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Monday musings on Australian literature: The Conversation launches its Arts + Culture Section

October 28, 2013

I think I’ve mentioned The Conversation before. It’s a blog produced by a consortium of Australian academic institutions. The posts are written by writers who are academics, and each post has a disclosure statement regarding whether the writer has affiliations with/receives funding from organisations that could “benefit” from their article. It’s a good source of thoughtful commentary.

They have “sections” such as Politics + Policy, Business + Economy, and Education. Today they launched their newest section, Arts + Culture. That’s exciting because while there have been articles before on arts-related topics, they’ve been scattered. I was a bit disappointed, though, I must admit, to see that on this launch day there are no articles (as they call their posts) devoted to literature but I suppose that’s the luck of the draw. There are articles on Visual Arts, Music, Film, TV and Gaming. I’ll be watching out for Literature.

Julian Meyrick, Professor of Strategic Arts at Flinders University, wrote the new section’s foundation essay, “Does Australia get culture“. He suggests we don’t. He says:

We are a country not without culture but without a sense of culture. That distinction is crucial. Australia does not lack art, artists or audiences. But as a nation we find it hard to see culture in any but consumerist terms.

He suggests two reasons for this – the fact that our language is English makes it easy to “free-ride the cultural goods and services” of the UK and USA, and that our history is ‘peaceful’. ‘Our cultural consciousness’, he says, ‘has never been pushed into sharp awareness by invasion or forced colonisation … unless you are indigenous of course’. Funnily enough, I read a similar point in my current novel, Christina Stead‘s For love alone. In it, an American character keeps describing an Australian character as English, and in terms of her Englishness. I was starting to wonder about this when he says, “She’s not English but Australian of course, but it’s the English race unadulterated by any revolution”!

But, that’s a bit by the by. The article is interesting but a little odd. For example, the author suggests that Australia doesn’t have a written constitution? Huh? What about this? But, I guess my main question to Meyrick is what does he mean by “culture”? It’s a rather nebulous term that can range from something quite narrow to something that encompasses pretty well everything about how we live. It’s not clearly defined in the article. I assume he’s focussing on “the arts”. And I think by “sense of culture” he is concerned about something that seems to have been crossing my reading quite a bit lately, the “Australian identity” – or what he calls “the internal order of value that allows us to articulate who we are”. Since “the arts” are the prime means by which we explore and present who we are, Meyrick’s “culture”, as I read him, is the exploration and presentation of the who we are via “the arts”.

At least I think that’s at the bottom of what he is saying, but I could very well be putting my own spin on it. Regardless, his concern is that these arts are constantly being frustrated, by a

situation whereby commercial imperatives block artistic ones because the internal order of value that should keep them in productive tension is not present to the needed degree.

I’m not sure that Meyrick completely explains what he means by this but I think I get his point. He concludes that Australia is good, however, at strong and bold cultural policy, and that all we need is good leadership from the centre. What do you think?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2013 6:26 am

    These kind of arguments do, sometimes, I feel, come across as someone having a preconceived notion of what Australia is/is not, does well/”fails” at, which is informed by both personal experience and overriding cultural (ha!) notions about what Australian-ness is. And sometimes I think that justifications are then given for that idea, rather than really stepping out and looking what’s out there. What about Australia’s zine community, or small-but-passionate poetry slams, or the themes that arise in our art? I would argue that this is part of our “culture”, at least within arts and literature. Is any of this making sense? I might be sounding silly!

    • October 29, 2013 1:29 pm

      Yes, it’s making sense …. and yet I’m not sure he has a pre-conceived notion of what Australia is. But I didn’t fully grasp the essence of his problem so I put my own spin on it I think!

  2. October 29, 2013 6:38 am

    My thoughts exactly. An arts and culture section with nothing about books. Are they serious? Do they recognise how many booklovers will have looked at this fanfare with disappointment, probably never to return?
    I mean, I’ve been pestering them to make their far-too-occasional book reviews easier to find, so I was quite excited when the promo email came through and had my cheque book ready to make the donation I’d promised…

    • October 29, 2013 9:22 am

      LOL Lisa … I finally made my donation just last week! Presumably books will be there but it doesn’t seem well thought through. There were about three on Visual Arts. I guess it’s dependent though on who will write what. They’re not paid are they? You and I will be watching!

  3. October 29, 2013 7:08 am

    I think I have the figures right – 40 percent of the Australian population today was born overseas, 60 percent has one parent who was. Our literature doesn’t begin to reflect this. If you look at the surnames of contributors to just about literary magazine, the book list of just about any publisher here, they are all predominantly Anglo-Celtic – unless the publication is specifically designed to showcase Australian writers and writings with other origins. This goes for the book pages, what’s left of them, too. What’s more, while it’s no longer necessary to stick to specifically Australian subjects, and Australian writers are freer now to deal with subjects across the world and in time, it’s usually necessary for us to have an Australian as the main character. As the Hannah Kent success and like ones show, this isn’t always the case but the progress has been glacial. So, yes, I would say that our ‘Englishness’ has held us back, and that our cultural cringe is subtler but as strong as ever, even as commercial imperatives have had as strong an impact as ever in our globalised (read English-language) world.

    • October 29, 2013 1:36 pm

      You know, Sara, I though the cultural cringe thing was something of the past but I’ve been starting to think in recent months like you, that it’s still there, just a bit more subtle which makes it harder to tackle because it’s trickier to define. Talking about it really helps, and I can’t help thinking that the comments here are more thoughtful and respectful than many were on his post at The conversation! Thanks for contributing to it.

  4. October 29, 2013 7:58 am

    An interesting conversation! I don’t make much effort to keep up with what passes for culture in the media, beyond watching the occasional arts program (is anyone watching the Tuesday night one on Australian art?) and reading the reviews in the Weekend Australian. I’ve long since got over the pushing of these reviews to the back of the supplement, behind the stuff on film, celebs etc., but I still get annoyed by the predominance of sport in the public discourse. When the last Olympics were on, I happened to be in Sydney and wanted to go to the NSW Art Gallery. I’d forgotten how to get there by walking, and asked at a coffee stall at Circular Quay. There was some dais being set up nearby, with media and cameras milling round. I asked the stall owner what it was about, and he said it was so and so, some sporting celebrity, going to be speaking. I shrugged or something, expressing my disinterest, and returned to the theme of how to get to the art gallery. He looked at me with curiosity and said “are you Australian?”
    So it didn’t surprise me to see the topics selected for the launch of the Conversations arts and culture section. It’s the same with the Guardian online. And as Lisa Hill suggests above, I won’t be returning.
    I used to write reviews for two state newspapers. Both have shrunk their review section so much, that the exchange has quite dried up. I know that’s to do with the decline of print as a medium, but I think it ties in to the treatment of arts and culture as an afterthought for the minority.

    • October 29, 2013 1:47 pm

      Sport, of course, is part of our culture isn’t it Christina, and that comment “are you Australian” rather says it all! It’s an aspect of our culture that “the arts” have grappled somewhat with but not as consistently as its prevalence in our “culture” would suggest. It would be good to see more interpretation of what it means in Australia, beyond the cliches that usually get spouted about the tanned, healthy, fit, sportloving Aussie! Sport has become a bit of a battleground is Australia between those who love it and those who deride it but I think there is a middle ground. I do watch some (such as tennis) – because it is about drama and stories, about character and values too. I’m sad about the polarisation, but appreciate that some of it comes from the feeling that too much money goes into it, and not enough into other arts. And I think that’s a fair enough concern too.

      I won’t be giving up on The Conversation (yet anyhow), but it is a huge shame I think that literature didn’t feature.

  5. Jim KABLE permalink
    October 29, 2013 9:59 am

    On the level of literature I recall in the early 1980s – just as I was finding my passion for Australian writing – that someone (a librarian I think she was – and Australian-born/raised) with absolute self-assurance made the astounding claim that Australia didn’t have a literature. She was about 20 years my senior. Clear evidence of the culture cringe – but one of its dying embers I thought (and think still). I find the claims that Australia doesn’t have any culture – or is derivative (if one ignores the rich Indigenous cultures – both traditional and building to “assimilation” of other cultural traditions inherited from abroad) to be at best revelatory of ignorance. It could be that Professor MEYRICK is being merely provocative to see what response he gets – to judge the state of play as it were.

    • October 29, 2013 1:33 pm

      I suspect he is partly being provocative, Jim. At least I hope he is. The strange thing is that he doesn’t so much say that we don’t have any culture but that we don’t “get” culture. He may be saying that our culture (in the wide us of the term) is uncomfortable with culture (in the narrow use of the term). As I write this response, I’m starting to thing that that’s it – the gap between having culture and recognising/appreciating and, more, nurturing it.

      As for that librarian (or whomever), well -!

  6. ian darling permalink
    October 30, 2013 9:22 pm

    No easy answers but I agree with the contributor who gives the example of the “small but passionate” poetry slam scene as a success. I am wary of governments or corporations as being more than a necessary evil in terms of culture/literature although there can be exceptions- Jennie Lee’s work in the 1960s in establishing the Open University an oustanding exception. I also think Australia big enough and open enough not to be obsessed with national identity!

    • October 30, 2013 11:16 pm

      Now that’s an interesting idea Ian … I mean about not being obsessed with national identity. In one sense it does seem to be an outdated concept in our global world, doesn’t it?

  7. October 31, 2013 3:41 am

    I agree that it’s time to shift away from concepts of national identity. And start exploring the many facets of what it means to be a creative Australian – indigenous, or of mixed or Anglo parentage. I thought that’s what was going on! It surprises me to read above that most books published in Australia are by authors with Anglo-Celtic names – I had always assumed there was a broader acceptance of and interest in cultural diversity. Agreed, Australia swings on the commercial bandwagon with UK and US bestsellers, but do you really think the cultural cringe is here to stay? (Maybe I’m too far away to see up close?)

    • November 2, 2013 4:09 pm

      I fear the cultural cringe is still here more than I had thought Catherine … but I feel it’s better than it was a few decades ago. It had wanna be, eh?

      As for publishing, while more indigenous writers are being published now than 2-3 decades ago (at least that’s my sense) and more works by writers from diverse backgrounds, when you look at the books winning and being nominated for prizes – or, in a different spectrum, books on the bestseller list – the names are heavily slanted to the anglo. There is acceptance of and interest in, I believe, but that doesn’t necessarily – yet, anyhow – translate into commercial value and that’s where the publisher comes in isn’t it?

  8. November 2, 2013 7:36 am

    So interesting. Your first quote about seeing culture in consumerist terms I thought fit the US too. Maybe not all art, but a good deal of it is all about money and status for both artist and owner. Maybe Meyrick would be better pleased if you all had had a revolutionary break from Britain too? But even in the US that break didn’t help much because for decades there was much hand wringing over a lack of distinctly American creative cultural. I think it wasn’t until the late 1800s that we finally started edging away from the inferiority complex. From your blog I get the feeling Australia has a thriving arts culture, perhaps it just isn’t the kind that Meyrick thinks there should be.

    • November 2, 2013 4:15 pm

      Interesting Stefanie. What you say about American culture is more or less what Murray Bail said in his keynote address that I’ve referred to in other posts. He argues that Saul Bellow’s The adventures on Augie March (a bit later than turn of the century!) heralds the real coming of age.

      We do have a thriving arts culture, as you’ve gathered – I’m glad you’ve gathered it! I suspect Meyrick probably thinks it’s a bit hit-and-miss and, certainly, here and probably in the US?, anything that is a bit different, a bit not mainstream, can find it hard to get funding. That was his main point I think – the funding for creative endeavours across the full spectrum of ideas and interests.

  9. January 15, 2015 3:20 pm

    First off, The Conversation sounds like a good online journal. Second, for some reasons, I’ve always linked Canada and Australia together, for they have similar post-Colonial identity, and, culture seems to be an elusive entity. Yes, we have some national literary icons such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and now even a Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, but ask anybody on the street if they have read any of them, I wouldn’t be surpassed he/she has not.

    • January 15, 2015 3:22 pm

      Forgot to ask you if you’ve read The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I don’t seem to find your review here. Just wondering, cause the movie adaptation will come out this year.

      • January 15, 2015 3:39 pm

        Oh no, I haven’t, Arti, but I have given it away as gifts. Does that count? It’s had excellent reviews here. I noticed your 2015 Books to Movies post, but have been away and am just back and starting to catch up with blogs, like yours, Stefanie’s and others.

    • January 15, 2015 3:35 pm

      Yes, Arti, I think that’s a valid comparison to make between Australia and Canada. We’ve handled some things quite differently but there are a lot of similarities too – including, I think small population for our large land mass. I’ve met people here who’ve never heard of our Nobel Laureate.

      And yes, The Conversation is an excellent addition to our news and commentary landscape. I wish I had time to read more of it.

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