Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The larrikin is a supine toady who doffs his cap at the capitalist

A column yesterday on the Fairfax Daily Life website by a law lecturer at the University of New South Wales has been getting a fair bit of play on social media. Titled 'Why Australia hates thinkers', the column by Alecia Simmonds imaginatively converts a personal gripe - the Gillard government is cutting funding to universities in order to pay for the Gonski secondary-school reforms - into a generalised lament about the lowly status of academics and other thinkers in Australia. The column hit a nerve for a lot of people I know online, and I was impressed by the ambition evident in the piece, and how it seeks to move from the particular to the general. This is part of what it says:
Perhaps there's a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England's stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We're a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don't mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we've interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes.
I think this is a very sophisticated approach to an extremely complex problem and it's something that I've attempted to tackle myself, most recently in a blogpost about why Australian writing was so conventional before Patrick White emerged, writing the kind of novels that were designed to drag Australia's middle class kicking and screaming into the age of Modernism.
[W]hile Australia has always been a metropolitan culture the pioneer values that were struck into cultural coin in the bush carried over into use in the suburbs of the big urban agglomerations.
The bush ethos of sharing in order to survive meant that cultural and intellectual innovation was a threat to the social cohesion that was so important for the good of the - often tiny - communities that dotted the usually unfriendly landscape. Without trust there was no community. And trust is especially important in frontier societies where many services that urban dwellers take for granted are absent. People shift for themselves, but the obverse to this admirable quality is distrust of anything that threatens social cohesion. The trouble is that the bush ethos survived time and endured despite growing populations in the urban centres, where it was adopted by the proletariat who found that those with economic power approved of this cultural conservatism.

Australia has no respect for intellectuals because the proletariat is always keen to doff its cap at the capitalist, and do the howling-down on his or her behalf. The larrikin is not anti-establishment, but rather the broad bulwark of the establishment. There is an unwritten pact between capital and the proletariat in Australia. They bolster each others' egos, and they enjoy the same pastimes, including sport, drink and gambling. These are activities that require no imagination to enjoy, and so they are perfect for a society where an uncritical, hedonistic attitude toward recreation - creating community - is prized.

Against the larrikin, that supine toady, stand a small coterie of bohemians, academics, and other thinkers, most of whom, including Greer, Keane, Humphries, Hughes, Sharp, Carey, and James, decamp overseas at the earliest opportunity because Australia, culturally, is often a wasteland. And when we celebrate a performer it's because they flatter us with circuses and pop songs, comedy and musicals; buffoonery included as a default. Think of Tim Minchin, an intelligent Australian songwriter, who gussies himself up with face paint and thumps along to his tunes on a big piano, like some two-bit amusement-arcade impresario. Barry Humphries? An educated man who chose to flatter middle Australia - for decades - by holding a mirror up to them to show a benevolent, common-as-mud Malaprop.

The case of Martin Sharp is also instructive (his Ginger's last stand, Nimrod, 1975, is the pic for this post). Sharp was an attractive and creative young man in 1960s Australia who decamped to London - as so many did - to seek his destiny. There he worked with musicians and other artists to create new kinds of images suitable for the pop scene thriving in postwar England (the erstwhile English historian Tony Judt brilliantly describes this demographically-youthful world characterised by rising wealth, peace and consumerism in his 2005 book Postwar).

When Sharp returned to Australia he brought with him his fascination with the performer Tiny Tim and buttressed the aesthetic choice by treating Australian cultural icons such as Ginger Meggs in the same way as he had painted the famous ukelele player. Luna Park, in Sydney, is nothing if not proletarian, and Sharp extended his reach by appropriating it, as well, and turning it to use in his larrikin-friendly art. Likewise, think of Norman Lindsay, that extraordinary polymath - he wrote novels as well as made watercolours - and his utterly conventional classicised concoctions with their endless wastes of firm, female flesh. Paintings anyone could enjoy, and the antithesis of intellectual. Or think of C.J. Dennis and his sentimental bloke, a rough-as-guts footpath philosopher struggling with confused feelings for his sheila, upon whom he dotes.

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