Just How Fast is the Escape Velocity for Cultural Cringe?

14 05 2009

I declined a suggestion today that I should permanently relocate from this fine city of Brisbane for daring to suggest that it may well be culturally inferior to its southern cousins. I’m sure this was more parochial zeal than an honest assessment of the coming of age of this erstwhile self-conscious Cinderella of Australian capital cities, nonetheless it got me thinking about perceptions of cultural richness.

My assertions about Brisbane were, principally, that it lacked the diversity and innovation in cuisine found in both Melbourne and Sydney and that it failed to “wag the dog” of fashion houses across the nation. In short, the food offered in restaurants is more similar than different and the city tends to follow, rather than set, fashion trends.

Any such assessment is bound to cause a stir amongst those understandably loyal to their city and, predictably, the exceptions to these (apparently flawed) rules began to flow. I was rather pleased about this, since I picked up another couple of good tips for restaurants that will either confirm my hypothesis or give me a bloody good feed! It was thought that I was generalising too much and that there were both good restaurants and a healthy representation of high fashion in this sunshine city.

Herein lies a dilemma. A city’s cultural reputation is almost entirely based on generalisation. It is a perception. Though this got me thinking about other cities around the world and how they may become centres for rich culture.

It seems not to be based purely on population alone. China boasts three of the ten most populous in our world and yet the meagre infiltration of Chinese culture to the west has been largely donated through one small city state to the South, not even on this list. Similarly Mexico City, Brasilia, Mumbai and (arguably) even Tokyo, whilst appreciated, do not contribute significantly to either high fashion or cuisine globally.

Likewise, the age of the city has no strong correlation either. Whilst cities like London, Paris and Rome are well into their third millennia now, the same cannot be said of New York or Sydney, for example.

So just what is it that makes one city more likely to become a rich cultural centre than another? I think I have found a reasonable yardstick, having trawled some data on Australian capital cities on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.

I would venture to suggest that the two most important factors in becoming a leader in culture are firstly: the underlying diversity in culture of that city and secondly: the proportion of high end wealth that is resident in that city that can patronise establishments offering high food and fashion. The first is a measure of cultural capacity whilst the second is a measure of economic capacity.

When scouring the ABS, it is rare you manage to grab the exact data set that would be ideal for your research. However, I was fortunate to have found a fairly reasonable indicator for economic capacity. I would suggest that the comparisons of mean net worth for each of our capitals may serve this purpose. The reason for using this measure, rather than perhaps mean income is, frankly, that if you can honestly afford to drown in high fashion, you probably don’t have to work! Secondly, very high net worth individuals will tend to skew averages “North” for these cities (which is why medians are more commonly used in demographics, being far less affected) so cities with higher mean that median values ought to have a higher proportion of high end wealth in them. What we have then, is a broad indicator of the weight of the HUGE end of town that might support an economy of high fashion.

Now to the cultural richness. This is perhaps a little easier to pin down and the proportion of residents born overseas is perhaps a good starting point. Whilst not perfect, it at least gives some indication of fairly recent migration. Now some would argue that the cultural richness of a place like Melbourne might be disguised a little, since many of non-caucasian heritage may be second or third generation by now. I think this is probably the case with Melbourne in particular, though some would also argue that over time, a blending or homogenisation of such culture might also water down what might have been a very rich mix some decades ago. So this measure, I think is a reasonable gauge of the cultural complexity of a city.

Thus we have the average net worth ( in $AUD millions) for the city and the percentage of those born overseas. When the two are multiplied to give an index (perhaps a Cultural Leadership Index?), we find the following interesting results:

Sydney: 31.7
Perth: 31.3
Melbourne: 28.9
Adelaide: 23.7
Brisbane: 21.7
Canberra: 21.6
Darwin: 18.3
Hobart: 12

This table has a few surprises and some predictable results (what? you seriously thought of travelling to Canberra for a spot of shopping and a great meal?).

What this does tend to support is the general perception that Australians have of Brisbane as being somewhat casual and “down market”. Perhaps confirmed when you compare the number of shoppers in major centres who feel it appropriate to be browsing sans footwear when compared with fellow Aussies down south perhaps?

Indeed, Brisbane is quite culturally homogenous and positively socialist in wealth accumulation when compared with both Sydney and Melbourne. However, before I start checking my new Delica for carbombs from born-and-bred-Brisvegans, the last point I have to make is the most salient: Who lives here for the high fashion??

Indeed, Brisbane’s climate, quality of life , employment prospects and well, just the vibe, is real, unpretentious and snug like a pair of worn-in Doc Martens! Big enough for fun, small enough to not take itself too seriously, sounds pretty alright don’t you think, mate?

Which perhaps leads me to complete the point that began this blog, should I leave this fine city for daring to suggest that it isn’t a gravitational centre for high culture? Au contraire! Life is more important than food and the body more than clothes and that may well be, deep down, why many of us choose to live here.

The Courier Mail suggested that this “Cinderella City” may just be the happiest city in Australia. To Sydney and Melbourne we may well say “let them eat cake (or truffles in a bed of braised pecans in yak milk!)”.




2 responses

21 05 2009

You have made some cogent points Mick. However, to say that Brisbane doesn’t wag the tail of the fashion houses is a poor assessement when Brisbane labels like “Sass and Bide” (that went international due to their trend-setting look on the show “Sex and the City”) “Easton Pearson” etc continue to do new things being unrestricted by the more conservative expectations of the Melbournian set. Also the bare-footed shoppers were probably seen in Straithpine Westfield and not the high-end shopping district of the CBD. It’s not like any city in the world can police people, homeless or otherwise, in their decision to shop shoeless.

I think the “othering” of different places as better than where you live is a stagnant and inert way to look. People did it (and continue to do it) about Australia. “Oh look how culturally poor we are compared to Europe, or the food and fashion overseas is far superior to our own.”

I think people are people, there are fashionable and not fashionable people in every city of the world (Paris included).
And there are people who get what good food is and people who don’t. This over-romanticised view of what others have or are compared to us in Brisbane or Australia fails to see that we can and are anything we want to be. What we need is our governement to see the desperate need to fund our arts and for wealthy Australians to patronise our artists. And for the rest of us to stop comparing and start creating a better city or country!

21 05 2009

Thanks Nat for your comments. Granted, the shoeless I saw were in outer suburbia and spot on for picking that such citizens are not the epicentre of high fashion, indeed they wouldn’t know Gauci from Gauche!

“Othering” as you call it, is probably a natural artefact of a “New-World” city. These tend to grow rapidly and with the ease of communication, comparison takes milliseconds now, not years. Over time, however, cities do develop “personality” and style and perhaps you are right, perhaps Brisbane is past its spotty adolescence and is able to make a mark culturally both nationally and internationally.

Certainly in the realm of Australian music, Brisbane can’t be denied as THE centre for band development around the turn of the 21st Century, with Powderfinger, Rhubarb, Grand Atlantic, Dumpster and scores of other bands dominating JJJ. I excluded them from previous discussions because these would fit into popular, rather than “high” culture.

So perhaps my assessment was a little harsh, though I still think we have a way to go to have the traditional influence of Sydney and Melbourne just yet.

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