“And so it has been assumed that a man who is egocentric enough to want to display his talent… can be called upon to write, paint, lecture and make sculpture or film in his spare time.”

“And so it has been assumed that a man who is egocentric enough to want to display his talent… can be called upon to write, paint, lecture and make sculpture or film in his spare time.” Robin Boyd understood the essentially amateur status of the Australian creative artist. In his 1960 book The Australian Ugliness he explained how, in any imaginative enterprise in Australia, “one member of the team…is paid very little or not at all. He is the one who supplied the creative idea…” This, he said, came from a view that creativity was no more than a man tinkering in his shed. Nice, especially if you could paint a few decent gums, but at the end of the day a man (as it was then) had to have a proper job. You couldn’t expect to be paid for spending your days making pots, or writing songs. In the years since, things have improved, surely? Now, governments make sure youth theatre companies, vessels for fermenting the next generation of Hamlets, are at least as well funded as sporting clubs? Young novelists, brimming with ideas, are encouraged just as much as the latest big swimmer? Young painters don’t feel they have to seek digs where the smell of freshly primed canvas is stronger, or present? My journey into the wilderness started in 1990. I wrote a revue, Vocations, and convinced a few friends to help stage it. Hired the Odeon Theatre, rehearsed the musician (I could only afford a pianist), organised the sets. Opening night was everyone’s relatives, of course, but for the rest of the run: the reflection of blinding light from unoccupied seats. One actor sold baklava in the foyer at intermission to offset his losses. To overcome this I offered A Touch of Elegance 10 comps and a few nights later we smelled the powdery clue from backstage. Ten women (their husbands dead or left home with ‘Baby’ Burgess) sitting mid-audience, probably to make us feel better. Blue rinse theatre at its best, and worst. The run finished and I received the theatre bill (and others). Retired to my part time job taking bets at the TAB to pay it off. I’m not complaining. Vocations probably wasn’t that good. But, as Richard Walsh told me a few years back, this (writing books) is not a job for the faint-tickered. And he was right. If you’re gonna run around singing songs or writing poems, don’t complain when your cake fails to rise. So why? Patrick White had Voss (the original, deluded visionary) grumble: “To make yourself, it is also necessary to destroy yourself.” And perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe, at the end of the day, we want to accept a Catholic version of Aussiedom that enshrines the hitting of sixes and storming of beaches. Why, then, Art? Artists are, after all, boat rockers, aren’t they? Is this why we don’t bother our kids with White (or books, for that matter) when they should be out getting some sun? Far easier to import all that business. It seems we still don’t care much for Aussie films. The characters seem a bit depressed. Plots like the Buffalo (going nowhere, leaking). Perhaps this is why Australian television networks screen pre-packed big-flick promos over and over again while our stories open on a few forgotten screens, for a few lonely days. Then, when a local (horror) story like The Babadook does well overseas (Stephen King: “deeply disturbing and highly recommended”) we decide, against our better judgement, it’s worth a look, after all. So, next step, make culture that looks American. Then the punters will go for it. Here’s an idea. Work out who buys the most albums and give ‘em exactly what they want. Girls, 12- 17. A pop show, perhaps, with a pre-determined Katy Perryesque outcome. Everyone’s a winner. Get the record companies involved. Worked in the 1950s when cinemas were ‘encouraged’ to show more overseas product (as Chips took his last gasp). Consider hair, dresses, marketing. Music, perhaps? Na. It’s all about the sizzle, not the sausage. And if you can keep it up, the punters will assume this is what music is. Eventually they’ll forget all of that Cold Chisel, Powderfinger business. So, in the end, who’s to blame for this tsunami, washing the debris of other cultures onto our beaches, into our suburbs? The artists, perhaps, working with less to make (somehow, miraculously) better product. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t have a Hugh Sheridan without an Urban Myth. Our leaders, with their focus on economics, too scared to step into the visionaries’ ring (empty since the likes of Whitlam and Dunstan) lest the blokes believe they’re pandering? As Donald Horne said, “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck”. Arts as window-dressing, at best, imparting a whiff of civilisation to our leaders. The media? Definitely. Lazy, unimaginative, more than happy to serve their bottom line by lubricating our morph into state fifty-one. Us? Well, I can’t answer that one. The real problem is this. First, we lose the forms. Then, the ideas. This encourages governments who don’t fancy the arts and then, of course, education. We become second-rate, derivative. We might have taller buildings and flasher homes, but we have emptier heads. We refuse to attempt to remake ourselves. In the end, as Boyd explained, plagiarism is “the most expertly practised art in Australia”. Stephen Orr’s next novel, The Hands, will be published in March. Header image: The Babadook

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.