Guest Notes

Arts notes

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

I intend nothing short of a compliment by saying Australia is – or was – a land built on physicality and pragmatism. Contemporary greenies may love to hug rare frogs or familiar trees yet even they probably stop short of embracing Blue Mountain funnel-webs or red-bellied blacks. This great land, of which I became a citizen myself about ten years ago, has always required large measures of toughness and commonsense of its citizens yet presents far too little evidence of either trait today as a variety of idiot ideologies jostle here for precedence and media coverage.

My wife and I had a fairly recent four year break in England before returning here three years ago largely because of what we perceived as David Cameron’s and the country’s growing weakness as exemplified by seemingly endless ‘quantitative easing’ (aka the shameless printing of money) and because Tony Abbott had recently become PM over here. Don’t talk to me about perfidious Albion. What about Australia’s recent series of political perfidies? When I came to this country to work in 1995 I had enjoyed the privilege of living under 16 successive years of conservative government and had even served on a couple of government advisory boards myself. Paul Keating provided a temporary hiatus here admittedly but then followed 11 years of wise Liberal/Coalition rule under Mr Commonsense himself: John Howard. In short I feel myself to have been doubly blessed for having once lived under 27 years of almost uninterrupted conservative government. How many others have been favoured similarly by fate? Under John Howard there was nil government debt plus the enjoyment of the world’s lowest energy prices. So how did we then go subsequently from zenith to nadir in the seeming blink of an eye? In my view, compulsory voting should shoulder at least some of the blame for what happened a decade ago. As a direct consequence of the latter far too many voters were frivolous, unthinking and uninformed. ‘Kevin 07’ promised much but delivered an absolute minimum and soon any kind of fiscal rectitude was out of the window. Then, the totally unnecessary madness of the GFC followed by a raft of comparably unbalanced pseudo-Keynesian solutions. Have I ever mentioned my overwhelming dislike of all things Bloomsbury? Off the top of my head I seem to remember that Keynes assumed chairmanship of the committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (later the Arts Council of Great Britain) on April Fools’ Day 1943 and seldom has a day proved more appropriate. Over time most if not all publicly subsidised arts have become politically tainted because the use of ‘our’ money in any country usually prompts left-wing excess. Thus ‘our’ ABC and ‘our’ Australia Council have always seemed to be in lock-step.


After Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, Tony Abbott – with relatively minor and easily correctible flaws – came as what I continue to see as an almost unimaginable relief. We not only emailed our congratulations but also suggested a novel if unlikely plan to him to help re-unite our country while paying off Labor’s inevitable legacy of debt. Indeed, any country which fails to address and deal with debt is whistling tunelessly in the dark and will surely not be thanked by future generations. Why are we so thick now that we seemingly can’t get a grip on simple realities? As a small child in Britain during World War 2, I especially remember an endless stream of exhortatory posters urging us all to make every conceivable effort to combine our interests for the national good. Wartime posters urged Britons to combine in a flat-out national effort, which, you may recall, proved successful. Debt, like possible foreign invasion, is a potentially lethal threat and requires a sustained bipartisan effort in which every one of us can and should play an important part. But what hope exists of concerted effort in what has become a dumbed-down, divided and by now almost fractured nation? Who or what then is to blame? Walk the streets of Sydney and you will see anxious, bemused and disillusioned faces where open, jolly and confident faces once predominated. Commonsense urges us all towards a very early return to some kind of national virtue – including that of commonsense itself. Those wrecking Australia are very largely also in the pay of our nation – public service employees, teachers, academics and a much too high percentage of our politicians themselves. What does commonsense tell us about tucked penises, gender fluidity, non-existent global warming, renewable energy targets or any urgent need to destabilise humanity’s most ancient traditions?

When I began my professional life as a painter and art critic the first vital discovery I made was that the professional language of both was almost entirely rhetorical. In short, all the rhetorical language of advance, progress, evolution, etc. pales into utter insignificance the moment actual comparisons are made. Rembrandt versus Rothko? Velazquez versus Pollock? Which pair of the four committed suicide because their heavily hyped-up products and ideas could not stand up to the ageless?

Australia has underperformed so far in almost all of the arts: musical composition, painting and sculpture certainly, then much of literature plus most of the performing arts. At times our efforts are indeed utterly embarrassing as in a recent filmic production of Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal The Great Gatsby. But the good news is that ‘our’ ABC will shortly be cranking up its Sunday afternoon arts programs again which were discontinued in the first place because hardly anybody – very sensibly – watched them.Above all never expect to see or hear me. Indeed a month after my arrival, one of the ABC’s top interviewers proclaimed: ‘I can’t possibly have people like that on my show’. Our ABC?

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