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The 'Culture Wars', yes … but whose culture?

By Andrew McIntyre - posted Friday, 7 October 2005

As a son of the privileged Jamaican plantocracy, Michael Manley, prime minister of that country for eight years until 1980 and at the time charismatic head of the non-aligned nations, was wont to listen to Beethoven string quartets and cultivate roses, while his anti-American rhetoric intensified and he dragged his increasingly socialist and economically struggling nation towards neighbouring Cuba.

The chardonnay socialists, la gauche caviar - as the French call them - the vanguard, nomenclatura, literati, culturati, doctors' wives - whatever - distinguish themselves by their education, life style, refined taste … and their politics. Although these qualities can, apart from the politics, fit conservatives, it is nevertheless a truism that Left elites - elites in the worst sense of the term - see themselves as a sort of new aristocracy, with a belief that their knowledge, refinement and taste give them a self-evident right to impose their ideas on others and treat the rest of us, especially the Howard-voting aspirationals, with barely concealed contempt and paternalism.

That the “arts” is the pivotal battleground in the culture wars was made clear by Ross Fitzgerald in The Australian recently: “Mention the arts and Howard will run a mile: the words ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ will never cross Howard’s lips with passion. Mention the arts and most Laborites will revert to dreamy Whitlamesque visions of government patronage for the enrichment of Australia’s ‘identity’.”


Politically correct films, viewed as “challenging” or “important”, receive uncritical rave reviews from our avuncular “Pomastratton” on the ABC, while the films bomb at the box office. Australian films last year generated less than 1.3 per cent of a national box of $907 million, a record low proportion. One film-goer was reported in the media as saying, “Oh that film; you wouldn’t want to see that - I’m pretty sure it’s Australian”. So an industry that is supported so vociferously by our leading international actors and actresses as “an important voice for Australian identity” somehow manages to supply a voice with which Australians themselves do not identify.

In literature, the same tensions can be seen. Our subsidised writers, the unpopular ones, can only think of how crass the public is in not buying what some might say are post-modernist, narcissistic outpourings, and rail against commercialism and free markets. It could be, perhaps, that subsidies are a part of the problem. An Australia Council report in 2003, Don’t give up your day job, found that the number of professional writers had tripled in 20 years and that one in four earned below the poverty line. The average income was $35,000 a year, but less than $5,000 came from writing. Doesn’t this suggest that they should change careers or get a serious job, like everyone else?

As unacknowledged problem confronting these elitists across all artistic styles and manifestations is cultural competition and proliferation. Nick Gillespie, in a piece for Reason online titled “All Culture, All the Time”, puts it this way: “It’s easier than ever to make and buy culture. No wonder some people are so upset.”

Indeed. Just think of the transformations in Australia over the past two decades. There has been an enormous and sustained increase in the production and availability of music, literature, art, film, video and other forms of creative expression. In classical music alone, there has been an unprecedented profusion of concerts, whether chamber, orchestral or solo, ranging from amateur and semi-professional groups and choral societies, to visiting orchestras, ensembles and international festivals.

The same goes for books. In Australia, there are more retail outlets than ever before. But even more significant in this supply and availability is the Internet and providers such as More than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its own top-selling 130,000 titles. In other words, the market for books that don’t ever get to appear in even the biggest Australian stores is far larger than the whole market for those that are in those retail outlets.

Ironically, The Australia Institute has recently released a study on wasteful consumption. It revealed that our homes are stuffed with books that no one reads and CDs that no one listens to. As for CDs, Garry Barker, the Technology Editor for The Age newspaper, explains that much of the music he listens to now comes directly through the Internet: programs from a jazz station in France, a country music station in Nebraska, the BBC and classic FM in London.


Then there is the explosion in access to both free-to-air and cable television. Not only are we watching more TV - available non-stop 24-hours a day (remember ABC test patterns?) - we have cable television and a profusion of video rental shops. If you want the 1959 Black Orpheus by French director Marcel Carnet, or Fellini’s Roma, or Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, it’s yours for the taking.

And that’s just video stores. In an intriguing analysis by Chris Anderson in Wired Magazine, “The Long Tail” explores specifically just how the new digital revolution is really revolutionising culture. Internet delivery has made a good business out of what is unprofitable fare in movie theatres and video rental shops because it can aggregate dispersed audiences. In a world of what appeared to be scarcity, we now have a world of almost unlimited abundance.

In this context of proliferation, diversity and specialisation of tastes, it is barely comprehensible that Rosemary Neill, in an article in The Australian, seriously reiterates the question that floats perennially around the Australian arts establishment. “Is the financial enrichment of the country leaning, paradoxically, to an impoverishment of the culture?” This of course is code for government subsidies. Jill Berry, general manager of the Bell Shakespeare Company complains, “The dark ages for the arts is here, absolutely … the dumbing down of Australia is rampant”.

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This is an edited version of an article published in the IPA Review where Andrew McIntyre is a regular contributor.

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About the Author

Andrew McIntyre writes opinion pieces and feature articles for national newspapers and journals on topical issues, involving analysis and commentary.

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