The Culture Wars, Yes ... but Whose Culture?

By McIntyre, Andrew | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Culture Wars, Yes ... but Whose Culture?

McIntyre, Andrew, Review - Institute of Public Affairs

As a son of the privileged Jamaican plantocracy, Michael Manley, Prime Minister of that country for eight years until 1980 and at the time charismatic head of the non-aligned nations, was wont to listen to Beethoven string quartets and cultivate roses, while his anti-American rhetoric intensified and he dragged his increasingly socialist and economically struggling nation towards neighbouring Cuba.

The chardonnay socialists, la gauche caviar-as the French call them-the vanguard, nomenclatura, literati, culturati, doctors wives-whatever-distinguish themselves by their education, life-style, refined taste ... and their politics. Although these qualities can, apart from the politics, fit conservatives, it is nevertheless a truism that Left elites-elites in the worst sense of the term-see themselves as a sort of new aristocracy, with a belief that their knowledge, refinement and taste give them a self-evident right to impose their ideas on others and treat the rest of us, especially the Howard-voting aspirationals, with barely concealed contempt and paternalism. That the 'Arts' is the pivotal battleground in the culture wars was made clear by Ross Fitzgerald in The Australian recently: 'Mention the arts and Howard will run a mile: the words "arts" and "culture" will never cross Howard's lips with passion. Mention the arts and most Laborites will revert to dreamy Whitlamesque visions of government patronage for the enrichment of Australia's "identity".'

There is a self-evident informal alliance between the arts industry-artists, writers, actors, comedians, directors, producers and other beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse, whether through the Australia Council, the ABC or other state-sanctioned and subsidized creative outlets-and their attitudes towards the Howard Government and any of its policies. This alliance goes back a long way and became clear under the generous patronage of Whitlam, and later Keating with his personal largesse in "The Keatings' grants. The cultural elite has no illusion on which side its bread is buttered, as the most recent and high profile example of 'State Art' demonstrated in full force with the recent Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Hannie Rayson's Two Brothers. While proclaiming moral ambiguity, this play is a shallow and superficial attack on border protection and the boat refugees; all conservatives are pictured as tainted, corrupt and venal, and all those who oppose the government's policy on refugees and boat people are portrayed as saints. Criticized even by several Left commentators, the play had the predictable moral complexity of Snow White and the Wicked Witch.

This propensity to political bias extends to all things cultural, but of particular importance is the fault-line between so called 'high' Arts and popular, mass entertainment. Australian film is in crisis, and this is due in large part to a refusal to create films that the film-going public are interested in. Politically correct films, viewed as 'challenging' or 'important', receive uncritical rave reviews from our avuncular 'Pomastratton' on the ABC, while the films bomb at the box office. Australian films last year generated less than 1.3 per cent of a national box of $907 million, a record low proportion. One film-goer was reported in the media as saying Oh that film; you wouldn't want to see that-I'm pretty sure it's Australian'. So an industry that is supported so vociferously by our leading international actors and actresses as 'an important voice for Australian identity' somehow manages to supply a voice which Australians themselves do not identify with. The Australian Film Commission, responsible for audience development policies, perversely appears to play down the significance of the box office as a measure of industry success and ignores this huge irony.

In literature, the same tensions can be seen. The media reported two small brawls earlier this year in the book world, demonstrating how divorced book-chat culture can be from the world where people go into shops and pay money for books. …

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