The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Culture of Australia

The original culture of Australia can only be surmised: cultural patterns among the remote descendants of the first Australians cannot be assumed to be unchanged after 53,000 years of human habitation of the continent. Much more is known about the richly diverse cultures of modern Aboriginal Australians, or at least of those few who survived the impact of European colonisation. (For more on this, see Australian Aborigine and related entries.) Although the effect of the arrival of Europeans on Aboriginal culture was profound and catastrophic, the reverse is not the case: broadly speaking, mainstream Australian culture has been imported from Europe, the United Kingdom in particular, and has developed since that time.



Much of Australia's culture is derived from European and more recently American roots, but distinctive Australian features have evolved from the environment, aboriginal culture, and the influence of Australia's neighbors. The vigor and originality of the arts in Australia—films, opera, music, painting, theater, dance, and crafts—are achieving international recognition.


Main article: Music of Australia

Australia has produced a wide variety of popular music. While many musicians and bands (some notable examples include the 1960s successes of The Easybeats and the folk-pop group The Seekers, through the heavy rock of AC/DC, and the slick pop of INXS and more recently Savage Garden) have had considerable international success, there remains some debate over whether Australian popular music really has a distinctive sound. Australia also has a very popular country act, Keith Urban. Perhaps the most striking common feature of Australian music, like many other Australian art forms, is the dry, often self-deprecating humor evident in the lyrics.

Until the late 1960s, many have argued that Australian popular music was largely indistinguishable from imported music: British to begin with, then gradually more and more American in the post-war years. The sudden arrival of the 1960s underground movement into the mainstream in the early 1970s changed Australian music permanently: Skyhooks were far from the first people to write songs in Australia, by Australians, about Australia, but they were the first ones ever to make money doing it. The two best-selling albums ever made (at that time) put Australian music on the map. Within a few years, the novelty had worn off and it became commonplace to hear distinctively Australian lyrics and sometimes sounds side-by-side with the imitators and the imports.

The national expansion of ABC youth radio station Triple J during the 1990s has greatly increased the visibility and availability of home-grown talent to listeners nationwide. Since the mid 1990s a string of successful alternative Australian acts have emerged - artists to achieve both underground (critical) and mainstream (commercial) success include silverchair, Grinspoon, Powderfinger, George and Jet.

Arts and literature

Main articles: Art of Australia, Australian literature

Australia has had a significant school of painting since the early days of European settlement, and Australians with international reputations include Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, and Arthur Boyd—not to mention the prized work of many Aboriginal artists. Writers who have achieved world recognition include Thomas Keneally, Les Murray, Colleen McCullough, Nevil Shute, Morris West, Jill Ker Conway, Booker Prize winner Peter Carey and Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. Noted expatriate writers include Germaine Greer and Clive James, who are sometimes better known in the UK than they are in Australia.

Traditional "high culture" gains small attention from much of the population, it thrives nevertheless, with excellent galleries (even in surprisingly small towns); a rich tradition in ballet, enlivened by the legacy of Dame Margot Fonteyn and Sir Robert Helpmann; a strong national opera company based in Sydney; and good symphony orchestras in all capital cities--the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras are said to be worthy of comparison with any.


Main article: Cinema of Australia

Australia has a long history of film production—in fact, it is claimed that the first feature-length film was actually an Australian production. However, the purchase of virtually all cinemas by American distribution companies saw an almost total disappearance of Australian films from the screens. A notable exception was Charles Chauvel's classic Jedda (1955). During the late 1960s and 1970s an influx of government funding saw the development of a new generation of directors and actors telling distinctively Australian stories. Films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Sunday, Too Far Away had an immediate international impact. The 1980s is regarded as perhaps a golden age of Australian cinema, with many wildly successful films, from the dark science fiction of Mad Max to the blatantly commercial Aussie-bloke fantasy of Crocodile Dundee, a film that defined Australia in the eyes of many foreigners despite having remarkably little to do with the lifestyle of most Australians. The early 1990s saw a run of successful comedies such as Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, which helped launch the careers of Toni Collette, P. J. Hogan and Baz Luhrmann. The indigenous film industry continues to produce a reasonable number of films each year, also many US producers have moved productions to Australian studios as they discover a pool of professional talent well below US costs. Notable productions include The Matrix and the Star Wars Episode II and III.

Television and media

Main article: Television in Australia

While Australia has ubiquitous media coverage, the longest established part of that media is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the Federal Government funded organisation offering national TV and radio coverage. The ABC, like the BBC in Britain, is a non-commercial public service broadcaster, showing many BBC or ITV productions from Britain.

Debate about the role of the ABC continues, as many assign it a marginal role, and claim that American-influenced commercial TV and radio stations are far more popular choices. These critics claim that Australian children grow up watching Sesame Street and The Simpsons, eating fries at McDonalds, wearing baseball caps, speaking American slang, and some have never heard of Blinky Bill or the Magic Pudding . Television ratings are cited as backing this view, but it is less clear that these ratings tell the whole view.

Certainly there have been many local television shows that have been successful, such as Homicide and Division 4 in the late 1960s early 1970s, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in the late 1960s, Number 96 and The Box in the 1970s, Prisoner in the 1980s, and Neighbours and Home and Away in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the shows from the mid 1980s onwards have been exported and have sometimes been even more successful abroad.

The ABC has made an impressive contribution to television drama with immensely popular series like Brides of Christ and in comedy, with the 1970's hits Aunty Jack and The Norman Gunston Show and more recently Kath & Kim.

Although Australia was initially largely of British origin, and by the early 21st century was an overwhelmingly city-based society, receiving a large proportion of its cultural communication from either Hollywood and American TV networks, or home-grown productions that some claim are merely imitators.

The publicly funded Special Broadcasting Service carries TV and radio programmes in a variety of languages, as well as world news and documentary programming in English, and is seen as less highbrow than the ABC. SBS does have a small following, having the distinction of being the TV channel most likely to show soccer, the most played sport in Australia but said to be the least watched.


Main article: Australian cuisine

Traditional Australian cuisine was based on English cooking brought to the country by the first European settlers. This cuisine generally consisted of Sunday roasts, grilled chops, and other forms of meat, and was generally accompanied by vegetables (often known colloquially as "three veg") such as mashed potatoes, beans, peas, and carrots (often served soggy or overcooked). This trend has declined considerably with the multicultural emphasis of Australian culture over the last thirty to fifty years. However, the barbeque or "barbie" remains an important part of Australian life.

Australian culture: schools of thought

As to culture in the narrow sense - culture as voluntary, often non-economic activity - there are several schools of thought. One maintains that Australia has no real culture outside of second-hand imports from Europe and the USA. Proponents of this view point to the predominance of foreign books, music, and art, and claim that home-grown products are largely derivative.

For years, many Australians suffered from an inferiority complex or "cultural cringe" about other countries, particularly European ones, believing that anything from overseas was inherently superior to anything Australian. This was especially true in Australia's relationship with Britain, but as Australians have travelled more widely, and their country has been exposed to cultural influences from other countries, this has waned. Australians still have "love-hate" relationship with Britain. Some ridicule the so-called "Old Country" as snobbish, class-obsessed and backward-looking. Others note that there is a large Australian expatriate population in London, including Greer and James widely known in the UK.

Others seize eagerly on each small point of difference, and brandish relatively small parts of the Australian cultural experience (such as the poetry of Henry Lawson, Australian Rules football, or the pie floater) as if these were sufficient to demonstrate that a new and vital culture has emerged in the two centuries since European settlement.

Somewhere in between these two views may be found the great central thread of debate about Australian culture: the perennial attempt to ask and answer the question, "Does Australia 'have' a culture, and if so what is it?" The obsessive preoccupation with this question has lasted decades, and shows no sign of fading.

Finally, there is what might be termed a culturally agnostic view, which holds that endlessly debating Australian culture is futile and pointless, and that the important thing is to simply get on with living and creating it. This last viewpoint is expressed in intellectual terms from time to time, but is mostly evident in the practical activities of Australians in a wide range of fields.

"Popular culture" vs "high culture"

In Australia, popular culture generally rules supreme: in particular the film and television industries (now both seriously threatened by proposed changes to trade laws), and the music industry, which make some claims to developing an indigenous style.

Diversity of influences

In practice, however, it is difficult to discern much about Australian culture by examining the isolated peaks of music, dance or literature. Just as the Australian landscape is defined not by the small mountains in the south, but by the vast barren plains elsewhere, Australian culture is best defined by looking at the less prominent, by considering the more subtle and pervasive aspects.

Traditionally, Australians have viewed themselves as an egalitarian society, with a distrust of the rich and powerful; this is reflected by status of the Eureka Stockade and the bushrangers within the Australian psyche. Today this belief continues in the form of the tall poppy syndrome.

The Australian culture has historically been a masculine one, forged on the hardship of early settlers, and later on the heroism of the Australian soldiers. "Mateship", or loyal fraternity, has reigned supreme. This also explains why the more agressive forms of sport (Rugby and Australian Rules football, for example) are particularly popular in Australia.

Although it holds sway to a lesser extent than in the United States, there is a belief in Australia is that bigger is better, be it houses, often with a swimming pool in the back, or cars, such as the best selling models, Ford's Falcon or GM's Holden Commodore.

Then there is the great post-war influx of non English-speaking migrants from the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Middle East, and finally South-East Asia. Australia's cities are melting pots of different cultures and the influence of the longer-established southern European communities in particular has been pervasive.

"Underdog" attitude

Australians have traditionally had a very strong "underdog" attitude, that is they will support those whom appear to have the lesser hand, so long as Australia is not involved. This can be seen greatly from an occurance during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, where a Georgian Rugby Team arrived in Perth with a crowd of Perth based supporters cheering them on and welcoming them.

This "underdog" attitude is most evident with sport, as sport is also a large part of Australian culture, but by no means is not all of it. Should an Australian be asked to choose between two unknown sides, chances are they would choose the least likely to win.

The myth that this underdog attitude does not extend to Australia's own sportsmen is a lie. While it is true Australians dislike losing when a win is achievable, Australians love nothing better than winning in the face of defeat. However winning does not mean first. There are numerous cases of Australian sporting teams finishing second, the Australian Baseball Team at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games is just one example, where Australians have rejoiced.

While Aussies take a loss hard, chances are that just a few hours later and with some beers in them, players and fans have forgotten about the sting of defeat and are back to enjoying Australian life.

Myths and contradictions

On top of this, are Australia's myths - shared beliefs and as such have a cultural significance quite independent of their empirical truth or falsehood. Australians, according to myths, are relaxed, tolerant, easy-going and yet cling dearly to the fundamental importance of common-sense justice, or to use the classic expression, a "fair go". It is the land of the long weekend: a country that declares a universal holiday for a horse race, that pioneered the eight hour working day, that takes pride in never working too hard and yet idolises the "little Aussie battler" who sweats away for small reward. Australians respect "hard yakka"; to be "flat out like a lizard drinking" is to be extremely busy, or sometimes the exact opposite. Australians, according to myth, make great sportsmen and superb soldiers. Yet like all myths, truths do stem from it. Australia has shown in the past, and present, that for a country of just over 20 million people, it has achieved many extra-ordinary things on the sporting fields and battlefronts, ranging from the infamous retreating "success" of the Battle of Gallipoli, many peace-keeping efforts in places such as East Timor, right through to the 49 medals won at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

Gallipoli tends to seem strange to outsiders, as it appears to be a celebration of Australia's greatest defeat, but in essence it is rather a commemoration of those who died serving Australia in battle, be it warranted or not. In this respect, the Australian culture is one of commemorating the "Aussie Battlers", including all who died in wartime, and thanking those who lived. The myth that Australians celebrate their greatest defeat and ignore their victories is seen as an insult to Australia's history, the soldiers who have fought at any time in the armed forces, and the Australian people and their culture.

Australian language is contradictory too: it combines a mocking disrespect for established authority, particularly if it is pompous or out of touch with reality, with a distinctive upside-down sense of humour. For instance, Australians take delight in dubbing a tall man "Shorty", a silent one "Rowdy" a bald man "Curly", and a redhead, of course, is "Blue". Politicians, or "pollies", be they at state or federal level, are universally disliked and distrusted. Ironically, the failure of the 1999 referendum on becoming a republic was arguably more about the prospect of a President chosen by and from the "pollies", than about any vestigial loyalty to the British monarchy.

Australia's myths originate in the outback, in the drovers and squatters and people of the barren, dusty plains, yet very few Australians live in the outback, or even in the milder countryside that is never more than an hour or two's drive from the cities in which they live. This was true even of the Australia of a century ago - since the gold rush of the 1850s, most Australians have been city-bound. Nevertheless, after a century or more spent absorbing the bush yarns of Henry Lawson and the poetry of Banjo Paterson from the comfort of armchairs in the suburbs, the myths are real.

See also

Last updated: 09-02-2005 16:52:30