News & Commentary The New York Times says Australian culture is in low supply By Ben Neutze | June 15, 2017 | 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. Based 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 Wife, a 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. THIS ARTICLE WAS PAID FOR WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. TO FIND OUT HOW TO SUPPORT LOCAL ARTS JOURNALISM WRITTEN BY LOCALS, CLICK HERE [box]Featured image: The Drover’s Wife, photo by Brett Boardman[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Ben Neutze Ben Neutze is Deputy Editor of Daily Review. He has previously written for Time Out Sydney, The Guardian Australia and Limelight Magazine.