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Culture of Australia

The original culture of Australia can only be surmised: cultural patterns among the remote descendants of the first Australians cannot be assumed to be unchanged after 53,000 years of human habitation of the continent. Much more is known about the richly diverse cultures of modern Aboriginal Australians, or at least of those few who survived the impact of European colonisation. (For more on this, see Australian Aborigine and related entries.) Although the effect of the arrival of Europeans on Aboriginal culture was profound and catastrophic, the reverse is not the case: broadly speaking, mainstream Australian culture has been imported from Europe, the United Kingdom in particular, and has developed since that time with very little input from Aboriginal people.

Turning to culture in the narrow sense now - culture as voluntary, often non-economic activity - there are several schools of thought. One maintains that Australia has no real culture outside of second-hand imports from Europe and the USA. Proponents of this view point to the predominance of foreign books, music, and art, and claim that home-grown products are largely derivative. Others seize eagerly on each small point of difference, and brandish relatively small parts of the Australian cultural experience (such as the poetry of Henry Lawson, Australian Rules football, or the pie floater) as if these were sufficient to demonstrate that a new and vital culture has emerged in the two centuries since European settlement.

Somewhere in between these two views may be found the great central thread of debate about Australian culture: the perennial attempt to ask and answer the question "does Australia have a culture, and if so what is it?" The obsessive preoccupation with this question has lasted decades, and shows no sign of fading.

Finally, there is what might be termed a culturally agnostic view, which holds that endlessly debating Australian culture is futile and pointless, and that the important thing is to simply get on with living and creating it. This last viewpoint is expressed in intellectual terms from time to time, but is mostly evident in the practical activities of Australians in a wide range of fields.

Traditional European "high culture" is little valued by most Australians, but thrives nevertheless, with excellent galleries (even in surprisingly small towns); a rich tradition in ballet, enlivened by the legacy of Dame Margot Fonteyn[?] and Sir Robert Helpman[?]; a strong national opera company based in Sydney; and good symphony orchestras in all capital cities - the Melbourne and sometimes Sydney orchestras are said to be worthy of comparison with any. Despite the excellence to be found in these activities, most Australians pay them no attention. In Australia, popular culture rules supreme: in particular the film and television industries (now both seriously threatened by proposed changes to trade laws), and the music industry, which can make at least some claim to developing an indigenous style. Until the late 1960s, Australian popular music was barely distinguishable from imported music: English to begin with, gradually more and more American in the post-war years. The sudden arrival of the Sixties underground movement into the mainstream in the early 1970s changed Australian music permanently: the Skyhooks were far from the first people to write songs in Australia, by Australians, about Australia, but they were the first ones ever to make money doing it. The two best-selling albums ever made (at that time) put Australian music on the map. Within a few years, the novelty had worn off and it became commonplace to hear distinctively Australian lyrics and sometimes sounds side-by-side with the imitators and the imports.

In practice, however, it is difficult to discern much about Australian culture by examining the isolated peaks of music, dance or literature. Just as the Australian landscape is defined not by the small mountains in the south, but by the vast barren plains elsewhere, Australian culture is best defined by looking at the less prominent, by considering the more subtle and pervasive aspects. First, consider the initial European heritage. Next, overlay an overwhelmingly city-based society that although English in origin now receives all but a tiny proportion of its cultural communication from Hollywood and American TV networks, or from home-grown imitations of them. Australian children grow up watching Sesame Street and South Park, eating fries at McDonalds, wearing baseball caps, speaking American slang with American accents, and most have never heard of Blinky Bill or the Magic Pudding. Now add yet another layer: the great post-war influx of non English-speaking migrants from Holland, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Middle East, and finally South-East Asia. Australia's cities are melting pots of different cultures and the influence of the longer-established southern European communities in particular has been pervasive. Last of all, add Australia's myths - for myths are shared beliefs and as such have a cultural significance quite independent of their empirical truth or falsehood.

Australians, the myths tell us, are relaxed, tolerant, easy-going and yet cling dearly to the fundamental importance of common-sense justice, or to use the classic expression, a "fair go". It is the land of the long weekend: a country that declares a universal holiday for a horse race, that pioneered the eight hour working day, that takes pride in never working too hard and yet idolises the "little Aussie battler" who sweats away for small reward. Australians respect "hard yakka"; to be "flat out like a lizard drinking" is to be extremely busy, or sometimes the exact opposite! Australians, according to myth, make great sportsmen and superb soldiers. To outsiders it seems quite extraordinary that a nation with several major military victories should chose to forget them and celebrate the bloody defeat of Gallipoli instead. Clearly, the myth is contradictory (as most of the best myths are). Australian language is contradictory too: it combines a mocking disrespect for established authority, particularly if it is pompous or out of touch with reality, with a distinctive upside-down sense of humour: Australians take delight in dubbing a tall man "Shorty", a silent one "Rowdy" a bald man "Curly" - and a redhead, of course, is "Blue".

In a very real sense, what a people believe about themselves is true. Australia's myths come from the outback, from the drovers and the squatters and the people of the barren, dusty plains. Very few Australians actually know much of the outback, or even of the milder countryside that is never more than an hour or two's drive from the cities that they live in, and broadly speaking this is true even of the Australia of 100 years ago - since the gold rush of the 1850s, most Australians have been city-bound. Nevertheless, after a century or more spent absorbing the bush yarns of Henry Lawson and the poetry of Banjo Patterson from the comfort of armchairs in the suburbs, the myths are real. Why should they not be? After all, Lawson himself - the iconic poet of the outback - was himself a city boy.

See also: Australasian Union of Jewish Students - Music of Australia - Australian cinema



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