Cultural Value and Economics

Posted Friday May 20, 2011 by John Gunders in |

Last night I went to a lecture by Kim Dalton, director of television for the ABC and Chair of Freeview. The lecture was recorded and hopefully the audio will appear on the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies website in the next days.

The lecture might not have been as “provocative” as some members of the audience suggested, but it was a carefully considered and well argued piece about the role of public service television in the age of convergence, and finished with the familiar and well-rehearsed statement that both of Australia’s public broadcasters are underfunded. Well, no argument about that from me.

But one thing in particular struck me. Dalton spoke briefly about his time in Adelaide in the mid-1970s. He had just finished a degree in drama in the context of a nascent film industry and a growing television industry. The only topic of conversation was Australian culture: what it was, how to develop it, what the role of the media was. He managed to convey the sense of enthusiasm and possibility that he remembered from that time. The enthusiasm of a young country finding its feet and its identity.

Later, in questions, he was asked to justify his position on cultural value versus economic value, and he seemed to me to (perhaps deliberately) misunderstand the question. To Dalton, if I am not mistaken, there is no need to justify cultural value: it is a given, as much as any financial bottom line, and it is important to pursue and to fund it.

And I started wondering, when was it that as a nation we stopped talking about cultural value? When did we abandon conversations about identity for sterile debates about economics and politics? Why is it that discussions of Australian-ness now inevitably lead to claims about cost and benefit? Sure, politicians talk about nothing else, because political discourse has been reduced over the last 20 or 30 years to claims about who are the better economic managers. (I wonder whether this is why Australian politics has not been about to produce a statesman of the calibre of a Mensies or a Whitlam.)

But if economics is all politicians want to talk about, why do we follow suit? I have read very few cultural studies investigations recently that don’t—at least in part—draw of economic considerations as a way of demonstrating value (yes I know, I’ve done it myself).

Wouldn’t it be fun if we all started talking about cultural value, Australian identity, and artistic development as valuable enterprises of their own, and let the accountants worry about the funding?

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