Australia and the arts

Grey day © Samantha Groenestyn

At first glance, it would seem that with wealth comes leisure and the ability to procure artefacts of taste, and that a thriving arts culture can only emerge once basic needs are satisfied. Impoverished, we seek only food and shelter. Fed and housed, we seek out objects for their aesthetic appeal as well. We attend the opera and visit the art gallery.

Argued Max, a French comrade: Australia is the counter-argument to this claim. Australians have a high standard of living, but they don’t respect the arts the way the French—for example—do. While the French have a long history of lauding literature and lavish paintings, in spite of bouts of poverty, and even especially during these times as a refuge, Australians don’t find the arts to be central to their identity, or as utterly enthralling.

This is, of course, a generalisation, but I think there is something in it. While summer brings with it a swag of music festivals, religiously attended by tent-laden Aussies from the scattered corners, and while Brisbane’s creatives are banding together to breathe cultural life into our city, it would be hard to argue that these are examples of an ingrained love for the arts in our country. Yesterday I dropped in to the University of Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition Return to Sender, a collection of artworks from the late seventies and early eighties, a time when Queensland was under the iron rule of one Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The artists were from Brisbane or rural Queensland, moved to the city to study, and generally found themselves hunted, spending nights in the watch-house and making their exit to Sydney and to the world beyond as quickly as possible. Australia is, historically, a place for creatives and intellectuals to leave.

Queensland is a freshly-mulched nursery for the creative type today, but only as recently as within my lifetime. And perhaps only Brisbane. A peculiar state capital, located at the bottom far right corner, young people such as myself commonly migrate as far as two thousand kilometres from the rural areas of this state to pursue a university education. Yep, my parents live in the same state as me, but our physical distance is such that if they lived in London, I would live in Budapest. That’s a lot of ground to cover to find a little pocket of arts-friendliness. And let me tell you: There’s no stopping for a pint in Brussels, seeing the continent’s largest gothic cathedral in Cologne, or checking out astronomical clocks in Prague along the way.

It’s pretty impressive.

This is a large part of the reason I won’t stay in Australia, and why once I leave, I probably won’t return. It’s not the lack of historic curiosities, but the absence of the arts as a relevant, authentic, impassioned part of our collective identity. Australia permits the arts, and carefully delineates its role, and pockets its tourism dollars, but its heart is not in it. And money can’t buy that.

Culcha, get it up ya.

We might well breathlessly implore Europe, as the young Lambert implores his hero Henri in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins*(p. 182): ‘You have a sense of what is real. You ought to teach us how to live for the moment … I wasn’t thinking of any theoretical treatise. But there are things that you consider important, there are values you believe in. You ought to show us the pleasant things on earth. And you could also make it a little more livable by writing beautiful books. It seems to me that that is what literature should do … Even things that are sad become pleasant when they’re done artistically.’


* De Beauvoir, Simone. 1982. The Mandarins. Trans. Leonard M Friedman. Fontana: Glasgow.


Grey day depicts a bleak but beautiful street in Budapest, a favourite city of mine. Ravaged by war and poverty, Budapest wears the scars of its history, but with surprising grace. The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s shadow remains in the grandness of the city in spite of its traumas.



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