Sunday, June 15, 2003

Artist, wanker, traitor

Liz Jones, artistic director of La Mama Theatre, sent me two newspaper articles in the post a couple of days ago. One is an article in the Weekend Australian, from May 24, about Stephen Sewell's new play at Playbox, a derivation it seems of Brecht's Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, in which Liz is quoted as saying, of the general political attitudes of the hundreds of local scripts she sees each year, that "the predominant emotion of artists in the present climate is one of national shame and opposition to war. Our artistic community is not at one with popular attitudes."

The other is by Andrew Bolt, the right-wing columnist in the Herald Sun, in which Liz is also quoted. Its tone can be gathered from the intro par: "Duplicitous, grant-gobbling artists are making national shame an export industry in Australia, and we pay them to do it". He launches into a scurrilous attack on former diplomat Alison Broinowski's study of cultural attitudes in Asia towards Australia, About Face. From this, he widens his attack on the "drivel" coming from "so many artists" - and here he lists the play Stolen and the film Rabbit Proof Fence as further examples - which is nothing less than a libel on this free, tolerant, great nation of ours. He followed it up a few days later with an attack on Marion Halligon, again belabouring her for wasting "your" money.

Well, so far, so predictable. And what is to be said about Andrew Bolt? His transfiguration into a right wing media pundit, from the mediocre and not especially intelligent journalist I knew when I was a cadet twenty years ago, has been nothing less than amazing: now he is invested with the authority of his column, and his inflexible bigotries pass for "opinion", in much the same ways that Howard's brown nosing of George Bush passes for "strong leadership". There's nothing that can be done about this tripe: Bolt is well-paid for writing it, and the more howls of outrage he elicits, the more his bosses are pleased. Journalism is amoral that way, as in many others. But aside from being a controversialist, he is a handy mouthpiece, and it's no accident that he has risen so high in the local castle of the Murdoch empire. Like a weary photographer said to me once of News Ltd, "Shit floats". He's there to deflect resentment, to direct it away from intelligent questioning and towards a range of troublemaking scapegoats - refugees, Muslims, lefties, greenies, intellectuals, Aboriginal activists and, of course, artists.

And it would not be a bother at all if he was, as would have been the case a decade ago, merely the voice of a lunatic fringe. He is now the voice of central government, and Howard's view of artists is so not far from Bolt's. The role of the artist/intellectual as dissenter has seldom been an honoured one in Australia, but to be an artist at all is now one step away from being called a traitor. There are little pools of light: NSW, for example, has a premier who actually reads. But I have no doubt it's going to get a lot, lot worse. I can't believe Bolt's campaign is not a softening up towards savage cuts in arts funding: the last thing this country needs, according to his lights, is an artistic imagination. And, given what Howard wants this country to become, he is right.

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