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.

Australian culture: schools of thought

As to culture in the narrow sense - 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.

For years, many Australians suffered from an inferiority complex or "cultural cringe" about other countries, particularly European ones, believing that anything from overseas was inherently superior to anything Australian. This was especially true in Australia's relationship with Britain, but as Australians have travelled more widely, and their country has been exposed to cultural influences from other countries, this has waned. Australians still have "love-hate" relationship with Britain. On the one hand, they ridicule the so-called 'Old Country' as snobbish, class-obsessed and backward-looking. On the other, there is a large Australian expatriate population in London, including the writers Germaine Greer and Clive James, who are sometimes better known in the UK than they are in Australia.

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.

"Popular culture" vs "high culture"

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 Helpmann; a strong national opera company based in Sydney; and good symphony orchestras in all capital cities--the Melbourne and sometimes Sydney symphony 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: British to begin with, then 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.

Diversity of influences

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, there is the initial European heritage, followed by an overwhelmingly city-based society that although British in origin now receives all but a small proportion of its cultural communication from either Hollywood and American TV networks, or from home-grown imitations of either of them. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), like the BBC in Britain, is a non-commercial public service broadcaster, showing many BBC or ITV productions from Britain. Debate about the role of the ABC continues, as many assign it a marginal role, and claim that American-influenced commercial TV and radio stations are far more popular choices. These critics claim that Australian children grow up watching Sesame Street and The Simpsons, eating fries at McDonalds, wearing baseball caps, speaking American slang , and many have never heard of Blinky Bill or the Magic Pudding. Television ratings are cited as backing this view, but it less clear that these ratings tell the whole view. Certainly there have been many local television shows that have been wildly successful, such as Neighbours and Home and Away, which have sometimes been even more successful abroad. Although it holds sway to a lesser extent than in the United States, there is a belief in Australia is that bigger is better, be it houses, often with a swimming pool in the back, or cars, such as the best selling models, Ford's Falcon or GM's Holden Commodore.

Then there is the great post-war influx of non English-speaking migrants from the Netherlands, 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. The publicly funded Special Broadcasting Service carries TV and radio programmes in a variety of languages, as well as world news and documentary programming in English, and is seen as less highbrow than the ABC. SBS does have a small following, having the distinction of being the TV channel most likely to show soccer, a minority sport in Australia.

Myths and contradictions

On top of this, are Australia's myths - shared beliefs and as such have a cultural significance quite independent of their empirical truth or falsehood. Australians, according to myths, 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". Politicians, or "pollies", be they at state or federal level, are universally disliked and distrusted. Ironically, the failure of the 1999 referendum on becoming a republic was more about the prospect of a President chosen by and from the "pollies", than about any vestigial loyalty to the British monarchy.

Australia's myths come from the outback, from the drovers and the squatters and the people of the barren, dusty plains, yet very few Australians little 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. This was true even of the Australia of a century 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. Lawson himself - the iconic poet of the outback - was himself a city boy.

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