The Uses of Culture

Featured in

‘Culture is created by us and defines us. It is the embodiment of the distinctive values, traditions and beliefs that make being Australian in the 21st century unique – democratic, diverse, adaptive and grounded in one of the world’s oldest living civilisations.’

Creative Australia (Australian Government, 2013)

‘Schultz sees signs that people do again want to make sense of what it means to be Australian. Economic success has been important but turned out not to be sufficient… It’s serious homework for us all.’

Chris Wallace, Canberra Times

I WILL REFLECT on the importance of culture and its uses, and the evolving hybridity of what it means to be Australian in today’s always-on, globally connected world.

Societies like Australia, where almost everyone has come from somewhere else, are well-suited to this age in which people, ideas and dollars move with great ease and enormous speed.

Adaptability and flexibility are crucial in a time that, more than ever, rewards nimble self-confidence.

Australians pride themselves on these attributes.

But success also depends on a clear sense of identity, and I think what we have heard already is that the short hand we have used in the past no longer captures the reality of what being Australian actually means in the 21st century.

AUSTRALIANS ARE DIFFIDENT about delving into what makes us distinctive, to accentuate the positive while acknowledging the negative.

Sadly, the public domain for the last decade has been characterised by a lot of shouting and quite a bit of self-congratulation, but very little critical, open-minded self-examination where the answer was not predetermined.

It seems to me that, in what some are calling ‘The Age of Culture’, this is a time when we need to pay more attention.

My concern is that if we don’t do this in a serious way, we are at risk of losing our moorings, of forgetting about the values and attributes that mark us – drowning in the global tsunami of people, ideas, entertainment and commerce.

I think that it is possible to define what makes Australians unique, and I will talk about these characteristics more later.

At this stage, I want to say that it comes from the mix of peoples, place, institutions and values. Even in a global age everyone comes from somewhere. The challenge is to dig down into what this really means.

It is time to jettison both the cultural cringe and the cultural strut.

THERE ARE SIGNS that people are again trying to make sense of what it means to be Australian – informed by the new global mobility and sense of being at ease in the world. Economic success is important, but not sufficient. Most Australians enjoy the spoils of our good fortune, but we want to do more than just sell stuff.

My feeling is that we are at one of those inflection points that will set the tone and agenda for the coming decades.

In the past couple of years, there have been about a dozen books trying to reframe the question Donald Horne posed in 1964 about the dangers of relying on luck. The context is very different fifty years on, but many of the same questions pop up. Despite the publishing frenzy, no one has yet captured the zeitgeist the way Horne did with The Lucky Country (Penguin, 1964).

Australia was ready for such a discussion in the mid-1960s. My sense is that we are at a similar moment. Something is happening. It has not yet crystallised, but it will. At least I hope it will. I expect it will be the tools of social media that drive it, in the way that new media products like The Australian and This Day Tonight gave it voice half a century ago, or the little magazines did in other eras.

The strong public reaction against the Abbott government is an indication of this hunger for a discussion. Never before has a government lost so much public support as quickly as the Abbott government in the first year of its term. Although the election was decisive, the response to the answers the government has provided through its policies suggest that there is a serious mismatch.

Australia today is very different to the Australia of 1964. In part, this is a result of the changes adopted in the final quarter of the twentieth century – many of which were responses to the discussion triggered by Horne’s book and the global context. This was a period that reached its zenith in the years between the bicentary of Australia and the Sydney Olympics. It was a time of significant economic and social transformation, historical interrogation and celebration. It was a time when the cultural cringe imploded.

The work done during those years served us well.

As a result Australia today is richer, more diverse, better educated, more worldly, more ambitious, less fearful and getting closer to resolving the long unfinished business of Indigenous recognition.

It has changed, and is changing still.

The global context has also changed, so there is again a need to ask the big question: What is Australian Culture?

OUR HISTORY IS now deep enough and rich enough to answer this question by looking inwards as well as out.

Culture is complex. It is everything – language, heritage, art, social relations, education, and identity – and at the same time, it is annoyingly intangible. It is the glue that binds us, it enriches and informs our lives every day, it is something we make and something we participate in as a human right, and while its public value can be assessed it resists measurement.

Getting this right is important for individuals, for communities and for the country as a whole.

It is one of the hoary mantras of management consultants that ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’, and, while this applies to companies, it is as true for smaller family and community groups as it is on a large scale for states and nations.

Culture is value laden, and in a globally connected, settler society like Australia – where there are many layers of identity – there is an increasingly rich understanding of history and heritage, and an extraordinarily talented and well-trained cohort of artists, educators and creatives. So culture will inevitably be a vibrant and contested domain.

But it is not singular – the temptation to impose one correct view is dangerous. States that have adopted exclusionary definitions of culture have not generally prevailed, or been noted for their openness, resilience and innovation.

Trying to force culture into an ideologically determined view of the world as a simple binary does no one any favors.

‘The defining moment’ of this continent

GOVERNMENTS DO NOT, indeed should not, create culture. Wise leaders seek to enrich and enable its expression.

So when Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently declared, and repeated just in case it was missed the first time, that ‘the defining moment in the history of this continent’ was the arrival of the First Fleet, the reaction was swift and loud. Indigenous leaders and bloggers were quick to point out the hurt embodied in the statement; conservative commentators shouted back that this sort of response was the reason the Racial Discrimination Act should be changed.

In the overheated digital world of immediate call and response, where only one truth can be left standing at the end of the day, they were all almost half right.

The problem was the use of the definite article – the defining moment – coupled with continent. The weight was wrong. Clearly, the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet was, by definition, an essential moment in the creation of modern Australia. Although, as the Prime Minister noted, most Australians know almost nothing about the Enlightenment man who led that perilous journey.

Despite all the shouting, I am sure I was not the only person for whom this furore was cut through by an image in my mind’s eye: Michael Cook’s wonderful rendering of the arrival of the First Fleet.

Cook’s work, which has been exhibited to acclaim around the world, is witty and clever as well as being beautiful and technically superb. His hybrid images go to the heart of the uniqueness of Australia – and in the process speak to the world.

Notwithstanding the work of excellent historians, we are not good enough at public history in Australia. We have forgotten to remember, failed to keep telling our stories – only too willing to live in a permanent present and squabble about some details and interpretation. This is why artists like Michael Cook are so important – they cut through and speak to the soul.

In a place like Australia, where the recent layers are so accessible and the bedrock of the ancient is so remarkable, allowing myth to do the work of remembering is just lazy.

The desire to collapse complex layers of people and place to a single hierarchy does not work anywhere, but in a country like Australia it is especially problematic. This is a continent with an ancient geological, botanical and zoological lineage. It is a place with histories of human settlement dating back tens of thousands of years. It is a country that has, in more recent times, beckoned and made welcome people from every continent. But we have not been as diligent as we should be in telling these stories, and in encouraging them to blend into each other. Too many are forgotten and lost.

Under the layers

THE LIMITS OF myth, of reducing life on this continent to a few iconic moments, is becoming increasingly apparent – there are richer and more complex tales to be told, tales that in the retelling can increase understanding and open new possibilities. And in the retelling new truths can be revealed, as Bill Gammage’s remarkable scholarship in The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2011) has shown.

The National Museum’s ‘Defining Moments’ project is one of a number that are seeking to animate our history. Smart, curious, able people are doing this in many ways: digging through dusty archives, interrogating the records, finding the keepers of memory, reimagining lives in words, music and performance, on screen and in installations.

Recognising that there are many layers of history is a sign of maturity, and an important foundation for cultural evolution.

It is not surprising that those who own and have access to the stories and history of the First Australians are offended that everything that occurred before 1788 should have been rendered invisible for so long. It is also not surprising that those who have come here from elsewhere would bring their histories with them, or that those who came here to create something new just want to get on with it, or that we would not want to celebrate the success of a peaceful, resilient institutional order.

The challenge is to find ways to allow these histories to percolate and inform each other – to foster a rich, informed, hybrid culture, which is not subsumed by myth, where the truth has a multi-layered crunch.

Again, when I think about this, the image that comes to mind is the wonderful work of Danie Mellor. He collapses the layers of settlement and tradition in his detailed paintings. The elaborate indigo and white rendering of the Australian bush, rather than the traditional blue and white porcelain patterns from China or Europe.

The pillars of a nation

THERE ARE FOUR pillars that are essential to any successful nation. One is the land and its associated attributes and resources, the second is the people who make up the society, the third is its institutions, laws and regulations, and the fourth is the defining culture and values.

Culture is the most slippery of these and the one that receives the least attention, especially in a country where public policy has been reduced to economics. But it is just as important as the other pillars – arguably the glue that ensures the other pillars are robust and resilient – and, although this is not the subject for today, something that can be measured by adopting new tools.

Governments are more comfortable regulating land, population and institutions than they are when it comes to dealing with culture. Culture is not a creation of government. Yet the right of citizens to participate in the creation and enjoyment of culture is embodied in international agreements.

Over the past few years, I was engaged in a big consultative project with the former government to assist in developing a national cultural policy. It was a big task, complex and sophisticated, that drew an active engagement, with thousands of submissions from around the country. People were passionate and innovative, and the work that informed the Creative Australia document was of a very high standard, and set a firm foundation for future work.

Five goals of Creative Australia:

  1. Recognise, respect and celebrate the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to the uniqueness of Australian identity.
  2. Ensure that government support reflects the diversity of Australia and that all citizens, wherever they live, whatever their background or circumstances, have a right to shape our cultural identity and its expression.
  3. Support excellence and the special role of artists and their creative collaborators as the source of original work and ideas, including telling Australian stories.
  4. Strengthen the capacity of the cultural sector to contribute to national life, community wellbeing and the economy.
  5. Ensure Australian creativity thrives in the digitally enabled 21st century, by supporting innovation, the development of new creative content, knowledge and creative industries.

Sadly it got lost in the politics of the day – the immediacy of the unstable political environment made this look like a side-show, rather than something central to the country’s future.

Culture is always a work in progress, changing and evolving of itself and in response to the changes that happen elsewhere. If the land is affected by drought or fire, the local culture will draw on its embedded resources, but adjust in response; if the mix of peoples there changes, the culture will also adapt to accommodate this – laws and regulations can strengthen this resilience or undermine it.

These principles hold everywhere, but especially in a place where the weight of history sits rather lightly. In a traditional society, history is likely to be more settled and firmly held. But, as you here in China know better than most, change is possible even for ancient traditional societies, and it can be transformative and enriching.

It is important to tease this out, because even in a global world people come from somewhere, and that somewhere shapes how they see the world, their opportunities, expectations and aspirations, the way they relate to others and the value they place on belonging.

There are more than a million Australians living abroad, and even as their accents soften and they adopt the mores of those around them there is something distinctive and recognisable about them. The Australian expat of the twenty-first century is very different to the expat of another age, who was often running away. Now they move with ease in the world, coming and going, orbiting and settling.

SO, TO RETURN to the question of what makes Australia and Australians unique.

I would argue that there are four distinctive characteristics – the first is its Indigenous history, as home to the longest continuous living civilization. There is almost no other country that can trace such a lineage. This is something that has never been properly acknowledged, and until it is the full potential of the great southern land and its peoples will never be realised.

The second is that it has one of the most successful continuous representative democracies. It did not happen by chance, or by fiat. It was shaped over more than a century by a long, slow process of struggle and debate – it was not a gift of the English, but something that was contested and resolved at the time. But it is not fixed in concrete. We need to keep it under review, to ensure it is as good as possible.

Nonetheless this long democratic tradition has underpinned Australia’s openness and its resilience – even if at times it acted as a brake on change. A direct line can be drawn from this heritage to the ease with which Australia has become home to people from hundreds of different backgrounds, and the fact that despite only 23.6 million people it is the 13th richest country in the world.

The third characteristic that is unique is that, with the exception of devastating colonial wars that decimated the First Australians (most notably in Tasmania but throughout the southern continent), there has never been a full-scale modern war fought in Australia. In every other continent millions of lives have been lost in civil wars and wars of invasion. The blood shed in the colonial wars remains sadly unacknowledged – and this needs to be addressed – but there has been nothing to compare with the millions of lives lost in wars on every other continent in the last 150 years. Although Australians have fought in those wars, and many lost their lives, the battles did not happen at home.

I would argue that this has a legacy, one which we rarely acknowledge but that underpins Australian pragmatism. There is a strong sense that things can be sorted out without resorting to violence, that war happens elsewhere. That is a great bit of cultural DNA.

The fourth is the accident of geography that places Australia in the Asian hemisphere. This provides opportunities that many Australians are now enthusiastically exploring, but has presented challenges. We seem to rediscover the potential of proximity every few decades. Yet the history of engagement is rich and long: we know that the Indigenous people had a long history of regional interchange with the Macassans and possibly others; we know that Matthew Flinders, after circumnavigating Australia, recommended that Darwin be the capital so the colony was better positioned to trade with the region; we know that the Australasian movement of the nineteenth century envisaged a regional future; we know that Chinese settlers came south with the same ease that Irish settlers crossed the Atlantic to America; and we know that the fear of Chinese industriousness provoked a reaction that lingered well into the twentieth century, and that Australia pulled up the drawbridge and created a reputational issue that is only now being demolished.

Somehow, I don’t think it will be long before we embrace participation with this as the new normal – maybe this time it will really stick.

Changing the framework

THE CULTURE OF Australia grows out of these attributes. As I have noted, culture is expressed in many ways – through education and language, through science and sports, through community activities and heritage, in all its many-layered complexity.

In Australia we tend to leave the heavy lifting of culture to the arts and individual artists, which is somewhat unfair. We expect a lot of them, and do not always treat them with the respect they deserve.

But artists and their collaborators are particularly important in this. They are effectively the research scientists and ambassadors of culture – creating, exploring, and communicating through visual art, music, dance, performance, design, writing and screen.

The new mantra of the Australia Council for the Arts is to foster a culturally ambitious nation. This is admirable, and will hopefully embolden Australian artists at home and see them celebrated around the world, but the money at its disposal is miniscule by comparison to every other area of government expenditure, so it is a big ask.

Culture has many uses in this context. There is the intrinsic value of creating works of skill and beauty that speak to the soul. The importance of this cannot be overestimated – art for its own sake – and needs to be assisted in every way. Incidentially, it is these works of beauty and skill are the bedrock of both identity and commerce.

Then there is the institutional value of culture, the way these works represent and help define a people and place. This may be captured in the great galleries and opera houses, in museums and major performing arts companies, where the works of intrinsic value find an audience. Or it may be expressed more prosaically in Australian studies centres, tourism campaigns or international broadcasting.

In a noisy world this is more important than ever, both as an export and for home consumption. Although it is a domain where the national government should be active, successive Australian governments have not resourced this to the extent one would expect by comparison to comparable countries.

The third use of culture is instrumental – to ensure the greatest human potential can be realised. This ranges from participation in creative and community activities to education, but deliberately uses cultural tools to expand this capacity rather than just the policy levers of economics, law and regulation. On one level this is self-evident. People make sense of their worlds through creative expression, working together on shared projects, communicating and developing skills, finding joy in expression. Sadly, our narrow focus on measuring economic impact and value has weakened understanding of the power of culture to provide meaning and solutions to otherwise intractable problems.

The fourth use is commercial – the importance of the cultural industries can no longer be ignored. Even at a time when the business models of some of the traditional cultural industries are being challenged by digital technology, culture is an important part of the economy.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated the economic value of the creative and cultural sector as being more than $87 billion, about seven per cent of GDP in 2008–09, and employing just under a million people. This is a big enterprise, generating more of the GDP than many other industries we spend much more time talking about, and providing interesting and rewarding jobs.

As this commerce is conducted globally, it also sends a message to the world. It is an export with more power than ships full of coal. Sadly, such is the disregard for culture in the current Australian political environment that the ABS data series on culture has been cancelled. This is a great loss.

While it is easy to add up the ships of iron ore travelling north, the task of measuring the impact of the cultural industries is harder, because it is dispersed.

At the moment, there is considerable excitement about Australian popular culture around the world – Australian actors, musicians, architects, artists, fashion designers, chefs and directors are highly visible and distinctive. Australia has invested a lot in this through education and support, but, with the exception of film, has not marked this as an industry sector that merits special attention. I was struck by the comments Cate Blanchett made when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Blue Jasmine. That she was able to do this is, in large measure, because of the training she received at NIDA, and the experience on the stage of the Sydney Theatre Company, which helped her to further refine her craft. The investment in both was more than compensated for by the pleasure her performance brought to cinema-goers around the world.

I should say, though, that after several months on the road the most common manifestation of the Australian cultural product seemed to be the ‘UGG Australia’ shoe stores that pop up in every global shopping centre. Sheep skin boots were once the preferred footwear of Australian surfers. Today, they are sold in massive quantities by an American company which has fought hard to own the trade mark ‘UGG Australia’. For good reason: last year they sold more than a billion dollars worth of goods, trading on reflexive notions of Australianness – she’ll be right, in a relaxed, sunny, land of beaches and open spaces.

There are lots of lessons about the use and misuse of cultural products in this, but that is a story for another day. I see that the Australian Sheepskin Industry Association is seeking to follow the lead of the French and have Ugg declared a uniquely Australian brand, the champagne of the antipodes.

But there is another delightfully Australian twist in the tale – UGG Boots last week made the proscribed list of clothing that no one can wear in the Members Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground. This may be code for class – just because Ugg boots feature on the catwalks of Paris and New York, they carry a certain cache at home. Somehow, I don’t think that the arbiters of taste at the SCG banned the boots as a way of getting back at the appropriation of Australian cultural product!

New hybridity

THERE IS A challenge, even in a settler society that feels perpetually new, to unpick the recent history, as William Yang illustrated so beautifully yesterday and has been doing for years as he has explored the legacy of his Chinese heritage. The next step is to and synthesise this and communicate it at home and abroad, to continue listening and thinking, to realise that culture is a work in progress not something that stopped a hundred or fifty or ten years ago.

What we are now beginning to see in Australia is the outcome of this process.

So some of the most remarkable and exciting art being produced draws on both the Indigenous and settler traditions. The two examples I have drawn on in this talk, the works of young artists Danie Mellor and Michael Cook, synthesise this in original ways. They are two of a large group of artists – Christian Thompson, Fiona Foley, Ricky Maynard, Julie Gough, Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, the late Gordon Bennett, and others who were given a collective voice in two wonderful National Galley exhibitions, Culture Warriors and UnDisclosed, and Djon Mundine’s Bungaree: The First Australian exhibition at the Mosman Gallery last year.

It is also happening in dance and music, performance and literature: Bangarra Dance’s recent show Patyegarang, which explores the story of Lieutenant Dawes and the Aboriginal woman who taught him the language of the Eora people, and how to read the stories in the stars; Paul Stanhope’s oratorio Jandamarra, for the Sydney Symphony with the Gondwana and Kimberley choirs, celebrates a warrior who betrayed and then saved his people; Wesley Enoch’s play Black Diggers uncovers the story of Aboriginal soldiers who died on the battle fields of the first world war, and the complex connections between Europe and Australia; in The Swan Book (Giramondo, 2013), Alexis Wright uses biting Aboriginal humour to imagine a future Australia, where a reverence of Aboriginal leadership has dire consequences. And then there are movies and TV shows produced and directed by brilliant indigenous filmmakers, The Sapphires and Redfern Now, to name just two.

None of these works are overtly angry political treatises, they are clever, connected, informed – but they are political in the broader sense of the word. They are the product of a multilayered cultural heritage coupled with extraordinary talent and skill. Maybe they are the sixth stage of the Aboriginal art movement in Djon Mundine’s framework: the empire strikes back, or revenge of the nerds.

These works would have been unimaginable even a couple of decades ago.  We have already seen great art coming from Chinese immigrants, and particularly the wonderful art-making by those Chinese artists who arrived in Australia post-1989. I expect that in the coming years this will gather further momentum, as a new generation of globally connected Aussie hybrids get down to work. It takes time to percolate.

Indigenous Australia was defined by culture – and we are increasingly recognising that it is culture, rather than race as defined by bloodlines, that gives this its continuing power and potency. The task of creating and mobilising a unique Australian culture has been one of the enduring challenges ever since the First Fleet arrived.

I would hope that this will always be a work in progress.

The old clichés drawn from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are no longer sufficient. There is a need for an expansive approach, one that unpicks the layers of Australian history and identity, engages its peoples, and communicates with the world in an open minded, quietly self-confident, unapologetic manner.

This is useful in many ways, for individuals, for the society, and maybe even for the world as an example of what is possible.

This paper was delivered by Julianne Schultz AM FAHA on 12 September 2014, as the Keynote Address at The Big Picture: Lives, Landscapes, Homelands in Australian and Chinese Art, 2nd FASIC Australian Studies in China Conference, Renmin University of China, Beijing.

Share article

More from author

More from this edition

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.