Australian Artistic Identity

I went to the annual “Heritage Lecture” of the “National Trust” tonight, presented by the emminent broadcaster and writer Clive James. I’ve been a fan of James for many years, starting with his “Unreliable Memoirs” all those years ago, right through to his tonight and travel shows which featured, for example, the unforgettable Margarita Pracatan, possibly the world’s worst singer.

As fellow blogger, Mark and I stood in the foyer of the State Theatre waiting for the entrance call we both heard a funny little ringing sound. Was it the entrance call? No, it was a rather eccentric woman in her eighties with the funkiest walking frame ever, complete with “bike bell” and “horn” to alert people to when she was coming through. After a few minutes I recognised her as my fellow Lismore compatriate, and one of Australia’s most loved artists, Margaret Olley. It turns out it was her birthday and we were sitting just a few feet away from her.

Along with the likes of Jeffrey Smart, Brett Whitely etc, Olley was one of the artists most discussed in Clive James’ lecture tonight about the contribution of great Australian artists of the latter part of the twentieth century.

In his wonderfully poetic, yet also sing-song style that MAKES you listen, Clive James expanded on a thesis about what made these artists great. Linked to his own experience as a long-term expatriate, he took us back to the 1950s when it was difficult for Australian art students to observe and learn from the great artists of the world from the distance of Australia.

That, he explained was the reason why so many artists, like he, made the trek to Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. But they didn’t have to, he explains, as they were schooled in the essentials of good craftsmanship, learning how to draw “properly”, and often instilled with a strong work ethic. James told us, for example, that Smart wouldn’t just sit around waiting for inspiration, he would constantly prepare canvases, add glazes etc, and that Olley invested wisely in property to ensure she had the resources to paint.

Though recognising there was something unique about their experience, he rejected notions of national identity informing their work (though he did accept some of the landscapes made him feel homesick when he didn’t return home for 16 years). Instead, he argued they were great painters, irrespective of their national origin. To describe them merely in terms of being “great Australian artists” and not just as “great artists” amounted, he argued, to a modern cultural cringe.

He also talked about what he described as an obsession by journalists and pseudo-intellectuals to define the work of these artists in terms of an Australian identity, an obsession or interest, he thought only served to keep themselves busy and in work. “Poland in the 1940s, now that was a country that had an identity crisis”, he argued. He argued we should stop analysing what our national identity is – “why should we have just one national identity?” – and how it “informs” our creative works.

He also sought to contrast the experience of these artists, and their need and desire to learn the basics of their craft with that of other creatives types like writers, who he says never had to learn the basics of their craft in the same methodical way. James spoke with admiration for both the beauty and hard work of these legendary Australian figures.

Railing against the modern trend for art schools to produce artists who write about, comment on or deconstruct art, but don’t actually create it, Clive James spoke personally about his own daughter’s difficulty in finding an art school where she could be taught to actually draw.

Whether or not you agree with his central thesis (I agree, though I think he’s probably more hardline than I am), Clive James is a wonderful wordsmith. Although his skills to deliver his words can sometimes falter, and I sometimes think someone else could deliver his speeches with the same kind of intonation, though possibly more effectively, I think Clive James is a terrific individual, someone who genuinely makes you think. And that’s what I enjoyed most about tonight, a moment to consider something a little more intellectual than the humdrum of daily life.

Anyway, I must go as “Big Brother” is back on tv and awaits my attention (and I’m not being ironic).

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