Australia is an English-speaking, rock and roll country ideally placed to build on its successful export of higher education by exporting television, film, music and online content to the world. Modern western economies are based on information not property, primary produce and minerals.
Yet the Australian government has played to the past. Its restriction of digital television to protect the existing media oligopolies signals its old economy mindset and fear of risk. Australia could have diverse, narrow-casting media distribution channels fed by a huge cottage industry. But instead we have government protection of media mates scared of competition.
Howard says he wants an entrepreneurial society but by definition entrepreneurs take risks. The top-down managerialism his Government promotes in the public sector and the protective feather-bedding afforded moguls in the private sector favours the predictable and the orthodox. Howard’s neglect of art, his hostility to the creative class, obsession with a homogeneous cultural mainstream, and social conservatism is the greatest obstacle to an entrepreneurial spirit in the new economy and is holding back Australian capitalism from realising its potential in the post-industrial age.
The late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, liked to look at artists as cultural entrepreneurs who not only compete as individuals, movements and generations, but also amass and deploy capital. But this capital is not the money of industrial capitalists, it is ‘cultural capital’ – the mix of knowledge, skills, contacts, style, personality traits, ideas, education, marketing savvy that enhance raw talent and make an artist not just good, but able to get noticed and work again.
Cultural capital is embroiled in media and reputation and may become notoriety, fame and celebrity. Institutional arts managers and governments understand quantifiable enhancers of cultural capital like education and training, or galleries, theatre companies and TV stations but they miss those equally important banks of cultural capital that cannot be measured or controlled.
Some of the most important of these unquantifiables are such things as extracurricular tertiary student life and the formation of bohemian groups and avant-garde movements. Australia has a rich bohemian tradition stretching back past postmodern subcultures of the 1990s and 1980s, the punk and hippy counter-cultures of the 1970s and 1960s, the libertarian Sydney Push and Melbourne’s Carlton Drift in the 1950s, the Angry Penguins and social realists of the 1940s, Norman Lindsay’s vitalist circle in the 1930s, 1920s and 1910s, through the Heidelberg Impressionists and Bulletin bards of the late nineteenth century, to Marcus Clarke’s dandyish bohemian clubs in the 1870s and 60s.
The Chaser team
Bohemia has great value for artists, not least as a crucible where class and ethnic differences are hybridised, and as a safe space for transgressive acts and work. Bohemia and especially the more self-conscious avant-gardes are great ways for unknown young artist to make contacts and generate a buzz. Bohemias are escalators of social mobility, merging at one end with the demimonde and deviant, and at the other end with the bourgeoisie customer and political class.
The common bohemian pastimes of intense conversation, showing off, dining, drinking, and drugging, as well as observing and experiencing the urban spectacle, all enhance networks and creativity. Being a bohemian is a licence to take risks. Bohemia gives the cultural producer the touch of glamour and danger that the bourgeois consumer craves, if only for one night’s entertainment.
Bohemia is only one of many intangible engines of cultural capital. Work places can encourage a bohemian-like environment. The Bulletin and Nation Review in their heyday encouraged camaraderie, community and a sense of their times. The ABC used to be the home of the long lunch and crazy experiments like Triple J and Beat Box in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond work we should realise the influence on creativity of humanities education, religion and transcendent experiences, travel, being multilingual, ethnic cosmopolitanism, madness and (artist Mirka Mora’s favourite) laziness.
While such formations cannot be controlled, government and managerial action can enable them, and they can certainly be damaged or destroyed to the detriment of creativity in the community. I don’t think HECS debts and high rents that compel students to work a number of part-time jobs and live with their parents have encouraged bohemia on campus. Late twentieth century managerial models that seek to account for and control all assets actually destroy cultural capital.
How can we spread creativity around?
Government should encourage those intangible networks that build cultural capital and audiences. The provision of high-quality, public education is crucial, but so too is extracurricular activity Aunty Jack, and The Chaser both came from student reviews. Restricting student social life by knee-capping student unions, for instance, is going to have a negative impact on creativity.
Equally important is the nurturing of talent in public and private media companies that should be diverse cottage industries rather than 20th century style silos Ã la Channel 9. Public policy should stimulate networking and venture capital for hot-house projects rather than being poured into monolithic institutions that squander resources on consultants and management hierarchy. A Federal Government serious about entrepreneurship should loosen the fetters and allow, for instance, public multi-channelling for entertainment as well as educational content. Government could also seed new digital TV initiatives like the revamped ABC digital network.
When the ABC is timid the national culture is diminished. Increased funding of the ABC to fulfil its charter is essential, but this should go hand in hand with reform that loosens the managerial grip on program makers. I have no doubt that a centralised top-down control structure and elevation of the bean-counters has stymied the ABC’s creativity. With Sandra Levy moving to the sinking ship at Channel 9, there’s an opportunity for the ABC to return to a devolved model where department heads and executive producers commission for dedicated timeslots. The ABC should be a hub for creative networks in the wider arts community. It’s well placed to go beyond capital A artists, and tap the emerging aesthetics of suburban youth.
Finally, I am critical of the persistent, romantic idea of the ‘artist hero’ in Australian arts discourse and of the disconnection of Australian arts from contemporary suburban life. We need to counter the dichotomy of ‘artist versus the masses’ with an appreciation of the creativity of popular cultural forms, craft skills and the role of audiences in creating value for art. For me the new edgy art is to be found in the polyglot ethnic subcultures of the suburbs that cause such anxiety to self-appointed moral guardians and populist politicians alike.
Out in the ‘burbs young people are assembling multi-identities from the material surrounding them as they grow up – the immigration experience, family, religion and politics, sexual options, global TV, the internet, blogs, music culture, and neighbourhood.
Cultural diversity – ethnic, lifestyle, regional, religious – is the great narrative of contemporary Australian life, but apart from Pizza‘s swaggering ethno-larrikin comedy and We Can Be Heroes timely satire of triumphalist Aussie values, it makes barely a ripple in our media or art. The clash and fusion of cultures in the suburbs is a new wellspring of hybrid art, just as cubism, jazz and rock rolled out of the cities in the last century. The time has come when our cultural gatekeepers need to stop looking at each other, get out a bit, or get out of the way.
A version of this article was delivered to the Australian Institute of Arts Management at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in October 2004.
Tony Moore will be chair of the next NSW Fabian Society Forum:
A More Diverse Media: Can the Club be Busted?
Mark Scott – Editor, Sydney Morning Herald
Julianne Schultz – Editor Griffith Review and ex-ABC digital strategy
Andy Nehl – TV Producer (Chaser Decides & CNNNN) and Head of TV, AFTRS
When: Wednesday 21 September from 6.00pm – 7.30pm
Where: Theatrette NSW Parliament House
For more details visit the Fabian website
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