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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Defining Cultural Policy

It's good to see some media coverage of Cate Blanchett's speech last night at the Sydney Theatre Company in support of Professor David Throsby's paper `Does Australia Need A Cultural Policy?' Cultural policy is something we've not seen seriously discussed since the years of Paul Keating. Discussion of anything resembling `culture' quickly dissolved in the Hanson years, which were in many ways a specific backlash against the intellectualism and seemingly intangible nature of many Keating's public policy goals. Reading his famous Redfern Speech, it's stunning and disheartening to think it was given less than fifteen years ago.

What exactly is cultural policy? This page has a rather lengthy definition. In summary, the concept, when applied to a nation state, could be described as policies which preserve, promote and define the values and image of a nation, especially through creative industries. In many ways, Australia's national character has been defined by its neverending search for an authentic national character - not quite England, not quite America, fiercely patriotic but paradoxically beset by a `cultural cringe'. Cultural policy is about more than draping yourself with the Australian flag every Australia Day. It's about questioning the nature of our national identity, and actively participating in the formation of the answer. Or, as Ms Blanchett so beautifully put it, it's about `safeguard[ing] us and our children against living unexamined lives'

Culture has long been a dirty word in Australia. Not only because so too has anything to do with Paul Keating, but because so too has anything that cannot be obviously quantified. A tunnel can be built, and figures delivered of how many cars use it per day. Increases or decreases in crime can be measured and appraised. The tangible value of a property can be calculated. But what of the value of a local park to a community? The demolition of a beloved local building? The closure of a community hall? How can one quantify the importance and impact of the closure of say, a cinema such as Glebe's Valhalla Cinema, even excluding the obvious impact on local-filmmakers? Because such things are so difficult to quantify - because it's so hard to say, for example `This art exhibition enriched X amount of people by Y amount and gave Z amount of pleasure to the local community' - and most importantly, because there is no evident economic indicator - the benefit is calculated at nothing, or as good as. Thus, projects such as the excellent StickybrickS (recently seen as part of the Sydney Festival) - an example of what could be achieved under a really good cultural policy - are few and far between. Yet a country without a rich cultural identity; whose stories remain untold - there's nothing intangible about that.

I heartily endorse Cate Blanchett's words and look forward to David Throsby's essay (available to buy here - there's also an interview with Throsby here). This is one policy debate I'm eager to see reignited.

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