In this age of selfies and X-factors, spare a thought for the insidious damage that is being done to the development of Australian serious culture. Given that Bob Dylan may have sung ‘…don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand…’ should we be bothered? Yes, very bothered indeed.
The reality that is hidden from many in the Australian community, is just how pervasive the myopia of looking back to a ‘golden age’ is in promoting older generations’ inability to engage with the contemporary world. Moronic grumbling about young people is celebrated and published in major daily newspapers such as the Age and the SMH as significant and worthwhile. If you think I am overstating the case, well consider this.
The vanity that is known as elitism pervades the culture to a corrosive extent. Older people have lost the ability to know when something is art, and worthy. Instead, they hang on every word of their preserved conservatives, mouthing broad and unsubstantiated generalities.
Taiwan-born director Ang Lee says that, wait for it, “Kids don’t even read comic books anymore. They’ve got more important things to do – like video games.” If that isn’t selective use of a curmudgeonly out-of-context citations to back up a spurious argument, what is? Then there’s the toe-curling indulgence of those music stars, like the late Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. He claimed that; “In opera, as with any performing art, to be in great demand and to command high fees you must be good, of course, but you must also be famous.” Oh please! Can you imagine Josh Pyke saying anything so crass?
Or how about this kind of Pavarotti self-centered twaddle: “For me, music making is the most joyful activity possible, the most perfect expression of any emotion.”
The Boomers lap up this kind of self-conscious exhibitionism as a “serious” statement, as they have precious little comparative contemporary comment beyond what is grumbled about at the bar during intermission in one of the recent Ring Cycle performances, or in the staffroom at certain elite private boys schools at lunchtime.
So, who’s at fault? Baby Boomers need do a little more about engaging with contemporary, progressive culture, much of which is building upon the so called ‘high culture’ of the past. Digital technology, multi-platform narratives, higher mathematics references in ‘The Simpsons’, young adult fiction that crosses readership boundaries and adds to the ongoing cultural discourse of the nation. Serious contemporary cultural artifacts that require patience and understanding need to be explained in small words to grumpy, unwilling middle-aged pupils.
In Australia, elitism is the privilege of a few, who then get into Parliament and rip funding from the public education system and universities, while complaining about ‘jingoistic egalitarianism.’ But perhaps this is going too far? Who should have to appreciate the finesse behind a slam poem by Omar Musa? Or who on earth Sonya Hartnett or Shaun Tan are? As for admitting the value of institutions like the National Institute of Youth Performing Arts, forget it. There are many other examples.
Why this matters is that without a sense of cultural progress, then we will be stuck in the past, with only so-called ‘high cultural markers’ as the cornerstones of our national cultural identity, and of cultural discourse more generally. We won’t be able to really really concentrate or appreciate, for example, Mahler, because we’ll have no familiarity with the musical traditions and skills that have been built upon those very foundations.
The impact this will have on audiences is cause for concern. In the next two decades, the elders or keepers of the cultural treasures will be gone, and it’s completely impossible to conceive that anyone currently under the age of forty will ever have any interest in the cultural life of the country. You know, apart from all those ‘students’ who are currently enrolled in various forms of ‘higher education’ in the ‘arts’ sector.
But then, where are the audiences going to come from if today’s students are stifled in their ability to express and explore their world and culture, other than through exposure only to ‘elite’ artforms? This is already happening. Ticket prices are not the cause, either. It’s most likely to do with outdated attitudes to education among certain elements of the teaching profession who are unable to engage their students outside of a very narrow prism of experience. Clearly in the contemporary world, this is a significant problem.
Sure private schools (like all schools) are potentially important in destroying this damaging ‘elitism’ in cultural discourse. I taught in one, and I taught serious, demanding contemporary literature, right alongside serious, classically demanding literature. Was it elite? Not if I had anything to do with it. But neither did it pander to the lowest common denominator. Like all good literature teachers, I tried to teach my students that context is everything, and that a nuanced observation of contemporary adolescent life, like Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi (or even her more contemporary works, written in the proceeding 20 years, such as The Piper’s Son or On the Jellicoe Road) have as much to offer to an enquiring, critical reader as, say Jane Eyre. Can you compare the two? Absolutely. And you should.
This goes beyond subjective taste. Does Lou Reed compare with Segovia? Well… it’s kind of an odd comparison, but I guess that they might. Both were significant musicians of their eras, both served to act as focal points for the development of their musical disciplines, and if someone more knowledgeable than I were to apply themselves to the task, I’m pretty certain that it would be possible to draw lines of stylistic influence from The Velvet Underground back to early 20th century guitar virtuosos, such as Segovia. But I could be wrong. It’s certainly not a no brainer. Rather an interesting question, really…
These ‘frozen oldies’ are wedged in narrow cultural doorways of fifty years ago, and are unable to push through into the wider, room of cultural discourse beyond. They suck up smoothies of conservative pap when anyone says anything “pithy” out of an increasing and inevitable sense of their own irrelevance. But ‘pithy’ is a relative term. Listen to Kurt Cobain, who articulated the disaffection of his generation with the elitist ‘cultural worthiness’ continuum espoused by previous generations, and left this “mortal coil” (Shakespeare, in case you haven’t been patronized yet, today) with the following:
“I don’t have the passion any more, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than fade away. Peace, love, empathy.”
Compare the immortal lyrical beauty of John Keats, who also died young and said, “I feel the daisies growing over me.”
Uhm… okay. Aside from the obvious difference in style, both clearly capture the essence of their context (that pesky context thing again) and both therefore have cultural worth. It might be possible to argue that the more allegorical approach taken by Keats to his impending death was reflective of his awareness (owing to his death being slow, by tuberculosis) of his own mortality, whereas the quote from Cobain’s suicide note reflects a stronger sense of finality, and evinces the emotional trauma evident in much of the cultural discourse of the time. Not sure what the point of the comparison was, but there you are…
The ambivalence that certain ‘Elite’ members of the Baby Boomer generation have to any mention of ‘contemporary culture’ is reflected in its suspicion of what appears to be difficult to understand. In this sense, Boomers have opted out of their responsibility to simply broaden their cultural awareness to include both Banksy and Hogarth.
The fear I have, is that cultural elitism will be seen as preferable, even desirable, while damaging and inaccurate generalisations are made about entire demographics, important contemporary cultural works and performers are overlooked and unable to develop careers, and culture fails to progress at all.
Of course, I might be wrong…
(Note to add: Of course I'm aware that, for the most part, the Baby Boomer generation is in no way reflected by the views expressed by Christopher Bantick in his column, and that I've been horribly and deliberately general in this response, but given the flawed premise undermining his piece, I figured it only appropriate to return the favour.)