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Essay

Cultural creep

TODAY IT WOULD be called a reality show, but in the early 1950s the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Incognito was billed as light entertainment. Alas, no recording of the radio program survives in the corporation's vast audio archive. Nor does it earn a mention in Ken Inglis's two-volume authorised history of the ABC. Yet Incognito is one of the most influential programs the national broadcaster has ever put to air, if only because it caught the ear of the Melbourne-based critic AA Phillips. The idea, thought Phillips, was quaint enough: to pit a local artist against a foreign guest, with the audience asked to adjudicate. Occasionally, listeners would favour the home-grown performer, thus producing 'a nice glow of patriotic satisfaction'. The program, however, was founded on the belittling premise that 'the domestic product will be worse than the imported article.' Phillips coined a neat description for this 'disease of the Australian mind' and immediately his aphorism, described in a 1950 Meanjin essay of the same name, took hold: 'the cultural cringe'.

Four years later, Manning Clark issued something of a rebuttal, arguing that Europe was 'no longer the creative centre' and rejecting the notion that Australians were philistines who had pitched their tents in the 'Australian Cultural Desert'. In his 1954 essay 'Rewriting Australian History', he exhorted his compatriots to 'drop the idea that our past has irrevocably condemned us to the role of cultural barbarians'. Clark was swimming against a rip. By the end of the 1950s, Patrick White's more durable polemic The Prodigal Son described his miserable return from England to a country where in 'all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness'. Robin Boyd weighed in soon after with The Australian Ugliness, which bemoaned the craven Americanisation of local culture; then Donald Horne published The Lucky Country, an even more excoriating attack. It was as if a team of scientists had unlocked the country's DNA and found cultural inferiority imprinted in the molecular code. 'Lucky country thinking' came to have a similar emasculating effect as 'cringe thinking'. Horne and Phillips framed the national debate so rigidly that it was hard for dissenting intellectuals to escape its confines. More depressing still, few seemed to want to – bagging Australia became a badge of sophistication: European sophistication. To be cultured in Australia was to deny Australian culture.

Neither was the completion of the Sydney Opera House, Australia's most glorious cultural cathedral, an unambiguously positive development. It was not merely that its opening celebrations featured Rolf Harris singing 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport', a populist counterpoint to Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Nor that the ribbon-cutting duties were performed by the gloved hand of the monarch. No, the more lasting reminder was that the building's staggeringly beautiful exterior was the product of a Danish imagination, while its humdrum interior was the work of a local journeyman architect appointed after Jørn Utzon's enforced resignation. A building of multiple entendres, the Opera House became a landmark both to Australia's rising self-confidence and its lazy embrace of the 'middling standard'.

Fifty years on, 'lucky country thinking' is still potent. Australians are still cashing in on resources, and Horne's thesis about second-rate politicians seems as resonant at the start of this decade as it was half a century ago. But the thesis is no longer uncontested. The realisation is dawning that after successfully avoiding the last three global recessions this country has made much of its own luck, through bold economic reform and judicious regulation. The country has found its 'sweet spot', according to the political commentator Peter Hartcher. Fellow journalist George Megalogenis has crowned it 'The Australian Moment'.

What of cringe-thinking? Gough Whitlam's nationalism, and the artistic advancement it nourished, dealt it a severe blow, as did celebrations for the Bicentennial and Sydney Olympics. An ever more interconnected world has made foreign books and films immediately available; the cultural lag is not so limiting, nor is there the nagging feeling that the country's location means trailing the zeitgeist. Yet vestiges of the creep still linger, like a once-virulent virus that has been controlled but not cured. Happily, a remedy lies beyond these shores, where something more communicable and infectious has taken hold: Australia's cultural creep.

HOLLYWOOD'S ANNUAL ACADEMY Awards have become a sort of cinematic Olympics, one of the rare occasions each year when Australia's cultural success internationally is given mainstream domestic coverage. Channel Nine's show-business correspondent, Richard Wilkins, patrols the red carpet and after-parties much like a sports reporter hugs the boundary line and gate-crashes the post-match celebrations in the sheds. His brief is to bag a few A-list celebrities, and also to pass on the good wishes of the nation to Australian nominees about to enter the Kodak Theatre. Given the patriotic flavour of the coverage, and the yearning for green and gold statuettes, it is surprising that the noun Oscar has not yet been turned into a fully-fledged verb, as in 'to podium' or 'to medal'.

In a nation keen to quantify its per capita success, the Academy Awards also provide statistical proof of advancement. Prior to the mid-1990s, Peter Finch was the only Australian to be nominated for lead actor, winning, posthumously, in 1976 for Network. Since then three men, Geoffrey Rush, Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger, have been nominated six times between them, and taken home two gongs: Rush for Shine and Crowe for Gladiator. Ledger, like Finch, won after his death, for best supporting actor in The Dark Knight. Likewise, during the first sixty-nine years of the Oscars only four Australian actresses were recognised in lead and supporting categories. In the sixteen years since, six have shared twelve nominations, among them two winners, Nicole Kidman for The Hours and Cate Blanchett for The Aviator.

With the exception of Mel Gibson, for Braveheart, the Academy has not been kind to Australian directors. Yet Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, George Miller, Scott Hicks, Chris Noonan and Baz Luhrmann have all won acclaim in Hollywood. There has also been considerable behind-the-scenes success, with Australians winning for cinematography, art direction and costume design, and in the scientific and technical categories. Twice in the past decade Australian films have won for animation: Harvie Krumpet in 2003 and The Lost Thing in 2010.

Some Oscar successes have been metaphoric. Geoffrey Rush won for playing David Helfgott, a schizophrenic Melbourne-born pianist who took by storm London's Royal College of Music. The first of Cate Blanchett's five nominations came from her rendering of a British monarch in Elizabeth, while her Best Supporting Actress Oscar was awarded for her portrayal of the first lady of American film, Katharine Hepburn.

Perhaps it would help, in terms of public awareness, if Australia had a Chariots of Fire moment: in 1982 the Liverpudlian screenwriter Colin Welland shouted 'The Brits are coming!' as he held aloft his Oscar like a musket. But, then, it would seem a little after the fact, as the Aussies have arrived already. In the academy's first seven decades, Australia won just fourteen statuettes, with almost a third of them awarded for costume design. In the past sixteen years alone, there have been twenty-four. Gold, gold, gold.

The cultural creep has gone well beyond the red carpet in Tinseltown. The judges at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival awarded the Camera d'Or first film award to Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah. The following year, the jury at Sundance presented David Michod's Animal Kingdom with the World Cinema prize. What made their success even more emblematic was that Michod and Thornton had told stories from the underworld of Melbourne and the otherworld of the red centre that were emphatically Australian.

On Broadway the Australian crawl is nearing a strut. In recent years Geoffrey Rush has taken two local productions to New York, Eugene Ionesco's absurdist drama Exit the King and The Diary of a Madman, where theatregoers paid as much as $700 for a seat. His performance as the 400-year-old King Berenger earned him his first Tony, thus completing the coveted triple crown of acting: Oscar, Tony and Emmy. 'Put simply,' wrote John Heilpern, the theatre critic of the New York Observer, 'Mr Rush is giving one of the greatest virtuoso performances I've ever seen.' Yet Australians did not require a New Yorker to tell them that, for they had already recognised his brilliance themselves.

Cate Blanchett's theatrical success in America has, if anything, been even more stunning, for the simple reason that the Sydney Theatre Company's A Streetcar Named Desire turned the cultural cringe completely on its head. What chutzpah to take a 'made in Australia' production of one of America's most celebrated plays to New York and Washington. Again, the reviewers gushed. Blanchett had scaled 'the Everest of modern American drama', wrote John Lahr in the New Yorker. 'I don't expect to see a better performance of this role in my lifetime.' He also praised Joel Edgerton's Stanley as 'superb' for his 'low-key roughness'. Again, there was no need for outside validation. Blanchett and her troupe had crossed the Pacific with standing ovations from Sydney audiences ringing in their ears.

In promoting Australia's cultural success abroad, actors and actresses have doubtless been some of the most prominent ambassadors: Rush, Blanchett, Crowe, Kidman, Guy Pearce, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Rachel Griffiths, Ryan Kwanten, Rose Byrne, Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Naomi Watts, Judy Davis, the up-and-coming Mia Wasikowska and the Tony-award-winning Hugh Jackman, who won for playing Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz. The list is by no means exhaustive.

But what of the writers, poets, musicians, architects, dancers and artists? They, too, are just as much a part of the creep, even if the conversation about Australia's cultural exports so often begins and ends with its actors. Had Channel Nine despatched a reporter to cover, say, the Man Booker Prize down the years, they would have toasted the success of Thomas Kenneally and Peter Carey (twice), DBC Pierre and Aravind Adiga, and also have rooted for short-listed authors, like Tim Winton (twice), David Malouf, Kate Grenville, MJ Hyland and Steve Toltz. What makes these writers so culturally relevant is not that they were recognised by international juries but that they speak with a uniquely Australian voice. Peter Carey may reside in New York but The True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda, not to mention many of his other works,are insistently antipodean novels. Thomas Keneally may have won the Booker for Schindler's List, but he was also nominated for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, another exceptionally Australian work. Tim Winton is Australia's great laureate of the ocean. Kate Grenville has become the literary custodian of its colonial past.Cloudstreet and The Secret River could not have come from any other country.

The Slap and A Fraction of the Whole, two of the more recent books to catch the eye of the Booker judges, have also brought contemporary Australian voices into the international realm. The Wall Street Journal, in a generous review, described Toltz's debut novel as 'Voltaire-meets-Vonnegut', but its rollicking eclecticism is more a product of his multi-ethnic background: his Polish, Lithuanian, New Zealand and Palestinian grandparents. Toltz explained himself more simply, however, when asked on the ABC to characterise his ethnicity: 'I am Australian.' In The Slap – the book is stacked high in British bookshops – international readers have been introduced to the voice of a Greek-Australian, Christos Tsiolkas, although again the 'Greek' seems superfluous.

Perhaps it will take the Nobel Prize for Literature to bring Les Murray even greater local acclaim, but already he is venerated abroad. In 2007, the New Yorker adjudged him to be one of the three or four leading writers of poetry in English. Again, the voice is singularly, even obstreperously Australian, combining what The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature describes as 'respect, even reverence, for the pioneers, the importance of the land and its shaping influence in the Australian character...such Bush-bred qualities as egalitarianism, practicality, straightforwardness and independence'. Fabulously uncomplicated, Murray has happily embraced his moniker, 'the bush bard' – one he shares with no less a figure than Henry Lawson –and also has described himself as the last of the Jindyworobaks, the literary movement in which white writers promoted Indigenous idioms.

In terms of Australia's artistic self-worth, Murray would be an especially useful Nobel laureate, for his prize would be much less ambiguous than the one presented in 1973 to Patrick White. It would be interpreted as a home-grown victory. By contrast, the Cheltenham– and Cambridge-educated White was a writer of conflicted allegiances, who modelled his technique on the great Russian and French stylists, and who spoke with flinty contempt for his homeland. Here again we encounter the essential difference between Australia's cultural ambassadors today and those from the recent past. Murray is unashamedly Australian. Local artists are no longer inhibited by the crippling self-consciousness once the norm, nor do they exhibit national loathing.

THE INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS of the comedian Chris Lilley, and the ways in which it differs from the experience of his forebear Barry Humphries, offers another case in point. Summer Heights High, his bullseye parody of suburban adolescence, proved such a hit on HBO that the American network co-produced the follow-up, Angry Boys. Yet Lilley continued to insert gags and references – like naming one of Gran's guinea pigs Kerri-Anne – that only Australians would appreciate. Rather than eschew his home audience, he took it along for the ride, and his humour, though damning, remained affectionate. Humphries, by contrast, was merciless, and his comedy work betrayed the sourness and superiority of an exile.

There are other telling differences. Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson were creatures of a monocultural country beset by a stultifying conservatism and conformism. Lilley's ensemble of characters reveals Australia's modern, multicultural face, the source of so much of its cultural vibrancy. Nor did Lilley have to become an expatriate to succeed. There is no longer the same rush to the international departure lounge –what Phillips called the 'centrifugal pull of the great cultural metropolises' – for promising young artists seeking to advance their careers.

In the meantime, the international honour roll grows. In music, we could speak of any number of groups in any number of genres. From Nick Cave to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the inaugural number one in the newly created world music chart; from the young composer James Ledger to the great Peter Sculthorpe, Australia's Aaron Copland; from the world-renowned jazz trumpeter James Morrison to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which The Guardian's critic recently described as without peer in the world. Its leader, Richard Tognetti, who was taught to play the violin by the virtuoso William Primrose in their home town, Wollongong, tells a revealing story from the 1970s: a Japanese agent tried to book the ACO but suggested it would help if they discarded a few letters from their name. After all, the Austrian Chamber Orchestra would draw bigger crowds. Needless to say, nobody makes that request any more.

In the visual arts, we could celebrate the work of the Aboriginal photographer Tracey Moffatt, the Egyptian-born sculptor Hany Armanious (Australia's representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale), the video artist Shaun Gladwell or the Western Australian painter Brian Blanchflower – to name a few. As for Indigenous art, it may well be haunted still by 'a shining dream' of 'international acceptance and global prestige' as the writer Nicolas Rothwell recently argued, but it is on permanent display at the celebrated Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, with paintings, sculptures, boomerangs and barks from eight artists, including Yannima Tommy Watson, John Mawurndjul and Ningura Napurrula. The 1988 Dreamings exhibition on Park Avenue in New York was also more of a breakthrough than Rothwell concedes. Featuring more than a hundred works from Central Australia, Arnhem Land and the Cape York Peninsula, it had half a million visitors by the time it had travelled to Chicago and Los Angeles. Dreamings also provided the inspiration for the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia, which opened in 1997, the only permanent collection of Indigenous Australian art in America. The Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in the Dutch city of Utrecht, another institution devoted solely to Australian work, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Indigenous art is also finding an appreciative audience in China, as Rothwell has pointed out. The Tu Di Shen Ti (Land and Body) exhibition, showcasing works collected by the Ngaanyatjarra community from the Warburton Ranges in the Western Desert, opened at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in mid-2011 and has been touring the Chinese provinces. More than eighty-five thousand people have seen it.

In dance, there's the Melbourne-based troupe Chunky Move, which in recent years has toured America, France, Germany, Lebanon, Hungary, Columbia, Japan, Belgium, Canada and Russia. In cabaret, the extraordinary Meow Meow. In architecture, Glenn Murcutt, winner of the Pritzker Prize and the Thomas Jefferson and Alvar Aalto medals. Admired for his use of simple materials like corrugated iron, and also his homespun inspiration, the Australian wool shed, Murcutt's is a local aesthetic: an Australian pastoral. Home-grown architects were also much in evidence at the Beijing Olympics, where they were responsible for seven of the major legacy projects – including the celebrated 'Water Cube' by the Sydney practice PTW Architects.

In gaming, LA Noire, an homage to film noir produced by Team Bondi, became the first computer game ever to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. In movie animation, Animal Logic, the Sydney-based firm visual effects company behind Babe and Happy Feet, is a global centre of excellence. In another modish art form, the staging of extravagant spectaculars and galas, the world leader is Ric Birch, the creative force behind the opening of the Beijing and Sydney games. In arts management, there is Michael Lynch, the former CEO of the Sydney Opera House who ran the South Bank in London and who is now in charge of Hong Kong's arts precinct in Kowloon. In art criticism, Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. The story is repeated in every creative field.

THE POINT IS amply made. To use an unlovely phrase heard more commonly in diplomatic and sporting circles, Australia is punching above its weight in the arts and culture. The problem is not a lack of creativity or talent but rather a failure of self-realisation. Little wonder then that the conductor Alexander Briger brought together the Australian World Orchestra in August 2011, a band made up of ninety or so musicians from forty-five foreign ensembles. His intention was to highlight their international success at home. There 'are so many Australian musicians holding these major positions with so many orchestras across the world,' he told reporters, 'and I doubt very much that the general public here knows who half these people are. So it's time for them to finally receive their deserved recognition in Australia.' Knowing his audience, Briger, the nephew of Sir Charles Mackerras, drew a sporting analogy: 'You look at Cadel Evans and how he was celebrated recently. These musicians are the same. They really are the top of the top in their field, they have achieved amazing things.'

What makes this cultural impact all the more impressive is that Australia cannot boast a major governmental organisation devoted to touting its wares. There is no equivalent of the British Council, the Alliance Française or China's Confucius Institutes. In the late 1990s the Australia International Cultural Council was created at the prompting of the then foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, to promote Australia as a 'stable, sophisticated, innovative and creative nation with a rich and diverse culture'. But it was only a consultative group, with the narrow remit of facilitating exhibitions within Australian embassies, and providing small travel grants for artists. That so few people even know of its existence speaks of its peripheral role. The Australia Council does not engage much in what it calls 'The international projection'. Its budget to promote the arts abroad is just $2.5 million, less than 2% of its annual spending.

Instead, the main organisation entrusted with the national brand is Tourism Australia, which has tended to sabotage efforts at portraying this country as sophisticated, innovative and creative. Unconcerned about stereotyping the Land Down Under, the marketeers concluded long ago that clichés sell, regardless of the collateral cultural damage. Unfortunately, the arts do not have the financial means to produce a counter-narrative to the 'dumb blonde' image of Australia. The 'Where the Bloody Hell Are You?' campaign, widely regarded a failure, cost $180 million. The annual funding for the Australia Council is $175 million. Recent governments also have been poor in trumpeting artistic achievements. When the Gillard government released its discussion paper on National Cultural Policy, the first review since the landmark Creative Nation report of the Keating years, its authors noted that Australian artists 'need to compete on the world stage'. It neglected the victories achieved already.

Fortunately, Australia can now call on some of its leading cultural castaways to make its case. Clive James, who left Sydney for Britain in the early 1960s, has often been portrayed in the Australian press as a disloyal knocker. Indeed, when he wrote in The Observer, after seeing the Opera House for the first time, that it resembled a 'typewriter full of oyster shells', it provoked a barrage of negative headlines. Yet James has long been a cheerleader, rejecting the ludicrous notion that Australia has never progressed much beyond adolescence and cannot be viewed as an artistically mature nation. 'Australian actors and filmmakers and writers and arts people have been colonising the planet for years,' he wrote in a review of Baz Luhrmann'sAustralia, 'and the jokes about Australia's deficiency of culture are old hat, like all the jokes about Australians knowing nothing about wine. Australia killed the wine jokes by producing supertankers full of wine that the whole world wanted to drink and it killed the culture jokes by flooding the world with an outburst of quality remarkable for a country that looks big on the map but has fewer people in it than Mexico City.' The world knows this, wrote James, but Australia's intellectuals have not yet reached this self-realisation. Instead, 'they persist in cherishing an inferiority complex so at odds with the facts that it amounts to a psychosis.'

THE PARADOX IS that the superiority complex cherished by British intellectuals and cultural brokers towards their cousins below the equator is largely a thing of the past. In consigning it to history, the permanent presence in Britain of expatriates like Clive James, Germaine Greer and the late Peter Porter has been instrumental. Indeed, the very figures judged to have depleted Australia's cultural stock in the 1960s and '70s through their exit to the UK have helped nourish a new sense of cultural parity between the two countries. Whether through the writing of James, the poetry of Porter, the acting of Blanchett or even the Aussie cookbooks and interior décor guides that weigh down the shelves at Waterstones, Britons in the know came to the realisation long ago that Australia is a creative hub.

Australia's success abroad has also been founded on a much firmer base at home. Never before has the country's cultural infrastructure been so strong. Canberra has a popular new National Portrait Gallery; Brisbane has the Gallery of Modern Art; Melbourne has an eye-catching new recital hall and is in the process of renovating its South Bank arts complex; Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art will soon have a bold new extension, and Cockatoo Island, one of the world's most well-appointed venues, is finally being tapped (although imagine Cockatoo Island in the hands of Frank Gehry, or, better still, the team that came up with the Water Cube); Tasmania has the Museum of Old and New Art, which a correspondent for the New York Times called 'the best museum you've never heard of' – though in Australia you could hardly avoid mention of it. The arts are flourishing in unexpected corners of the country. GOMA has helped turn Brisbane's South Bank into one of the hottest stretches of cultural real estate in the country. By 2010, not five years after it opened, GOMA had become Australia's most popular gallery, with attendances outstripping those of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and Sydney's Art Gallery of New South Wales – indeed, it is one of the ten most visited galleries in the world. MONA in Hobart is likewise having a mini-Bilbao effect.

The arts are also being democratised. When the Australia Council brought out its More than Bums on Seatsreport in 2010, one of its most interesting findings concerned the popularisation of culture, its surfacing as a mainstream activity. In a previous study conducted in 1999, over half of respondents said that the arts attracted 'the somewhat pretentious and elitist'. A decade later, that view was shared by only a third. Nearly three-quarters of the population attended at least one artistic event. On a per capita basis, Australians art galleries are the most well-attended in the world. Many of the blockbuster exhibitions, admittedly, have been imports: Picasso, Masterpieces from Paris, the recent Renaissance exhibition. But there have been home successes, too, like the landmark Sidney Nolan exhibition in 2008, and the long overdue Rosalie Gascoigne retrospective that opened in Melbourne the same year. The Archibald Prize for portraiture breaks new records ever year, as does Sculpture by the Sea. It started in 1997 as a one-day event at Bondi that attracted twenty-five thousand people and now lures more than half a million visitors, and has travelled to Western Australian and been transplanted to Denmark. Of late, the deaths of celebrated artists such as Dame Joan Sutherland and Margaret Olley have become more emotionally charged events.

There are problems aplenty. The political class is hardly awash with cultural connoisseurs. Julia Gillard is not known to have ever attended a cultural event at the Sydney Opera House. Tony Abbott has described the more challenging works of the federal parliamentary art collection as 'avant-garde crap'. Kevin Rudd won tabloid approbation by stirring up moral panic about Bill Henson's photographs. Simon Crean, the arts minister, was prevented from attending Margaret Olley's funeral because of the Opposition's refusal to grant him a pair. Rare now are art-loving politicians like Malcolm Turnbull, who defended Henson, and the former New South Wales premier Bob Carr, who delivered a fabulous blow to the cultural cringe by walking out of Kevin Spacey's Richard III in Sydney at the interval and opting instead for a kebab.

AUSTRALIAN MOVIES STILL find it hard to get screen time at home. Samson and Delilah was seen by just 1 per cent of the population at the cinema, although the ratings when ABC TV broadcast it suggest the film reached many more. Australian movies capture just 3.9 per cent of the domestic market. Relish is still evident in the media coverage of cultural blips, like Baz Luhrmann's Australia, when the cringers go to work. The ABC, the country's most important cultural institution, has also scaled back its arts coverage, with the closure of its specialised arts unit. This at a time, The Australian noted, 'when more Australians are more culturally attuned than at any time in history'. Curiously, the ABC is about to broadcast a new reality show that turns the notion of Incognito on its head. Next Stop Hollywood will follow a group of young Australian actors as they attempt to make a start in the movie industry, a mission that the producers of the show are confident will end in success.

More problematic is the extent to which Australian culture continues to reflect a strongly Anglo-centric bent. Back in 1994 Creative Nation described 'an exotic hybrid', a characterisation that did not ring true then, and does not ring true now. Asian influences especially have taken time to be absorbed. Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, recently lamented the 'meat and three veg' culture, and complained that 'the extraordinary tastes of Asia' routinely were ignored. Gatecrashers, like the Chinese-Australian artist Guan Wei, are rare but welcome – some of his work is an amalgam, showing Nolanesque Ned Kelly motifs against Chinese landscapes. Yet as the government hammers out a new national cultural policy, one of the central challenges will be to ensure that Australian culture keeps pace with demographic changes.

In his seminal essay Arthur Phillips argued that the cultural cringe was a greater enemy to Australia's cultural development than the country's isolation, and warned about a boastful strut from 'I'm-a-better-man-than-you-are' Australian bores. He wanted his compatriots to walk with 'a relaxed erectness of carriage'. Home-grown performers assumed that posture years ago, at the Belvoir, on Broadway, at the Booker prize ceremony and at Bennelong Point. This gait was also in evidence on a temporary stage in Canberra when Geoffrey Rush stepped forward to receive the 2012 Australian of the Year award. Much of his acceptance speech read like a rejoinder to a previous recipient, Sir Robert Helpmann, and his famous mid-1960s putdown: 'I don't despair about the cultural scene in Australia because there isn't one here to despair about.' In two generations, Rush said, Australia had grown from a relative wasteland into a unique species of native tree that only Australian soil could cultivate. Then he likened his fellow Australian artists to spiders, almost invisible and prone to being whacked occasionally with a newspaper. Well, those arachnids are on the march, and, as so often is the case with novel antipodean animal stories, the world is taking note.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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