Unfettered culture | The Monthly

Who should be consulted on the future of Australia’s arts and culture?

The Danes are hopping mad. For years their standardized white cheese, packaged in brine, has traveled the world and landed on supermarket shelves marketed as Danish feta. It should have been labeled “I can’t believe it’s not Greek!” Instead they thought they might get away with it.

Nej, nej, said the European Union in July, after years of deliberation. Feta is Greek. Traced back to Homer and his Odyssey at the very least. Probably older than the written histories. Feta is big cheese in the food trade. But it is also Culture. The very thought of feta conjures up arid hillsides teeming with herds of goats and sheep precariously balancing amid rocks and on crumbly cliffs. Clanging their bells. Being ushered along narrow dirt tracks. At dawn and dusk. Milk being placed in bags to drain and form the solids that become the cheese that is cut into slabs and placed atop the ubiquitous “Greek salad”.

Feta tastes of the place. The subtle differences produced from this hill and that. The herbs and minerals of particular islands and rural places that flavor the milk. The water. The salt. Nej, Denmark. Feta is not just cheese (nor is it made from cow’s milk), it’s a landscape, a way of life, an idyll. An idea. Or in the language of the EU a PDO. A Protected Designation of Origin product. Ah yes. Australian winegrowers know it so well.

OK, stay with me: feta is made in vast vats produced by food industry but feta could also be put into one of those other EU categories: “intangible culture”, things that create the essential character of people and place. Not your monuments, castles and artworks, but the songs you hum, the dances you do, the weavings you make. And especially the food you cook. In Paris you don’t buy a French pastry. Non. You purchase a viennoiserie, with a nod to M. Zang who invented the things in Austria. But beware anyone who tries to rob the French of their croissant (also Austrian, possibly Turkish). They pop them in a basket with the other viennoiserie to hide them in plain sight.

Back in Australia, Labor is in. Which brings us to the formulation of our new cultural policy. Now, having been the program director of the European Capital of Culture for Aarhus 2017 – a year in which we took a deep, broad and long dive into just what the heck culture means to a Dane, to a European and to a world gazing upon the mid-Denmark region – I have some observations.

Firstly, and this is rather important given that the creation of Australia’s new cultural policy resides in the portfolio of the arts minister, culture is not art. Art is a subset of culture. Culture is what and who we are; art is a reflection and representation of it – and sometimes not. Secondly, the thought of a cultural policy makes me anxious. It has a whiff of nationalism about it. Some might say a stench. Wars have been fought under the flag of nationalism. Thirdly, and to my mind one of the great misgivings, is the way a cultural policy might stifle the arts. The risk that it might set the arts in a framework that – sorry, Marx – limits it to the ways it might be “useful” to those things chiselled in the new tablet of government orthodoxy, to the exclusion of other ideas.

So developing a cultural policy is a huge task and we are, like Odysseus, a little out at sea.

Esteemed colleagues and pals have been summoned to be our cultural policy committee: the cultural commissariat. Commiserations, comrades, your task is an onerous one. How do we formulate, let alone articulate, a unifying cultural vision? One that is inclusive and expansive, magisterial but still meaningful? How do we define a culture? Here are a few thoughts…

Enlist demographers. They will be able to give you a heads-up as to the actual composition of our nation. Having done that and found that by percentage we are decidedly multicultural, you will have scientifically verified, evidence-based facts to help steer you clear of the meat-pies-kangaroos-and-Holden-cars syndrome that summarized an Australia gripped by jingoistic ockerism in the 1970s. You may struggle to avoid mention of cricket given the fondness for the game among our large cohort of Indian citizens. But, overall, cultural cliches are best avoided. At any rate all that blokey stuff might need to be reworked to account for a sizeable proportion of the female population, which, you know, is about half of us. It’s a good time to rethink our power bias. And our non-binary citizens will continue to challenge the validity of such hard borders.

Get some statisticians in there. They will tell you – as they did when we finally allowed love to find its way with equality – that the Australian marriage population is well ahead of governments on the issues of the Indigenous voice to parliament and respect for elders past and present, and that any cultural policy worth its salt will have respect and pride in the longest continuous living culture at its heart.

Sing out to scientists. They might help formulate ideas about the importance of the environment and how to keep it from extinction. The environment is not just agricultural; it is deep culture enshrined by Indigenous knowledge. Even Dorothea Mackellar, with her sunburnt country mantra, knew that land is at the core of our hearts. Land is culture.

Bring in the philosophers. They will help you navigate a way to values. We have a desperate need to update ourselves, to consider the things that we hold dear and know why, and to examine and test the old, possibly outdated mythologising that holds us back. Let’s dig ourselves out of the trenches of secrecy, indifference and fear that have beleaguered our sense of selves during the past several years. It’s not who we are. Examine our thoughts on democracy, diversity and sustainability as we consider our past, present and future.

Make inquiries of futurists. They will open your minds to possibilities and fly far ahead to see what a cultural policy might mean. They might also be able to show you what it would mean to have a timid, unadventurous one.

And the arts? Well, leave the arts alone. Just give it more funding and allow it to sense its way with intuition, metaphors and stories unfettered by some formula that ticks a funding box and lessens its scope and imagination. Don’t try to design what the arts can or should be doing. Value it for what it is: active philosophical thinking made into words, sounds, images, actions and so many cross-pollinations. Don’t limit it by assuming you know everything about it. Enjoy the discovery.

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