Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Milk as a Metaphor

Our local supermarket is small enough that it's very easy to identify their selling strategies throughout the day. If you should enter the supermarket even within a few hours of it opening, various items aren't restocked once sold. The supermarket's own brands are topped up constantly so that the shelves almost buckle whereas any competing products are only allocated tiny - and often 'difficult'- amounts of shelf space. Fresh fruit and vegetables are also poorly restocked so that instant foods with higher profit margins are more appealing.

A good example of this is 'normal' milk. The supermarket's brand takes up close to 80-90% of the allocated shelf space. All the other brands are crammed into the remainder which is actually less than that allocated to flavoured milks.

The supermarket's brand also undercuts the other milk brands by close to 40%, a price that approaches slave labour for the producers of the milk itself.

The problem with this rather overt homogenisation - if you'll excuse the pun - is that once alternatives have been vanquished, quality inevitably is dialled back to increase profits.

Ultimately mediocrity is accepted because it's affordable, populist and 'easy'.

So... the metaphor part as it relates to one of those perpetual itches I have ... Public Art. An opinion piece was recently published on PerthNow about the disparities in arts funding.

In Western Australia, '...the State Government Percent for Art (PFA) Scheme allocates up to one percent of the estimated total construction cost of each State capital works project, valued at $2 million and over, to a commissioned Western Australian artwork.' (1)

This manifests overwhelmingly in public, photogenic artworks often with broader parameters than simply being artworks. ie. some are clearly signage or architectural 'flourish' in another guise.

It is remarkably difficult to find 'clear' statistics from Government sources about the scheme but over 700 artworks have been installed since 1989 and in 2009, 30 art projects were commissioned, to the tune of $3.7 million. Further to that $1.8 million has recently been allocated for Public Art to the Fiona Stanley Hospital alone, $1 million for the Situate project at Forrest Place (2) and $500,000 for the St George's Cathedral Project.

My 'bug' is that such things are very much driven by outcomes than creative excellence. A classic example of this would be a populist work that makes for good PR photos versus the abstract idea of people simply getting on with creating 'stuff'.

This is not to say that there isn't good work in the public realm. I also don't bemoan those who make a career from working in the - golden goose - field. I do however have issue with the imbalance.

Imagine if a portion of the PFA's one percent was redirected to subsidising artist studios, ARIs and other 'lesser' ventures? It's politically 'harder' as such venues inevitably challenge the 'norms' but how else should a society move forward and - importantly - away from hedonistic banality?

In a city/state where it is notoriously difficult to 'crack it', wouldn't it make more sense to encourage diversity rather than sickly, watered down milk?

Images from Library of Congress.
(1) http://www.dca.wa.gov.au/
(2) http://www.scoop.com.au/Feature/ART-CHALLENGE

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