Modern governments play a key role in promoting culture and cultural policy. This essay will examine why governments want to influence and regulate the forms of culture practised by its citizens. It will examine the history of how governments became involved in cultural policy and will then go on to discuss the means by which it achieves these ends. The essay will examine the social consequences of intervention and what implications that has in an Australian context. It will also consider the example of the Labor cultural policies of the 1990s to examine the influence of its funding decisions and priorities. The evidence of the essay will show that government cultural policy reflects the vested interests of an elitist status quo regardless of whatever democratic intentions it may aspire to.
To understand the rationales and objectives of governmental views to culture, it is first necessary to look at the etymology and history of the word culture itself.
Culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language and its twisted evolution reflects that complexity. It grew from its initial use as a biological process of husbandry to become the process of human development and the social heritage of a community. This very broad definition encompasses all forms of thought, art, traditions and rituals irrespective of what value society places on them. But along the way, it also picked up a narrower definition based on the prevailing aesthetic of a superior European culture. This selective view had strong connotations of elitism as it cherry-picked the high art forms and traditions of 19th century Europe and ascribed greater value to these selected forms. It was an act of selection that ascribed values to those making the selection. It also meant that the narrower view of culture could serve as a distinguisher between persons. This view of culture not only classifies but also “classifies the classifiers” as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out. Thus the narrower view perpetuates a closed system whereby elitist forms of culture hijacks the broad basis of culture and determines that their culture is the preferred one.
This evaluative distinction of culture started to appear in the late 18th century and evolved further in the 19th century. Around the time as the word was accumulating new meanings, the British Government began its work in managing and regulating populations. As culture began to be seen as an object and instrument of government, authorities undertook a radical re-shaping and re-organising of traditions. Because of the elitist distinctions inherent in the definition of culture, it was only the traditions of the sub-ordinate classes that were seen as a problem. Robert Malcolmson demonstrated how governments launched a full scale assault on popular recreations in urban plebeian communities. Many activities which the working classes found good to think with, such as blood sports, boxing, street football, fairs and wakes, were all targeted for regulation. Most blood sports were suppressed entirely. The tactics used were prosecutions, convictions, sermons, journalistic attacks, and personal interventions. The government campaign was aided by agencies such as magistrates, the clergy and the press. Blood sports were deemed barbaric; though the thoroughly gentrified fox hunting escaped the general opprobrium. Street football had been played for centuries but now disturbed the normal routine of business. Fairs and wakes offended public order and morality and had to be stamped out. The only events that survived the cull were the ones that had independent economic value. In the growing towns, working class public pleasures were deemed out of tune with officially defined taste in a time where respectability increasingly favoured family relaxation. Governments and their agencies argued there was a need to transform the brutalising and demoralising nature of plebeian culture into something more wholesome that befit the genteel times.
So why did governments want to make the population more genteel? Gramsci argued that the elites needed to raise subordinate classes to a cultural level which “corresponds to the need of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interest of the ruling classes”. Great Britain was at the height of its economic powers in the 1800s. The rising mercantile class were convinced by the power of their civilising culture and wanted to raise the level of taste in the general population. The parliamentary State became involved in the provision of Art and the creation of libraries and museums. This prescription was known as rational recreation and Peter Bailey described how the concept acted as “an important instrument for educating the working classes in the social values of middle class orthodoxy”. Although he attributed it to humanitarian sympathy, rational recreation in practice was a desire to regulate amusement, policed by public opinion. The public in this sense were the middle classes. They would act as the fulcrum in the see-saw between the elites and the masses where “opinions travel upward, manners downward”. The upper classes would provide the necessary social regulation by giving universal access to the improving influence of their culture. But it hit insurmountable barriers of class. Whether the concept was humanistic, paternalistic or driven by economic necessity, rational recreation was mostly thwarted by fears that the common people might contaminate the culture they were supposed to partake of. Social distance was a key issue and recreation events became “uneasy parades along the class frontier”. Unless the working classes brought cleanliness and their own manners, they could not enter the venues of these supposed cultural transformations. This paradox between the desired improvement of the lower classes and the distaste of their manners blights much cultural policy to this day. Because culture classifies the classifiers, elitists continue to be driven by notions that they have to keep their culture pure in order to accentuate the differences between them and the hoi-polloi.
The culture of distinction has a critical role in defining the attributes of a national identity. National identity is an accumulation of customs, traditions and rituals. This key role of culture shows up in matters of taste, values and preferences. Bourdieu argued that cultural tastes and values are not innate but rather a product of upbringing and education and therefore reflect hierarchical standing in society. Specific knowledges are required to make sense of high culture and as a result many museums become the territory of what Bourdieu called the “dominated fractions of the dominant class”. Without the key to unlock and access high culture, those who don’t belong to these dominated fractions have switched off and see culture as something for other people. Regardless of whether museums have free entry or not, cultural consumption remains the preserve of the educated elite.
Although Australia has a reputation for egalitarianism and a “fair go” (reflected in the title of the 1996 Liberal cultural manifesto), like every other democratic country it has issues of hierarchy, elitism and unequal access to cultural consumption. Here as elsewhere, cultural policy has tended to reinforce existing norms and reinforce the nexus between culture and power. The ABC was instrumental in formally establishing cultural subsidy in Australia. It took its charter, its mission of enlightenment and its ideas about what constituted culture from the BBC. The ABC was legally obliged to play music but favoured the music of European High Art by becoming an entrepreneur of classic music concerts. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was an early arts funding body which took the view that local society was mostly made up of resourceful philistines and almost everyone outside Sydney and Melbourne was starved of culture. Just as in 19th century Britain, Australian elites thought they could ennoble the starved masses by infusing them with their view of culture.
The funding bodies responsible for disbursing arts and cultural public monies were staffed by cultural elites who promoted the concept of excellence as a single ladder of merit. This singular definition was strongly biased towards high arts, because excellence had to be judged and it was the elites themselves who were ranking the ladder of merit according to their own tastes. It was not until the late 1970s when it was seen as an unfair component of cultural policy and its philosophy was first challenged in Australian funding decisions. Rowse described an alternative model: decentralised patronage based on the concept of community. In this model, funding is not merely disbursed by a funding body staffed by like-minded, if well-intentioned, elitists who based decisions on their notions of excellence, but it is also distributed by other stakeholders such as community organisations who themselves can allocate funds as they see fit. This model was encouraged by the McLeay Report of 1986. The report quoted Donald Horne’s three cultural rights. These were; the right of access to the cultural heritage, the right to new art and the right to community art participation. This definition moved the judgement of culture away from excellence towards multi-layered criteria based on a wide range of cultural activities which do not conform to a single scale or hierarchy. Those who participate in it, define it. It is an example of cultural democracy.
But cultural democracy does not reform the existing framework of culture. The narrower definition of culture as a civilising force is persistent. Rather than accepting the idea of cultural difference, the policy makers continued to stress cultural disadvantage. This meant the existing priorities were automatically deemed legitimate and those who were constituted as cultural disadvantaged simply needed access to the civilising culture. By stressing disadvantage, it meant that the existing order of cultural priorities was not questioned. This concept, subtly different from that of cultural democracy, can best be described as the democratisation of culture. It is an approach which fails on two counts. Firstly, it does nothing to address the disadvantages. Policy-makers wrung their hands if people could not access this culture; as Gay Hawkins highlighted, exclusion was their problem. Secondly, and more importantly, it misses out on popular and progressive forms of mass-culture of more interest to a great majority of people. The democratisation of culture attempted to create a level playing field but not everyone understood the rules of the game and more still were playing on an entirely different field.
The 1995 Labour cultural policy manifesto Creative Nation is burdened by this contradiction. Its twin goals are democracy and excellence. But the criteria of excellence, and its acknowledgement of the improving qualities of high art, blunts the strategy for achieving cultural democracy. Bruce Johnson argued that rather than achieve democracy, the document served to close debate, confirm assumptions about the arts and reflect the conservative beliefs of the agencies of cultural policy. Johnson stated that the policy stressed the idea of centrality of culture and the notion that starved masses needed to be fed a homogenised criterion of excellence. Creative Nation does not challenge historical assumptions about the value of high art itself. The distinction can be clearly seen in the policy’s differentiation between high arts and plebeian pleasures. Whereas the classical Musica Viva program gets an additional funding of $2 million, contemporary music does not receive any subsidy despite being “the most popular and accessible form of cultural activity”. Similarly, although the policy acknowledges the Australian Opera as “thought by many to be elitist and inaccessible” it gets grants of over one million dollars to cover touring and wage increases. The policy also subsidises the State Orchestras with $700,000 of additional funding for their development of “imagination and creativity". Festivals and popular arts do not have the same kudos and receive no additional subsidies. They are only tolerated in the policy because, much like fairs in 19th century Britain, their economic benefit outweighs any prejudice the cultural arbiters might have on account of taste.
Another way in which the policy does not reflect cultural democracy is in its shabby treatment of the National Museum of Australia (NMA). The NMA was a recommendation of the 1974 Pigott Report to establish a national history museum that would be “accessible to all Australians”. The NMA does not have its own section in the policy and is discussed only in two small paragraphs under the banner of “australian institute of aboriginal and torres strait islander studie". The policy presents the museum as a virtual resource because it did not have a permanent home. The lack of funding to build a real NMA showed that Labor did not see great value in the museum’s aspiration to tell the story of everyday Australia. But although the Liberals supported it, they too were unhappy with its version of that story. When the building finally opened in 2001, it ran into a storm of political protest despite its humble aspirations. The Australian media found the displays were full of “sinister coded messages” that seemed to push a political agenda of “sneering ridicule of White Australia". Prime Minister Howard announced a review of the NMA and stacked the committee with fellow ideologues. Although the review exonerated the museum, the curator lost her job and many of the review items were changed to reflect the Government’s comforting idea of an-ever improving Australian culture. The changes meant the museum could avoid the notion that Australia’s everyday story was contested terrain. The museum became just another front in a much broader battle to eradicate dissent and impose compliance.
Therefore governments, by their cultural priorities, funding decisions and direct intervention, play a major role in determining the cultural agenda for the nation. Cultural policy is important and is a legitimate area of government interest. But the primary goals of cultural policy have not changed much in two hundred years. The high arts are supported so that they can bring about a transformation in the manners of the disadvantaged classes. Although policies have made some moves towards democracy, where all cultures are promoted relative to their ongoing activities within their particular life-conditions, the high arts continue to have funding disproportionate to their popularity. The vested interests of its participants, the economic and social muscle of the elites that support them, and the concepts of excellence than underpin them, all ensure that the status quo will remain. In the McLeay Report, Donald Horne not only defined the three basic cultural rights but he also stated that governments’ role in the arts is to secure these rights for its citizens. It is arguable that governments are failing on all three counts.