Looking at Australia from Europe one has the sense not so much that we are different as that we struggle too hard to be the same. Artists in London, Paris, New York or Rome produce splashes and blobs and triangles of colour, or twist metal junk into odd shapes, and a whole generation of Australian artists do the same. A London clique cultivates obscure and difficult poetry derived from the convoluted psychology of a declining culture and an Australian avant-garde soon follows suit. Obscenity becomes the done thing in fiction, drama and film, and Australian writers, producers and critics clamour for freedom to do likewise. There are anti-this, that or the other demos in London or Washington and, after sufficient time-lag, there are similar demos in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. All this is current evidence, surely, not only that nowadays mass media bring the world into every living-room but that we still suffer from what A. A. Phillips once called our ‘cultural cringe’—except that we now cringe before mass media images and the latest fashion in sophistication rather than genuine artistic creation.
If this were a publicity blurb for the Information and Cultural Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs it would be easy enough to take the mickey out of British sophisticates who think we still live in a ‘cultural desert’ or refuse to credit us with whatever virtue accrues from being up with the latest. We have half-a-dozen painters and a handful of poets who can stand beside the best of their English or American contemporaries, and a novelist who looks more like a potential Nobel laureate than anyone writing in England now. We have architects and town planners who are beginning to provide Australian cities with a new sense of ‘architectural grandeur’. Meanjin Quarterly has now completed thirty years under one founder/ editor, surely an English-language record. In addition, we maintain a respectable standing in all branches of practical knowledge as well as in the arts and sciences. There is even an Australian school of philosophy (and a tidy, practical commonsensical school it is) although only professional philosophers seem to know about it, and not all of them.
Nor should anyone challenge our abilities in the performing arts. We have successful national opera and ballet companies, which have won critical praise in such choosey places as London, New York and Tokyo, while each State possesses a first-class symphony orchestra. A Commonwealth Literary Fund subsidizes authors and helps publish non-commercial books, and an Australian Council for the Arts has a reasonably substantial grant to help encourage endeavour. There is an Aboriginal Theatre Foundation, a Melbourne Arts Centre, a Sydney Opera House (almost), a potential National Gallery at Canberra, the Festival of Adelaide and a Department for Environment, Aboriginals and the Arts.
No one, then, can honestly say that we are behind the times. Nevertheless, all this is no more than the machinery of culture or an off-shoot of affluence. Despite the bravura, it is probably true to say there is less creative elan in Australia today than there was thirty years ago when Meanjin began. Certainly, we have grown more materialistic. So much so that Britain’s former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer was not very wide of the mark when he called the Federal Government, when Sir John McEwan was its spokesman, the ‘roughest, toughest and most self-interested government with which I ever had to deal’. We howl because Britain’s entry into the Common Market means turning its back on the Commonwealth. We forget that the Commonwealth long ago turned its back on Britain, if we take self interest in trade and economic nationalism as the criterion. The Financial Times, after likening us to the America of fifty years ago—rich, brash and unsure— remarked recently that now the Stock Exchange boom is well and truly over Australia stands discredited in the eyes of the world.
Not only do our politicians too often justify the gibe that money and the things money can buy seem to be our only standard of value but even our more enlightened public servants tend to equate quality of living with more and better schools, hospitals, parking spaces, unimpeded freeways and pollution-free cities: more machinery, admirable in themselves as these things are; still the framework of living rather than life itself. More perniciously, our mass media pundits mostly confuse civilization with sophistication and regard keeping up with the latest as the hallmark of cultural progress. If too many of our politicians and businessmen obstinately refuse to depart from established ideas, there is no doubt that too many of those who want to liberate us mistake trendiness for progress. They squirm at any suggestion that taste is an expression of morality, an indication of the values by which men and societies live. The fact is we are a Philistine society in Matthew Arnold’s sense of the term. We also have our Barbarians although they are not the huntin’ and fishin’ lot Arnold had in mind. All in all we are more interested in affluence and its accompanying machinery than in asking ourselves whether our wealth is widely enough spread or properly used. As Arnold put it: acting and instituting are of little use unless we know how to act and what we ought to institute.
For ordinary non-intellectual Australians ‘culture’ is regarded as a useful omnibus word that covers public-spirited activities connected with museums, art galleries and the performing arts; more machinery. Intellectuals on the other hand are rightly suspicious of any attempt to surround the idea of culture with a devotional hush; to use it, as Arnold tended to do, as a sort of ersatz religion. The tone of his voice, in condemning the Philistines, almost puts one on their side, especially when we remember that for all their faults they provided the dynamic that made Arnold and mid-Victorian culture possible.
Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their voices; look at them attentively; observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure, the words which come forth from their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?
Arnold might almost be a contemporary London critic talking about Australia and the Australians! Yet there is still some meat on the bone of his contention that the business of culture is to provide conditions in which works of literature and art can reach perfection and that the business of criticism is the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge, philosophy, art and science, ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’.
We are a too few and mainly Philistine wholly practical people living in a continent of immense actual and potential wealth. We mostly accept with enthusiasm the idea of mastering nature, gouging wealth out of the earth, using machines to change the face of the continent. We are easy-going and prefer more money for less work rather than long hours and hard work devoted to what our political leaders regard as the best of all possible causes for any nation that aspires to play in the big-league pursuit of the Gross National Product: that new status symbol for nation-states which cannot afford or do not want the heavy weight of military hardware that was once the normal requisite.
We are, too, an incorrigibly urban people, although we like easy access to beach and bush, and would certainly reject any invitation to change from industrialism to the supposed sanctity of rural life or the patched dignity of even a rejuvenated peasantry. We are a do-it-yourself people who prefer to fix our own cars, mow our own lawns, paint our own houses and to face any practical difficulty in the pioneering spirit of ‘Let’s give it a go, mate’. We are more conformist and less socially independent than we pretend and submit to all sorts of petty authoritarian restrictions which the English would repudiate. In addition, we have an earthy deflating sense of humour disguised under a surface pugnacity that is hardly more than skin deep. We more or less take it for granted that we live in GODZONE but we retain sufficient sense of irony not to thrust the fact down other people’s throats, as the Americans used to do. Above all, despite the fact that money talks, in Australia as elsewhere, we are a genuinely democratic people and although we push our two million or so poverty-stricken minority under the carpet we sometimes remember that they are human and we have not yet adopted the insufferable upper-class English habit of blaming the poor for their own poverty.
Having said this, we are left with the undoubted fact that Arnold was a cultural snob disposed to equate true culture with Oxford and a classical education. Consequently, in attempting to see the Australian scene ‘as in itself it really is’, we can perhaps correct Arnold’s astigmatism by using American spectacles. After all, Americans, too, have been brought up to love, as Norman Mailer puts it, ‘what editorial writers were fond of calling the democratic principle with its faith in the common man. . . .’ The boisterous scepticism of H. L. Mencken long ago pricked that particular bubble although, since Hitler, Mencken’s Nietzschean diatribes against the American ‘booboisie’ seem a trifle shopworn. With less verve, Norman Lindsay tried the same thing in Australia but his work no longer seems to offer much basis for a critique of the contemporary scene.
At the risk of being accused of seeking refuge in a delusive Australian bolt-hole I would prefer to seek some sort of guidance from the American critic Van Wyck Brooks who, in the early ‘thirties, recommended American writers to engage in the herculean task of examining ‘the folklore and mythology of the creative spirit in all spheres of the American imagination from its origins to the present day’. Brooks described his project as ‘a search for a useable past’ and, from first to last, he sought to transform America from an industrial jungle, ‘a stamping ground for man’s every untamed greedy and aggressive impulse’, into a socialist republic in which man’s instincts of acquisition, enterprise and aggression were linked to disinterested personal and social ends. . . . Arnold brought up-to-date and Americanized.
Or, if we are looking for an Australian examplar of the democratic virtues, we need look no further than Vance Palmer. The piece entitled ‘The Divide’* still has a contemporary ring:
Going west from Townsville over the dividing range one reaches a point, about ten hours from the coast, where the streams diverge, running in different directions over the continent. The most unimaginative man could not help getting a thrill here. There is nothing to see but steep ridges covered with wild scrub and coarse grass, but to the inner vision the spot is an eyrie from which one can look out over thousands of miles, watching the labours of men coming and going over Australian earth . . . The ebb and flow of this great wave of energy that has populated the North! Men furiously drilling into the dark ridges of Mt. Isa and clearing landing-places . . . the general impression .. . of ceaseless activity. . . . Beyond the horizon, or even the knowledge, of the cities along the coast, a great creative impulse is at work—the only thing, after all, that gives this continent a meaning and a guarantee of the future. Every Australian ought to climb up here, once in a way, and glimpse the various, manifold life of which he is a part.
Looking homeward from London, that is the sort of vision I see: a continent where, because of the immense riches packed into its soil, we have been given another chance, as it were, to make the Australian dream come true. Another chance, if we take it, to establish ourselves as the true heirs of the men of the ‘nineties; because, whatever their shortcomings they shared a common consciousness of the Australian community as something unique and worth cultivating. We can inherit from them a common concern to see that the land we live in becomes something more than raw material to be exploited for profit.
The purpose of an Australian culture, as I see it, is to make Australia mean something real to Australians. Australian art and literature are means to that end. They help us analyse what it means to be Australian rather than English or American. Keeping up with the latest mass media brands of sophistication won’t help us do this although we still have plenty to learn about being human by sharing the common heritage of European and American civilization. We may even be able to gain greater insight into the Australian experience by drawing on the latest technical tools of analysis—but only if we use these tools to delineate Australian experience and not merely to imitate the latest disillusioned attitude from overseas.
This is not a plea for parochial attitudes or a return to the bush. Vance Palmer’s mentors—Balzac, Dickens, Turgenev and Tolstoy—were none the less universal because they drew their inspiration from France, England and Russia. It is arguable, too, that James, Proust, and Joyce could have helped temper the Australian steel of some of our more homely novelists and short story writers. Be that as it may, these American and European masters were rooted in their own time and place. A plea for a renewed Australianism is something more than a plea for our first democratic innocence—the innocence, if you will, of the men of the ‘nineties. All I am trying to say is that Australian artists and writers today face something of the same sort of situation Arnold faced in up-and-coming bourgeois England a hundred or more years ago. He drew on European examples, much as Edmund Wilson did in the America of the ‘booboisie’, but the problem he faced was a peculiarly English problem just as the problems we face are peculiarly Australian for all that we, in common with mankind, share a tragic age.
Meanwhile, whether we like it or not, events are forcing us to stand on our own feet. Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community must mean an end to our special place, if we ever had it, in the eyes of what our conservatives once called the Mother Country. America’s gradual withdrawal from the sport of picking hot coals out of Asia’s revolutionary fires reduces us to a peripheral place in the eyes of Washington. Both these developments, besides their political implications, must have cultural connotations. Whatever nostalgia we feel for the rich culture of Europe, from which we and the Americans derive, we should not forget that cultural development in this country is more likely to be shaped by our hopes for the future than our memories of the past. American literature, for instance, has already emerged as something authentic and real with great depths of national significance. Australian culture can only burgeon into something new and rich and strange if it draws on the soil that has nurtured us as a people and a nation in our own right.
In short, we are already different; our problems are likely to be different; our opportunities are vastly different. Consequently, if we are to follow Arnold’s advice and ‘see the object as in itself it really is’, then we have more need to look inward and homeward than to ape the latest modes of sophistication from overseas. All the old slogans, the outmoded party lines, the comfortable habits of national self satisfaction, need critical analysis and radical reformulation; but for God’s sake let us do our refurbishing and re-discovery in our own image and not according to some current version of the cultural cringe our brighter spirits once rebelled against. We live in a new age—the age of super-corporations, technology and bureaucracy—and our lauded bar-rail mateship that excludes ‘lesser races without the law’ is a pitiful substitute for hard living and clear thinking. We need to set ourselves the great corporate purpose of acting as a bridge between East and West and of turning our continent into a place where the life of thought and the life of action can be reconciled; a place where, in an age of intellectual chaos, with ancient traditions crumbling and a bewildering multitude of voices counselling different things to different people, we can erect barriers against the floodwaters of cultural dissolution and help preserve standards to which all men can respond, irrespective of class or ideological difference.
*In Vance Palmer, by H. P. Heseltine (Queensland University Press, 1970). See Meanjin Quarterly 4/1970 for review by A. A. Phillips.