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Ahead of Our Times: Is Political Progressivism Part of the Australia’s Creative DNA?

By Denis Bright

Many art galleries at universities and museums will be hosting end of year exhibits to display works from a new generation of creative leaders.

While our most conservative political leaders are reluctant to join The Change Bus, creative students might be offering a different eye to the future. I intend to go to forthcoming exhibitions in Brisbane to enjoy the creative talents and of course to test the notion that such talent also forging a progressive future in the transitions of the Australian impressionist artists in the late nineteenth century. Is there perhaps another Belle Epoque in the making?

In contrast, Prime Minister Morrison and his team have chosen the path of political regression at a time of great challenges facing our nation. The Prime Minister’s shrill reply made the evening news on 1 November 2019 was not encouraging:

Scott Morrison has branded environmental protesters “anarchists” and threatened a radical crackdown on the right to protest in a speech claiming progressives are seeking to “deny the liberties of Australians”.

In a speech to the Queensland Resources Council on Friday, the prime minister said a threat to the future of mining was coming from a “new breed of radical activism” and signalled the government would seek to apply penalties to those targeting businesses who provide services to the resources industry.

Civil society groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre and Australian Conservation Foundation, and the Greens immediately attacked the proposal as undemocratic and a bid to stifle a social movement fighting for Australia to take action on climate change.

So far, the text of this address has not been added to the Prime Minister’s web site. Perhaps the rhetoric is simply too embarrassing to be transmitted to national and international audiences. Staff at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet might be too busy with other promotional duties.

Having been compromised by flattery directed at Prime Minister Morrison by President Trump during that recent state visit to the USA, I did hope that Australian leaders might move in a more independent direction as a subtle protest to the excesses of this visit. The billion dollars promised to the Clean Energy Corporation seemed to be a step in the right direction.

Prime Minister Morrison echoed the America First rhetoric in his address to the General Assembly and in a follow-up address to the Lowy Institute (ABC News Online, 8 October 2019):

The ABC News reported very negatively on the Prime Minister’s Address to the General Assembly and the US visit in its entirety:

This was an odd speech on several different levels, not least because Morrison is presenting a straw-man argument.

No-one in a position of responsibility is suggesting, as far as I know, that Australia disregard the national interest first and foremost in the conduct of its affairs.

No-one, except perhaps those on the very fringes of the debate, is advocating a “one-world” government. No-one in any sort of leadership role is recommending that we “surrender to an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”.

In its essence, this was not a speech that should have been delivered by the leader of a self-confident middle power bent on leveraging its influence in a complex marketplace via its conspicuous advantages of geography and wealth, and indeed alliance arrangements.

In the past, creative talent has been a torchbearer for change. Even when Australian leaders were working towards federation in the late nineteenth century, such timidity would have been laughable even in the shadows of an ageing Queen Victoria.

Progressive nationalism was in the DNA of the federation leaders on behalf of a population of 3.8 million across six colonies in 1901.

The progressive tradition is thriving still at some business institutes which also display innovative art works about Australian identity. The Queensland Government’s Q Super and QInvest are sponsors of reconciliation art with acquisitions on display in its offices in Brisbane and Townsville. Indigenous artist Martina Ah Sam graces QInvest’s Townsville office.

As a girl, Martina Ah Sam searched for bush tucker with her grandmother, collecting berries along the river and catching goannas by their tails. Ah Sam’s mother, an Arrente woman, painted, and gave her daughter small ceramic pieces to decorate.

Those childhood experiences unite in the vibrant painting Ah Sam created for QInvest’s Townsville office. At the centre of the artwork, goannas scramble toward a burrow under conkerberry bushes. Circles of lighter blue represent water holes.

The painting is called ‘Night Hunt.’

“I sponge painted to make the overlay dark and light in places, like the night sky,” Ah Sam said.

Late nineteenth century art works of the progressive tradition from the Heidelberg School from Arthur Streeton, Walter Withers, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin and others expressed a more larrikin spirit which reflected the optimistic perspective of a new nation. Regrettably, it had racist overtones because of the exclusion of indigenous subjects. That outreach took another half century to develop.

To their credit, the impressionist artists of the late nineteenth century communicated a deep respect for the spirit of the land and its colourful characters.

Here Walter Withers identifies with the quest for alluvial gold in this work which is now on display in the Art Gallery of NSW.

A generation later in the federation era, art moved in more formal directions.

Tom Roberts used photographic imagery to record The Big Picture to mark the opening of the first Australian parliament.

In a touch of irony, the proclamation of nationhood was endorsed by the future King George V who presided over the British Empire during the Great War.

Tom Roberts went on to serve at a military hospital in England during years when former Prime Minister Andrew Fisher was High Commissioner in London.

Robert’s impressionist colleague Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) joined the British Army Medical Corps. He was appointed official war artist with the Australian AIF in 1918 with informal instructions to avoid emphasising the sufferings of soldiers on the Western Front by concentrating on The Big Picture of the Fighting.

It was indeed a long road for Tom Roberts from The Sunny South by the beach at Beaumaris in c1887 to the formal portrait of the opening of Australia’s first national parliament to the sombre corridors of military hospitals during the Great War when King George V decided to change the royal family name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor after the first German air raids on London had taken their toll. The death toll included nine pupils at a maths lesson in the East End.

Change can of course come in a positively reverse direction as our leaders make a bipartisan commitment to be an Asia Pacific Nation first and foremost.

From the Sunny South to the Corridors of Power

Bill Leak (1956-2017) offered some light relief from this epic presentation.

The attendees at Dame Edna’s simulated official opening of parliament do seem to be a cheery lot of radicals and social liberals in the traditions of a progressive Australia from the Impressionist Era.

Some of the political nasties with an alternative far-right vision of Australia seem to be conspicuously absent unless I have missed them in the assembled throng.

Perhaps that is the hidden message from Bill Leak.

Engage too much with advocates of a more regressive history at your peril. Such devotees of fake news will gain fresh oxygen to fan the flames of racism and disorder in reinterpreting both the past and the future.

So do check out the creative endeavours of today’s rising generation of artists at forthcoming end of year exhibitions at a gallery near your place. The events in Brisbane are later in the month but I will be pleased to add to some anecdotes to this feature article if the gallery events offer insights into our future directions as a nation.

Meanwhile don’t expect too much Sunny South from the Morrison Government which is now firmly under the control of own conservative wing from within both the Liberal Party, six National Party members of the full cabinet and our current dalliance with One Nation.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to citizens’ journalism from a critical structuralist perspective. Comments from Insiders with a specialist knowledge of the topics covered are particularly welcome.



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  1. Kaye Lee

    “So far, the text of this address has not been added to the Prime Minister’s web site.”

    I looked for it too Denis. Today they have posted the Q&A from after the speech as well as several later media releases/speeches/bullshit.

    It appears that the actual text of Scott’s speech, whilst predistributed, is not going to be posted. That is interesting in itself as he posts every other word he utters.

  2. Stella

    Thanks for an interesting article.

  3. paul

    Summer brings a craving for new directions at the beach and beyond. A very optimistic interpretation Denis.

  4. Melissa

    Cheers to the new Belle Époque.
    Scott Morrison is welcome to sign up as he represents a beach suburb in the Sunny South
    at Cook close by to Cronulla and the Royal National Park.

  5. Chris

    New immigrants soon warmed to the Australian spitir which had its share of radical thought in politics and art when the first parliament met in 1901: Thanks for reminding everyone about the forgotten Belle Epoque in Australian history, Denis

  6. Leila

    Most interesting article Denis. We can only hope the Labour Party get decent policies in place to take Australians forward at the next election. Who knows what to believe with this Morrison Government.

  7. Tessa_M

    A landscape flooded in light and temperate by recent rains. Will it bring political green shoots for our immediate future? Great research work Denis.

  8. James Robo

    Impressionism lives on in my artwork. I enjoyed the article.

  9. Joseph Carli

    While any “new generation’s eyes” that see a peoples place or situation with a fresh perspective would be a welcome thing, those fresh visions would be more authentic if they rose from the soil of the greater masses rather than be “inserted” from above onto an unwary public…and while we can appreciate the indigenous depictions of Ms. Martina Ah Sam’s paintings, it still demands an interpreter to fully explain the message within the painting to give it more appeal than just the delightful patterning….a situation extant with most “plan view” indigenous art…as against the Namatjira style of “lineal view” watercolours.
    One of the failings I see of the country arts programs is the attempts to “inflict” esoteric art upon peoples in regions more in-tune to the basic pragmatics of life and struggle…I have seen such “art exhibitions” in local town halls and they have but small appeal to local people…
    Personally, I would like to see less of “art for art’s sake” and more social realism art for realistic sake.

  10. rubio@coast

    In promoting Dame Edna, Bill Leak added a touch of humour to the deadly seriousness of formal occasions. The far right of Australian politics is not noted for its humour. How can politics be humorous when it is promoting paranoid fears through sections of the LP and most of the National Party as well as One Nation. Hopefully some takes will emerge on the themes covered by contemporary artists at those forthcoming displays because formal politics seems to have lost its way as the far-right agenda heads to towns and cities even closer to the heart of major cities. In Peter Dutton’s case, he is already entrenched along Brisbane’s northern motorways as the voice of the Establishment.

  11. The Spirit of the Sunny Southland

    Was the Lucky Country degraded by over-commitment to the Great War: Quite the opposite to the official interpretations associated with the ANZAC legend?

  12. guest


    you surprise me, you, the great raconteur, poet and explicator of ancient Roman History through the works of Mommsen and others. Now you reveal your thinking about art.

    Rather philistine, I would have thought, from what you say here. You do not know much about art, but you know what you like. And what other people like, apparently. Right?

    You say about art, possibly the work of young emerging artists exhibiting in new displays in art schools, that “fresh visions would be more authentic if they arose from the soil of the great masses”. I would have thought that young artists would be doing just that: emerging from the masses, their work embodying the ethos of the world they inhabit.

    What you do not like is art ” ‘inserted’ from above on an unwary public”. And you go on to explain who these people are. Apparently they are rural people “more in-tune to the basic pragmatics of life and struggle”.

    I think you do rural people a disservice. You underestimate the ability of those people to observe and think about art of a range of styles and eras.

    The curator who curates an exhibition tries to appeal to a range of preferences and understandings. Titles on works can spark enlightenment. Books about art can help.Gallery guides can help. And there are many people who dabble in art for pleasure and recreation.

    But you are wary of the need for interpretation. Yet the explanation about Martina Ah Sam’s work is interesting and informative. And no doubt there is more to it that you are not entitled to know. Similarly with the work of Albert Namatjira. He was criticised because his work was not “genuine” Aboriginal art, more like ‘chocolate box’ European art. But in fact his work a much about the places in Central Australia which are important to the Arrente people. He was a naturally gifted artist, now more and more appreciated.

    So, what is your favoured art, Joseph? Social realism? Surely you do not mean that Russian propaganda with buxom women tractor drivers, muscly males carrying huge hammers and sickles – and in the background, huge chimneys belching smoke from industry. It has been done before.

    Do you mean art you recognise? Plenty of that about. It is what Thursday afternoon amateurs strive for.

    There is a big world of art out there, Joseph, going back thousands of years. Check it out. I know you could handle it well – and enjoy it!

  13. Joseph Carli

    guest..I cannot seem to put up the reply I would like..I’ll try this method..

    guest…with such visible flattery, I would have no hesitation…regardless of the gender or state of the underwear …in kissing your worshipful arse!..but you are putting presumptions…presumably YOUR OWN…into my writings..I would say that …I FEEL…that certain “Schools of ART” would inculcate if not style, then certainly..if one wishes to achieve “network recognition” with a good mark..”correct priorities”….but certainly that would not apply to all and there is still hope for the renegade “schoolie artist” that breaks ranks…but we know where that leads many rebelious types in a structured for reward and glittering prizes society…don’t we?…

    Art..unfortunately in these times of fiscal necessity demanding publishing success and a lack of garrets to starve in, seems to cater for but two types…and I’ll talk of writing here if you take note…The “therapy writer” who uses their work to travel that personal road less travelled to resolve personal issues…and there is the “commercial writer” who has their eye, along with their pen securely glued to the publishing prospects of their work…varying little from the path of accepted and politically acceptable standards and themes…

    And yes…I have seen many times and even been roped into a venture where a govvy art grant demands perimiters and “bottom-line” limits to a performance piece…or question will be asked!…see my piece next door on this page for enlightenment…

    And while there are a sprinkling of rural aficionados savvy with selective artistic interpretations, (I believe the standards have been lowered to allow some tertiary educated into the community) by and large, those lumpen proles who drag themselves to and from the salt-mines every day have little knowledge or interest in the waffling adjective-stuffed interpretations of the abstract mind!….

    There is a simple pen and ink drawing in the National Gallery Canberra of a sad looking man sitting in impoverished surroundings at a table with a wine bottle upon it..: ” George Grosz ; Let Those Swim Who Can – The Heavy. May Sink!”….It is most elucidating as a “interpretative piece”.

    There are many variations of social realism…Diego Rivera made some wonderful pieces when he wasn’t making love to Frida Khalo, I believe….

    But hey!..don’t let me interfere with your wonderful gospel, guest…you are going so well…keep up the good work…perhaps you could venture over to my piece and give comment there…I would appreciate such as so many others here seem far too busy lamenting , AGAIN, their fate at the hands of this “stinky, poo-bum Morrison govt'”…and I have to ask..Why would that be so?.

    I will add, guest, to you and to others here who seem to think several of us regular “outsider posters”, myself, Trish and a couple of others I can think of…are fair game for the pissy insults so frequently delivered to us…

    Back when my sister first went to live in this small village in central Italy, and she was buying a couple of kilo of capsicums from the travelling greengrocer there..and being new to the village, she didn’t yet know many of the other women standing around as she purchased the veggies..and the man, thinking to take advantage of her situation underweighed the product…My sister, being no slouch and not backward in coming forward, challenged him to weigh them again, where the ruse was exposed…She paid for the correct weight, but before she left, she turned to those other women there…as I am turning to you other posters HERE and she said..: “And all you women saw I was being cheated and yet you said nothing!…that makes YOU as much a cheat as the man who would cheat me!”…

    Ahh! Success!

  14. Lara G.

    Good article Denis! As in Australia, art has protected the Filipino identity since prehistoric times. It is one of the most vibrant cultural forces in our society from the earliest rock and cave art. Yes, I agree artists should be ahead of their times as they are our standard-bearers against foreign domination.

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