Tag Archives: culture

Future of Arts in Melbourne

Imagining that Melbourne would become the centre for the arts and literature in the late 1970s could only be done with assistance of copious amounts of alcohol or other drugs. The post-industrial future of Melbourne was not secure and sections of Australia society was still openly hostile to any arts. The arts were considered a foreign, effeminate, waste of time and money compared to the macho occupation of exploiting natural resources by farming or mining. At the time Australia was suffering from ‘the cultural cringe’ that rejected any local cultural achievement as automatically inferior, the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that strived for a mediocre undistinguished population and, consequently, a brain and creative exodus. It is amazing that Melbourne got this far, after all it could have become like Detroit.

Eleni Arbus at The future of arts in Melbourne forum

Eleni Arbus at The future of arts in Melbourne forum

The “Future of Art in Melbourne” was public forum on Thursday 13 August held on the upper floor of Melbourne Town Hall. There were about two hundred people were there but for anyone who missed the event the City of Melbourne has put three videos of it on YouTube.

Keynote by Councillor Rohan Leppert

Panel One: Ben Eltham, Eleni Arbus and Tony Yap (facilitated by Nelly Thomas)

Panel Two: Fiona Tuomy, Lynda Roberts and Christian Thompson (facilitated by Nelly Thomas)

Not that you missed much. Ben Eltham pointed out the eternal fault line between the underground and mainstream culture in Australia but then Luke McManus at the forum representing graffiti and street art, so it is not a major fault line.

The plan for the future of the arts in Melbourne does not address the megacity that Melbourne has become, it is just a plan for the City of Melbourne. What is needed if for the multiple local councils, at least in the inner city (is there life north of Bell Street?), to have a united plan for the arts. Actually the City of Melbourne’s plan addresses only a small part of the City of Melbourne; most of the focus of planning is on Melbourne’s cultural precinct. Even with a percent for public arts from the developments at Docklands the area has been written off as a cultural wasteland, well, what could you expect from Yuppies?

The biggest mistake of the forum was to think that future of arts in Melbourne is about art; it is not, it is about culture, life and everything else. It is not just the millions of cultural tourist attending major events in the city, the arts in Melbourne effect the shopping and hospitality sector and real estate prices. Although underground artists are very familiar with their impact on real estate prices, as they are slowly price them out of the areas that they first colonised, it appears from Eleni Arbus’s talk that some real estate developers remain ignorant.

A Hipster Conversion for lease in Brunswick

A Hipster Conversion for lease in Brunswick

At the risk of all that interstate rivalry bullshit, Melbourne is in competition in the culture stakes with all the other capitol cities in Australia, except for Perth. At first only Melbourne and Sydney were really in the race although Adelaide has the long established Arts Festival. Canberra has the national central position but lacks the history. Queensland has recently started with major exhibitions at GOMA. Hobart is also in with a running with MONA.


Prolegomena to Australian Culture

The terrible “Australian” identity debate continues to stumbles around like a drunken bogan. I feel forced to comment because of the subtitle of this blog (the “cultural critic” part) and because of the pathetic nationalist culture statement made by the imbeciles and criminals based in Canberra.

I don’t want to dignify anything that they have said by even commenting on it. Instead this will be a partial prolegomena (I don’t believe the spell checker knew that word – “you know, prolegomena, the clarification of the ground in preparation for further discussion, as in Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” – thanks to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock for clarifying that). So before anyone says anything more there are a few things that need to be clarified.

Recently the word “culture” has been applied to many things from the “work culture of Systems Administrators” to “deaf culture”. Discussion of “Australian culture” assumes that culture is a singular noun and this may be a grammatical error. The word “culture” may be a collective noun like “water”, “wool” or “dust” so that you have “some culture” or a “lots of culture” and not “a culture” anymore than “a water”, or “a wool”. A quantitative examination is a better foundation for discussion of culture rather than an examination identifying a unit.

Culture is more than the arts; it includes language, education, science, ethics, etc. It is the way that people behave in business, in medicine, in government etc. The limited understanding in Australian major political parties culture policy reduces culture to the arts. This is a narrow, limited understanding of culture and it is typical of the lack of depth to most Australian politicians understanding. Artists are culture workers, that is people working directly on their culture and not as a by-product of a culture.

A culture has material expressions, e.g. fashion, food, figures of speech, activities that identifies and defines the culture to both it members and others. That is cultures have identifiable clothes, food, dance, customs and practices. Vague claims about “mateship” or “ANZAC spirit” are not evidence of a culture. Furthermore, while I am stating the obvious, neither are national constitution (flag, etc.) nor geography evidence of a culture.

A language, in and of itself, does not constitute a culture. There are many languages that have no culture: trade languages do not belong to any one culture but facilitates communication across cultures. Likewise computer languages facilitate operations and communication without belonging to a culture. English is a language that has become free, in the processes of attempting to global dominance, of its original culture. As a language, English, does not necessarily signify any culture but particular expressions can identify the culture of the speaker. Slang, in itself, is not evidence of a culture; a person speaking Singlish is no more authentically Singaporean than a person speaking standard English.

There is so much that could and should be noted: Why have a culture? How do cultures develop? Are all cultures equal? This will have to be part one of this prolegomena.


Class & Culture

I’ll say it again – I thought that debate was over high culture and popular culture was over. I don’t know why I thought this, maybe it was the way that I was educated steeped in English liberal philosophy that I thought that education and culture to have replaced class. It was Matthew Arnold’s idea that culture can replace class and Arnold was the philosopher who described the various English classes as barbarians (upper), philistines (middle) and populus. Now consider Jean Michael Basquiat’s mother taking him to the public museums and art galleries in New York when he was a child.

Bang bang shooting down the high art cannon has become such a sport of class warfare. To avoid the issue people have been using phrases like ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious culture’? Really? Serious stuff? ‘Serious culture’ as a description is obviously absurd; seriously, are you going to call Dada, Duchamp and Warhol serious? What about R U Sirius? Is he serious? The swap between ‘high’ and ‘serious culture’ is just repackaging ‘creationism’ as ‘intelligent design’.

Consider Juxtapoz – Art & Culture Magazine edited by self-described “lowbrow” artist Robert Williams. The articles range a wide cultural field from skateboard, graffiti and other “lowbrow” art, to Australian aboriginal art, Balinese art, Egon Schiele, and the in between, like John Waters, David Lynch and Pixar animation.

But I’m just raving now, off in a mad tangent.

The first thing to get straight in this discussion is that class is not a culture. There is no ‘working class culture’ as a cultural is the set of all the activities involving the participation of all the people. Currently and historically artists (the cultural producers) often belong to a different class to their patron (the cultural consumers).

Instead of thinking about ways to divide a culture along class lines consider the influence of class on culture. For reasons of court protocol royalty needs art be defined so that the performances are repeatable. Consider the refined and defined actions of the royal drummers of Burundi or classical ballet that developed in the French royal court. Religious courts will also similarly want to define their culture for ritual repetition. Rural folk, although just as inherently conservative as royals, do not require the same degree of repeatability. There is consequently less of a need for the developing the codification necessary for repeatable performances.

Nor should we ignore the street subcultures, the cultural influence from what Marx called “the lumpen proletariat”. Marx despised the lumpen proletariat as parasites but consider how many bohemian and avant-garde artists would fall into that class.

What is called “popular culture” is distinctly different from what is known as “folk culture”. Popular culture is more ephemeral than folk culture because changes in fashion make money.  Popular culture is a recent development and at its most popular classless; it transcends class for it is after all it is after a commercial venture. And old popular culture can end up in the literary, musical or artistic cannon of today; Shakespeare, Mozart and John Everett Millet were all popular artists marketing their art to a mass audience.

But back to the topic at hand – why I thought this high art and pop art thing is so last century? Do I have to remind the reader of breakdown of class and racial divides are a major part of the history of the last two centuries. And that this was increasing expressed in avant-garde art in the 19th and 20th centuries with the breakdown between high art and popular art materials, techniques and themes. And that by the late 20th Century the previously excluded or marginalized ‘others’ were increasingly being recognized in participating in the creation of avant-garde art. And we are back to Jean Michael Basquiat.


Does Australia need a culture?

“To begin uncontroversial: some philosophers live in Australia. The question is whether that fact makes any difference to the way in which they philosophise. It is sometimes said that it cannot, since philosophy is a cosmopolitan subject. But we talk without hesitation about ‘British philosophy’, ‘French philosophy’. Is this just shorthand for ‘philosophy in Great Britain’, ‘philosophy in France’? Let us suppose that it is not. There might still be special difficulties in talking about ‘Australian philosophy’. Should we take special steps to cultivate an indigenous philosophy, or, at least, to link philosophy in Australia more closely to other forms of culture in Australia.”

John Passmore, “Australian Philosophy or Philosophy in Australia” abstract of paper, Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, Uni. of WA, 1988. The paper has since been published in Essays on Philosophy in Australia ed. Jan T.J. Srzednicki & David Wood.

Some artists, fashion designers, writers, etc. live in Australia but this does not necessarily mean that there is Australian art, fashion, literature, music, etc. An arbitrary political boundary does not imply that a different culture exists within that boundary.  I have serious doubts that there really is an Australian culture, many more doubts than I have about the existence of Anglophone or Francophone culture or, even, hippy culture. And the more that the politicians try to manufacture one, with Australian citizenship tests, “Australian values”, etc. the more dubious I become because cultures grow organically and cannot be manufactured.

When ever the need for a national style is mentioned I always think of art nouveau, which was intended by the architect Victor Horta to become the national style of Belgium. As a successful style of architecture it inspired many other architects and designers and became a successful international style. Local styles and traditions are only the marginally successful styles, surviving due to local traditions and tastes, but unable to successfully spread any further.

A culture is more than just an identity, as you can have identity without an accompanying culture. A culture is “not a heap of unrelated phenomena but an organic whole” that “is extended in time”, conscious of its past and present and projecting itself into the future. (R.A.D. Grant, A Companion to Aesthetics ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992, p.100) A lifestyle is a temporal heap of unrelated phenomena that may be more or less manufactured. Traditions are not a culture, as traditions do not project themselves into the future but remain fixed in the past. There may be Australian lifestyles, Australian traditions and Australia slang but those things alone do not imply an Australian culture.

What does Australia need a culture to do? And, can a culture do this? Irish, Scottish and Greek culture was needed to prevent complete assimilation into larger alien empires. Hippies saw their proto-culture as a viable, competitive, environmentally sustainable, alternative to the conformist consumer lifestyle. Culture could be described is a kind of mass reaction to a perceived threat that attempts to equip its members to combat the perceived threat. In doing this it is clear some cultures support some horrible and stupid ideals, including racism, sexism, homophobia and violence; it is less clear, what good, if any, any culture does.

Although shallow nationalism might be very popular in Australia there is no taste for deeper cultural analysis. So I am asking readers to comments if they think that Australia needs a culture and, if so, what it needs this culture to do. I would suggest that instead of debating whether Australia has a culture it would be better for the people in Australia to be concerned about the extent that Australia is civilized. Civilized by having a constitutional protection of human rights, civilized in its treatment of refugees, civilized in keeping its word when signing international laws and treaties, the kind of civilization is more important than any culture.


%d bloggers like this: