marcus westbury

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Niche cultures: Or why Opera is like Comic Books

September 15th, 2009 by marcus


From The Arrival by Shaun Tan

CALL them subcultures, genres, specialities or whatever, but culturally we are fast becoming a society of cross-pollinating subspecies. Australia has vibrant pockets of passion for everything from Korean film, contemporary theatre, comic books, hacker culture, art deco architecture, indigenous painting, poetry, hip-hop, opera and jazz.

At face value, they seem quite distinct and defined, and yet they have a lot in common, and are in many ways the engines that drive the larger culture.

Of course, we’ve always had a variety of niches, subcultures and genres. But in the mass-media era, the physical difficulty and economics of importing books or records, showing films, finding venues and other aspects of distribution meant that only so many of them could really be viable at any one time.

The internet now means that virtually every niche can be vibrant simultaneously. Whether you are enthusiast for an obscure Dutch composer, 1950s comic books or contemporary African cinema, the ability to discuss, contribute and download or order collections of their work is at your fingertips.

It’s sacrilege to admit it, but most niche cultures — whether opera or comic books — are actually quite similar. They have their own set of histories and traditions. They have a unique language and jargon and reference points, which can alienate and intimidate those who come in from outside. While they can be casually appreciated, they have layers of knowledge crucial to true appreciation.

They’re nurtured by a passionate community — often one that is split between those evangelising and those keeping it discrete or elite. They have their heroes and hierarchies, their canons and their conventions, and their periods of productivity, decline and revival. They often have their standout works or breakout artists — who can be both respected or dismissed for their wider popularity.

Niche cultures have a variety of origins. Many are the aftermath of mass cultures that have lost their currency with the general audience. Passionate niches are where styles of music from jazz, to swing, to folk, to early rock’n’roll and ’90s techno end up when the charts have moved on to the next big thing.

Once-popular artforms such as theatre gradually evolve from popular entertainment to smaller passionate communities of interest. It is the refuge of comic books or opera that may have briefly enraptured a large audience but now tends to enthuse a narrower but far more dedicated one.

Other niche cultures are beachheads. From Japanese animation to Brazilian dance to K-pop and Indian mysticism, they are the arrival points for new ideas and traditions.

They bring fresh thinking into our cultural mix via migrants, travellers and enthusiasts. They can be self-contained pockets of some other cultural tradition. Some will be taken up by the wider community, others may exist as long-serving niches or may disappear back across the sea.

I’m increasingly convinced that niche cultures are our creative laboratories. They are generating new hybrids all the time. They are not merely the space in which mass cultures go to seed, but the place from which future cultures grow. They are slow incubators and vast seed banks for cultural ideas.

Rather than simply working within a tradition, niche cultures create exciting mutations. New cultures are constantly fashioned from the fusion of two or more old ones.

Popular culture constantly mines old niches for new trends. But even in the classic arts, Nick Cave has collaborated with the Sydney Dance Company, Australia’s pub rock tradition morphs into the hip-hop of the Hilltop Hoods and in turn becomes a collaboration with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and the evocative comic books of Shaun Tan become fodder for an exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

Appreciating the role of niches is essential to understanding a creative ecosystem. We need to think less in terms of privileged cultures that are worthy and others that are ignored or even derided. In the arts, we have begun to use terms like “mainstream” for the well-funded arts and the “fringe” for everything else.

Yet by virtually any measure, what we lazily call our “mainstream” arts are simply big niches, and only some among many. We need to think more in terms of the values we want to promote across all our cultures, and less in terms of which forms we wish to reward or ignore.

Australian culture, after all, is the unique combination of all the niches that could only come together here.

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