Is Melbourne really ‘the place to be’ as our vehicle rego plates boldly proclaim?
It’s a question that’s often conveniently overlooked down here. You see, there’s a deep structural malaise infecting this city, an affliction best represented by way of the following observation. Our nation’s most-recent recipients of the Nobel Prize do not hail from Melbourne. These profoundly creative and adventurous thinkers grew up in Kalgoorlie and Perth (Barry Marshall), Adelaide (Robin Warren), Brisbane (Peter Doherty) and in Cape Town, South Africa (John Coetzee). And, further, they carried out much of their groundbreaking work in locations radically different from the seemingly uniform and airbrushed spaces of Melbourne, ‘the events city’.
Places distant from centres of power and tradition, places in Australia such as Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Perth frequently produce critically rich, dense and provocative ‘cultures of thought’. Like rebellious schoolkids taking a smoke behind the bike shed, these peripheral cities harbour a sneering suspicion toward much of the controlling rhetoric broadcast from the nation’s southeast axis of paternal power.
Exceptions abound, of course, but people in places such as Darwin do not do things just because ‘that’s how they’ve always been done’. Newcastle and Brisbane are described as two of the more buzzing cities in the country at the moment. It is no small coincidence that Nobel laureate in Literature, John Coetzee, recently settled in Adelaide and tellingly not in Australia’s self-proclaimed ‘cultural capital’.
In peripheral spaces, people do not do things just so they can be culturally understood and socially accepted. We only have to look, for instance, at how politics in Queensland usually plays out. Maybe it’s the sunshine, the crocs, or the bananas, but up north it’s often a curious and incongruent mix that takes in Bjelke-Petersen, Hanson, Katter, Joyce and Beattie, among others.
In these more marginal Antipodean cultural landscapes there is often a wondrously youthful shimmer, one that reflects a mobile and unsettled mix of the hubristic, the hybrid, the excessive, the playful and the inquisitive.
Comparatively, Melbourne seems to suffer from acute attacks of breathlessness stuck as it is on the stationary plateau of middle age. We could speculate that our city suffers from the un-holy trinity of a cash-cow mentality, a furrowed brow and an over-expanding waistline. Perhaps it’s a case of younger children identifying themselves socially, culturally and politically against the greying and paunched parent, opposing Melbourne’s apparently hollow, compliant and ‘yes Sir’ centre.
It’s not surprising that many cultural and political dissidents, in short, alternative thinkers, are found at society’s margins. For example, some of the most fertile Australian punk rock cultures of the late 1970s were located in Brisbane and Perth. And just last week, many observers were awed by the critical depth at the opening of the Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT) of Contemporary Art at Brisbane’s daring and spectacular Gallery of Modern Art. This year’s APT replicates its past success as arguably the nation’s most truly cutting-edge, politically difficult and thought-provoking mass audience art festival.
It’s argued that Sydney, like Melbourne, is an ‘older and greying’ parent that’s now beyond the pale. But in the city that hosted a Mapplethorpe retrospective over a decade ago, many found this year’s Sydney Biennale of Art to be just as breathtaking and challenging. True to form, by contrast, here in Melbourne we’re already arguing in our local media about whether next year’s Melbourne International Festival needs to retreat to more ‘traditional’ intellectual, cultural and artistic fare.
Taking the Andres Serrano ‘Piss Christ’ controversy as my cue, I wonder whether a Mapplethorpe retrospective could ever make it to Melbourne. More to the point, could a Mapplethorpe ever hail from Melbourne? Or, in a completely different field, could Perth’s Nobel Prize-winning medical researchers Robin Warren and Barry Marshall ever have carried out their paradigm-shifting work here, in Melbourne? I seriously doubt it. These sorts of radicalisms are often blunted, curbed or discouraged by our conservatism, perhaps by our ‘Victorian’ heritage.
All we ever do in Melbourne is boast about how many stagings of ‘The Boy from Oz’ and ‘The Producers’ we’ve managed; or about how many biotech discoveries we’ve commercialised — discoveries, by the way, that are often made elsewhere.
Certainly, there are many local artists and intellectuals who offer a critique of received truths, and seek to build better social platforms. We need many more of them. Taking the visual arts in Melbourne as an example, we could point to Australia’s recent Academy Award winner, animator Adam Elliott. Despite his thorough immersion within the narratives of Melbourne, Elliott’s simple, eloquent and culturally astute stories are overwhelmingly imagined from the margin.
Elliott is an exception, but the disturbing fact is that many marginal narratives are, inevitably, critically denuded as they make it to a larger arena. And in Australia this about-turn is nowhere most obvious than in Melbourne.
For instance, five years ago, Melbourne’s annual Underground and Queer Film Festivals prodded, pricked and provoked audiences with programming that was fresh, uncompromising and dazzling. Today, as audiences and marketing sponsorships grow, organisers of these events feel impelled to program for all tastes, including conservatively corporate ones. This is where other Australian cities, even much smaller ones, have one over on Melbourne: they are willing to play with the hybrid, the creative, and the progressive.
But then again, these cities can afford to take the risk.
Like any parent, Melbourne must learn to let go of its current cultural grip. We must learn anew the excitement, uncertainty and the terror of both cultural thrill-seeking and exploring new and foreign ideas. That is the only way to make Melbourne a first-rate global city, and its residents truly inquisitive and informed. We may never diagnose our current social and cultural affliction accurately, but at least we can recuperate some of the creative and intellectual life for which Melbourne used to be known.
Who knows? Rejuvenating ‘brand Melbourne’ could see Nobel Prize-winning work once again carried out in this city. It may also allow us, with justice and without the current cringe-factor, to proudly call Melbourne ‘the place to be’.
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