Review of Culture in Australia – Policies, Publics, and Programs, edited by Tony Bennett and David Carter

By Tom Burvill

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This book has its origin in the workshop organised by the editors on behalf of the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, as part of the ‘Reshaping Australian Institutions Program’ of the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University. The focus of the papers given is therefore not so much on analysis and interpretation of particular cultural productions, as on the current state of key cultural institutions and practices, and the discourses that they both mobilise and by which they are constructed. Institutions here includes funding bodies, regulatory and other policy agencies, media networks, galleries, production and distribution facilities, but also to some extent the traditions and responses to them and their self-understandings. The volume is diverse and extremely valuable in its range and in the way that the discussion of particular areas of culture engages with a wide range of key contemporary themes, including the relationship between globalisation and national or local cultures, between issues of market forces and public subsidy but also new inflections of national(ist), indigenous and postcolonial formations and intersections of the discourses of diaspora, multiculturalism and indigeneity.

It is impossible in a short review to give an adequate summary of the range and diversity of both information (even cultural history), approaches and argument in this volume, in which each essay contains both valuable insight and provocative argument. The book consists of sixteen essays, the work of more than twenty authors, organised into three Parts. Each Part has its own introduction and each essay both suggestions for further reading and for web resources. Part A is entitled ‘Policy and Industry Contexts’, with essays covering cinema, popular music, institutions shaping the visual arts, tourism and national identity and an historical perspective through an account of the foundational arts advocacy of H.C.Coombs. Part 2 is ‘Australian Culture and its Publics’ and includes essays on the ‘public life of literature’, the ABC, gender and amateur sport, ‘generation panics’ and new media, and a valuable condensed account of the recent Bourdiean work of Frow, Bennett and Emmerson in the mapping of class and cultural practice, as well as discussions of popular culture, the market and the public sphere. Part 3 is ‘Programs of Cultural Diversity’. Here the issues foregrounded include multiculturalism, a provocative view of heritage and its possibilities in relation to constructions of indigeneity and history, indigeneous media and regions and cultural development. The line-up of authors is impressive including leading names not generally associated with cultural policy studies. The essays are fully researched and considered chapters rather than more occasional papers to an academic conference. They are all both closely argued and full of empirical detail and will be valuable resources for students and scholars of Australian culture, Australian cultural studies, Australian media and also of things such as multiculturalism and indigenous cultures in Australia.

As I have indicated, partly because of the range of contributors and partly because of the independent research base from which they are operating, the book does not feel dominated by particular cultural policy studies paradigm. Perhaps indeed the volume represents a new opening out to a wider audience of the discipline of cultural policy studies. One of claims borne out by the volume is, as stated in Introduction, that “since the early 1980s… A mature and sophisticated cultural system has come into being defined by the presence of established and … diverse local production and distribution industries, a differentiated (if relatively small) local market and an established (though never secure) regime of government regulation and intervention, and a professional (if not always user-friendly) infrastructure (of media, agents, etc)”. In other words there is now a substantial “ecology” of Australian film, television, music, literature dance and so forth – cultures which however fragile, now have their own local dynamics and diversity their own “self sustainability”.” Australian culture from an aggressively nationalistic but insecure base in the late 1970s has now become an ‘international culture’ in itself, or as the editors put it ‘there is a sense in which Australia can now be seen as exemplary rather than merely supplementary, as in the old colonial metaphors; exemplary that is, of a postcolonial, multicultural or postmodern nation.”


Tom Burvill is Head of the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.He teaches Australian Cultural Studies and writes about Australian theatre and culture, especially around issues of ethnicity and multiculturalism.

Culture in Australia – Policies, Publics, and Programs, edited by Tony Bennett and David Carter was published by Cambridge University Press in 2001.

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