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The New York Times says Australian culture is in low supply

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Damien Cave, the American chief of the new Australian bureau of the New York Times, today published an article and newsletter in which he attempted to grapple with Australia’s complex cultural identity.

Cave had recently attended a documentary film and performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House, and had published a few good articles which raised the enduring questions about Australia’s relationship with its culture.

SupportBadgeBased on those experiences, Cave clearly wanted to delve more deeply into Australian culture and our art.

But I was rather taken aback when I read his assertion that Australia is a country “where the demand for culture is greater than the supply.”

The first exhibit I’d put forward to disprove that theory is the folder in my inbox marked “invitations”. There is so much arts activity happening here it often makes my head hurt.

The idea that Australia’s cultural supply is low is not reflected at all in my experience as an arts journalist in the country’s biggest city. I’m only able to cover the smallest of corners when it comes to the city’s sprawling cultural landscape. A Sydney resident with a healthy bank account and little need for sleep might be able to see a new live performance by professional artists every night of the year.

Of course, it’s true that some Australians can’t access a lot of their own culture for a number of reasons — not least of which is geographical isolation — and most of us are rarely aware of the extraordinary breadth of what art is out there.

But by god, there’s a lot.

I doubt the many wonderful artists struggling to find an audience at independent, fringe venues around the country feel the demand for culture is greater than the supply.

Cave went on to ask readers to send him their favourite “examples” of Australian art and culture; perhaps in a Top Five list. That request has been widely criticised on social media.

He’s since said he’s surprised by the response he’s received, but it’s totally clear to me why his article struck such a nerve. I’m glad Cave has reached out to locals in his attempts to help navigate the dense thicket that is Australian culture, but this feels like a rather reductive way of doing so.

When Cave suggests Australia has a low supply of culture and then asks locals to provide “examples” of said culture, it seems very much like we’re being asked to justify that Australia actually even has culture. And to ask that of a country that literally has the oldest living cultures in the world is a little odd to say the least.

The concepts of cultural cringe and Australia’s tall poppy syndromes might be broad generalisations, but they remain two of the defining ideas about Australia’s relationship to its culture. That means Australians and our artists often feel a strong need to defend and boost our culture — and that’s often just to our fellow citizens who have a bleak view of our output.

For anybody to get their head around Australia’s arts and culture in any meaningful way is extraordinarily difficult — in fact, it’s probably impossible given the range of experiences and perspectives of Australians that feed our culture.

Even though I write about Australian culture almost every day, I always struggle to understand how everything fits together; how the dominant western culture inherited at colonisation (it’s now evolved into something more specifically Australian), sits alongside cultures of our more recent migrant populations, and the cultures that have existed here for tens of thousands of years. And how those cultures can be simultaneously celebrated and denigrated to maintain a number of national myths about the character of this country.

Although much of that still remains a mystery to me, what’s clear is that these conflicts and tensions frequently throw forth extraordinary works of art that speak directly and with clarity to large parts of Australia.

If he’s reading, I’ll give Cave just one specific example of a work that does so: Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wifea theatrical adaptation of an 1892 short story by bush poet Henry Lawson. Purcell’s play takes a seminal story from Australia’s colonial past and places an Indigenous perspective at its core with a shocking and unexpected result.

It’s fantastic that the New York Times is making a modest foray into Australia, but if Cave really wants to understand Australian culture, I’d recommend he finds the best Australian writers and cultural critics and give them the support of the paper.

Using the Pulitzer-winning critic Sebastian Smee is a great start, and an outsider’s perspective like Cave’s own can throw many things into sharper focus. But understanding Australia’s relationship with its culture requires more than a collection of readers’ Top Five lists. It requires a deep understanding of our history and an almost total immersion in works created locally.


[box]Featured image: The Drover’s Wife, photo by Brett Boardman[/box]

18 responses to “The New York Times says Australian culture is in low supply

  1. Here here Ben! The ABC struggles to cover even a fraction of the rich cultural offerings we have in this country. I feel that Damien Cave needs to get more fully engaged with Australian culture for starters and not base his assumptions on a few brief cultural incursions.

  2. David Stratton’s Australian cinema series currently on now throws a spotlight on what is Australian culture and how despite changes there are some common themes. Culture is more than film and theatre and perhaps this is the point the American is pointing out – America itself has little substantive culture on a similar analysis he has made for Australia. Many Americans would beg to differ but patriotism and the rise of religious fundamentalism is not culture of any depth or substance. Likewise religious festivities, food menus from starvation (the main characteristic of so-called multiculturalism in Australia) and ridiculous village dances have nothing to do with intrinsic societal culture meaning most of the world is quite barren of culture generally and Australia does relatively well overall when you examine the lens of Stratton’s perspective of people.

  3. ….probably deserves an article on American culture including the love of the gun, endemic racism, Americans at war, the Hollywood movie and US TV programming.

  4. A few thoughts…
    Take away the large budget and living in Sydney and re-write the article…
    In a New York context Australia’s relationship to cultural activity is conflicted. We don’t support our artists to anything like the degree that exists in NYC.
    With notable exceptions professional performing artists do not have the same status or standard of living in Australia.
    Australian culture seems to me to be hand-tied to arts bureaucrats who live comfortable lives on bureaucrat’s salaries and in the main are simply parasitical, drawing off most of the potential livelihood of working artists.
    Decent venues are mostly beyond the resources of performing artists.
    Most of our Arts Departments will not support performance unless it is seen to have some commercial value.
    This article has been written in a cultural bubble and also a nationalistically defensive one. Sure, we have a few well-endowed arts organisations but these are not representative of the national reality. There’s a lot of activity but not high levels of patronage, i.e., artists will continue to create but our society basically doesn’t support it unless it’s ‘innovative’ or ‘indigenous’. We have a society that in the arts has become the stamping ground of postmodern ideas more than attempting to go much deeper most of the time. Try finding regular serious artistic endeavour in Perth’s Eastern suburbs or Sydney’s Western ones. The article reflects a lack of understanding of how problematic class is becoming in Australia for our arts culture as well. Our media devotes most space to advertising followed by sport. Try to find a serious review of a local arts event in most regional papers or a spot on free-to-air television. How often do cultural events even get a mention in the media? Dear Ben, I think it’s time you got out from behind your desk and discovered just how hard it is to be a performer in Australia. Subscriptions: how many thousands of people are members of football clubs and how many are regular subscribers to, say, the equivalent symphony orchestra – we haven’t got a balanced society and I don’t think we have a culture. We have multiple cultures and society in that sense is become more fragmented as less cohesive culturally with the exception of the lowest common denominator: pop. Is there an identifiably Australian cultural identity? I don’t think so, unless you have been conned into believing that Australian popular culture is fundamentally Australian.

    1. We have very little patronage for the public good in arts, sciences or otherwise. When you look at how many billionaires we have here, none put back into society in the way that many of the wealthy in Europe and North America do.

    2. Anthony Maydwell, you are right about how hard it is to be a performer in Australia, that is why so many go overseas particularly to London. I saw this by Simon Gleeson “But Gleeson says going home [to Australia] will bring other challenges. “Being an artist in Australia is incredibly difficult, it’s not like London. You feel absolutely unsupported, devalued.”

  5. Ben, about the supposing “tall poppy syndrome” belonging to Australia is straight out rubbish.

    Over twenty years ago I worked for a Canadian company in SEA, one of my work colleagues complained about a unfortunate Canadian trait called the “tall poppy syndrome”.
    I nearly fell of the chair laughing.
    There is a saying in Japan “the highest nail always get hammered down”
    Ben, people like you going on about the tall poppy syndrome come across as snobs and insular.
    Perhaps if some people didn’t have a loud mouth and were a bit more humble they might not need to use this excuse.

  6. Here’s some Australian culture. How is it that so many Australians, with a charming vernacular sense of humour, a warm way with words and that “loveable larrikin” streak, inevitably reveal themselves to be cold-hearted racists? Small people in a small scared world.

    ‘What’s the deal with Asians?’ Red Symons under fire over controversial interview
    Rob Moran SMH
    Red Symons has come under fire following an interview with an ABC Radio podcaster, in which he asked the host if she was “yellow” and “What’s the deal with Asians?”.
    The former Hey Hey It’s Saturday star – who hosts ABC Radio Melbourne’s Breakfast slot – was interviewing ABC Radio presenter Beverley Wang about her new podcast It’s Not a Race, when the conversation took an immediate uncomfortable turn.
    Opening the interview, Symons told Wang he was “not happy” over her show because he had a similar idea for a radio segment about “contemporary race issues in Australia”.
    “Except my segment was called ‘What’s the deal with Asians?’,” he said.
    “Well, let’s tackle that,” Wang replied. “What is the deal with Asians, Red?”
    “No, I ask the questions,” the host replied.
    “It’s just a useful general question about the nature of our culture, and how one should, can, might interact with people who might have a different cultural background.
    “First question is, are they all the same?” he asked.

    The audio has since been pulled from the Radio National website.
    The uncomfortable exchange continued when Symons asked Wang – who was born in Canada, of Taiwanese descent – if she was “yellow”, where she was from in China, and if “they” spoke “Mandarin or Cantonese”.
    “Who’s ‘they’?” Wang replied.
    “The people in Taiwan!” Symons responded, voice rising.
    “They speak Taiwanese and they speak Mandarin. And in Canada where I’m from, they speak English and French,” Wang replied.
    “I knew that. But you’re probably from the west coast of Canada…” Symons said.
    “Why’s that, Red?” Wang countered.
    “Because it’s closer to Asia.”

    Throughout the remainder of the 20-minute exchange, Symons also defended Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s infamous Red Faces “blackface” controversy, facetiously challenged discussions about “cultural appropriation”, and got Wang’s name wrong, referring to her as “Jenny”.
    Sources inside the ABC told Fairfax Media Symons was hauled into meetings with management on Friday morning after the full interview was made public.

    A staff member at the station said the full audio was never intended to be broadcast, with a heavily edited version going to air during Monday’s program.
    In some delayed damage control from the national broadcaster, the audio excerpt has since been pulled from the Radio National website. Monday’s original episode has also been taken down.
    “A review of the editorial processes around this content and its use is in progress,” ABC Radio said in an official statement.
    “ABC Radio apologises for the content going to air.”
    The episode had drawn wide criticism on social media from commenters who cringed at Symons’ antagonistic approach to discussing race, and his “bonkers” questions to Wang.
    Symons and Wang have been approached for comment.

    1. GROAN, not that old ‘racist’ dirge. It’s a theme that’s been cultivated and spread by our own leftist malcontents, ever eager to run the country down. One only has to look at a city street at lunch time to see the vast array of races and colours getting on with each other – for the most part – to see what a load of hooey the racist accusation is. Half of us are born overseas or have parents who were, probably a greater demographic mix than anywhere on the planet. They’re not all nice people, but that’s par for the course, and some would do us harm, as has been amply demonstrated in recent months. It’s when we question how that immigrant mix might be tweaked more effectively that the racism rant goes up from the leftist brigade. Give it a rest, lads and lassies, and find something useful to do.

  7. I fear our cultural cringe is on display. I’m mean really, who gives a toss what one American reporter thinks about what defines Australian ‘culture’? Are we so insecure and unsure of ourselves that we need some bozo’s affirmation five minutes off the plane?

  8. Australia has a relative egalitarian society with a health care system available to all, helpful unemployment benefits, a reasonable aged pension, people with disabilities are supported, etc. Surely these values are of more importance than any cultural activities.
    Evenso on a per capita basis I’m would wager more cultural activities are available in Australia than the United States. Our Prime Minister, it would appear is considerably more cultured than your leading citizen, President Trump.

  9. Well! Consider the cat successfully among the pigeons. My view is that the yank has a point. Broadly speaking, fragmentation and general inconsistency are hallmarks of Australian cultural products. We simply don’t get bang-for-buck in Australia like they do in the States (which anyone who has seen more than a couple of shows in NYC would agree). Are we comfortable with that? How do we change it?

  10. The article and the NYT’s Damien Cave was referring to Australian artistic culture, not Australian culture in general, as I understood the article. I was somewhat offended about what this American said about Australia culture, but the fact is most Australians are more interested in sport than artistic culture and the cut in government funding for the arts doesn’t help. I wouldn’t say it is in low supply, but most people don’t know what is really there nor are they really interested, unlike the Melbourne Cup and the State of Origin which are seen as Australian cultural icons.

  11. Two of your commentators compared Australian culture with that of NY C which is the epi centre of Western culture. So what’s happening in San Fransisco, Albuquerque, Dallas or Chicago? Eh! And if anyone wants to read a review of the arts they could try Friday’s edition of the SMH.

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