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Cultural snobbery and Wayne Swan's Springsteen mania

  • 03 August 2012

The other night, I went to a local restaurant where I'd heard there would be some interesting music playing. I didn't ask what would be played, trusting that whatever it was, I'd enjoy it.

I had set myself up for disappointment. I was confronted with a monotonous set of noise music; three guitarists improvised a 40-minute electro-acoustic work without any discernable sense of structure, melody or rhythm. There were some interesting harmonics, but no patterns emerged in the sound to cling on to or understand.

The composition, as a noise piece, no doubt had a place in the context of its own history. Without a grasp on that history, the experience for me was one of boredom and mild disdain. While the noise droned on, I used my phone to look up where I might be able to play darts later.

It is impossible for me to say whether it was a successful composition. But I doubt anyone else in the room — mostly serious-looking white men in their late 20s with beards and scruffy hair — could say, either. I don't believe any of the audience members truly enjoyed the performance aesthetically, whatever they might pretend.

There's no reason why any kind of art should be pretty, or pleasing, or easy to understand. Even boring and impenetrable work is legitimate. Anyway, questioning what is or isn't art is not interesting, and institutional opinions on the matter never actually interfere with artwork being produced.

But asking what it is that makes something valued by a particular social group, even if it seems monotonous or inane, is an interesting question.

In Australia, land of the cultural cringe, sociological research presents us with findings that the 'social elite', at least those selected by Who's Who, mainly consume middle- and low-brow culture. Mainstream cinema, books that are on best-seller lists, and Bruce Springsteen, for example.

The pride taken in consuming 'low' culture, celebrated by Wayne Swan's Springsteen mania, is positive in its belief in the legitimacy of mainstream taste, which is dictated more democratically than highbrow taste. But it is negative in its inherent dismissal of cultural codes which engage the intellect in a more challenging way. Swan's political justification for Springsteen's music sidelines the art itself.

Paul Keating, with his public