DOES AUSTRALIA NEED A CULTURAL POLICY?
© Donald Richardson, March, 2006
Professor David Throsby, who recently published a book with this title (Currency House, 2006), answers his own question with a resounding 'yes'. This is because he finds - quite validly - that there are a number of inconsistencies and irrationalities in the life of the nation which reflect on our culture and which call for resolution.
We see ourselves as culturally independent, but this is questionable, he says, and we don't even discuss how we can better reflect our culture in our constitutional arrangements (for example, in the free trade agreement with the USA). We see ourselves as a tolerant, fair-minded people, yet we show cultural insensitivity in relation to both refugees and indigenous Australians. We profess the virtues of international cultural dialogue, yet (following the position of the USA) we refuse to support the UN Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression. Throughout history there has never been a civilization which did not have government arts patronage, yet - while our government talks support for the arts - it is reluctant to provide sufficient funding for either production or consumption. Our artists live in penury.
Australia is a 'cultural pariah', he concludes.
While recognizing that we cannot blame all these problems on the Federal government, Professor Throsby - a cultural economist - nevertheless gives an economist's argument for the government to address them. If we had a cultural policy which was aligned with our economic policy, this would yield positive outcomes in the communications media and other cultural industries in the new service economy. While technological hardware is better produced in other countries, our cultural sector would thrive on producing software in the form of films, videos, games, publicity etc.
"Where culture leads, trade follows", he says, in support of having a cultural policy that is attuned to our foreign policy. Australia needs a cultural body like France's Alliance Francaise and Germany's Goethe Institut to promote our culture internationally, but he does not think the Australia Council - which appears to be 'keeping its head down' politically - is up to doing this. Throsby deplores that government support for the ABC and the SBS is not sufficient to enable them to fulfil their charters.
And a cultural approach to social policy would have wide-ranging possibilities. But we first need a programme of informed public discussion to help us make explicit what really are the fundamental 'Australian' values. One thing this would do is help us to formulate our attitude to human rights and our handling of cultural differences.
This situation cries out for government intervention, but the current government fails to recognize this - in spite of the fact that taxpayers have indicated that they would welcome such an initiative. The engine for change is the 'creative core' of the arts and our cultural heritage. This is not a matter of special pleading for cultural elites, but one which would yield general community benefits, such as employment and wealth generation, social cohesion and urban revitalization. Although the market can assist, it cannot alone provide all the necessary energy.
Throsby's call has been widely discussed - although not in South Australia. As was to be expected, artists generally have welcomed it, but commentators in the right-wing press find it less than praiseworthy, although their arguments have been superficial.
Throsby does make a case for at least researching the situation, and along the lines he suggests. Disagreeing with the Prime Minister, who - he says - asserts that there is no need to discuss 'Australian identity', Throsby asserts that defining 'the subterranean aspects of our culture' is precisely the crux of the matter. However, his thesis does have two clear deficiencies. First, it shares the belief - which governments and industry, internationally, are currently inclined to buy already - that encouraging people to study the arts educates them appropriately for a role in the new creative/knowledge economy. But, this reduces the arts to a mere instrument of business, economics and material prosperity, and culture is valuable in its own right. While it may be true that studying Picasso may make someone a better computer programmer or salesperson, visiting his gallery in Paris is a personally enriching and valuable experience in its own right.
The other weakness in Throsby's approach is that his definition of culture is far too narrow. It is commonly accepted that culture includes all the activities, rituals and values that a particular group of humans share; it is not restricted to the arts and cultural heritage. By not accepting this, Throsby condemns the arts to a cultural and political ghetto. A cultural policy must include all that is in the wider context - including sport, religion, entertainment and recreation - and functional design - as well as the arts as narrowly defined by him. Only then will it gain universal acceptance and have the possibility of generating political power. It is too easy for the philistines to reject an arts policy as not having universal relevance (although they would be wrong).
Finally, Throsby's suggestion for a solution to the problem is similarly proscribed. He can only suggest the formation of groups of cognoscenti who would brain-storm discussion papers and write manifestos to inspire public debate. This would culminate in a summit (of what the Prime Minister would surely dub 'elites') to devise a policy. One is reminded of the republic disaster! Anyhow, he seems to have little confidence that this would work - and this writer agrees. This is a matter so deep as well as wide that no manifesto is likely even to scratch the surface.
But, like most arts administrators and academics, Throsby does not even consider the most obvious - and most likely to succeed - strategy: through education. These days, it is in the schools and the market-place - more potently than in our homes and churches - that culture is defined. Through these agents we have developed a culture that places ridiculously high value on competitive sport and mindless entertainment, to the exclusion of almost everything else. But, more recently, we have come to value and care for the environment - and this has surely been generated in the primary schools of the nation. No one has condemned this as social engineering, and it is no more so than television advertising is. If we were to add the arts to this mix, we would have a complete culture - and the possibility of defining a cultural policy. But our schools are ill-equipped and disinclined to take on this extra dimension. Perhaps our hope for cultural maturity lies in the forward thinking of our new Education Minister, Julie Bishop, who would be well advised to adopt as broad an approach to cultural education as she has to preschool education.