This keynote paper focuses on the relationship between the idea of culture and the different ways it is talked about in the contemporary world. The media, the Academy, the creative professions and public policy all provide different discursive regimes in which key terms describe and evaluate artworks and cultural experiences. Words are shared but their context of use is not. We think (as critics, academics, artists and policy-makers) we are talking about the same thing, equal participants in ‘the rhetorical economy’. But in reality we occupy radically different subject positions. Referencing Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, the paper teases out the implications of functional cultural provision for one area in particular: the ‘fit’ between the categories of government policy and the idiosyncratic processes of creative practice. Can the state define culture save as a general figure? Can it measure artistic value in any but an aggregate way? What are the implications for the language of cultural reporting, and the relationship between the artist and the state, with the ‘cultural industries’ now representing 3.6% of Australia’s GDP?
When we stand in front of a painting; when we read a novel or a poem; when we go to a concert or a dog show or participate in a recreation of a medieval tournament; is there anything to be said about these experiences? If so, for what end and to whom? How do our words stand in conjunction to our cultural encounters? Reflection? Interpretation? Assessment? Sometimes we may want to speak of the art around us, using key terms to express what we feel to be its chief value. What forces pronounce that which, until then, is silence sufficient unto itself? What are the politics of explanation, the formations by which our words are aggregated and deployed as a plural figure? ‘Does culture need explaining?’ A small door that opens onto a large room. For behind the methodological and epistemological subtleties stand visceral emotions: confusion, frustration, anger, and despair. Especially the last. Especially despair.