Some phrases deserve scare quotes more than others. And it’s hard to find a better candidate for the sarcastic use of punctuation marks than the phrase “cultural imperialism”.
After all, the popularity of Hollywood films in Australia hardly resembles the violent military occupation of a foreign nation. If cultural imperialism wasn’t invoked so often, it would be self-evidently absurd.
Nevertheless, many people believe that, somehow, cultural products made by Australians are superior to those made by foreigners. Australians should be watching Australian films, listening to Australian music and reading Australian books.
Cultural nationalists — who come from both the left and right of politics — assume that only after burying ourselves in cultural products produced within our geopolitical borders will we be able to develop a genuine national identity.
This is silly on a number of levels. For instance, what about the poor old states — do we suffer from a lack of films set in Victoria and featuring Victorian voices? Similarly, suburbs could also be considered distinct cultural units. If so, we have an oversupply of television programs set in St Kilda and Brunswick, and an undersupply of those set in Frankston and Dandenong.
At the same time, cultural nationalists argue that if Australia’s culture is not protected by government through regulation, subsidies and broadcast quotas, then that culture is at risk. The market cannot provide what Australians need, and the government has to step in.
But the case for cultural protectionism is weak. Often calls for subsidy are just naked special pleading. These are easy to dismiss — probably the worst thing for both taxpayers and artists would be a special category of welfare for creative industries.
Decades of government subsidies have already fostered dependency in the cultural sector. And relying on government rather than consumers for finance provides little incentive for cultural producers to tailor their work to the demands of the public.
As a result, the steady stream of below-par and ideologically heavy-handed productions funded by the Government has given Australian films a poor reputation. Recent films Candy, Little Fish and 2:37 have depicted urban and middle-class life as awash with drug use, depression and death.
For audiences, the “made in Australia” brand now often has negative connotations. And when critics deliberately go easy on local films, they compound the problem.
Taxpayer support is seen as a right by artists who believe they are serving a higher purpose — rather than satisfying the demands of their audience.
But a culture dependent on government handouts is a weak culture. Throughout history, the most vibrant intellectual and artistic cultures have been those that were decentralised, entrepreneurial and commercial.
The market economy has been the driving force behind most of what we consider to be “great” art. Markets in which consumer choice dominates provide cultural producers with far greater freedom to supply niche products to consumers with diverse tastes. And markets discipline artists to produce accessible work.
French history provides an illustration of both the negative consequences of cultural subsidies and the virtues of marketplace-driven art.
French cinema dominated the first few decades of the 20th century. Indeed, it was so popular that American filmmakers argued that the US required protection.
But as the French government set up lavish film bureaucracies after World War II, its industry atrophied and its films grew less popular. US films now make up 60 per cent of the market in France — in the 1930s, that figure was just 15 per cent.
The reaction against cultural imperialism has the unintended consequence of making cultural industries uncompetitive.
Robert Manne hoped in the latest Monthly that if a Kevin Rudd government was elected that the gulf between the government and the nation’s creative artists would be bridged.
It is hard to imagine how turning more artists into tax-eaters would be good for Australian culture.