Culture of conformity

Striking the pose in Artsworld

Australia’s arts world is not the haven of tolerance and diversity that it claims to be. For practically anyone working in the sector to enjoy even a modest level of success they are required to hold certain political positions. These are not explicitly laid out in some kind of official induction, of course, but they certainly become crystal clear over time. And if you ever dare to transgress them the bouts of eye-rolling and expressions of sheer revulsion that inevitably result leave you in no doubt whatsoever about what you are supposed to believe.

Needless to say, these positions are almost invariably left-wing and politically correct. But when expressed by Aussie actors, writers, arts czars and the like they often contain an extra dollop of petulance and sanctimony. And while many are illogical to start with, artists regularly manage to make them even more extreme in this regard. I believe that this is because arty types in general (and performing artists in particular) are even more emotional than your average lefty — which is saying something. They also crave attention a lot more.

Take Artsworld’s position on mining, for example. Overwhelmingly, its denizens look down on those employed in this industry as rednecks and philistines. Their sneering disdain is motivated by class snobbery as well as fashionable green sanctimony. Toni Collette illustrated this attitude perfectly on Enough Rope, when she recalled shooting a film on location in Mt Newman.

That’s a disgusting mine where they actually shot a huge explosion while we were there and I just felt sick about it. Let’s all rape the earth.

Given this pervasive attitude, you’d be forgiven for thinking that arts workers would want to have nothing whatsoever to do with this brutal, blokey industry. Not so. They perform a perfect U-turn when it comes to the profits resulting from that "earth-rape".

As outlined in a recent feature in The Australian, West Aussie arts organizations feel they haven’t received their fair share of the money that has resulted from the state’s ongoing resources boom and they’re hopping mad about it.

Then there’s the highly emotive issue of asylum seekers. Late last year, conservative columnist Andrew Bolt claimed that the Gillard Labor Government had "blood on its hands" over the tragic deaths of asylum seekers whose boat sank off Christmas Island.

Numerous left-wing activists, as well as many mainstream journalists, condemned him in the strongest possible terms for making this statement. But none were as extreme as writer John Birmingham, who wrote a fantastically silly and pompous column in which he compared Bolt to a blood clot.

While I didn’t attend any artist-rich gatherings over the silly season, I’m sure that at many such soirées Bolt’s infamous phrase and Birmingham’s memorable characterization of him were the raw material for much passionately indignant chatter – all of it one-sided, of course.

You see, if you are an artist you are expected to care about issues, not think about them. And you are obligated to get up and vent that fire in your belly. Hell, if you don’t, who will? But artists tend to forget that caring and thinking are not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can care and think, after all. (And you should care enough to think, for that matter.)

That’s why Birmingham never really grappled with Bolt’s argument and refuted it on its own rational terms. While it was provocative, it certainly made cold, hard sense: Soft border control policies are luring people to their deaths. If we don’t want this to keep happening, we must make these policies tougher.

Two other issues of particular relevance to the culture of Artsworld — and which have received a lot of media coverage lately — are freedom of information and freedom of expression. While not identical, they are certainly very closely related.

Clearly, the big freedom of information story is Wikileaks, and the plight of Julian Assange. It’s no surprise that in Artsworld pretty much everyone thinks he’s a hero working bravely to expose the inner workings of the evil AmeriKKKan Empire.

While Assange has not befallen any physical harm, many artists are convinced that he will. Their fervent imaginations are filled with visions of their hero being clinically executed  "Jack Ruby-style" by a shady CIA operative in dark glasses. (Actually, I think many are secretly hoping this will happen, so then they’ll be justified in becoming even angrier!)

So it’s no surprise that a recent open letter sent to Julia Gillard in defence of Assange, and warning of threats to his life, contained the signatures of many well known writers, as well as some performers. These included Christos Tsiolkas, Helen Garner, Julian Morrow, John Birmingham, Guy Rundle, and Max Gillies.

But what about Artsworld’s take on the biggest contemporary freedom of artistic expression story, the Mohammed cartoons? This issue has been bubbling away continually for several years now. Lethal riots have resulted, as well as numerous attacks on embassies. Countless death threats have been made against the cartoonists who created the works, as well as those working at the newspaper that first published them, the Jyllands-Posten. Two of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard and Lars Vilks, have been physically attacked. Recently, Danish police foiled a serious plot to attack the building housing the Jyllands-Posten.

These cartoonists aren’t Australian citizens. But local artists have often showed support for heroes and martyrs from other countries in the past. So where are the expressions of solidarity from Aussie arts workers now?

The silence is deafening. And deeply depressing.

Yet this grovelling submission to political correctness is routine in Artsworld. It’s clearly not the place to be if you have a rebellious, independent mind and spirit. Frankly, you’d be better off in business.

Matt Hayden is a Perth writer with extensive experience as a stand-up and character comedian. He writes several blogs, including one specifically about the arts.

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