The Cultural Cringe
Is it a liability to be an Australian?
In 2009, Hugh Lunn, an award-winning journalist and author, released the books Lost for Words and its sequel, Words Fail Me. The books were a collection of the Australian sayings that were dying with Australia's older generations. For Lunn, this death was a cause for great sadness because when language is lost, so is the personality and character of a people.
Despite writing in very human terms, Lunn was savaged by Peter Conrad, a critic writing for the Australian left-wing magazine The Monthly. According to Conrad, Lunn
Conrad also wrote that
Conrad's attack on Lunn was fairly typical of anyone who speaks up for Australia or promotes a distinct Australian culture. In short, any kind of support for Australia elicits criticisms from other Australians. (It should be stressed that Conrad's review was not only a reflection of his own beliefs; it was also a reflection of the Monthly's editor who felt the magazine's readership would like reviews that tore Australians down.)
Arguably, the culture of attacking those who support Australia has its origins in the colonial penal system where the cultural capital of the Convicts was a threat to British rule. In 1962, music historian J.S Manifold wrote how the cultural expressions of the Convict populations were suppressed with the full power of the law. In his own words,
The same flogging of Australia also resulted in the destruction of the fledging movie industry at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1906, Australia produced The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world's first feature-length film. The film was extraordinary popular; running for five weeks to full houses. It only cost 1,000 pounds to make but returned 26,000 pounds. Over the next five years Australia produced more successful films such as the Eureka Stockade, The Assigned Servant, The Squatters Daughter, Attack on the Gold Escort, Sentenced for Life and The Mark of the Lash. Although the movies were very popular, they subverted British-based patriotism. In addition, they subverted the psychological desire of many Australians to see authority as legitimate and criminals as illegitimate. Consequently, in 1912 the entire genre of bushranging films was banned and the Australian industry was overrun by Hollywood.
After World War 2, the term "cultural cringe" was coined by A.A Phillips in reference to the difficulties that Australian artists and intellectuals faced in Australia. Phillips argued that Australians were prejudiced against the home-grown products, and deliberately overlooked them in favour of imported products.
Phillip’s theory was later disputed by academic Leonard John Hume, who argued that the term was invented to deflect criticism that was warranted. According to Hume, whenever Australians received justified criticism, they made excuses about the cultural cringe so they wouldn't have to take the criticism on board. Hume argued that there was no crisis of identity when he was growing up, it was just that the social identity was disliked by a segment of the population.
There is probably an element of truth in both explanations. Definitely Australian cultural creatives are subjected to more criticism from their compatriots than are cultural creatives in other countries. For example, in most other countries, a left-wing magazine would be celebrating an author like Lunn who was arguing about the importance of cultural identity. Ironically, to launch such a savage attack on one's own culture is a very Australian thing to do. Furthermore, a general rule of thumb is that most readers prefer to be informed about something they would like, rather than something that they would not. The only reason why they may want to hear about what they don't like is that they gain emotional satisfaction out of seeing someone torn apart.
Although they is no shortage of Australian cultural creatives who have been savaged by their compatriots, there are also examples of where the average Australian has shown a strong desire to support some of their compatriots in the face of criticism. This support for Australians would contradict the theory of the cultural cringe. For example, when Paul Hogan released Crocodile Dundee in 1986, journalist Geoffrey Barker said that Hogan's movie reinforced international perceptions that "Australians are gauche, provincial and philistine". Academic Veronica Brady said the film was about "colonial servility, violence and a profound confusion of values". Despite the criticism, Crocodile Dundee became Australia's highest grossing film of all time.
Artist Pro Hart also showed that Australians will support Australian artists, even if they are savaged by critics. One of these criticis was Barry Pearce, head curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, who said that comparing Hart with the artists who normally hang in the gallery was "rather like Slim Dusty being compared to Mozart." Another critic was Alan Dodge, Director of Art Gallery of Western Australia, who said of Hart, "He is one of the most delightful illustrators of the Australian folk idiom, but let's not use the word art anywhere."
Despite the criticism, Hart became one of Australia’s all time leading artists. Pubs in his Broken Hill home were converted to art galleries and in 2010, a small town of only 30,000 people was supporting almost 100 professional artists and 30 private galleries.
Pro Hart - great Australian
Perhaps the wine industry provides the best example of the Australian desire to have faith in the local product. Until the 1990s, a cultural cringe reined as Australian Shiraz was sold under the label Hermitage in order to associate it with the Hermitage region in France. Likewise, Hunter Semillon was sold under the label of Rhine Riesling in order to associate it with German whites. When the industry stopped trading off the European image, it had far more market acceptance at home and abroad. From 1990 to 2001, Australia's annual exports increased from 38 million litres worth $121 million to around 354 million litres worth $1.7 billion. This was a 10 fold increase in volume and a 14 fold increase in value. In other words, when winemakers showed more faith in their compatriots, so did the Australian consumer and Australia's export markets.
The success of some cultural creatives, but failure of others, does seem to support the notion that quality has a determining factor upon whether Australians will support Australian products. The fact is that many modern Australian artists, intellectuals and movie makers don't have talent. Antony Ginnane, who became president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia in 2008, was honest enough to say that most recent Australian films were ''dark, depressing, bleak pieces that are the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing."
Many cultural creatives in Australia only have an opportunity to make and show their works because of their social connections with a corrupt or dubious bureaucracy. The cultural cringe is a useful theory for both the artist and the bureaucracy because it allows them to ignore criticism of their performance and evade scrutiny about the corrupt process that enabled them to get funding.
History shows that the Australian public has a willingness to support other Australians, no matter how savagely they are criticised. This is understandable. A cultural identity is needed for the well being of the soul. Lunn's books sold over 200,000 copies because what he said was important, not because his readership wanted to refrain from a global discourse. Culture has existed, and will always exist, in every human community because it is essential to the functioning of the humanity. In Australia, critics have tried to break the connection between writers, artists, musicians and the social world around them. Although they have been able to weaken it, no criticism can ever break that something that so fundamental to the experience of being human.
love of field and coppice,
I love a sunburnt country,
stark white ring-barked forests,
Core of my heart, my country!
of my heart, my country!
An opal-hearted country,
Read Australia, by A.D Hope
A Nation of trees, drab
green and desolate grey
They call her a young
country, but they lie:
Without songs, architecture, history:
her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Yet there are some like
me turn gladly home
Such savage and scarlet
as no green hills dare
Cultural Cringe amongst intellectuals
In the video below, Jens Schroeder, Miranda Devine & Dr James Curran talk about Australian cultural cringe. What are their conclusions?
Crocodile Dundee I (1986)
For Geoffrey Barker of the Melbourne Herald, Crocodile Dundee reinforced international perceptions that "Australians are gauche, provincial and philistine". Another concerned citizen, academic Veronica Brady, said the film was about "colonial servility, violence and a profound confusion of values".
1. Not all Americans fit the Rambo stereotype and not all Americans fit the James Bond stereotype. Why do you think critics may have been concerned that Crocodile Dundee created stereotypes that portrayed Australians in a negative way whereas citizens from other countries don't express the same concern about movie portrayals?
2. In 1994, the release of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert showed a concerted effort to redefine Australian stereotypes. The social agenda was obvious in the words of Paul Byrnes, a reviewer from the Sydney Morning Herald,
What do you think Byrnes and the makers of Priscialla were hoping to achieve with their movie?
Pride in song
Listen to the lyrics of The Seekers, I am Australian.