s as if there are now two art worlds, a growing collaborative and community-based art world and another bloated institutional and market-based art world of vacuous spectacle and focused on tourism and churn. The artists in that sector are captives of a zombie system but most are incapable of the personal change they must make in order to escape. We are at the end of the neoliberal epoch, many of its excesses like privatization are beginning to be reversed because they have failed so badly, but it is a race against imminent collapse caused by climate change so it is still hard to see how the world will look in the next decades. There is a greater emphasis on community organization and distributed systems but ecofascism is just as likely as any left progressive change. Unions are certainly coming back but they will operate differently. They will succeed if they learn the lessons of platform capitalism, with more flexible forms of membership and online organising. I think our 1980s business Union Media Services can be the model for artists’ involvement here because, unlike the many political poster workshops that sprang up at that time, we defined our “art” not as the print materials and publication that we produced but rather in the communication systems we developed. These radically transformed the way Australian trade unions communicated with their members. I think attempts to recreate old forms of political activism are doomed to fail but the new forms will develop from experimental collaborations of one sort or another. That’s certainly where my energy is focused.

PM: In a scathing review of Tom Zubrycki’s unfinished television documentary ‘Amongst Equals’ for the Australian Left Review (co-written with Bronwyn Barwell), you attacked the filmmaker for providing a skewed representation of the history of the Australian trade union movement. More specifically, you have contested Zubrycki’s excessive focus on strikes and violent confrontation —a focus that, in your view, perpetuates negative stereotypes about union militants, spread by conservative media. You also take issue at the rhetoric of the critical and independent documentary filmmaker “with egos inflated by auteur theory.” As you concluded: “There is an attitude that making cultural products in a collective situation is not only impossible and unsound.” Do you believe that your criticism of the film is still valid today?

IM: I do, because I believe people own their own history and have a valid expectation that professionals that they employ will present their case as they want it presented. That’s not what they got. As far as unions were concerned, they believed the film misrepresented unions and their history. He had been commissioned to help them present their case, not his case.

Tom has done some great films, but from the beginning I believed he was not the right person for the job. Importantly, the documentary was commissioned by the ACTU on the occasion of the Australian bicentenary in 1988 to tell the history of trade unionism in Australia and celebrate its achievements. Tom was not an insider of the trade union movement, and he did not understand the organizations well. Instead, his attitude was like that of many radical, post-1968 artists who were immersed in the ‘auteur’ cinema and film theory of the time. For me, his ‘I’m here to save you’ approach was not going to work.

When the ACTU Executive saw the film for the first time, they almost had a meltdown. It was built around mass media clips of picket line confrontations, the same media propaganda used to discredit the union movement. Scene after scene, there were ‘heroic’ male union activists displaying aggressive behaviors, exactly the propaganda the unions hoped to counter. Instead it perpetuated the worst stereotypes of unionists as thugs. More importantly they had hoped it would help recruit new members. We must remember that in the 1980s the ACTU was already struggling against declining union membership in an increasingly feminized workforce. Women were reluctant to join unions, often because the media portrayed unions as full of abusive, aggressive men so the film’s celebration of a left mythology of violence was effectively a further advertisement against unionism. The truth of union activism is not spectacular confrontations but boring day to day slow negotiation and convincing workers who are afraid to lose their jobs to devote part of their meager salaries to achieve outcomes that are not immediately visible. Tom’s film did very little to explain that mundane reality and maybe it was just too hard for him to make a film about that. The film’s problems also epitomized what I have been saying about how artists should work. They are not saviors or heroes, they are workers like other workers, with a specific set of useful skills. They can do other things as well, but in the union or activist context they must collaborate, not grandstand. I don’t expect these progressive artists will come from the existing art world, it is mostly a lost cause. Rather they will develop organically within communities outside the conventional art world. As I mentioned, the Art and Working Life programme found uncountable numbers of “dark matter” artists, often highly talented but ignored, they are the most likely source of change.

Ian Milliss began his career in the late 1960s before becoming a trade union organizer in the 1980s. His early practice traversed hard-edged abstraction, minimalism and conceptual art. In 1972 he stopped making gallery-based art and participated in the Green Bans movement, a remarkable form of environmental activism initiated in Sydney by the Builders Labourers Federation. Together with Ian Burn and Terry Smith, Milliss formed the Media Action Group. This project evolved into Union Media Service (UMS) – a social marketing company providing journalism, marketing and design services to trade unions. Over the 1980s, UMS worked with over fifty unions to assist them to better communicate with their members. Milliss was one of the artists involved in the Art and Working Life programme of the Australian Council for the Arts. Launched in 1981, the programme earmarked funding for artistic projects situated within trade unions and it was seen by the Australian New Left as an opportunity for linking culture to the politics of the labor movement.