Giles Auty: The Vital Value of Dissent

From the raised kitchen window of my house I can see most of the birds which regularly visit the garden. In summer these are mostly magpies, currawongs and cockatoos while in winter quite large flocks of pale green female satin bowerbirds arrive which are often accompanied by an all-black male.

The latter is, in fact, the only bird which could possibly be mistaken for the much more regular but somewhat furtive year-round visitor which is a male blackbird

– a species of English thrush which was first introduced into Australia in 1862. In their country of origin such male birds are probably the most prolific creators

from the Sydney Morning Herald, nor the late Robert Hughes who was then writing for Time, nor indeed the late Brian Sewell who was then making a major name for himself as a dissident voice while writing for London’s Evening Standard. All four of us were largely in agreement about some of google_ad_width = 970; the more obvious follies of Late Modernism as well as about the extremely unfortunate subsequent effects of judging art by its political conformity or correctness rather than by its intrinsic merit as

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art. That said, the true and – apparently unforgivable nature – of my personal crime was to be perceived as a political conservative which formerly enjoyed a popularity roughly on a par with rat poison in what some believe to be ‘proper’ art circles in Australia.

 

As evidence for those prosecuting my ‘crime’ I had admittedly worked in London for a number

exactly that same sector. In days past we had been separated, in fact, by

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only a few hundred metres of ice and snow and thus years later rather enjoyed a few civilised drinks together to celebrate ‘old times’.

Twenty years ago The Australian was certainly more ambiguous in its political stance than it could be said to

be today. Even so, it was probably even then this country’s most conservative serious newspaper so far as its politics, at least, were concerned. But what about other areas of that paper such as education and the arts? Were such sections of the paper formerly allowed to be more or less autonomous thus contributing to the strongly left-leaning bias of both disciplines in Australia’s general life?
Indeed, if they were allowed to be so was that because the arts generally were once held – largely by political editors and writers – to be of little or no account? Although my appointment here was very poorly received indeed by the Fairfax press, for

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and by ‘our’ ABC, a substantial section of my new readers at The Australian clearly felt very differently – as did quite a number of very senior Australian artists. One such strongly urged me to apply, in fact, for the then vacant post of director of the National Gallery of Australia – a position for which I was shortlisted.

Over the years I had

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also been approached in Britain to join the ranks of arts bureaucracy. One such occasion involved the offered directorship of the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford – a post occupied by the late Nick Waterlow, former director of Sydney University’s art gallery, when I turned that particular appointment down.

Unfortunately while it is certainly possible to

retain a dissident voice simply as a critic and writer, such an independent stance is probably much harder to maintain within

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publicly-funded institutions.  

What shortly became apparent to me while working here was that it was

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my fellow

journalists rather than the general public who were most opposed to some of the less orthodox and politically correct opinions I expressed.

Ironically, in view of the extreme hostility which greeted my arrival here I found myself named  some eight months later by English historian Paul Johnson as “one of only four

outstanding British art critics of the past forty years” (The Spectator, February 17th, 1996).

 

The arts in general have been one of the major victims of what

passes here for post-modernist theory. Regrettably for us such thinking also takes root and flourishes most notably in ‘young’ countries such as Australia which google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; generally lack any form of inbuilt self-righting mechanism almost entirely. Basic commonsense can thus often seem to take rather a long holiday from our shores.

It was my believed opposition to the evident excesses of Late Modernism and then of Post-Modernism in the arts which undoubtedly accounted for much of the strong initial local opposition  – to which I have referred already – to my appointment at The Australian. The tactics employed by my opponents may have seemed a trifle crude yet I suggest that

merely showed the depth of their desire that any hint of open opposition to any of their particular artistic codes and beliefs needed to be shut down as quickly as possible. For if I  managed to attract any degree of public support at all who knew where such matters might lead? Perhaps the
political left’s iron grip on arts funding of all kinds might even have been marginally loosened?

In theory the public funding of art of all

kinds sounds almost entirely admirable and dates back in recent times, at least, to the theories and enthusiasms of John Maynard Keynes who was the guiding light behind the founding of the