Oh, for a cultural revolution

AS THE third quadrennium of our Century of Distraction grinds to its uncomprehending end, the collective consciousness is disturbed by one compelling question: who gives a toss about the performance of Australia's Olympic swimmers? Why are our minds, our media and our mood swings monopolised, yet again, by the rote conniptions of globalised competitive sport?

It's like listening to Philip Glass. The same posturing over the same things. Results discussed by the coaching fraternity with the seriousness of mediaeval clerics considering a papal bull. Hey, it's swimming! Last time I looked, falling behind the Chinese in the Olympic pool by one hundredth of a second was neither an indictable offence nor a historic event.

While asylum seekers drown in northern waters, Syrians flee to neighbouring countries and the Victorian police try to locate the safety catches on their pistols, we obsess over a small number of athletic contests whose manifest content is depressingly unrelated to their emotional charge. To wit, how many medals have we got? The money and attention we don't spend on books, exhibitions, films and drama is given by the monster truckload to the most arcane games. Underwater dwarf tossing. Hacky-sack dressage. Synchronised tiddly-winks. Any activity, however witless, as long as it involves winning. In Australia, sport isn't sport. It's arrested development.

At an arts advocacy seminar in Washington last year, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the pin-up boy of the Democratic left, said that modern America faces a choice between Athens and Sparta. In Australia, it's between Athens and Olympia. At the Beijing Games, we obtained (bought) 13 gold medals at a cost of $20 million apiece, at the most conservative estimate. This time with a projection of 10 gold medals it's more like $50 million-plus apiece. Still the bitching comes from jocks' corner. More, more, MORE money for sport. What will we do in Rio if we aren't victorious in the women's 100-metre freestyle? How will we ''live down our national shame?''

Personally, I think our swimmers are entitled to an off night. Why should their lives be hell because sport's higher management is bereft of all noteworthy values save the non-value of beating other contestants flat? But in this respect competitive sport is a symbol of its times. Labouring under a delusional belief in endless progress it puts forward records that record nothing, triumphs that achieve nothing and a vision of the future that promises only more of the same.

Modern art for all its many failings and misfires at least encompasses a greater range of experiences than the ordinal assessment of physical prowess. There's The Sapphires, for example, another amazing creation from Australian filmmakers, out there trying to connect, not just compete.

But wait. That took 10 years to hit our screens. In 2002, I was part of the first workshop that developed it as a stage play at Melbourne Theatre Company. From day one it was obvious it was the narrative equivalent of the Hope Diamond, a story that just couldn't miss. But in the pursed-lipped, no-money, no-vision basket case that is Australia's cultural sector, everything's a risk because nothing is given more than superficial consideration. If one-tenth of the knowledge and skill shown around the water cooler picking apart a high dive were lavished on Australian art, our TV drama might be worth watching.

Individually, Australians care about culture. And Australia produces very good artists who make very good art. But when the Olympics strike, you realise how fragile the public validation of that art really is. As buff specimens of bodily splendour strut across our screens like visiting gods from a perfect planet, the country opens its mouth to gaze … at what? At what? At somebody winning something that if they hadn't, somebody else would have won.

In Periclean Athens cultural patronage produced an unprecedented array of plays, poems, paintings and sculpture. These things are a major measure of civilisation, not just because they're nice to look at, but because they mean something.

They express the world of which they are a part, and help a world become a world. Through art, societies emerge, develop, engage, change. Art tells lots of stories not, a la sport, the same one over and over again.

Julian Meyrick is a theatre director and incoming professor of creative arts at Flinders University.