The Uses of Culture

Yesterday, I had the honour to introduce the keynote speaker Professor Julianne Schultz, a famous Australian academic, author and public intellectual, at the annual conference organized by the Foundation for Australian Studies in China.

As usual, I added personal touch by mentioning that I had actually had the pleasure of meeting her a few years back when I went to Australia for my book tour. This is another use of culture – it connects people across borders of time, society or language.

Since we were to talk about culture, I did a bit research and learnt that the concept first emerged in roman classical antiquity, meaning the cultivation of soul. It re-emerged in modern Europe in the 17th century, referring to the betterment or refinement of individuals. Later it came more frequently to refer to the common aspirations or ideas of whole peoples. After Julianne’s talk, I have a new understanding about the concept of culture.

Below is her presentation.

The uses of culture

Julianne Schultz

There are four pillars that are essential to any successful nation. One is the land and its associated attributes and resources, the second is the people who make up the society, the third is its institutions, laws and regulations, and the fourth is the defining culture and values.

Culture is the most slippery of these pillars, and the one that receives the least attention. But it is just as important as the other pillars, arguably the glue that ensures the other pillars are robust and resilient.

Governments are more comfortable regulating land, population and institutions than they are when it comes to dealing with culture. Culture is not a creation of government. Yet the right of citizens to participate in the creation and enjoyment of culture isembodied in international agreements.

Culture can be used and it can be abused. It maybe that the potential and history of abuse in the name of culture acts to limit its expansive use. Culture can be a narrow straightjacket demanding conformity.

But it can also be a force for good, for enabling the achievement of the greatest human potential. It is culture that binds and embodies the society, it is culture that stretches and enriches, that draws on tradition and welcomes innovation.

Culture is always a work in progress, changing and evolving of itself and in response to the changes that happen elsewhere. If the land is affected by drought or fire, the local culture will draw on its embedded resources, but adjust in response; if the mix of peoples there change, the culture will also adapt to accommodate this; laws and regulations can strengthen this resilience or undermine it.

These principles hold everywhere, but are different in an open settler society than they will be in a more rigid, traditional society where the weight of history hangs more heavily. In a traditional, essentially mono cultural society history is likely to be more settled and firmly held than in a society in which the layers are newer and still accreting. In both there is a need to interrogate the past and incorporate the new, but the starting point is different, as are the obstacles that can get in the way of such an activity.

It is important to tease this out, because even in a global world, people come from somewhere, and that somewhere shapes how they see the world, their opportunities, their ease at home and abroad, the traditions that shape their expression and aspirations., the way they relate to others and the value they place on history and belonging.

There are more than a million Australians living abroad, and even as their accents soften and they adopt the mores of those around them there is something distinctive and recognizable about them. The Australian expat of the twenty-first century is very different to the expat of another age who was often recoiling from home. Now they move with ease in the world, coming and going, orbiting and settling.

This begs the question of what makes Australia and Australians unique and how might this be strengthened.

I would argue that there are four things that make Australia unique– the first is its Indigenous history, as home to the longest continuous living civilization. There is almost no other country that can trace such a lineage.

The second is that it is one of the most successful continuous representative democracies. This has underpinned Australia’s openness and its resilience. As a result successfully accommodating peoples from nearly 200 other countries and helping to make it the thirteenth richest country in the world.

The third is that, with the exception of devastating local battles, which accompanied European settlement, there has never been a full -scale war fought in Australia. Compared to the blood shed in almost every other country, this is remarkable and has a legacy, which we rarely acknowledge, but one which underpins Australian pragmatism and the sense that things can be sorted out.

The fourth is the accident of geography that places Australia in the Asian hemisphere. This provides both opportunities and has presented challenges. Yet we know that the Indigenous people had a long history of regional interchange, we know that Matthew Flinders after circumnavigating Australia recommended that Darwin be the capital so the colony could engage better with the trade with the region, we know that the Australasian movement of the nineteenth century envisaged a regional future, we know that Chinese settlers came south with the same ease that Irish settlers crossed the Atlantic to America, and we know that for much of the twentieth century Australia pulled up the drawbridge with shocking consequences.

As with all the characteristics there are layers, some we would now consider good, some we would consider bad – but there are layers, which are especially important, but easily overlooked especially in a pragmatic country not given to introspection pr hyperbole.

The culture of Australia grows out of these attributes. Culture is expressed in many ways, through education and language, through science and sports, through community activities and heritage, in all its many layered complexity.

The arts are particularly important in this, effectively the research lab of culture – pushing, expressing, developing, communicating – through visual art, music, dance, performance, design, writing and screen.

Culture has many uses in this context. There is the intrinsic value of creating works of skill and beauty that speak to the soul, a unique combination of creativity, discipline and talent.

Then there is the institutional value of culture, the way these works and others represent and help define a people and place. This maybe captured in the great buildings, in the heritage, in the great performing companies or more prosaically in tourism campaigns. But the institutional and nationally defining value of culture cannot be wished away even in a global world.

The third use of culture is instrumental – to ensure the greatest human potential can be realized. This ranges from participation in creative and community activities to education – but deliberately uses cultural tools to expand this capacity, rather than just the tools of economics or regulation.

The fourth use is commercial – the importance of the cultural industries can no longer be ignored. Even at a time when the business models of some of the traditional cultural industries are being challenged by digital technology, culture is an important part of the economy, generating in Australia more of the GDP than many other industries – up to ten percent by some calculations – employing hundreds of thousands of people in interesting and rewarding jobs. As this commerce is conducted globally, also sending a message to the world about Australia. In a tangible sense an export with more power that ships full of minerals.

There is a challenge in a settler society to unpick the recent history, as well as the ancient past and synthesise it and communicate this at home and abroad, to continue listening and thinking, to realise that this is a work in progress not something that stopped a hundred or fifty or ten years ago.

What we are now beginning to see in Australia is the outcome of this process. So some of the most remarkable and exciting art being produced draws on both the Indigenous and settler traditions. Two examples: Danie Mellor and Michael Cook who synthesise this in original ways. It is also happening in dance and music – Bangarra’s recent show tells such a story, Paul Stanhope’s oratorio does the same and it is present in literature, design and on screens and stage.

What these works point to, is the long history of settlement in Australia, and the interaction with the region that precedes European settlement is something that makes Australian culture truly unique – so there is a basis for a different and richer engagement with the countries of this region than maybe we once all realised.

The old clichés drawn from nineteenth and twentieth century are no long sufficient to capture this, so there is a need for an expansive approach, one that unpicks the layers of Australian history and identity, engages its peoples, and communicates with the world in a quietly self confident, unapologetic manner.

This is useful in many ways, for individuals, for the society, and maybe even for the world as an example of what is possible.


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