Monday, 6 May 2013

Aspiration should be about more than making money

This is a painting by iconic Australian artist George Lambert, The White Glove, 1921. In that year author and Nobel Prize winner Patrick White was nine years old. Born to privilege in rural Australia White might have had a mum who looked like this. What's more important, though, is how conservative this image is even compared to what was happening in England - let alone France or Italy - at the time, in the visual arts. In a formal sense, there is not much separating Lambert's painting from anything by Joshua Reynolds, the English painter who died in 1792, and there's not much separating Reynolds from Rembrandt, who died in 1669. It's a figurative portrait that shows a laughing woman. In Rembrandt's day a laughing woman in a painting would have been a person of no prestige, a working woman. By Lambert's time it was OK for a member of the privileged class to be shown laughing in a painting. But apart from that little had changed in 250 years.

But there was a hungry market in Australia, in 1921, over 300 years after Rembrandt was born, for art like this. There still is, in the Archibald Prize that happens every year at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Archibald is an extraordinarily successful exhibition that draws people from around Sydney to the gallery in huge numbers; there's also the Packer's Prize, the Bald Archy Prize, and the Salon des Refusees that have spun off it. The Archibald is as much a part of Sydney culture as the New Year's Eve fireworks or the annual office sweep for the Melbourne Cup, as the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race or the Royal Easter Show. Simply put, it's huge. Anyone can participate. And that's the charm of it for Sydneysiders. It's the old bush ethos of sharing, celebrating the execution, and generating the type of community that in less secular cultures is the job of organised religion.

Oddly enough, the event that costs the most among all those named would undoubtedly be the Easter Show, which is probably the most "egalitarian" among them.

This tendency for sharing, for making community is what Nick Cater is calling in his new book, The Lucky Culture (and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class), egalitarianism, and he makes the excellent point that it's better to live in a society where only wealth separates people, than in one where some other kind of principle, such as inherited privilege or caste or ethnicity or religion, sets people apart. That's because, as he says, anyone can get rich. Aspiration is indeed a virtuous thing, and it has motivated people coming from the British Isles for the past two centuries, to get on boats or planes and make the shift. It has been a great boon for millions, with the exception of the Aborigines, but in their case it has to be remembered that the continent was always going to be colonised at some point; the French were standing off the coast in their own ships when Arthur Philip raised the Union Jack.

My own forbears arrived a bit later, in the 1850s, when Transportation had ended and gold had been discovered. As a 6th-generation Australian I have close to me many stories of Australian industry and aspiration to choose from, unlike Cater, who arrived here in the 1980s probably running from the kind of class-based labelling that is impossible to escape in England: as soon as you open you mouth people know where you come from. No doubt Australia offered Cater a refreshing reprieve from such constant annoyances. And possibly he found that having an English accent is an asset in class-conscious Australia, where people know where you come from as soon as you open your mouth, and where the Australian ruling class tends to use the same round vowels as their counterparts in Blighty; the honking, braying palaver of the private schoolboy is a dead giveaway, as Mark Latham, who grew up in the poorer western suburbs of Sydney, well knows.

Latham has penned a retort to the book in which he characterises it as part of the Culture Wars, a bald attempt by Cater to lambast the university-educated elites and praise the monied classes. But if that means celebrating team sports at the expense of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra then I think that Latham is being just as divisive as Cater. I grew up playing and watching football and I also grew up going to concerts at the Sydney Opera House and one thing is certain: both types of event are usually partaken of uncritically. In both cases what's important is the sense of belonging that it affords. It's not egalitarianism as much as community.

Egalitarianism is more likely to be found at university, as academics Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington point out in their 2012 book Sydney: The Making of A Public University. Eschewing the sins of the old country, the founders of the institution made sure that merit was the only basis for entrance. Religious discrimination, which still kept many away from Oxbridge in the UK and the Ivy League institutions in the USA, was set aside. In fact the University of Sydney was unique at the time, in 1852, in the Anglosphere in this regard. Who your parents were or what religion you followed had nothing at all to do with whether you were accepted into a course of study there. And this ethos was highly influential, subsequently, not only for the creation of universities in the other colonies, but also for the establishment of a public secondary education system in the country. The sins of the old country were abandoned and there has rarely been any violent conflict in Australia between groups of people belonging to different religions. But further, because the authorities knew that an educated population was essential for the performance of their democratic duties (voting was first established in New South Wales in 1856), they understood that a universal, secular education system was very important.

As for private enterprise, so far the best critique of Cater's book has come from Guy Rundle, writing for Crikey. Rundle quickly deals with the myth of individual enterprise Cater asserts.
This is a country that was created out of a series of collective strikes in the 1890s by shearers, sailors and others — strikes in which solidarity was enforced with whatever violence might be necessary. The capital-labour conflict produced a truce in 1907 with the “harvester” judgment, which gave the state the right to set wages. The banking system was dominated by state-owned banks and overseas concerns in equal measure. Utilities were publicly owned from the start. The entire agricultural system ran not as metaphorical but as actual socialism, in which the government practised monopsony (the only buyer in town) to maintain a rural sector that would not have survived through market forces.
But again this is not egalitarianism, it's a human rights issue, something that was never understood in America. It's also a public safety issue: a matter of avoiding the kind of sharp economic disparities that can easily lead to violence and death; again, you can look at America especially in the big cities in the late 19th century where there were bombings that caused death and that derived from a form of politically motivated terrorism. But in any case, Australia was a government enterprise form the beginning. Where America was an offshoot of Renaissance England, Australia was an offshoot of Enlightnment England. Where in one you have thrusting ambition and a healthy appetite for innovation, in the other you have a more reasonable, collective, settled spirit of rubbing along together.

Aspiration is to be encouraged, as Cater says. Where, for example, are the stories in popular culture - in movies, on TV, in short stories and novels - about the aspirational mainstream that lives in McMansions in Sydney's sprawling west and in the infill highrise apartment blocks that are springing up in once-industrial areas? Aspiration is what motivated my father to go back to uni having left school aged 14, and do an engineering degree. It's what gave him the confidence to move from one job to the next, always looking for economic advantage, until he became a senior executive at a high-technology manufacturing company in Sydney. My father knew all about egalitarianism, as the son of a Portuguese illegal immigrant from Africa. He knew what the word "wog" meant just as he knew what his father's accent meant to mainstream Australia; Joao Luis made his living as a gardener and then running a takeaway shop. My father grew up with Ginger Meggs punching him to the ground, and so when he finally had the means  to choose his own entertainments he avoided the footy and instead went to see Beethoven played at the Opera House. Working as a labourer, my father knew about union methods, and the rough working class bullying that some call "egalitarianism".

While he was successful in business and eventually bought a house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney on the water, where he could keep his beloved boat ready for races on the weekend, my father was uncultured. He knew the advantages of education but for him it was merely an avenue to a good income. Aspirational in an economic sense, my father did not value education when it asked too many questions. Literature was far too complicated for my father, and for him music was a relaxant, like a drug, rather than a way to understand historical processes or cultural changes. He loved Menzies because Menzies had given him the scholarship he needed to go to university, but he did not understand why thousands of creative Australians had to leave the country, usually going to England, in order to achieve their artistic ambitions.

If aspiration is only about money then it is a flawed premise. Cater stops before he goes too far with the idea of aspiration because if he takes it to its logical conclusion he has to pull back from attacking the cultural elites, a class my father distrusted and admired by turns. I have no idea how Gina Rinehart spends her money but her filing a lawsuit against journalists who work for the company she is part-owner of, is mind-boggling, and suggests that she really just doesn't understand things very deeply. I suspect that Cater's enthusiasm for private wealth is rooted in gratitude for his treatment by News Ltd; many of the senior staff at the company develop a personal relationship with the ultimate proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, and my impression is that he treats loyal and effective staff-members very well. But corporate success does not make you insightful, as Cater's book seems to show, and as I know personally from living with a successful corporate executive from birth until the age of 18, when I left home with my own aspirations, which my father never understood.

Aspiring to do new, interesting, and even profitable things is to be encouraged, but if the only product of that aspiration is wealth then the project is going to be unsustainable because it will always attract the censure of those who seek a good even greater than financial security. There are many people who want more than just a house and a solid income, and enough money in retirement to keep them off the pension. They want a better world where the rights of every individual are respected, regardless of wealth, or religion, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This is the aspiration of the individual who is the product of the Enlightenment project. And while this person might get a kick out of visiting the Archibald Prize exhibition every year, she knows that there are better, more interesting, and more fulfilling alternatives available outside the mainstream, in places where dreams are made.

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