From Cringe to Shame

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I spent January dipping into Modernism and Australia, a massive compilation of documents in Australian art and taste, newly published by Melbourne University Publishing. Some of the documents are old friends, staple fare for those who research Australian art history, now brought together in crisp white pages. At the heart of the volume is the essay that defined the cultural debate of mid-20th century Australia: AA Phillips’s ‘The Cultural Cringe,’ first published in Meanjin in 1950.

Phillips described a culture which I only just remember, a place where ‘British’ was, by definition, original and superior, while ‘Australian’ had to be a second-rate imitation. One of his arguments was that this is not necessarily so, yet the locals continued to feel inferior. Phillips noticed that our sense of inferiority did not take into account our relatively small population, but led us to constantly compare our products to those we supposed to be our betters.

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‘The Australian reader, more or less consciously, hedges and hesitates, asking himself, œYes, but what would a cultivated Englishman think of this?’ No writer can communicate confidently to a reader with the œYes, but  habit,’ Phillips wrote.

By the time I was noticing anything much, Phillips’s world had changed. From the 1960s, television served as a constant reminder that everything that mattered in popular culture came from the United States. And politically, too, we bowed more deeply to the US than to the UK. But there was something else the best of the generation born during World War II, those who just preceded the Baby Boomers, were running rampage through swinging London, shocking stuffy England with Oz magazine, Clive James drollery, Barry McKenzie humour and Germaine Greer feminism. Suddenly, compared to the Poms, we weren’t so bad after all.

Why then do I find Phillips’s essay of 1950 so interesting today? Because, in the course of a little over 50 years, the world has changed again. In the first years of the new millennium the ‘Cringe’ is back with a vengeance.

Most of us no longer pretend to be English, or apologise profusely for the gauche provincialism of our colleagues, as described by Phillips. This new incarnation of the Cringe is more nuanced; it is the consequence of a society that has totally knuckled under.

In the 1960s, Barry McKenzie convinced the English that Australians drank Foster’s Lager a beer no one much likes and many English people remain convinced it is our favourite drink. In the summer of 2006 the American trash heiress, Paris Hilton, was imported to spruik a new kind of some local brew. The media followed her wherever she went, and the advertising agency considered it was money well spent.

More significantly David Dale, anthropology writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, has noted that Australians now actively avoid going to see Australian movies. This is not simply a matter of dastardly distributors failing to show them. It is simply that the best way to guarantee vacant seats in a cinema is to show Australian films, and the best guarantee of a full house is to stress the international (ie American) content. So George Miller’s Happy Feet, which had more than a reasonable claim to being Australian, did not use the local angle in its publicity. This is not to say we don’t support our international stars there’s lots of media interest in Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett et al just not bums on seats when they act in locally made productions.

This is certainly a change from the 1970s and 1980s when we were pretty close to exchanging that Cringe for a Strut.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Another of my holiday activities was to watch the DVD of My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that established the careers of Judy Davis, Sam Neill and Gillian Armstrong. At the time I, thought of it as an absolute breath of fresh air. In retrospect it is a confident statement of feminism, freedom and a country trying to say something important about its ultimate values. The documentary feature on the DVD shows the uncertainty that lay beneath that brave front, but also an endearing awe at the way this film was hailed at Cannes. My Brilliant Career remained in cinemas for almost a year, pulling in local audiences in a way that can only be dreamed of today by producers of Australian movies.

So, what has changed to turn people away from images of Australia? It’s not as though jingoism is dead. Indeed, official propaganda ramps up praise for Australia Day in a way that would have been regarded as absurd to past generations. Along with this, there is the replacement of the relaxed, generous and inclusive policy of multiculturalism with the prescriptive notion of ‘citizenship’ we are now directed to sing from the same song-sheet. The song is Advance Australia Fair, and unlike the past, we are expected to know the words to more than the first and last lines. Logically a society covering itself with such praise should support its own culture, but we don’t.

One of the reasons for this is fairly obvious. Despite claims to the contrary, we never were a homogenous society. The kind of people who wrap themselves in flags, without irony, tend not to be those who go to arthouse cinema. Even at its most popular with the exceptions of Crocodile Dundee, Mad Max and Babe Australian films tend to be arthouse. It is this audience that is walking away from examinations of its own culture, in part because of the emergence of a new and (for us) unfamiliar emotion: Shame.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we could see Breaker Morant and feel separate from the colonial history of South Africa, or see Gallipoli and happily hate the English officers. Now we lack that sense of separation. Australia no longer has the excuse of being a colony dragged into foreign wars; we have entered into the great crimes of our era as an active player.

These crimes include the bizarre folly of the military expedition to Iraq and the destruction of our grandchildren’s future environment in pursuit of short-term market gain. There is now a general recognition that when push comes to shove, our elected Government has chosen to pay obeisance to the world’s superpower as a vassal State. If an Australian citizen has problems with the US, we now know they will be abandoned by our government.

For some time now many backpacking citizens of the US have been happy to be mistaken for Canadians. Travelling Australians now often pretend to be New Zealanders.

Shame is not necessarily a bad emotion. It tells us we have a problem, and as such is a useful diagnostic tool. However self-flagellation is a fairly unproductive activity although it has produced great works of art like Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country and some of Arthur Boyd’s Bride series. Shame is therefore a wake-up call, a reminder that we are travelling the wrong way and need to change direction. Only then will it be possible to celebrate who and what we are.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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