Your Cultural Policy Has Expired


There’s a line in Plumbum, my favourite novel by Australia’s greatest novelist, David Foster, which sums up everything you need to know about Australian culture. "Australians," he writes, "are the greatest trad jazz musicians in the world."

This line, a throwaway comment as Foster sets the scene for the origins of his Cold Chisel-like superstar 80s rock band, identifies the peculiar talent and inclination Australians have always demonstrated for taking up and mastering other people’s artforms. You can see it at the apex of the Australian cultural hierarchy, in our performing arts centres and recital halls, as well as at the base, in a thousand community arts workshops where skinny white kids in tracksuits learn to rap and DJ like their black American heroes.

Tragically, Plumbum itself is out of print, which shows you just how hard it can be for a small country like Australia to sustain its own culture in an increasingly globalised world. As the cultural critics of the 1950s and 60s — many of them expatriates writing from abroad — pointed out, this is what culture in white Australia has often been: something to be mimicked after it reaches us from foreign metropoles, traditionally London but also New York and Los Angeles, Berlin and Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai. While Australia has become almost unrecognisably more diverse and cosmopolitan since those decades, in some corners of our cultural sector little has changed.

The consistent issue running through the "state of the cultural nation" series published here on has been that of transformation. All of the sectors discussed are facing significant changes of various kinds — and in general, cultural policy has failed to keep up.

This isn’t exactly a new thing, nor is a failure of policy to match cultural strengths just a matter of staying current. Beyond recognising the new, in some areas our policy and our conversations have continuously failed to recognise what’s actually been there all along.

For instance, in cultural funding terms, the "great Australian silence" towards the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures criticised by anthrolopologist W.E.H. Stanner still continues. While some of the oldest living forms of music in the world slowly die out in central Australia, our national arts funding and policy body, the Australia Council for the Arts, gives more money to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra than it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

There is an emerging cultural policy debate in Australia which is beginning to question this status quo. Much of it has emerged from outside the mainstream of the triennially funded Australian arts organisations, the festival directors, popular non-fiction writers and Radio National presenters who still seem to provide the narrow talent pool for the key roles in Australian cultural institutions. Gradually and unexpectedly, voices from outside this narrowstream have slowly began to make themselves heard: voices like those of Marcus Westbury, who grew up in suburban Newcastle and went on to found the most interesting arts festival in Australia, that city’s This Is Not Art.

Since the early 2000s, people like Westbury, Guy Rundle, Mark Bahnisch and (on a smaller stage) myself have been arguing about Australia’s cultural policy direction. As I wrote in 2006, cultural policy in Australia is about bureaucratic fashion, and history, and tradition — but not evidence. Absurd inconsistencies in who we fund and how we regulate cultural expression are not the exception, but the norm.

So, for instance, we fund large companies of professional musicians to play the musical treasures of the European world — but not of the Islamic, Pacific or Chinese traditions. We spend hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian computer games. We have exhibited contemporary graffiti and street art in the hallowed halls of our key public art galleries, while vigorously prosecuting and even jailing graffiti artists. We enforce some of the most stringent and punitive copyright laws in the world, without examining the costs of these special industry protections to consumers, schools, libraries and the public sphere.

Does any of this matter? As US economist Tyler Cowen has observed, debates about the value of the arts tend to polarise along predictable fault-lines, which Cowen characterises as "cultural optimism" versus "cultural pessimism". For conservatives, funding and support for the arts is an affront: seeing cultural funding as one of the most discretionary budget items of the modern state, they question not only whether governments are any good at allocating cultural resources, but whether the resources need to be allocated in the first place. Why not leave it up to the market to provide cultural goods and services? After all, Australian consumers of the arts lack for little when it comes to the wares that our cultural and entertainment industries provide.

As more than a few cultural historians and philosophers have pointed out, we are living in a golden age of cultural choice. Technological advances are almost immediately put to cultural uses, and we are living in a time of rapid technological change. It’s worth noting that the internet, which started as a network for defence science, has come to be dominated by cultural content — MySpace, Facebook, pornography and YouTube.

Conservative commentators in the Howard years often liked to argue that "the arts" were elitist — and in funding terms at least, they are right. 52 per cent of the Australia Council’s funding goes to 29 so-called "Major Performing Arts Organisations", most of which are based around classical music and dance. As a long string of audience surveys (like this one) have shown, the audiences of these organisations are older, whiter, richer and more highly educated than the general population. For their part, many of these organisations unashamedly describe themselves as "excellent" and "elite". In the narrow terms of their own artforms, this is true: most ordinary citizens lucky enough to see a performance by the Australian Ballet or Australian Chamber Orchestra will attest to the superb craft and skill demonstrated by these performers, and will recognise the decades of practice and training required to reach their lofty standards. But most ordinary Australians don’t regularly go to see opera, ballet or orchestras. They prefer reading, watching TV, or visiting national parks and botanic gardens.

On the other side of the cultural policy divide, liberals like to point out that arts and cultural funding is popular, and that in a democracy this is what matters. Indeed, the last comprehensive survey of Australian attitudes towards the arts, by the Saatchi advertising agency in the early 2000s, found widespread support and interest in the arts among Australians, even if many of us also thought of the arts as elitist and something that other people enjoy. Part of the problem was the very design of that survey, which was irretrievably coloured by the use of the phrase "the arts" in a country where 78 per cent of us read for pleasure and 65 per cent of us have been to the cinema in the previous year.

Because the moving image is such a popular form of entertainment, it has become the crucible of Australian cultural debate — a debate that rages on here on the pages of Australian film production is heavily subsidised by the Commonwealth and states, but the story of film funding in this country has been one of almost constant disappointment. Despite generous funding, high-quality facilities and world-famous actors and directors, Australian audiences haven’t warmed to Australian films. As the differing but intelligent viewpoints put forward here by‘s Dan Edwards and Robert Miller show, almost the only thing the Australian film industry can agree on is that it is in a crisis.

At the eye of the storm is The Age‘s film critic Jim Schembri, whose provocative but unflinching assessments of Australian film have seriously ruffled feathers in a sector often noted for being tribal and inward-looking. In a controversial article earlier this year, Schembri wrote, "Australians love going to the movies, purchasing between $10-12 million worth of movie tickets per week. But how much of that goes to local fare? The figures vary from 4 per cent in a good, Happy Feet-blessed year, to a laughable 2 per cent in an average year, to a downright dismal 0.9 per cent for 2008."

Schembri pointed out that the four "major" Australian films nominated for Best Picture and Director at this year’s AFI Awards earned a combined box-office take of under $4 million. In an extreme example, The Tender Hook, a 1940s costume drama starring Hugo Weaving and Rose Byrne and nominated for five AFI’s including Best Cinematography, earned a paltry $40,000 at the cinemas. Its budget was $7 million.

As the Schembri controversy shows, the film funding debate divides an increasingly besieged industry. From inside the industry, barrackers like Dan Edwards insist that Australian films simply lack decent production and marketing budgets and a fair go from the hostile mainstream press — and that in any case, Australia’s small size means we can’t expect a profitable sector. Critics like Schembri think the problem is the quality of Australian films and scripts, with their tendency to focus on "dark", "heavy" and "difficult" themes.

Almost every intelligent external observer thinks that the film bureaucracy itself is part of the problem. Stories abound of film bureaucrats with little understanding of either audience taste or film-making craft dictating crucial creative decisions to experienced writers, directors and producers — as this interview with Oscar-winning Australian documentary producer Eva Orner attests. "When you say to me, why is the Australian film industry struggling, I would say it’s in part the leadership," she told Inside Film‘s Elmo Keep. In a remark which many Australian film-makers I’ve talked to seem to repeat, Orner goes on to say that "at home I’ve been patronised by people I’ve had a lot more experience than, who have hidden out in government and bureaucratic positions and bounced from one to another to another for 15 years."

As Robert Connolly, the director of the clever and well-received The Bank, observed in a research paper this year, the absence of meaningful private funding for film in Australia means industry practices are largely centrally planned by the AFC and its successor body, Screen Australia, in a rigid and highly inflexible fashion that hasn’t been significantly reformed since the 1980s. Whatever the cause of the disease, the rage within the industry is all too apparent: from the intriguing but self-serving "manifestos" of Melbourne Underground Film Festival director Richard Wolstonecroft to the even less temperate obscenities yelled at Schembri himself by The Black Balloon‘s AFI-winning screenwriter, Jimmy Jack, at this year’s AFI ceremony.

Despite all the sound and the fury, other makers of Australian moving images are doing quite well. 2008 was a rare marquee year for quality Australian TV drama, for instance, unexpectedly driven by major investment from Channel Nine. Underbelly was a critical and ratings success, while Seven’s Packed to the Rafters proved an unexpected hit. Behind the scenes, digital animator Animal Logic is on its way to becoming a major animation production house, while in the art galleries, Australian video artist Shaun Gladwell has been chosen to present his uncanny representations of skateboarding urbanscapes to the 2009 Venice Biennale.

If Australia’s major performing arts sector adopts a self-satisfied sense of elite entitlement and the Australian film sector suffers from despair and bewilderment, the Australian music industry, by contrast, is emerging from complete transformation with newfound optimism. The digital revolution, only just beginning in publishing, is well into its end stages in the popular music industry. In the decade since Shawn Fanning first unveiled his ingenious music server called Napster, the music industries have gone through the kind of wrenching creative destruction that the Detroit auto companies are now experiencing.

The result has been massive, radical change. While CD sales are falling by about 10 per cent a year, digital music sales are roughly doubling annually (see the ARIA figures here) and are well on the way to dominating the delivery of music. Meanwhile, new business models have flourished. The well-publicised "death" of the major music labels has obscured a golden age of live performance, with contemporary music festivals like the Big Day Out, Falls, Meredith, Woodford, Soundwave, Byron Bay Blues Festival, Splendour in the Grass and Parklife growing to dominate the national contemporary music sector. The trajectory of independent festivals like Falls, Meredith and Woodford Folk Festival are good examples of the trend: all three were small community events started by rural entrepreneurs which have grown organically over the past 15 years to become sell-out events of international reputation. It’s the kind of success story other parts of the Australian cultural industries can only dream about.

The other side of popular music’s transformation has been the rebirth of independent labels. Digital music was once expected to eliminate the need for labels altogether, as artists acquired the means of production to allow them to reach their audiences directly. It hasn’t quite worked out like that, not least because people need to hear, or at least hear about, music before they can become fans. Indie labels have proved far more adept at navigating the new landscape, grabbing a first-mover advantage by retaining a core skill that the major music labels neglected: good old-fashioned A&R. Australia’s Modular, which has championed a world-beating wave of antipodean electro from the likes of Cut Copy, The Presets and Muscles, is a good example. Started by "enigmatic" industry veteran Steve Pavlovich, Modular has become one of the hottest labels on the planet by anticipating musical trends and signing quality musicians. As ever in the murky accounting of the music industry, Modular’s true profitability is hard to determine. Its influence, however, is widespread.

While the new shape of popular music is finally emerging, the great transformation of publishing is just beginning. The reason is simple: digital content. If the winds of digitisation have blown hard in music for a decade, in book publishing the storm is still gathering. Partly, this is because the book itself remains a peerless technology for reading. But the eternal verity of physical books will not stop the information contained within them from migrating online, a process that is accelerating with the "Googlization of Everything". Trade publishers and physical book-sellers in particular have a business model based on deep discounting, supply-chain management and inventory systems closer to real-world manufacturers selling widgets than the limitless horizons offered by digital publishing.

As the brisk pace of PDF downloads of university textbooks on torrent sites shows, many parts of the publishing industry are based on principles of physical demand and supply that are rendered horribly redundant in the digital world. In academic publishing especially, most of the demand is for the information itself, rather than its vehicle. Academic publishing can be expected to move to an almost completely digital format very soon. The result will be an industry transformation in which many book publishers and physical bookshops will go broke.

It was Apple’s iPod that drove much of the massive format shift in contemporary music to the MP3. Publishers will also soon be faced by a credible "killer app" that will allow readers to download books at the touch of a pad. It probably isn’t Amazon’s Kindle, but one is likely to emerge in the next generation or two of the industrial ecology. At this point sales of whole product categories of books will plummet as the market migrates online. Of course, as John Hunter has argued, for nimble independent publishers this could prove a massive opportunity, allowing them to access much larger markets than a small print run ever could. Even so, many publishers will have an organisational issue adapting to the new paradigm, and will disappear. This could be disastrous for many Australian writers, who (as Jeremy Fisher has told us) are already doing it tough. This will particularly apply to those in marginal niches — like novelists, who will now have to either publish with small domestic independents or find rare success with international publishers. Change is never painless.

The quixotic journey of "Australian culture" — a term with a very strange and mixed origin — is perhaps best illustrated by the quixotic journey of Australia’s culture minister, Peter Garrett. The bald-headed lawyer and rock singer has long been the subject of a strange fascination among cultural critics and academics — one of whom, McKenzie Wark, was writing about Garrett as major political and cultural figure as early as 1988.

Since then, of course, Garrett has given up rock music and became a full-time politician — not with The Greens, the party most naturally aligned with his public political stance of the past 25 years, but with the Australian Labor Party, a notoriously hermetic organisation that appears to only grudgingly respect his undoubted talents and abilities. Writing in Meanjin in 1988, Wark said that Garrett represented "the future of the organic intellectual of our time". It’s a far cry from the befuddled and ineffectual performance Garrett displayed in dealing with the de-funding of the Australian National Music Academy, an organisation almost no-one in mainstream politics had heard about until Garrett managed to mishandle what should have been a routine bureaucratic restructure. What does Wark now make of the neutered, silenced and increasingly besieged Garrett inside Kevin Rudd’s Cabinet?

So, at the end of‘s journey through the shape of contemporary Australian culture, it’s worth remembering that despite the transformations and up-endings of the industries which support Australian artists, thinkers and creators, it seems likely that in the broadest measure, "Australian culture" will remain vibrant and interesting. Despite the endless round of managerialist cut-backs to arts faculties, "Australian studies" has blossomed as a topic of inquiry at many of our universities, and indeed internationally. And, as Clive Hamilton pointed out in earlier this year, the Australian appetite for ideas and letters appears stronger than ever, as seen by growing attendances and readerships for writers’ and ideas festivals, non-fiction books, political blogs and websites, and serious small journals like The Monthly and Quarterly Essay.

So there’s a lot of room for some guarded optimism: even if there’s plenty to get concerned over, the changes facing our cultural sector are not short of opportunities as well. Culture is something that is always dynamic, but as a part of that dynamism the open and intelligent observer is rewarded with new voices, talents and perspectives on the human condition.

With that in mind, I’d like to leave this discussion by asking you to spare a thought for the people who make Australian culture happen: the artists. The debate about Australian culture often ignores the great achievements of the individuals who create it. As I argued back in 2006, individual artists (especially non-famous ones) are the forgotten voice in the Australian cultural debate, even while they provide the bulk of the workforce for our cultural endeavours. It’s high time Australia re-balanced its cultural investments and regulations away from big buildings and big corporations, and towards the creative human capital of the cultural sector. At stake is not the future of artistic achievement in Australia — for artists will always create, no matter their economic circumstances — but the ability of Australian creators to tell their own stories, and reach their own communities.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.