Australia versus the Frankfurt School

Where the bloody hell are you? At the museum and the pub, we just don't like to make a big deal out of it.

Whereas in Europe, high culture often served as a means for social distinction and a political economy of power, Australians were happy to consume it like 'a good meal.' This was a country where – thanks to a high standard of living and the consequent egalitarianism of manners – tastes where traditionally shared. Borders of taste did not easily translate into borders of class.

This fact offended European sensibilities. Even in the United States, an elite managed to erect a monopoly of high culture that other groups recognised and to which they oriented themselves. The theatre and concert halls became places for the celebration of something sacred, a form of culture beyond any doubt. But they also stopped being the popular entertainment they used to be. Europeans were leased, the old order was in place again.

However, in Australia this order never managed to assert itself to a similar degree. Sure there was culture, but it faced a society of 'common men.'

When the ABC introduced subscriptions to classical concerts, numbers rose astronomically. Yet, Australias egalitarian ethos made sure that these means of taste did not translate into means of power. A working man like Ben Chifley could become Prime Minister and freely admit that he could not understand or appreciate any classical music. In fact, he had a strong suspicion that a great many people who expressed their devotion to it were hardly honest!

On the other hand, a huge part of the Australia population recognised itself in mass culture. This was a form of culture that stood in homology with the country's self-perception: It was embraced as a genuinely democratic and – thus specifically Australian – cultural practice. Little wonder, then, that Australians for decades could claim the highest cinema visits per capita.

The irony of this situation is that a leftist German thinker like Adorno, the theorist of the great divide between mass culture and art par excellence and orthodox Marxist, would have hated Australia. It was – and still is – a place that enthusiastically embraced every product the manipulative 'culture industry' had to offer.

At the same time, it was the most democratic nation he ever would have set foot on. It had a very different history than Germany, its 'foundational dynamics' were almost an inverse mirror image of the illiberal Kulturnation. This was an environment that countered political extremisms. And this was a society that did not automatically translate European cultural capital into a claim for social leadership, something that ironically would have led to Adorno's misrecognition of its democratic traditions. In his view, capitalism's diversions – in contrast to works like Schoenberg’s atonality – always equated to deformed personalities and complete sinfulness in which moral authority was all but impossible.

In a way, this already happened during his stay in the United States; yet, as described above, anything that he might have remotely liked about America had an even harder time to assert itself Down Under. The result would have been, again, an unfair European judgment of Australia.

Jens Schroeder is a sociologist at the Konrad Wolf Academy of Film and Television Arts in Germany. His article ‘The Plebeians of the Western world’ is in the Spring 2010 issue of Policy magazine to be released next week.