When Paul Keating, former Australian Prime Minister, left school at 15 to get his first job, working as a pay clerk for the local electricity authority, he spent his first paycheck buying a bust of Beethoven, which he gave to his mother. ‘Here Mum’, he said, ‘get a bit of culture into your life’.
It’s not a bad slogan for what he wanted to do for Australia – to get a bit of culture into its life. Australia during his childhood, he is fond of saying, was an obscure colonial outpost. It had no cultural or national identity besides that which it aped from its colonial progenitor. There was no vision of what the nation could be besides a British proxy state in Asia (and no place for Indigenous Australians in that vision). The Whitlam government, he thought, had tried to shake off this empty and servile identity. Its failure was made manifest when the governor general, whom Keating called a ‘pumped up Bunyip potentate’, appointed by the monarch of a nation on the other side of the world, dismissed the elected government. This was a violent reassertion of Australia’s diminished colonial status: a warning that it shouldn’t get ideas above its station. Keating’s mission was never to let that happen again.
Make no mistake; I am no fan of Keating’s political agenda. As Treasurer, and then as PM, he pushed Australia into the age of free-market neoliberalism. He may have done so in a more humane way than his American and British counterparts, Reagan and Thatcher. But it’s what he did, bullying and overruling anyone within the Labour party who endorsed a different vision.
The point, however, is that he had a vision. It’s not normal – at least in the popular imagination – for a working class boy from Bankstown to fall in love with classical music and spend his first paycheck on a bust of Beethoven. When a person like that comes to take charge of a country, it’s a given that s/he has ideas about what it should become. Keating’s hero was Churchill – a politician, so Keating thought, with ‘the soul of an artist’.
Now take Tony Abbott. He didn’t leave school at 15. He probably didn’t buy any busts of Beethoven – or if he did it was no doubt because some established authority told him to. He was born in London to wealthy parents, emigrated to Australia as a child, attended an elite Catholic school on the North Shore of Sydney, and then, following the tried and tested path of privilege, was awarded a scholarship to study at Britain’s most elite university: pretty much the classic career path of an appointed Viceroy.
Whatever ‘the soul of an artist’ is, one thing that is clear is that it does not live within Tony Abbott. His life story is one of having greatness thrust upon him. Start with enough privilege and you inevitably end up in power, unless somebody with enough vision to overcome the forces of privilege and social inertia gets in your way. Thus Abbott ended up in charge of Australia with no vision, no ideas, and no inspiration. I can’t disagree with his picture of Australia’s future, because there isn’t one. He reintroduced knight and dame honours because, having gutted Australia of any unique cultural identity it was beginning to develop, he had nothing to replace it with besides a nostalgic imitation of a British past. The pièce de resistance of his government’s last budget is a handout to self-employed ‘tradies’, as though all that stands between Australia and a glorious future is the cash-flow problems of a few building contractors. Paying down the deficit and ‘stopping the boats’ – matters over which the government demonstrably has no control – are pursued with ruthless impotence, like Caligula going to war with the sea.
Here, then, is one answer to people who ask about the value of art. Keating speaks in interviews about how he used to listen to Mahler’s symphonies with a notepad in front of him, trying to channel the power of the music into political inspiration. Or he would walk around the great architectural wonders of the world, noting that if pure vision and will could elevate such monuments there is no reason it couldn’t elevate great political institutions of a more intangible form. Again, I don’t agree at all with Keating’s politics. But I would rather be governed by people who fight their way into power because they want to realise a vision than by people who simply get the job by default, as the result of inherited privilege.
The very fact that somebody like Tony Abbott can be in power evidences the complete absence of vision in Australian public life. Politics is largely a matter of jobbery, but it is also a battle of ideas, and anybody with a single idea would beat Abbott 1-0.
This is why articles like this Daily Telegraph piece are so disturbing. Australia is not short on vision, nor on inspiration. It produces some of the greatest artists, musicians, and intellectuals in the world, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing personally. The problem is that hardly any of them stay in Australia, and when they do they’re demonised as bludgers, living off ‘the taxpayer’ (for Christ’s sake learn how government financing works).
Read the article, and you’ll see the sort of attitudes that come out in Australia against people who just want to do something a bit creative, make something with value that isn’t straightforwardly monetary, or just think in a slightly different way. The Telegraph, for instance, wants us to be angry merely at the fact that: ‘We gave Victoria’s James Macaulay $10,000 “To develop and expand (his) practice as a creative musician by studying in Banff and New York”‘ – this is without saying who James Macaulay is or what his music is like.
The fact is, art inspires people to many things, including to political vision. Don’t you want people to have political vision? Would you rather continue to be ruled by people who just get the job by default? When I first read that Telegraph piece, I considered that I probably wouldn’t like the work that is its main focus; I’m not much of a fan of video installations in general.
But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a work of art whose sole purpose is to make people yawn says something important about Australian politics right now.