PICTURE ONE: THERE are eight people sitting around a table on the top floor of a high-rise building in the heart of Adelaide’s CBD. Four of us are from a humanities research project looking for new ways to account for the value of arts and culture to government and the community. Four are economists from the Department of State Development. We are having a laboured conversation about assessment indices for cultural institutions. It is bleak mid-winter in 2015, the worst possible day for us to be having this meeting. The end of mining at Leigh Creek has just been announced. The economists are looking at us with irritation. They talk about robotics, innovation labs, digital special-effects firms. They want to know what we have for them, how arts and culture are going to replace manufacturing and minerals in our stuck-for-an-answer post-industrial economy. They lean forward to hear what we have to say.
When we talk about culture’s value, we think we are speaking the same language – arts, festivals, creative industries – but we are not. There is no semantic calibration tool for the words we use, no handheld device wherein we can insert someone’s use of a term to check its intended meaning. The word ‘culture’ is at the heart of this problem. There is an anthropological use of the word: the culture of the remote islands of the Hebridean coast. There is the word as it is used in the cultural sector: galleries, libraries, museums that produce, collect and exhibit cultural objects and experiences, and provide access to them to diverse people and places. Culture in the sciences is a process of growing bacteria, a synonym for acclimatisation. We should also acknowledge the long and rich history of our Indigenous cultures. In the media there is frequent and casual use of the word: ‘workplace culture’, ‘sports culture’, ‘a culture of bullying’. For all its variety of meanings, however, culture has two common applications: the broad and the narrow. Roughly: culture as a way of life; and culture as art. The two feed off each other in ways that are hard to measure, sometimes even to describe.
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