Australia, (Not The Film) The Culture


Welcome to‘s Summer reading, which will replace normal programming from 22 December until 7 January. This year we’ve asked leading figures in the arts to assess the state of the cultural nation in 2008 — and to consider what conditions are required to ensure a
vigorous, diverse, and relevant cultural industry. (Tip: It’s more than an espresso machine, a case of chardonnay and a crisis of

2008 was the year in which politicians sought to usurp the role of the critic and thereby dismantle the storied cultural elite from the inside. Perhaps the year’s most notorious piece of art criticism was delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. "I find them absolutely revolting," he said of the Bill Henson photographs exhibited in Sydney RoslynOxley9 gallery.

The Fairfax press wanted a piece of the action and recruited Peter Costello as a film critic. Post-leadership tussle, Costello may have reinvented himself as a Renaissance man, what with the publication of his memoir and his impeccable performance as Nice Wet Guy on The Howard Years but his attempt to inveigle his way into the arts commentariat will need to be made of sterner stuff than this:

"As a love story the Baz Luhrmann film Australia is pretty good. If only the filmmaker had left it at that. But when you give a movie such a grandiose title you are trying to say something much bigger than boy meets girl and falls in love. Your intention is to say something grand — definitive — about a nation and its history. And that is where the film goes wrong."

Don’t give up your day job, Peter. Interesting, though, to see Rudd and Costello involved in the same caper as so many working artists: supplementing their income with additional work. Even Tony Abbott moonlights as a columnist for News Ltd these days. It’s lucky the pollies are interested because, as print media outlets continue to lay off staff and outsource reviewing, useful cultural commentary is getting harder and harder to find. Howard’s Culture Wars may have been fought out but keeping the arts healthy and visible isn’t getting any easier.

While Peter Costello is castigating Baz Luhrmann for his apparent failure to say something "grand" about Australia, we’re turning our attention to the many voices emanating from the local industry.

Our pundits don’t all agree, and their aspirations aren’t necessarily
to the "grand" or even to the grandiose. What they have in common is an
interest in the way Australian culture is constantly made and remade.
And as the culture is redefined — by filmmakers, by visual artists, by
poets and novelists and essayists and scriptwriters and designers and
actors and directors — so too do our understandings of Australia (the
nation, not the film) change. 

To kick off the series, we asked Marcus Westbury to look at the big picture. How healthy is our cultural nation? And how on earth do we check for vital signs? Read his article about arts funding — who gets it and who doesn’t — and the role of cultural policy in fostering an innovative and vigorous national cultural life.

We wouldn’t want to be around if Dan Edwards and Industry Insider "Robert Miller" met in a dark alley. They’ve got very different views about the kinds of films being made in this country. Australian cinema: is it elitist out-of-touch crap or a vital component of our cultural identity? And should we expect our filmmakers to return profits at the box-office? We’ll let you decide. Lynden Barber stays out of the firing line and tries to figure out whether Australia (we’re back to the film now) can stay balanced on a tightrope stretched between camp and sincerity. In other words, can Luhrmann keep it real when the spangles get all dusty?

Wondering what Carl Williams and the Rodent had in common beyond a team of loyal and questionable lackeys? Melissa Gregg and Jason Wilson tease out the echoes of The Howard Years in Underbelly. Still mesmerised by the box, we asked TV guru Sue Turnbull for her take on the dynamics in local production in 2008.

As you sink into the deckchair this summer, you’ll be bombarded with lists of books that critics think you should have read. Not here — our summer reading guide doesn’t contain one single book recommendation. You’ll have to find inspiration for Aunty Maud’s Christmas present elsewhere. What we’re interested in is the ways in which Australian literary culture is produced. Why does Les Murray have such a high profile? Is it because he was Howard’s mate? And why don’t we know who Rudd’s favourite poet is? NSW Premier Nathan Rees has split the beans on his love of Milton: when will other politicians follow suit? Poet and publisher David Musgrave examines the circumstances specific to the maintenance of a viable national community of poets while John Hunter argues for the importance of small presses and independent publishers to a thriving literary scene.

Eve Vincent reflects on the potential for the essay to scrutinise the transformation of national identity. If you’re looking for the truth about books, read Jeremy Fisher on the Great Australian Novel — and the plight of the Struggling Australian Author. Speaking of struggles, Stephen Orr wonders about the relationship between ironic sensibility and melancholy in an article which is part valediction to David Foster Wallace, part literary suicide survey, part statement of solidarity with midgets.

2008 was also the year in which the interwebs seduced the politicians. Both Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have been sucked into opening Twitter accounts — although only Turnbull has demonstrated his prowess with updates to the press. What does this proliferation of user-generated content mean for the arts? Read Ben Gook on the ways in which technology has transformed music production and delivery.

If ceaseless emergence of new online gadgetry makes you dizzy, follow Barry Saunders as he reviews the year in digital cultures. Before you start blogging your ecstatic vision of a free-streaming techno-utopia, take a look at Ben Eltham‘s article on the film distributors who are suing an ISP in an attempt to tackle illegal downloading. Just in case they’re successful — and Conroy’s cleanfeed gets beyond the rubber bands and sticky tape phase — we recommend you upload your life story onto the net sooner rather than later.

Andrew Frost cracks open the champers and surveys the year in the art world. In between the Henson affair and the much-lauded Sydney Biennale, he wonders whether the art world’s reputation for elitism is deserved. Judith White certainly doesn’t think major cultural institutions are the bastion of the elite. She argues that when the economy slides, it’s more vital than ever to fund adequately large galleries and museums. Funding interests Scott Rankin but not as much as the vital relationship between theatre and community building.

In Rankin’s piece, we find a description of the kind of cultural conversations we want to hear more of. He writes: "Culture is society’s evolving and mostly pleasurable discussion of ideas. This discussion of ideas fertilises a country’s narratives about itself, and these narratives over time exclude and include chapters of our community’s experiences, morphing and solidifying them into a picture of nationhood."

We learnt during the culture wars of the Howard years just how resilient — and how exclusive — particular narratives about Australia can be. A robust and independent cultural life can foster our discussions about who we are as a nation — and who we want to be.

We hope the material we’ve gathered here will keep you talking right through the summer. Have a great Christmas and a happy new year.

The team



Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.