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Australia: a nation at risk

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Culture is the accumulated experience of people interacting with one another and their environment.

Why is culture important? Is it because the cement of social cohesion, like friendship, is the bond of common experiences?

A 1983 US report by The National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation At Risk, warned that nation against slipping into a mentality of mediocrity and over reliance on the nation’s natural resources and sounded the alarm bells that “History is not kind to idlers”. Many argued that the report over emphasised the importance of focusing on mathematics and science education, at the expense of the arts and social sciences, to minimise the risk of falling behind other industrial economies.


More than 20 years later, in October 2003, Simon Brault, Vice-Chair, Canada Council for the Arts, delivered a speech to a Culture Ministers’ Conference in Halifax that examined the intrinsic virtues of culture and its impact on individual and community development. He noted the now keen interest in the specific relationship between arts and culture and the economic and social development of communities.

Three years later John Gordon, of the OECD Statistics Directorate, delivered a presentation on the Importance of Culture To the Well-Being of Societies. By that time, the economic importance of culture was obvious to Chinese entrepreneurs who were starting to ask if China’s rich cultural heritage could be translated into products of universal appeal.

The economic importance of culture was further reinforced in February 2008 when NESTA published Beyond the creative industries: Mapping the creative economy in the United Kingdom, a report aimed at accurately measuring the contribution of the creative industries to economic activity.

In the meantime, in October 2005, UNESCO had approved the adoption of a new convention on protecting and promoting cultural diversity. The need for protection came from US pressure to extend the free trade regime of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to cultural products. When that didn’t happen quickly enough the US sought the same outcome by including broadcasting and audiovisual commitments in bilateral trade agreements, including its free trade agreement with Australia.

In the lead up to Australia's ratification of its agreement with America many people (PDF 114KB) involved in our arts industries aired their concerns Not surprisingly, their protests seemed to fall on deaf ears. In the year following the agreement Australian exports to the US declined, while US exports to Australia increased. One wonders whether this remains the case, both generally and in relation to cultural trade.

What intrigues me about all this is not the intrinsic interest of the topic but the question of what underlying malaise has prompted such vigorous and escalating attention to culture? Why are countries now concerned about the importance of culture and the consequences of its decline? Is social cohesion diminishing? With such widespread concern, where does Australia rate on the “cultural misery index”?


Society has followed economics down the path of selfish individualism. Every day there are fewer opportunities for common or joint cultural experience, and hence for gaining shared points of reference and developing common preferences.

If art in all its forms creates culture, and culture inspires art, where and what is our Australian culture? Surely we are at risk of becoming a nation of “exhilarating ordinariness” if we continue to define our culture by reference to our "lifestyle”, or by resorting to an idealistic assortment of “mateship” and “fair go” values (PDF 240KB) that in reality are simply a dusty relic of a distant colonial past.

Albert Einstein spoke of imagination as being more important than knowledge because knowledge is limited. It is not surprising then that an Education Professor, Elliot Eisner, discovered that the mental abilities and disciplines developed by the arts include: the ability to wrestle with problems that have no single correct answer; the ability to analyse a problem from many different viewpoints; the ability to absorb new information even when immersed in a project; the ability to change strategies and even set new goals; the ability to work with others towards a common goal; and the ability to imagine what doesn’t yet exist.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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