2004 speaker: Robyn Nevin
Robyn Nevin delivered the Australia Day Address at the Conservatorium of Music on 21 January 2004.
I was uncertain about speaking today. How to justify speaking as an artist to a country which is ambivalent about its artists. How to speak on this day which is a day of celebration to many and one of mourning to many. To many of my fellow artists. Uncertainty. But as a citizen of this extraordinarily beautiful city perched on the edge of this extraordinarily beautiful land, I felt humbled and warmed by the responsibility and the opportunity to speak honestly, telling of the privileges and difficulties of being an artist in its midst- or on its edge….
As an interpretive artist. I am accustomed to acting or directing plays for the stage, relying on the primary artists, those with the language skills , the imaginative skills, the technique which enables them to position their ideas accurately and exquisitely within a dramatic structure; the artists, who, as Tom Stoppard articulated, “put the right words in the right order” (which he added “might nudge the world a little”). I work with poets and playwrights. Or in the current lingo the storytellers of our tribe. Today I shall have need of them to help me to give meaning to the questions I ask from the perspective of an artist in Australia in 2004.
Question: why uncertainty about speaking on this day of various significances?
The answer might lie somewhere in my understanding of what it is to be both an Australian and an artist, and what I hope for my beautiful blessed and bountiful country.
For a start…we have a history of disregarding our artists. I am a child of that history. While I identify as an artist I often fib to taxi drivers, saying I am a housewife. And I’m 61 which means a childhood in the 40s, in Melbourne, schooling in the 50s and 60s in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. And the next 40 years doing what I do best in many Australian cities, including touring country areas. I have been an actress for 40 something years a director for 20 and a producer for 7 years. While claiming the right to be called an
artist there is a hesitation, a typical reticence. I am always humbled by what I see hear read or sense is a real artist. Perhaps because in my beginnings real artists came from elsewhere.
Perhaps because so much of my early experiences were reading and receiving other cultures. As David Malouf suggests in his quarterly essay, ‘made in England’, during the 19th and a good part of the 20th century, there was “a belief that what happened in books was the way life really was…"…. "life here was somehow thin and insubstantial. After all, what happened in the books one read, happened there….
And in the words of Colin, David Williamson’s screen- writer character in the 1984 play emerald city:
"If we don’t write our own stories our children will grow up thinking that real life happened elsewhere in accents other than our own".
Question: Am I as an artist useful?
I need to believe i am useful to the community, or the 42 years doing it will be hard to justify…to myself. And that’s who matters at 4 0’clock in the morning.
But does the community see the arts as useful? Are they useful? What would life be like without them?
British playwright David Hare maintains “there are only 3 disciplines to which people can go for help in understanding their own predicaments: to art, to science and to religion”. He is suggesting usefulness.
The arts, or the yarts, as Sir Les Patterson, our roving ambassador for same, identifies them. What are they? What’s the big deal?The big mystery? Why should tax-payers support them? Do tax-payers support them? What makes them thrive? Do they thrive? Who cares? Well lethargy and cynicism abound and are the deadliest symptoms. In this time, so frequently described as a time of uncertainty, of fear, anxiety and rapid change, we need reassurance, we need hope.. “hope is a moral obligation” says a character in hannie rayson’s play “life after George”.
Question: should artists in a time such as this express the uncertainties, question them, challenge them? Or should they offer comfort?
The arc of my life is a dynamic one which reflects extraordinary change within these shores, and the move of this island continent towards the rest of the world and the gaze of the rest of the world coming very definitely to rest on us. When I was very young the baker delivered bread in a cart and horse. As did the iceman. There was no television. I waved a wee flag at the British monarch as she did pass by, in a Hobart street. I never saw a black person. Nor did I know there were any, ever in our white land. When first I travelled overseas I was thought to be an Australian. I was also identified as a member of Bazza Mckenzie’s community and later with the Paul Hogan prawn on the barbie proto-type.
One of my early memories is watching a handsome young man in an Australian naval uniform approach my neighbour’s front door carrying a bunch of flowers- behind his back. He was embarrassed to be seen holding flowers.
This lasting image from an earlier time suggests an unease towards a softer appreciation of things. A man with a posy. It was not manly. It suggested a certain…. sensitivity, which was a euphemism. Nor was it manly to be a dancer, a painter, an actor, or a violinist.
Australians have traditionally been uneasy around overt expressions of emotion, around sensitive people expressing that sensitivity. And yet there is a deeply sentimental streak. We feel deeply. But we are cautious about expressing it, verbalising it. Acting it out.
When I was a little girl a bias undoubtedly existed towards those who opted for the more sensitive choices in terms of a career path. This was the 50s in Hobart. A time remembered as one in which we were clearer about what was what, we shared values and cultural backgrounds and aspirations, an altogether neater time. This was the era of John Howard’s “egalitarian innocence”. Barry Humphries remembers the time with characteristic acid sharp nostalgia through the cry of the male worker who yelled “hey mate you’ve lost your lino” to a man who passed by the building site with a hand on one of his own hips. Often this sort of man in 50s lingo "a willy woofter” chose the softer, the “sensitive” options. In the arts. But it was not an easy path, the journey of an artist. It set one apart. In a time of tidy conformity, one was “other”, different, arty. But I hadn’t put those pieces together. As a school-girl I appeared on the stage of our most historically significant and under-used theatre , Hobart’s Theatre Royal. I lived in the world of my imagination, and in books (English books) and I thrived because I had recourse to these worlds.
David Malouf’s Boyer lecture the orphan in the pacific challenges with his customary lucidity the notion that it was a “comfortable secure cosy” time. He points to “a prickliness…of anything different-of large gestures, of extravagant emotion.” He enlarges on the theme of Australia as “a stagnant backwater and sullenly proud of the fact”, observing that as we had no tradition “in our writing of dealing with extreme emotion” that “much went unexpressed here”. David is hinting at usefulness. The usefulness of our story-tellers, at the time, pioneering on television, to: “open up” as he said, ”to break the great Australian silence” which he describes as a…..”A tight-lipped devotion to the unspoken, the inexpressible, that had kept so much pain and …so much love unacknowledged because it could not find words”.
This passage of our history might have been very different had the leaders of the times valued the arts as our later leaders have done. Regarded them as useful. But in the post-war
years Australia defined itself without the arts or artists playing their rightful roles. They were not seen as crucial to the building of a nation, not seen as leaders.
Those who felt abandoned by the leadership, those who needed to be artists, left this country in droves. Zoe Caldwell Robert Hughes Peter Finch. Joan Hammond. Robert Helpmann. Beryl Kimber. Many didn’t return. Many transformed into American or British artists. Some worked hard to disappear their accents. Ray Lawler wrote a play about the return of the expatriot actor sounding more like an etonian than a Balmain boy. By transforming and hiding his origins he achieved acceptance and fame. Elsewhere. The elsewhere to which I thought real artists belonged. And there were those who chose to leave Australia to make their mark where it seemed to count. Aa Phillips coined the expression the cultural cringe to explain this tendency.
The performing arts were principally imported. Ballet opera theatre and music theatre. My childhood influences were American films and musicals. And English pantomime. Jenny Howard. Evie Hayes were I suppose my role models. I was taken to see Annie get Your Gun as a child. A story of the American outback. I can still sing the songs. My first theatrical thrill came with the first notes from the orchestra in the pit, of American music.
JC Williamsons “The Firm” ran the biggest management in Australia. They imported theatre from elsewhere and presented it with great flourish to us the audience. Did we object? Did we lament the absence of our own theatre? Poetry? Music? Films? Ballet? Opera?
Undoubtedly there were voices raised in objection. The voices of those departing our shores of course. But it was not within my hearing. In Hobart! And just as I was ready to emerge a national theatre school was formed. At the opening of NIDA in 1959 the guest of honour was a visiting west end actress - moira lister?
I had read Enid Blyton of course and Dickens and all the usuals. I did read 7 Little Australians and still recall the grip of grief when the gum tree fell on Judy; but there was no experience to reflect my own, written down. Or filmed. Or staged. So no role models. I played Snow White in Hobart’s Theatre Royal and something called the Nephew From America. My NIDA audition, on the same stage, at 16, was from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (about middle America), with a contrasting piece of course: Shakespeare’s finest “Older Woman” character, Cleopatra. A Greek who lived in Egypt. For the ABC, Shaw’s St Joan. Nothing in my own culture from which to draw. Did it matter? No I didn’t fret or become motivated to change things. I just wanted to be an actress.
As a young emerging talent I remember the arc of horror described by a senior actor’s eyebrow when I rejected his suggestion I understand the politics of the theatre company for which I was working, and even more confronting, the wider politics which framed the arts in
Australia. Ever since, a small deep-seated niggle has settled among the million others, to remind me when it can claim attention, that politics are crucial.
Which brings us to leadership, and subsidy.
Although when I was beginning to imagine a life as an artist no policies of Government support for the arts were established, there were those who used their voice, and their positions of influence, to champion the idea of Government intervention in the positive sense, subsidy.
These are the memorable words of Herbert Cole Coombs in 1954:
“how good it would be if in Australia we could have a vigorous mature theatre…and even more splendid if at the same time we could create an environment in which the truly creative artists….many of them now mute and inglorious from lack of opportunity, should come to flower”.
In 1954 Dr Coombs, economist, governor of the commonwealth bank in Australia, announced the birth of the Australian Elizabethan theatre trust, privately- in the sense it was not on behalf of the Government of the day. But he continued his persuasions.
It seems we have much for which to thank the British economist J.M.Keynes. Lord Keynes (interestingly, perhaps critically, married to an arts practioner of the most disciplined kind, a Russian ballerina) worked to establish subsidy for the arts in Britain. In turn an admirer of J.M.Keynes, and a director of the Commonwealth Bank, the Tasmanian L.F.Giblin (who would have been familiar and no doubt proud of the theatre royal ), encouraged Prime Minister Curtin to start a national theatre. Mr Curtin expressed interest publicly but no action resulted. His successor Prime Minister J.B.Chifley also expressed interest urged on by Dr Coombs.
While Australia wasn’t yet ready to subsidise the arts, in spite of back-stage lobbying, it was looking to Britain for ideas. The noted English director Sir Tyrone Guthrie was invited to report on Australian theatre. Sir Tyrone’s proposal was to export the best of us to Britain, and having trained us up to English standards, to import us back. This very bad idea was not deemed acceptable. Another courteous English gentleman (who seemed to surround one as a young actress at the time, and subsequently, I seem to recall) Hugh Hunt was invited to begin a national theatre. His methods were soundly rejected by Australians who were keen to get on with it in their own manner.
When elected to power Prime Minister R.G. Menzies referred to Mr Chifley’s interest in subsidising the arts as” the galloping socialist planning of the Chifley regime”.
But there was Dr Coombs. A leader. Who personally handed me my graduation diploma from NIDA in 1959.
The Australian Elizabethan theatre trust was a beginning. There followed decades of growing subsidy and in 1968 and the establishment of the Australia council for the arts, later the Australia council, the modern age of support for the arts across the nation began.
Governments were now committed to the development of our national culture. While certain states had initiated grants to support various art forms by the seventies there were Arts Ministries across the nation. Subsidy shaped our contemporary arts history. Successive state and federal governments have pledged money to develop to foster and to provide access to all the art forms.
I have often referred to myself as a product of the subsidised system. My career spanning more than forty years has been across theatre television radio and film (though thinly across the last 3). Most of that work has been deeply assisted by Government policies.
A nation that encourages celebrates its arts and individual artists? No.
In 2004 it could be argued the arts are off the national agenda. Neutralised by absence of debate. They simply aren’t talked about at the top level of Federal Government. A major new railway, and its significance is undisputed, can attract the presence and the comments of the prime minister of Australia, but not the opening of a new theatre, the Sydney theatre, also of national and international significance.
A tension often exists within the practicing artist between the need to get on with the work and the need to speak out. Doesn’t the work do that? Do we also have to engage with the debate over the worthiness of this or that artist, or organisation, or indeed the entire arts spectrum, to receive Government support? Do we have to justify ourselves, our work, our existence? Again? If we are useful, why do we have to re-visit these debates? Shouldn’t the politicians do it for us? Shouldn’t the people be persuading the politicians?
Are we not useful? Are we just whingeing artists? Is it true there are no votes in the arts?
It takes generations for an art form to truly dwell in a society-it needs to be passed on over generations to have historical meaning. Theatre as an art form that wrestles with society is a relatively recent invention in Australia-the idea of plays as serious interrogations of identity only really dates back to Ray Lawler’s the summer of the 17th doll and its successors in the 50s, while less formally traditional types of theatre are even more recent introductions. It takes generations, memory, history, for an art form to become accepted. We are yet young. Countries which respect artists have a long history of the arts as a national barometer. It will take generations for the idea of the artist as part of our national fabric, to be respected as much as a business leader, an athlete a politician. I acknowledge and accept this. And it
explains why I have felt as if I were pushing at an arid frontier for as long as I have been trying to cheerfully justify my artist’s role.
This is why it is important for the national training institutions to teach the history of their particular art form, and to credit those of our leaders whether politicians business leaders great athletes or celebrities who have supported them. Support comes in many forms. I was pleased to hear our celebrated cricketer Steve Waugh declare on his retirement he will spend time setting up a foundation for kids interested in sport and the arts. This fine Australian sportsman is “sensitive” to the value of the arts. He recognises that young people who study the arts in whatever form will make more creative adults. They may or not be the artists of tomorrow, or the audiences, but they will certainly be more creative in their pursuits as managers, media owners, retail manufacturers, farmers, teachers. Politicians and academics. Some of our most significant sponsors in the arts are those individuals who don’t aspire to be the artists but they want to ensure public accessibility to the work of artists.
Our children can only benefit from early interactions with various arthrous. Studies have shown how much children benefit from early music training or even exposure to music in spatial and temporal reasoning and maths. The Prime Minister John Howard agrees with the opposition leader Mark Latham that reading stories to small children is crucial to their development. Children are naturally creative. Look at the small people at play. Creating shapes with colour, singing songs they make up, devouring stories read by teachers, mums, dads, anyone. Making up their own, dancing without inhibition, imagining, day dreaming.
What happens to that early freedom of expression and curiosity? We add the masks of propriety, restraint. We narrow our focus, our exploration. We learn to dissemble, to deceive, to conform, to cease questioning, while internally our doubts and anxieties grow. Unless our innate creativity is encouraged during our formative years, until we are adults, as adults, we are at risk of becoming imaginatively and emotionally stunted, crippled. We can shut down, cease growing, developing. The food that feeds our brains our hearts our souls, comes from the philosophers the thinkers the artists of the world, from deep time, throughout history and from now.
Poet William Blake said: “nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry painting and music are destroyed or flourish!”
Poetry is the expression given to our feelings, our aspirations. Painters paint how it feels when you look at a tree and poets find the words we cannot, when we feel the grip of grief terror joy or the pleasure of peace. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating said “what matters after 50 are hits to the heart”.that’s what the poets supply. Usefully.
The great theatre director Peter Brook said: “theatre can be a healing process”.
A gathering of people watching another grouping of people act out stories is the shared exploration of deeper meanings of who we are, why we act as we do, and why we suffer and make others suffer. The artists reach in to find meaning and reach out to share it. Art is in service to things that matter. Dramatist and poet Samuel Beckett said art is finding the form to contain the chaos. Art organises life. Gives it shape, suggesting to its audience a different perspective, sometimes a clearer one, sometimes a deliberately distorted one.
Which can illuminate, comfort, or question. This is the usefulness of art.
The residents of Canberra recovering from the fires of a year ago find solace, support in the prevailing community spirit. As did those who survived the Newcastle earthquake. After shocks was the play written by Paul Brown and colleagues, to reflect the resilience of those survivors. Holy day, Andrew Bovell’s story opens up the dark secrets of our black and white history, Nick Enright’s and Terry Clarke’s summer rain celebrates the resilience of drought- affected Australia, Dorothy hewett’s poem legend of the green country laments the degradation of her beloved west Australia landscape. And the carnival of the opening and closing of the 2000 Olympics showed how much there is to celebrate. And how well we do it. indigenous artist Stephen Page believes this is the century of spirituality.
In my childhood years those who trod the boards were described in popular parlance as gypsies and vagabonds (indeed Patrick White on hearing I had lost the brooch he gave me as a gift for playing one of his characters said oh well you’re all gypsies and vagabonds). People with whom my mother would have no truck. After being taken backstage to see the mysterious world behind Dick Whittington’s painted scenery I chirruped excitedly about the gifted performers: yes, she replied, but they aren’t very clean. A mother’s disapproval… Patrick before I lost his brooch told me with a conviction that seared into my consciousness that I should paint my own landscape. When visiting New York to publicise a film called Careful He Might Hear You a journalist, William Sapphire, asked me while lunching in Manhattan’s Russian tea room if I wanted to work in the us. I didn’t hesitate. No I wanted to paint my own landscape. I had just played a season of David Williamson’s the perfectionist at the Spoleto Festival. In South Carolina. As I spoke with an Australian accent to an American audience I was introducing those people to one of our own stories. And they were completely fascinated. Of course why not? Just as I had been all my life by their stories, if well told.
Ruth Park wrote a novel in which she marvelled that a tree might push its way through the concrete paths of urban Surry Hills. A metaphor for the arts. They will always push through to express what they need to express. Only in a determined regime where there is such fear of free expression that books are burnt and music other than that which glorifies the state will be banished, are artists stilled, and even then, in the way of Vaclav havel’s
chekoslavakia, artists will find a way because a way is needed, wanted. Because there will always be people who need to receive that expression. Consumers they are now called.
There will always be a way, but we want the way acclerated, articulated and celebrated by our leaders.
I remember Prime Minister Bob Hawke relating with pride how frequently he received positive comments during his overseas trips by those impressed by the films reaching out into the world from Australia, at the time of his Prime Ministership. He saw the positive benefits to tourism, in the global reach of our Australian tone, our character, our personality. At the time of speaking he was opening the new NIDA building provided by the Federal Government for the training of our future artists.
Bob Hawke recognised the usefulness of the Australian artist. He also announced a new anthem on that day.
Successive Federal and State Governments of both sides have supported the arts in Australia. It has been a bi-partisan approach over the past 30 something years. Some Prime Ministers and Premiers have been outstanding in their genuine commitment to the arts backed up by action and real cash investments for the work itself, or the ifra-structure in which to make or present the work.
We thrived under Gough Whitlam. We might have under Paul Keating and his untried creative nation. We benefited from Harold Holt’s Australia council, John Gorton’s film school and Malcolm Fraser’s film industry funding. Don Dunstan Neville Wran and Bob Carr have been bold in their vision for the arts in their states. Premier Carr’s recent response to the Sydney Theatre Company’s proposal for an ensemble, following the gift of a purpose-built and beautifully realised theatre for Australia, is the act of a leader in the arts
While philanthropy is still not embraced by the Australian community the generosity of the Myer, Fairfax and Pratt families serve as inspirational acts of meaningful patronage. The American tradition of philanthropy might serve us well as a model. The names Rockefeller Morgan Carnegie Ford are synonymous with great endowments of 19th and 20th centuries. Bil Gates Ted Turner Stephen Spielberg are names we will remember long after we remember Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, René Rivkin, as we might have, had they left more positive legacies.
As a result of decades of subsidy from the enlightened we are represented globally by high visibility Australians who use their own voices, or not, as needed. But they still sound as they used to in the school ground. They haven’t had to shed their origins in order to be accepted. They have an ease about them. They can work anywhere. Now, as Melvyn Bragg observes
“Australians sound the world over like a people unself-consciously proud and totally confident in the way they talk”. Subsidy shaped our contemporary history.
Once thought an Australian now my passport tells that I live in the famous city where the world watched the greatest work of imagination as Bob Carr described it, the collective creative genius of the 2000 Olympic Games Ceremony. And on another day, the sun rising on our harbour and shining on the iconic white sails of our beetle-backed opera house at the dawn of the new millenium. The creative genius behind of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in 2000 came from individual artists nurtured over time by Government and private sector investment in the arts of this country. This is what made the difference. This is how Australia in such a short period of its history can claim an impressive list of individuals, some of whom live within Australia and some outside, many of whom commute between this nation and others. Artists (and of course scientists, economists, athletes, architects, academics) who didn’t need to leave to be who they needed to become.
Without confident leaders, or leaders who have confidence in the usefulness of art, we will be a thinner society a less colourful one, and the brain-drain might cripple us. A young artist lamented to me recently the lack of opportunities in his own country. He is bright ambitious hungry and gifted. He needs stimulation and avenues to express his artistry. He is looking to other older cultures where his art form is supported. We must avert the fate of an earlier Australia.
I was startled to learn recently that within the national broadcaster there would appear to be an aversion to the word “arts”. In ascribing titles to programs which have distinctly arts content the word is avoided. While the media, sports, health, law, science and religion programs all take their rightful place with their rightful names on our airwaves, those of us who earn a crust by being the arts are hidden behind some euphemism. Why not call a spade a spade? Why this fear? And if it reflects a real community response, why is it so? And who is responsible for shifting that response? I was pleased to learn, in a balancing moment, of a new ABC policy which will offer the arts as a focus in their programming. This policy came straight from the top. An act of leadership.
And this is what Australia needs. Leadership in the arts. This will acquaint our people with our arts, familiarise people with them. We want leaders to admit they like the arts. To celebrate their attachment to circus or antique clocks or modern dance or political satire or pantomime or Beethoven or Bartok or carnivals, street festivals. Or poetry on radio.
I wonder if we examined the hobbies of our elected leaders what might be revealed? One wonders how many would list any of the arts as an interest. One wonders if there were
genuine interest if it might be wiser to conceal them. Perhaps they are concealing them. But I see only a few politicians in foyers.
Question: Is there a media owner out there who would increase the level of arts coverage on television radio and in the newspapers and magazines that abound? If not, why not?
It would take a confident, and powerful, leader indeed in a radical act of daring, to invest generous space and time in serious reporting of the arts in Australia. Sport does very well. So does business. So does finance. This would be an act of vision and leadership. Hard to imagine but thrilling.
Harder to imagine the Federal Government supporting such an innovation, given the television ads screened at the approach of the 1998 Federal election. When the words across the TV screen screamed a vote for the arts is a vote for elitism.
As a practicing artist I found that arrangement of words particularly hard to digest. I have over the decades consistently determined to improve my personal standards, and when given the opportunities more recently, the standards of companies I have run. It seems ambition for excellence is seen as elitism in a pejorative sense when applied to an artist. Cathy Freeman, Leyton Hewitt, Jana Pittman and George Gregan would assert the same level of ambition for themselves, their teams and their country.
Question: Why is it appropriate for these athletes to perform as elites, and for the nation to express pride in them, celebrate them, led by our genuinely enthusiastic Prime Minister, if it is not similarly appropriate that our artists perform as elites, be seriously celebrated, and funded, as is sport, so that we might produce artists the same level of excellence?
Little wonder that artists sense an ambivalence in the community towards them.
If that ambivalence was already present when the arts equal elitism television ads were shown, and we all know it was present, otherwise who were the ads talking to? If it were present, it was thereafter given permission to increase and multiply. Hence, in part, my hesitation in speaking today when first invited.
Indeed in the 90s I was hesitant about admitting I was the recipient of a Creative Artists Fellowship. (later known as the Keating’s, a term of both affection and abuse). This fellowship, appropriately taxed, assisted me through an arts degree at a time when approaching my late forties I had almost no work (the plight of many an ageing actress). But I was aware of the community responses to this award and uncomfortable as a result.
Hence the fibs to the taxi-drivers.
Sir Tom Stoppard, celebrated British playwright of Travesties, Arcadia, The Real Thing and many others, and screenwriter of Shakespeare in love, and a guest of the Premier of NSW during the 2004 Sydney Arts Festival, recently made an impromptu speech. He was attempting to explain the misperception that artists are somehow separate from their community. He sees us as people who work hard in a disciplined way to achieve what we achieve. Just like any other hard working motivated people. The trouble, I think, seems to arise when it comes to a matter of subsidy or protection.
The action taken by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, in 1960, four years after television came into our homes, when he introduced quotas requiring commercial television licences to show 40% Australian programs, and at least one hour a week between 7.30 and 9.30, of programs which were “distinctly Australian in content and character” was an act of foresight and vision. Leadership, which offered us real protection.
Had a similar policy been introduced to protect the flourishing Australian film industry in 1910’s and 20’s it would not have been destroyed by the distribution deals between American distributors and Australian cinema owners.
Witness the example of the French. When the Hollywood studios tried to impose their rules on French cinema owners the press went wild the public marched and the Government acted. It charged a higher price for non-french films, funded their own industry, set up strict guidelines. They protected their own culture. Which thrived.
On this Australia Day January 26th 2004, our Minister for trade Mark Vaille and his American counterpart trade representative Robert Zoellick are scheduled to meet to negotiate the trade agreement between our friendly countries. All we, the Australian arts community, ask for is the possibility, the flexibility, to protect our future production of art and entertainment.
Robert Menzies knew he had to protect Australia’s own character in its broadcasting. Those early quotas achieved that protection.
This is how David Malouf explains the impact of the arrival of television in his Boyer Lecture “The Orphan in the Pacific”:
“that little black box was to become a mirror. Looking into it we would see our real faces at last, and how many and various we were: women who argued and had opinions, blacks, homosexuals, young people whose tastes and ideas were different from those of their elders…..it gave us a new image of ourselves and a new version of local culture, a popular commercial culture that we too, these days, export to the world.”
If we peek ahead in our imaginings, let us picture with confidence an Australia alive with the anticipated advances in the audio-visual industry, and expressing a sincere gladness that Prime Minister Howard determined with President Bush (if it should come to that) that we will have the flexibility in the future to ensure the kind of protections afforded this country’s Australian stories by Prime Minister Menzies. Aren’t role models important.
Question: who said this?
“And I as a person who grew up in this country in the 1950s, and am now in my 61st year, have observed the way in which the arts over the years have come to be seen by an increasing number of Australians, as a way in which we tell the world who we are, what we believe, and what we stand for”.
That was John Howard, Australia’s Prime Minister.
It sounds convincing and hopeful. It suggests the leader of this country might see the usefulness in harnessing the special resources we grow here, imaginative people, gifted with insight and an ability to give life a shape, to impose order on the apparent and sometimes frightening randomness of experience.
Living in a world where uncertainty and anxiety are easily ignited we can and should look to art to know we are a community, that we don’t suffer alone, that “we are all part of the main”. At this time art must challenge, must question, must reveal, illuminate, answer, with poetry. Artists have a role to play in the unfolding of our national narrative as the citizens of this extraordinarily beautiful and blessed land, home to peoples of more than 160 places of origin.
David Malouf in describing Australia as an “experiment” in ‘Made in England’, suggests that fact means “we ought to be sceptical of conclusions, of any belief that where we are now is any more than a moment along the way”. This is hopeful. We can describe what we were and what we are becoming, but we still have the opportunity to become what we wish to become.
We must listen carefully to our leaders, and to our poets. Vaclav Havel was both. A dissident playwright gaoled for his beliefs, the leader in whom the people placed their hopes for a better future.
The struggle for balance in a world where evil edges ahead of good and weakens us is ongoing. This is why we need the artists who will express our suffering our doubts our uncertainty.
Uncertainty. The core dynamic of life. We live with it. But the tales of our survival, our resilience, our humanity, and our playfulness will supply the balance. Usefully. Words in the right order to nudge the world a little, images in paint, crayon, on canvas and bark, notes arranged so they make songs, melodies, stark and mysterious sounds, bodies in space making their own poetry.
Once again, and finally, I defer to our own great humanist poet novelist playwright commentator and leader, David Malouf, who in the foreword to the Federal Government’s welcome Nugent Enquiry, tells it this way, in describing what it is to partake of the arts: “We come away from them with a quickened interest in things, a deeper awareness of our own possibility and power….it changes our sense of ourselves and of the world. It changes the quality of our lives and the quality of what we do and make. It is one of the clearest forms of our identity….what outsiders recognise as original and unique, we experience simply as what we are, what we have discovered by reflection from what we have made, and which nothing else could have revealed to us”.