Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Last night I watched the ABC tribute to Australian playwright Alex Buzo. I have written on Alex before as has Neil. As Neil said in his latest post on Alex, it was stories on Alex on our respective blogs that first established a connection between us, one that I have greatly valued.

I thought that it was an extremely good tribute, drawing out some of Alex's complexity as well as his masterly command of the English language and especially the Australian idiom. The program also drew out another aspect of the Australian change process that I have been trying to address.

The sixties saw a flowering of Australian plays that peaked in the seventies before dying away. Often iconoclastic, these writers saw themselves as distinctly Australian, presenting Australia to Australia. A measure of their success was the way in which Australian theatre moved for a brief period from a fairly narrow cultural ghetto into broader popular consciousness. We can see something of the same process of rise and fall in other cultural areas such as film and poetry.

The number of Australian writers, actors, directors, poets, artists has increased enormously since the seventies. Many have achieved international success. Governments at all levels are spending far more money supporting and promoting cultural activities, yet the distinctly Australian component has, I think declined as has the influence of the arts broadly defined on Australian life.

It would be easy to say that this is simply a symptom of a globalising world that is progressively breaking down the barriers between and uniqueness of individual cultures.

I do not think that this is a sufficient explanation. Yes, ideas are more accessible, information flows more freely, people move more readily. Yes, on some latitudinal measures cross-cultural differences have declined. However, my impression is that differences even between apparently related cultures remain deeply entrenched.

I think that we also need to recognise that cross-cultural flows are not new.

The influence of the US film industry was, I suspect, just as strong in the 1930s as it is today. As an example, the first Government support for the Australian film industry was an unsuccessful attempt by NSW Country Party Leader Bruxner in the 1930s to aid the Australian film industry through quotas. Bruxner was worried about the influence of Holywood on Australian culture and was also first cousin of the Australian film maker Charles Chauvel.

As a second example, Australian painters have always been strongly influenced by major overseas movements in art. The Heidelberg school (and here) drew from French influences but then consciously used them to try to develop an Australian artistic style.

I think that this last point is critical. European Australia developed its own distinct culture soon after settlement. A distinctly Australian English emerged early with the currency lads and lassies, children born in Australia. A constant theme in cultural activities until the end of the seventies was the attempt to articulate what it was to be Australian, to interpret and explain Australia. Sometimes all this was a bit precious, contrived, but it had a cultural validity.

When we put aside the idea of an Australian culture and replaced it with concepts such as pluralism and multiculturalism we created a problem for ourselves at two levels.

At the first level, pluralism and multiculturalism may be important aspirations, even attributes of our culture, but they are not core descriptors of the culture. The abolition of the idea of an Australian culture, of the idea of a distinct Australia, effectively invalidated our past, creating a cultural void.

This links to the second problem. The remarkable thing is just how strongly Australian culture broadly defined has continued as a unique identity. However, because the nexus had been broken between it and our educational and more formal cultural activities, it continued as a purely popular culture, creating a growing disconnect between popular culture and the more formal expressions of culture.

Let me illustrate with a simple example.

The proportion of university students studying some form of Australian history has declined very sharply. The number of Australian history books in book stores, while now increasing, is miles below the peak of the early eighties. Yet interest in Australian history at local or family level, the number of people doing some form of historical research, has never been greater.

People want to know about their past. When the academic and educational elites concerned with Australian history moved away from broader studies to a chunked semester single theme approach determined by currently fashionable topics, they ceased to be a core part of broader Australian culture and instead moved to an academic ghetto.

The genesis of the Australian culture wars lies in the disconnect between popular culture and the more formal expressions of culture.

Australians of all ethnic backgrounds, cultures and creeds are tired of being lectured about their manifold sins and weaknesses. Deprived of cultural interpretation and validation, they have turned instead to symbols that they can understand and that express to them what it means to be an Australian. "Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oy, Oy, Oy" may not be very profound, but it is in fact a simple expression of unity and identity.

Given my views on individual issues, I may deplore John Howard's views on some things. But his political strength, as I see it, lies in the fact that he knows Australians and has effectively captured the divide.

When I see him wearing an Akubra and mixing with Australian farmers I get a warm feeling simply because he is somehow validating things I feel. When he visits a disaster scene and hugs a victim I get a warm feeling because he is expressing the Australian compassion that I feel. When he uses terms like mate and mateship I understand.

I am just one person. But, and in memory of Alex, I would issue a challenge to all our cultural elites.

Get out of the ghetto. Start explaining to me what it means to be an Australian. Help me understand what I am. By all means, tell me what changes are required. But also tell me why I should be proud.


Lexcen said...

Jim, When I think culture I think of traditions,music,art,literature,
food,clothing,celebrations. Australia is football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars...but much more than that. The legend of the Anzacs, the stories of Banjo Patterson, Eureka Stockade,mateship,VFA and the grand final, the Melbourne Cup, Sydney to Hobart race,cricket,Moomba,The Royal Agricultural show. I can't think of any more at the moment but if I was to leave Australia, these are the things that would bring a tear to my eye.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that you caught my point very well, Lexcen. Often its a small thing, like the smell of gum leaves, that becomes a trigger around which all these memories hang.