Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lies, damned lies and statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released its report on Cultural Funding by Government, Australia, 2007-08.

Total funding was up from $5.6 billion to $6.3 billion. This represents a return to increased funding per person after the preceding year saw a drop in funding per person. But, as Michelle Gratten notes in Melbourne's Age newspaper, most of the funding, and most of the increase, goes on "environmental heritage".

Why is the funding of environmental heritage not a matter for the environment budget and the corresponding statistics? National parks and the like have a cultural element, but their environmental significance is greater than their cultural importance.

The over-extension of the word "culture" is common today. Just think of the debate around the nature and definition of the term "cultural industries". The anthropological argument is that everything is "cultural" because everything exists within the framework of a system of shared beliefs and social processes that is at the heart of culture. The danger in this all-inclusive definition is that it irons out differences of degree. While everything may exist within a cultural frame, not everything contributes equally to that culture. These differences have been lost as the arts in particular pursue a misguided attempt avoid the label "elite".

So, in the case of the present statistics, the funding of environmental heritage is listed as "cultural" alongside libraries, museums, dance companies and arts centres. The result is that the funding of "culture" appears substantially higher than the portion that goes to "core" cultural activities, those whose primary focus is the creation of shared meaning, beliefs and experience. The use of the word "culture" is about more than semantics. With it come official statistical reports and the decisions that are often based on such numbers.

© Brian Long 2009


  1. hmmm, another case of ambiguity.
    It becomes more evident every day that there must be a collective word for what "arts" and "culture" is when dealing with politics. Politics is confusing enough as it is! - John Adams

  2. Don't you have a suggestion, John?