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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle - 16 July 2004

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle - Fri, 16 July 2004

Art for Sale

I have in my office a work of art that I offer for sale. My asking price is fifty grand. I call my work of art "dregs" (notice the trendy lack of a capital letter). "dregs" is an empty coffee mug with authentic coffee caked around the bottom. It crosses boundaries between the personal and the public, and confronts the viewer with the question: 'Why am I merely a coffee cup, when I could have been made into a vase?'

Unlike other works of art, "dregs" unfortunately does not bray like a donkey. (I can supply a donkey with the mug, but that will cost a little extra). However, this artwork does come with sound effects. If the purchasers of my mug listen very carefully, I promise that they will hear the sound of laughter. The laughter will not come from the work, but from me as I skip to the bank with their cash.

Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But when the beholder is the government, it has certain responsibilities that the rest of us do not. If I waste my money on artwork you think is plain silly, that's really none of your business. But when the art is purchased with taxpayers' cash, we can all take an interest.

Thanks to the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage (who also happens to be the Prime Minister) half a million dollars of our cash has been spent on an installation that will "build on" work that includes a toilet that brays like a donkey. (Its creator is a female artist who masquerades as an art collective named "et al".) This money is being spent sending the installation to the Venice Biennale, where it will showcase New Zealand talent for the rest of the world to admire.

I don't advocate scrapping all State support for the arts, but I do expect commonsense to dictate spending. Earlier this week Helen Clark's offsider - the Associate Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Judith Tizard - said the Government would not give any more money to Te Papa because "the taxpayer would take a dim view if we said yes to absolutely everything".

Well if a braying toilet isn't 'absolutely everything', what is? And since when did supporting such a work become a higher priority than funding the national museum?

Since I expressed dismay about this funding decision, Misses Tizard and Clark have come under some pressure. Miss Tizard, though, still professes to find the whole thing a bit of a "joke".

Taxpayer money isn't really that funny to the rest of us. The Prime Minister has chosen to substantially increase funding to the arts since she took the portfolios. That increase has amounted to millions of dollars. Wasting it on projects like the braying dunny displays the same arrogant elitism that gives the arts a bad name in the first place. It is a slap in the face to New Zealand's serious, hardworking artists. And like the Government decision to send people overseas to study hip-hop, it shows taxpayers are being laughed at.

Helen Clark came to power promising to put an end to wasteful state payouts. Instead her government found new ways to deliver them. Closing the Gaps, the social entrepreneur fund, the artists' dole... about the only thing there isn't enough cash for is a decent tax cut for the workers who are funding all the largesse.

Meanwhile, my own work of art is looking for a well-heeled owner. It won't last for long... I'm about to wash it out and make myself another cuppa.


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