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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