Getting it wrong about culture

May 29, 2023
Stacking Hands Over Each Other

On 30 January 2023, the Albanese Government released its new national cultural policy, REVIVE: a five-year plan to revive the arts in Australia. There was widespread pleasure that after a decade of neglect of cultural matters, attention was being given again to this important aspect of Australian life. There was, however, some dismay at the erroneous implication that culture and the arts are the same thing. They are not.

Culture includes the arts, but culture itself is much wider. Culture is customs, beliefs, celebrations, language, relationships. Much of it is the culture of everyday life.

Fortunately, those who drafted the National Cultural Policy broadened their definitions in the detail of the policy. The Five Pillars and Ten Principles are widened to encompass stories, institutions, education and participation. First Nations are to be considered first.

What is culture? This thorny concept has been addressed by some of the world’s leading thinkers such as Malinowski, Kluckhohn and Geertz, classic anthropologists working around 1900. Some aspects of their definitions which I have found most useful are Kluckhohn’s distinctive ways of life and Geertz’s knowledge and meanings. Culture belongs to particular groups of people, which may be large (Australian culture) or smaller (an ethnic group, an occupation, the military, or children).

To describe and detail any one particular culture requires extensive research and field work (cf Malinowski and Margaret Mead). Here in Australia is a gaping hole, borne of years of neglect, financial stringency, and philistinism. Few of the large archival institutions have extensive research programs. The National Film and Sound Archive abandoned its Scholars and Artists in Residence program in 2013, early in the lean years of government neglect and serious staff redundancies.

Research, research, research. The Australian Government has – in mothballs – one extensive research project documenting an important aspect of Australian culture. The Committee of Inquiry into Folklife in Australia was commissioned by the Hawke Labor Government in 1986, and scandalously ignored, largely as the result of internecine strife and personal animosities within the Party. The then Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment, Barry Cohen MP, had visited the annual American Folklife Festival in Washington DC, a research-based festival organised by the Smithsonian Institute Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Blown away by the scope and style of the Festival, Cohen returned home determined to establish something similar for Australia, hence the Inquiry. This produced an extensive report in 1987, with 53 recommendations, including the establishment of an Australian Folklife Centre.

Unfortunately by this time Barry Cohen had seriously fallen out with Graham Richardson and the Australian Labor Party, and resigned from Parliament and political life in 1987. The Folklife Report, as a creation of Barry Cohen, received the kiss of death from Hawke and the government. It’s a superb irony that Bob Hawke some years later apparently had an epiphany about folklife, and enthusiastically attended the Woodford Folklife Festival in Queensland for several years before his death.

Today’s more enlightened Albanese Government might profit from retrieving the Folklife Report from the rubbish bin of history, studying its research and recommendations, and considering what might be its value to the new 2023 national cultural policy.

The related notion of heritage is frequently used as another synonym for culture. Like culture, heritage is one of many concepts which have been the victim of flawed definitions. In 1974 the Report of the Inquiry into the National Estate, included a definition of heritage as ‘the things you keep’. This phrase was much quoted at the time and for some years had the effect of shaping consideration of Australian heritage solely in terms of material culture – as only ‘the things you keep’. It was not until the 1990s that the intangible aspects of our heritage came to prominence.

A significant publication in 1992 was Chris Johnston’s discussion paper prepared for the Australian Heritage Commission, What is social value? She noted that some places with social value may be connected with community behaviour, attitudes and feelings, for example the popular Melbourne CBD meeting place ‘under the clocks’ at Flinders Street Station. In the 1980s Victorian Railways had removed the clocks and replaced them with digital displays. The public furore was so great that the clocks were replaced – according to the story, the next day. They are still there.

The term social value has today largely been superseded by intangible heritage or intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage has been widely adopted by UNESCO to encompass its many activities all over the world. Australia has since 2000 been part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World, a wonderful program which honours significant documentary collections, such as the Mabo Case Manuscripts, Captain Cook’s Endeavour Journal, The Ballarat Reform League Charter, and the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection, among many other important Australian records.

But here’s the rub. UNESCO’S headquarters are in Paris. For many years from the 1990s, UNESCO was involved in serious disputes about definitions of intangible cultural heritage and folklore, culminating in the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which virtually abolished all use of the terms folklore and folklife. This peculiarly French distaste for the term ‘folk’ has led to a misuse of intangible cultural heritage to encompass many aspects of cultural heritage which are clearly tangible. Examples given by UNESCO are pottery, carpets, woodwork and jewellery which are included in ICH because of the skills and knowledge involved in production of these objects. One might query whether the Notre Dame Cathedral might also be categorised as intangible cultural heritage because of the skills and knowledge involved in its construction.

It’s unfortunate that UNESCO has taken this rather capricious and overly complex path. I believe it is wrong. It also flies in the face of many important international bodies concerned with folklife such as the Nordic Folklore Institute (Denmark), the American Folklife Center (Library of Congress), the Korean Folklore Institute, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Studies, and many others.

A national cultural policy for Australia needs to get its theory straight. In 2023, Oxford University Press released a new textbook, called, interestingly, Cultural Psychology, and dated 2020. The book is authored by Robyn Holmes, from Monmouth University in New Jersey, USA, where Professor Holmes is attached to the History and Anthropology Department. The text begins with a fine discussion about What is culture? Those managing our national cultural policy would do well to consult such a text, and also to seek more involvement from the fields of anthropology and folklore.

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