Hope and so on ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Hope and so on

Over the weekend, Ms TN's body found new and nasty ways to remind her that she is human, all too human. I succumbed to a few minor but uncomfortable conditions, all of which are apparently "stress related". Ha! I am always reluctant to admit to myself that stress is an issue, since it seems really wimpy when all I do is write things. Imprinted somewhere in my psyche is the image of the lady of leisure at her Georgian writing desk, jotting menus for the cook on purple notepaper before she idly lops some roses into a basket.

Yes, my name is Alison, and I am a workaholic. Perhaps I should enter a 12-step plan of concentrated holidays and enforced idleness. In fact, I am planning soon to do just that. But before that, I have a little work to do. And as a practised procrastinator, in order to distract myself I have been also following the local hobby of pondering precisely what it is that makes being someone who values art and who lives in Australia a peculiarly stressful existence. Making art is hard anywhere, and here it is in fact more materially comfortable than in many other places. But that tends to elide its challenges.

Watching the US election yesterday, I couldn’t help comparing it to the last Australian election. Yes, there was euphoria (soon sobered into what one Labor politician in the 1980s called “the latest political reality”); but I confess my major feeling was an overwhelming relief that the Howard era was over. I spent some time as a young reporter following industrial affairs, and it disillusioned me so thoroughly that I refused to vote at all. And I had a certain scepticism – a feeling since borne out in many ways – about the Rudd government: Rudd was largely elected because he was Howard-lite, a younger and more progressive conservative model. I fear that the blackly funny ABC comedy series The Hollow Men got Australian politics right.

Obama’s election was different. Even though, when you get down to it, his stated policies weren’t a million miles from McCain’s, that wasn’t what was most striking about the billion-dollar theatre that is an American Presidential election. Obama so clearly embodies the desires and hopes of a constituency that wants to reinvent itself as what it believes it is: the Greatest Country in the World, the place of freedom and opportunity. Yesterday it was possible to believe that these aren’t just words falling idly from lips that meant the precise opposite. It was possible to believe, however briefly, that these weren’t just the lies of Empire. That belief shone in the faces of Obama’s supporters, in the people standing patiently in line waiting to vote, in the stories of old men and women, born just after slavery, voting with all their heart for what, only months ago, seemed a complete impossibility: a black president.

America’s great talent for myth-making suddenly stood large in its heart and seemed for once an admirable thing. And whatever I think about the American political machine, I’m not prepared to be cynical about the hope that yesterday's events so dramatically expressed. It’s real, and it’s a powerful force. Democracy is a contract that American people believe in, and yesterday that contract was observed.

To move to Australia, it illuminates harshly something that is missing here, and not just in our politics. In our artistic life, there is something something fundamental missing from our social fabric. It seems to me that what we lack, the ur-problem from which all others evolve, is a vital culture.

Culture isn’t the same as art. Culture is the contract, however defined, between an artist and his or her public. Culture is the lively communal yeast that makes everything rise. It’s the air that lets art breathe, the space where it can swing its arms, the multiple influences that flavour it.

If our theatre culture is deeply impoverished, it’s not because there are not committed and skilful artists, or that there aren’t audiences – even enthusiastic audiences – for what they do. It’s because something crucial is missing in between, in that implicit contract between the creation and reception of art. Whatever the causes – and they are manifold, historical and difficult to track – the effects are plain.

The first and major effect is the constant need to justify having art at all. No artist in Australia can assume that his or her work matters for its own sake, and the inability to make this assumption, the need to continually justify one’s existence, generates a corrosive spiritual exhaustion. At its worst, it makes our art at once reactionary and timid. Art becomes a package which delivers an aesthetic experience according to certain given guidelines: the matrix of “standards”. This underlying assumption – which is by no means confined to conservative critique – edits out the raw energy of actual innovation, which challenges those aesthetic standards, often by breaking them, always by interrogating them, sometimes by paying them serious homage rather than lip-service.

It’s been the same for as long as I have been thinking about these things.

What follows is an attempt to sketch out what I mean. It is, I fear, very long.

******

A couple of days ago, Jana Perkovic at Mono no aware posted an interesting quote from British theatre blogger Andrew Hayden, in which he compared a European production of a recent British play with its British premiere. In particular, Jana honed in on a major observation of Andrew’s: what he saw as British theatre’s “abandonment of metaphor”. By implication, Jana was pointing towards a crippling literalism in Australian theatre.

It’s an interesting and pertinent issue, and I began to write a reply. But it was like pulling the thread on a jumper: the whole thing began to unravel, and before long I found I was digging towards a fumbling definition of something that has been bugging me for some time. I don’t think Australian theatre lacks metaphor, or liveliness, or skill, or inventiveness, or innovation. I think it possesses all these things, in actuality as well as in potentia. Of course there are shows that are less exciting than others, but for every Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot you can point to a Food Court.

Andrew Haydon’s comparison of the difference between English and European approaches towards text made me think of Daniel Keene's play, To Whom It May Concern. This is a 20 page play which premiered here in the late '90s as a 20 minute piece in an evening of three short works. It was a straightforward poor theatre production by the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, performed as a modest two-hander.

When it premiered in France in 2004, directed by Didier Bezace at the Théâtre de la Commune, this 20 page play went for seventy five minutes. It was performed on a big stage on a set that required a dozen technicians to make the transformations. It starred two very famous actors, including Jean-Paul Rousillon, who was a very old Comédie-Française actor (in fact, it was his last role) who had been directed by Beckett in Waiting for Godot. It was a sold-out hit and drew a lot of hyperbole, including a claim from an excited France Inter critic that it was the most important Paris premiere since the first production of Godot in 1953.

There is obviously an enormous difference of resource here. Théâtre de la Commune has suffered from the Sarkozy cuts, which have slashed French cultural funding by two thirds over recent years, but it regularly plays to 90 per cent capacity. Before the cuts, its state funding amounted to something like 70 per cent of its total budget (as compared, say, to the MTC's 13 per cent). But the difference in scale and notice is about more than funding - it's about the theatrical possibilities that are easily reached for within a culture, the space given both culturally and personally to artistic imagination. It’s also about an ability to read the theatrical potential and meaning of a text, an ability to discriminate critically that stems from a basic intellectual and social confidence in the value of art.

La Commune is a mainstream company, if proudly radical (it is in the middle of the last Communist arrondissement in Paris). Bezace himself was part of the radical theatre movement of 1968; he founded La Cartoucherie with Ariane Mnouchkine, and their work plugs into a French cultural history that places theatre at the centre of social revolution, right back to the Revolution itself. (In connection with this, it's worth remembering how the theatre was at the centre of the Velvet Revolution, eventually making playwright Vaclav Havel president of the country). Theatre has seldom been so literally a force for change in English speaking countries, although it has of course a tradition of political radicality, and this is a major difference from Europe. English-speaking culture is much more tied to the idea of theatre as entertainment. This is not all bad, but it's not all good either.

This European tradition creates a different kind of literacy and feeds into different audience expectations: unlike Australian audiences, French and German audiences will sit through three hour plays without a murmur. A Paris production of the Scottish playwright David Harrower's Knives and Hens, another 20-page play, went for four hours (and then afterwards most of the audience stayed on for a lively and long discussion). Which is as unimaginable here as actors going on strike.

However, it’s ridiculous to complain that we are not Europe. Of course we aren’t. Some time ago I decided to live where I am, instead of wishing to be somewhere else. I see enough exciting work to make it worthwhile, and over the past four years the parameters of our theatre culture have changed out of sight. Specifically, the expectations of main stage theatre have changed: the Malthouse, the Melbourne Festival and the STC have all contributed to this change. Most astonishingly, this change has been wildly successful.

It is no longer possible to assume – as theatre academic Hilary Glow did only last year – that “mainstream” means naturalistic, populist and consciously “Australian” plays while “fringe” means weird non-naturalistic “internationalist” experiment. This binary, which has always been highly dubious, informed the theatre establishment through the 90s, cheer led by critics like the Age’s Leonard Radic. Now we are as likely to see so-called avant garde work on our main stages and new experiments in naturalism from new companies.

Richard Watts rang me earlier this week to discuss this change. He perceives what he called a “lull” in independent theatre in Melbourne, and expressed a fear that the fact that the Malthouse “cherry picks” the best independent work in Melbourne has resulted in a concomitant lack of energy. I confess that I was surprised by this: independent theatre here has been strong for years, and surely main stage exposure can only give it more confidence and brio. When you look at fortyfive downstairs, The Eleventh Hour, Ranters, La Mama, Red Stitch, Theatreworks, Hoy Polloy, White Whale, Black Lung, Liminal Theatre, the Dog Theatre and the overwhelming local content of the Fringe Festival, it’s hard to think there’s not much going on.

But I suspect that Richard is onto something. Now that the categories of mainstream and fringe have been so thoroughly destabilised, it is possible that “alternative” theatre has lost a major reason for its being: to be a reaction to the mainstream, to be “new”.

This begs a very big question. If innovation in our theatre has only been driven by these reactionary impulses, this suggests a concomitant lack of depth in our artistic vision and possibility. There are reasons to make art that go beyond mere reactiveness. How much is our culture driven by a desire for novelty rather than the expression of individual artistic vision, the responsiveness to the world we live in? How interested are we, really, as artists, as audiences?

Louis Nowra complained many years ago that Australians have no sense of metaphor. This explains the radical shift from his early work - brilliant plays like Inside the Island, Inner Voices and The Golden Age - to the more palatable naturalism of Summer of the Aliens or Cosi, plays which were much more commercially successful and for which he is much better known. Perhaps he is right.

One of the ironies of Australian culture is that we have produced more brilliant poets per capita than practically anywhere else. Australian poetry is rich, diverse, intelligent and inventive; yet hardly anybody knows this. Aside from a couple of names like Les Murray, Australian poetry is a dark and unknown country, and our poetic history remains practically unknown outside a small coterie of readers. Francis Webb (whom Sir Herbert Read hailed as the peer of Rilke, Pasternak and Eliot ,"one of the greatest poets of our time . . . one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the century") is out of print. David Campbell, Randolph Stowe and untold others are forgotten. The situation is little better for most contemporary poets. The work is there, but very few people either know about it or are interested. It is certainly hardly a source of national pride.

This irony persists, to a lesser extent, through all our artistic disciplines. Even compared with Britain, Australia's grasp of the idea of a living culture embedded in its society is rather tenuous. This manifests in many ways: in the infantilism of the conservative criticisms made against Kristy Edmunds, which were more or less the equivalent of Nagg in Endgame crying "I want me pap!" You also see it in the impatience that demands Results, and hangs artists when they don't deliver. George Devine’s oft-cited “right to fail” – a most misunderstood right, which has to be earned through honest work – is not a concept that really exists in public discourse.

As regular readers will know, I will always call failure if I perceive it, and although I do attempt to be fair even when I loathe a work, calling failure always looks – and no doubt is – brutal. If I am to be honest as a critic, I have no choice. I personally feel that I owe it as a duty to art. (Yes, it sounds high-minded and even prim, but then, I was ever thus). How else is success to mean anything? I have never believed my opinion is the last word on any work: to do so seems to me the highest hubris, and is directly contradicted by some famous historical examples of critical maulings (Ibsen, Puccini, Kane spring to mind).

But nevertheless, as the Sydney critic James Waites said recently, there is an unease in doing so. Not because of the fact of failure, which is the risk of making art. But because perceptions of failure enter the public discourse in ways that can be crippling.

As a culture, we do not know how to deal with artistic failure, a judgment that is always – and must be – arguable. I have adored shows that others have loathed, and vice versa: that is how it should be. Having failed myself, and spectacularly, on many fronts, I don’t consider failure a life-blighting shame. (Some of the things I consider failures, I should note, have been publicly considered “successes”, and some of my private successes have publicly been considered failures – but perhaps, being a critic myself, I have a different relationship to criticism than most artists.) Success and failure have always seemed to me to be, as Giacometti said, secondary questions. Yet to fail in Australia gathers around itself a moral dimension, as if it’s a sin and a personal defect, rather than part – sometimes a necessary part – of the continuum of artistic endeavour.

This seems to me to denote a more general failure of attention. The evolution of artists is not considered an interesting phenomenon. It is a common complaint from practically every artist – unless they're popular superstars like Tim Winton or David Williamson – that to launch a new work always means starting from scratch. There is no sense in how art is received of a cumulative credit earned through the production of good work, no sense of continuity. Each work lands on the cultural stage existentially alone, hermetically sealed from its individual history, from its social context and artistic tradition. It is presented as a object that we consume, before we move onto the next, and is quickly absorbed and forgotten.

A telling example this year has been how the STC's Actors Company - one of the most ambitious mainstream experiments in our theatrical history, and certainly the most ambitious in the past decade - disappeared without a ripple. I have not seen a discussion anywhere that considered the implications of its failures or evaluated its successes (which, in my view, were considerable and exciting). Perhaps the commentators are waiting for the final production (the History plays, starring Cate Blanchett with the company) in January before they write their obituaries; but I still find the lack of comment after the announcement of the STC’s 2009 season startling. The end of the ensemble surely means, for example, the death of the persistent dream of a permanent ensemble that has haunted Australian theatre for decades. But even that barely raised an eyebrow.

Aside from some major problems of vision, and what was no doubt an increasingly unjustifiable expense in the light of complaints from subscribers, the major problem with the Actors Company seemed to be that audiences got sick and tired of seeing the same faces. They got bored seeing Pamela Rabe being brilliant in yet another role, or watching Hayley McElhinney again demonstrate that she is one of the best young actors in Australia.

As Diana Simmonds put it on Stage Noise:

Although the repertory company is now viewed through the rosy specs of nostalgia, there were many reasons for its demise: economics, television, bingo - and boredom. Boredom!

Boredom has arisen with Sydney's incarnation not necessarily because of play choice (more of that later), nor because the company actors are not - in the main - the crème de la crème, but because what started out as a glorious indulgence for a bunch of very lucky performers has turned into something much less for punters. Not least because there is even more crème left out in the cold, unable to get a gig because of this mob.

Even during the first season in 2006 variations on the following were overheard on a number of occasions in STC auditoria: "I love John Gaden and Pam Rabe is lovely, but I'm sick of them. I don't want to see them in every single show. I'm not renewing my subscription."

Aside from the fact that the Actors Company was actually not doing "every single show", and the palpable ressentissement of envy, this made me reflect. The Comédie-Française has survived for centuries, despite boring a large part of the Parisian theatre audience rigid. And “boredom” isn’t a complaint levelled against Mnouchkine’s ensemble, the Théâtre du Soleil – perhaps helped by the fact that they make one new show every couple of years, rather than 12 in two. (A major complaint was in fact that the Actors Company wasn’t as achieved as the Théâtre du Soleil. But how prepared are we to support an ensemble that will produce a new show every two or three years?) Rather than its failures, it seems to me to be more notable that the Actors Company produced some real triumphs in its brief life, despite a gruelling schedule and some dubious programming.

What does this suggest about Australian audiences and, perhaps more tellingly, commentators? It says to me that, while they might be briefly interested, even at times entertained, by art, they are not interested in culture. They are not interested in the kinds of evolution of practice that the Actors Company displayed in shows like The Lost Echo to The Season at Sarsaparilla. Watching the evolution of particular artists is for me of enormous and abiding interest, whether it's reading the oeuvre of a poet or novelist or following the trajectory of an actor. But perhaps in this I am a little odd.

What Australian audiences want, it seems, is the either the new or the expected. Whatever falls in between - being neither new nor a repeat of what went on before - falls through the cracks into a strange invisibility. It’s hard not to think of this as an inability to perceive art for its own sake; in either case it expresses a need for art to feed a desire that is extrinsic to the work itself: either a desire for novelty or a desire for consumable distraction. If neither of these things are present, the cultural mind glazes over.

In other words, success – the redefining of mainstream expectations – can open up another kind of failure (and not in the Eliotic sense). “Success” means the loss of the patina of the new. This is in fact right and necessary, part of the continuous dynamic evolution of culture. But in our case, it comes at a heavy price that is perhaps the reason why so many people complain that our culture is as thin as our topsoil.

We have little vocabulary to describe the evolution of artistic work. There are two choices: the new, young and “alternative”, which is its own justification, or a slide into torpid mainstream repetitions, which seems to be the mainstream definition of "success". What about artists who do not rest on their laurels, who are constantly exploring the possibilities mapped out in their early work? Where do they fit in? So far as I can see, precisely nowhere. And this, more than anything else, betrays the essential lack of depth in our culture.

What it means is that is very difficult in this country to build early success into deep achievement. Daniel Keene is a lucky exception – he has the resources of European theatre supporting his work, which means he can dream of big stages, large casts and imaginative directors, and has the freedom to explore all sorts of impulses in his work, in the knowledge that these investigations will be realised on stage. That this freedom is not available to most of our writers has been very clear in our playwriting over the past three decades. Its debilitating effect is nowhere clearer than in our film industry, where directors routinely disappear after their second film.

The crisis for mid-career artists - those who have a track record and experience and now are poised to make the work of their lives - was recognised by Paul Keating. His Australian Artist Creative Fellowships were introduced to counter this very problem, after he famously met the pianist Geoffrey Tozer and discovered to his shock that he earned less than half the yearly income of Keating's 18-year-old secretary. Predictably enough, those fellowships created not excitement, but envy and resentment, especially from those taxpayers who couldn’t see why money should be “given away” to artists, and they were scrapped quickly under Howard in favour of smaller grants to younger artists, which were, as always, easier to justify.

I should emphasise at this point that this is not the disgruntled plaint of a middle-aged artist against the brash interpolations of youth. If a young artist is valued more for her youth than her artistry, she is in as much trouble as the middle-aged concert pianist struggling away on $6000 a year. Although perhaps she is less tired.

The reasons for this blind spot in our cultural attention have been endlessly discussed for decades over every kind of table. I suspect one reason is that we are the only nation on earth that was founded as a bureaucracy, a fact which has had a much more lasting impact on the creation of our cultural mores than our convict past or the slaughter of bronzed Australian sons at Gallipoli. Crucially, the cultural contract between artists and their public is to a large extent formed by how art is written and spoken about in the public arena. And there's no escaping the fact that much of our cultural commentary, particularly in our mainstream media, has left a lot to be desired.

This doesn't erase the work of journalists who struggle against the limitations of daily newspapers or radio or television to cover the arts. Outside the mass media, there are many people attempting to bridge the gap: people like theatre historian Julian Meyrick, who addresses the persistent problem of Australian cultural amnesia, or initiatives like Currency House's excellent Platform Papers, which is a bold attempt to build public discussion. The situation now is a definite improvement on a decade ago, when aside from RealTime there was almost no intelligent discussion about the performing arts anywhere. In addressing the question of the cultural contract, the problem is that most of these outlets are specialist and remain outside the wider public discourse.

What I fear is what has always happened in Australian culture, the possibility which flares with wild promise and then splutters out into ashes of amnesia, the exhaustion which stems from the necessity for hope's constant resuscitation. Here culture has seldom suffered swift execution: much more often it is death by a thousand cuts, the gradual suffocation of the soul. The Rudd Government is presently giving little encouragement that much has changed since Michael Dransfield wrote in Like This For Years:


In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment.


I guess the truth is that any real change is incremental and long term. And I am ever hopeful.

20 comments:

Thoughtful Theatre said...

Thank you for your hope. Us young, poor artists, who run around like madmen with our hats out, "fund my worthy work", the beggars of the cultural world, need the faith you place in us our art, creation, our failures and successes.

I make theater because I must, I have tried other things, and at 29 I am left with the conclusion it is like breathing, it do it because is help me stay alive!

Thank you for wanting what we make to exist.
-Goldele

mzhii said...

Thanks, Alison, for writing this. For having these thoughts and taking the time to really peer into it as you have. While I disagree with you in some respects, I am with you all the way on the gap - the place in-between - the thing that is missing. I don't really believe that mainstage companies' programs have a hell of a lot to do with a independent theatre "lull". I'm not convinced that there is actually as much producing of 'avant-garde'/alternative work by the major organisations as we are some times lead to believe. Most work I see under a broader organisational (read: financial) theatrical umbrella, I wouldn't label as either avant-garde or alternative. Try as I may.

I think some of the lull may in fact be due to artists being offered paid work in other areas, key company members starting families, or getting offers for overseas study, going back to university here, and myriad of other far less organised reasons. A lot of artists who began making extraordinary 'experimental' (alternative/avant-garde/fringe/independent) theatre a few years ago, are around the same age, and are getting to a point where life and priorities shift - if even for only a couple of years.

I actually think that a lot of theatre is being made/explored/researched in different frameworks now, and under different guises. We don't hear loud trumpeting of projects that are upwards of 36 months in the making. Nor things that show in development phase, and then go back into the rehearsal room for as long as it takes to come up with the cash to produce it in all its deserved glory. Actually, generally speaking, we don't trumpet long-gestation periods, investigations (yes! Failures!), research, and practical theatrical study as ANYTHING worthy in this country. And that, there - that is where I see the gap. An inability (or a lack of desire) to see theatrical effort (and yes, sometimes effort without outcome) as worthy. As important. As important for Australia.

We do bemoan daily the fact that this isn't Europe, and we're not living within a European paradigm of art creation. But the interesting thing is, we're not really doing anything to make the Australian paradigm a better shape. I have given up on the government. I do not believe that the solution lies in funding structure shifts - not at this stage, at least. There will not be enough money in the coffers to create the world in which we need to live and work, not now, not for quite some time. The practical thing to do, is to create some significant internal shifts for ourselves. To carve out the kind of theatrical landscape we want to be living in. To make a bit of in-house change. To lead by example.

And, that I agree, is something that Malthouse began to do when it ceased being the Playbox and had a change of hands and a facelift - I just hope that they continue to examine and re-examine the landscape in which they are existing. The Arts Centre's Full Tilt program is also another fantastic example of an initiative that has RESPONDED to a landscape, and subsequently found how it could be of use. The Auspicious Arts Independent Theatre Incubator. Another great organisation that is shifting things from within. These phenomena, of course, exist due to public (and often private) funding. There isn't enough room in every program for every independent artist. But these three organisations exist because the artists of Melbourne have collectively, over time, created such a diverse and fertile playing ground - these organisations were, in effect, required. Born of a need for them.

Things are changing. I'm not quite sure how - and to what end, but they are. There will be new births of new initiatives, programs, funding rounds, et cetera. Perhaps slowly, perhaps in the next five years - but the more visible (and widely documented evidence of the shift) will roll out at some stage. I wonder what would happen if as independent artists we became hyper-conscious of this. Aware to the degree that we made some clear and active choices that may serve to shape some of the flow-on effects from higher up the ecosystem. That instead of being theatremaking-victims whose work was not 'working' due to the fundamental lack of support (due to the fundamental lack of cultural awareness), we started to take the model back into our own hands, and begin slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully, to remould, remodel, and re-dream our artistic landscape.

Ming-Zhu.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TT - the best of luck! I think it's true that most people remain artists because they have no real choice. At least you're in for an interesting life.

Hi Ming - I think the term avant-garde is overused and pretty meaningless (hence my qualifier, "so-called"). It's what it's called in the msm. Ionesco did the best demolition of the concept in one of his essays: he claimed it was a nonsensical category, and I do tend to agree with him. Alternative to what? Ahead of who?

The feeling that there's a lull is Richard's. He gets out to way more indie work than I do, and is also chair of the Fringe Festival, so I'd be inclined to to consider what he says. But certainly, practice is, as ever, in a fluid state.

The longer process stuff, I suspect, tends to go on mostly under the radar, like Liminal Theatre. I don't know if there are still groups like the Theatre Research Group of the late 70s (Grotowskian nuts who went out into the middle of the bush for weeks on end). That happened just because people wanted to do it, and certainly had nothing to do with funding structures or bureaucratic support. It would be cheering to think that things like that still went on.

Mel said...

Alison, what a fantastic blog. You have given me a great deal to think about (I think I will be re-reading this tonight when I have returned from the office). Can I please ask, what is the title of the painting which you have used in your blog and to whom is it attributed? Thank you for your in in-depth exposition of this very interesting topic.

With Kind Regards,
Mel

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Mel, and gawd, you've got me there. The image is a Roman mosaic, but I'm not sure where from.

Anonymous said...

Hello Alison,

Considerable food for thought and some really juicy points there that remind me of many discussions I've had. Having spent hours pondering the same issue in the past I've came up with a few more ideas that you may wish to add to your stock pile:
For hundreds of years Europe had a peasant culture which in and of itself determined the cultural contract with nature, neighbours, pagan rites, religion, power and death. This alchemy fuelled language, rituals, myths and traditions. Interpretation was central. Through metaphor peasants expressed their identity. Australia had a hunter gatherer culture and then skip a few tens of thousands of years and arrive "the settlers". No peasant culture apart from the Chinese who emigrated here during the gold rush and who provided food for thousands. There may well be 5 generations of farmers in some of the landed gentry and squatocracy families but national and international trade most often determined the agriculture of their original enterprises - and still does. Trade and not culture was central to their "agri business". Then we had gold mining that very quickly reached an industrial scale. A frantic rush for wealth and industry. We may well have had a celebrated uprising in all that but in the broader scheme of things this was to do gold miners scrambling to avoid starvation and needing some money. In Europe until the 18th century artists were linked to "the court" and to the "church", and academics to "the academy". They were "chosen" and indeed chucked out. It's thanks to that cultural contract we got Shakespeare and Moliere and Gentilleschi etc. But - and here's the crunch - in modern continental Europe whilst the Eureka flag was being hoisted here, intellectuals and poets were a fundamental part of resistance - notably the Dreyfus Affair - a turning point in modern political and social history. Then, throughout WW2 in looking to the resistance, artists and intellectuals helped overthrow a Nazi regime and saved many lives; their courage and physical and moral contribution remains celebrated.
Victorious resistance in Australia has most often been linked to industrial action. Apart from Ned Kelly, who lost, it has rarely been a cause celebre of heroic and mythical proportions. It has rarely ignited the passions and imaginations of the majority and most particuparly it's not been the involvement of artists and intellectuals that have lead to a celebrated vistory. Australian history skipped the peasants and revolting victorious bit and in so doing Australia is what emigrant settlers sought - good for a comfotable life style - that many lost their lives fighting for overseas - artists and intellectuals included. Beyond this Australian artists and intellectuals - in the main - have stuck comfortably to their galleries, acadamies, and institutions, out of the sight and minds of the disinterested - and who can blame them. No one here wants to embrace the revolting because Australia's cultural contract has been and is with comfort that industry, wealth and entertainment provide.
In choosing comfort we missed the boat. "No drama", "not a problem", "sweet!" We can always have a splash, tussle and dip in the cultural shore break betwen he flags and leave the big waves and currents to those who enjoy the exhileration of the fall.
Jude Anderson

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jude - many thanks for that interesting post. I think you're outting your finger on the roots of Australian anti-intellectualism. I've been a little shocked this year by how little Australian political activists understand of the role art has played in the kinds of struggles you describe. Moral and intellectual courage isn't, as you say, a quality that is popularly celebrated. More often, it's an excuse for popular derision.

I guess it's also important to remember that a contract is a two-way thing. Many artists have settled for the comfortable and have contributed, by default or actively, to this situation. In some ways, as you say, you can't blame them; but then, can we blame audiences for not knowing what art can do or be, if it's seldom offered to them?

Thoughtful Theatre said...

I too have been thinking, and this issue of the place of the arts in Australian culture, I think, in some ways stems from our roots, as Jude was pointing out...further and deeper than Political disengagement( which I can see too), we see a broader social disengagement.

Most cultures have strong performative traditions, that are deeply imbeded in all levels of society, from the mass gatherings of Greek theater, to the medieval Mystery Plays.

Because of our colonial roots, with such a huge divide between classes during white colonization, many traditions make have become disconnected, and later seen as "posh", not owned by an emerging nation, but that of a distant power to be disengaged from.

Live performance, for the sake of anything other than entertainment and distraction, as you pointed out Alison, is not an integrated, everyday, cultural activity for Australians. We don't have traditions that include theater and the reverential participation of artists, beyond "Carols by Candle Lights" and Parades.

How can this situation be moved? How do we bridge the gap between the "intelligentsia", academic "high art" concept that many Australians place on to live performance?

Alison Croggon said...

Well, let's not forget that we have the oldest performing tradition in the world, in Indigenous Australia...nor the popular traditions of vaudeville, which continue robustly in our comedy and cabaret, and still strongly inform our so-called "high art". The divisions strike me as artificial and perceived, rather than actual.

Thoughtful Theatre said...

I agree Alison, but the large majority of the general public also has this same perception, the indigenous culture is something they learn about in history class and see as out side their personal world.

The vaudeville influences only get as far as TV and big top circus, for these same people, as by and large, they don't come to see the smaller theater and cabaret we are talking about.

I work every day with people who live on Melbourne suburbs (I manage a clothing store), and we talk about our leisure activity's, I can count on one hand the people who go to see smaller to mid-sized theater.

People living in outer suburbs, like rowville, box hill and Caroline springs, indicate that it is "too weird" or "posh" for them. They have little idea of how accessible works at malt house, La mama, red stitch and some fringe theater can be. In fact many have never heard of anything other than the arts center and the big Mucicals.

Theatre is not something they DO, is is not an integrated part of their lives, as it is on other countries

Alison Croggon said...

Back to Mel - Daniel just pointed out that you were referring to the painting I used to in the post. Doh!

And the answer is again that I don't know; I can't remember where I found it. Poor, I agree, and I will take more notice next time.

Hi TT - yes, you're correct about the "gap", which is artificial (in terms of the work) but has real purchase in terms of how people perceive it. That's about a colonial idea of culture, I think, and in particular the way class works here: if you look at how someone like Robin Usher talks about art, you see as a sign of social status and identity, rather than something that matters at the level of (what I can't help calling) the soul. Which disenfranchises it from its proper realm and ultimately from a large part of its potential audience, and its audience too from its possibilities. To all our disservice, I think. It's not that art is "good" for people: people have been fed that line for decades, and they're the people sleeping in theatres. It's more that it is, and reminds us that we are. Which is harder to sell.

Mel said...

Hi Alison, no worries at all! The internet does some strange things sometimes and I wouldn't be surprised if I were to come across that image one day in my cyber-roamings, at which point, I will report back. Thanks kindly all the same!

Eric Sykes said...

I am coming to this post late, jumping off the next wave debate on crikey curtain call
"we are the only nation on earth that was founded as a bureaucracy..." well yes (and no) India is genuinely post-colonial and still struggles to find an identity, but at least it struggles. At the Australia/India Horizons culture exchange forum in New Delhi years ago David Malouf and Hilary Mcphee made total fools of themselves discussing Australia as a "post colonial" culture in front of a room of Indian intellectuals - who laughed uproariously and noted that India was fifty years independent and still had no idea who it was, and why were there no indigenous Australians talking? Malouf and Mcphee were mortified, realising their error.

Many of the issues you highlight, for me, are about the fact of an Australia that actually does not exist, we want it to, and we behave as if it does, but it doesn't. Our behaviour is classic colonial, and we'll move past it one day, and then we might start to recognise that our own classical (indigenous) and contemporary culture has value. Until then, we’ll carry on worrying that if we don't have all those orchestras, ballets and proper spoken word dramas Mummy won't take us seriously. Culture is politics and the politics here are about “form”. We have models for a post colonial Australian “form” – circus and the indigenous culture of gathering spring to mind, there are others in hybridity, new media and the visual arts – none of these have anything to do with literature and spoken word drama. And none of them need “theatres”. But we have loads of “theatres” that we built to prove to Mummy that we could, and we have to fill them so we can “tell our stories” over and over and over and over again...in the hope that Mummy will...listen. Mummy has moved on long ago.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Eric - thanks for the note. True about the irony of speaking about "post-colonial" in Australia - maybe it's more post-pre-post-colonial? Or something?

I think theatre has moved on quite a bit from what you describe - certainly that reflects what I mainly thought about work in the 1990s, but I think a lot has changed, and quite radically, since then. The building of "theatres" is more about politicians liking plaques than what is actually happening in the art: and what is happening is often very interesting, and way past a supplication to our colonial masters (unless you're reading Peter Craven, of course). Enough to keep me interested, anyway. The problem is more that we have little pride in our artists, maybe especially our theatre artists, and so there's not much coverage of their actual, considerable, achievements, both here and overseas. Did you know that Geelong-based Back to Back's incredible show Food Court is currently making waves in Paris? Or that a play by Daniel Keene was recently on at one of the biggest theatres in France - one of maybe more than 50 productions there in the past decade - and was a huge hit, with rave reviews in Le Monde et al, and people queuing outside just in case they could get a ticket to a season that was totally booked out? No?

Eric Sykes said...

Well..yes and no...Back to Back and other contemporary success "overseas" (like CIRCA at the Barbican in the same event as the Pina Bausch company recently) is very frightening for a colonial culture, it signals that all those years of effort (money, sponsorship, buildings, gossip, press coverage...) has no meaning. Best to ignore it ;-)

And yes in Melbourne and to a lesser extent Sydney, things have moved on. I live in Brisbane - I rest my case ;-)

Another story: Chamber Made, Circus Oz and Sydney Symphony at the White House - American diplomats saying “thank god for that opera company and the circus because that orchestra was just appalling”...but Keating and his arts staff only stayed for the orchestra, they never heard the reaction to it afterwards. We just go on living the illusion.

On Keating - the fellowships were a real try at recognition eh? But then the coalition ran TV adds against them and then Alston spent the rest of his career slagging them. One step forward, three steps back. Rudd thinks Australia’s contemporary culture is “revolting”. When he does involve or engage with the arts he has dinner and holds 20/20 with the opera, the ballet and the spoken word. He has done absolutely nothing at all except “regulate” the arts which is code of course for a twisted kind of colonial censorship.

What’s heartening is that projects like Back to Back and CIRCA still cut thru without any wide attention, that means that when we actually burn down all those awful "Southbanks" they'll be plenty of other stuff to see ;-)

Alison Croggon said...

No argument with all that, I fear. Australian politicians have no idea how their lack of any meaningful international cultural relations stuff, such as the Goethe Institute or the British Council, makes us look really stupid. No idea at all...

Alison Croggon said...

Another story of many... but a recent one. La Colline naturally asked the Australian Embassy for help in bring Daniel over for the play, even though he warned them it would be pointless. La Colline was shocked at the (lack of) response, but of course the cultural attache has no budget. In the end, they suggested that the Embassy front up some bottles of Australian wine for an opening event - the French know Australians make good wine, and one would think it would make decent PR, not to mention a little note on the program. But they couldn't even do that! And this with a major French cultural organisation, who are simply amazed, and end up thinking we're a nation of philistines. Worse, the Australian cultural attache didn't even know the play was on, even though it had been widely reviewed, until the translator wrote to her about three weeks into the season. I don't know if she knew about Back to Back. All that is simply embarrassing.

Eric Sykes said...

Yes indeed. Bilgh up here recently said that it wasn't a problem that Brisbane didn't get "Waiting for Godot" because Brisbane was going to get the Australian premier of "Calender Girls" anyway. Some advisor must have advised her to say that for gods sake! No idea at all....nice talin' to you. Best, Eric.

Eric Sykes said...

Another story...(while we are on storys). Lisa Lim commissioned by the Ensemble Contemporaine in Paris. Australian Consulate, even after pleadings by Cité de la Musique completely ignores opening night. Probably one of the greatest successes for an Australian contemporary composer in the last 20 odd years. Audiences were throwing hats in the air and standing on seats. True.

Lim of course was the composer that Australian orchestras refused to play – “it’s not music” they said and walked out of rehearsals. Elision, the Australian ensemble that has supported her work for years led by her partner Daryl Buckley (the worlds leading classical electric guitarist) has now been cut completely by the Oz Co and has moved to UK. Where they sell out consistently, Lim is Head of Music at one of the world’s leading contemporary music research units at Huddersfield Uni.
Whoops

Alison Croggon said...

God. Unbelievable (or all too believable). I don't understand this incuriosity on the part of those supposed to promote "Australian culture", but it really is wholly self-defeating. I remember when Elision was in Victoria, what, 20 years ago now?, and thinking then how Daryl structured the group was the future for Australian culture. Of course Vic Arts cut their funding so they moved to Queensland. And now they're in Britain, as you say, where one hears regular reports...

One of the problems - as my agent is wont to say (she is head of the agent's association and has interesting opinions about the "promotion" of Australian literature") - is that people overseas aren't interested in an abstraction like "Australian literature". They're interested in particular writers, or even particular books. Why should the fact that something's Australian excite them? What excites people is if something's good; all else follows from that.