Does Art Matter

Does art matter?  Does culture matter?  It is tempting to say that our belief in these things is a matter of faith: it is axiomatic – we assume as a first principle that art matters, and we use this assumption as a starting point for arguments about philanthropic support for the arts.

By contrast, economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable.  That is true.  Creative artists generally have miserable incomes from their art, and survive by teaching or waiting on tables.  Performing artists do not have it much better.  Depending on their speciality, they may have just as difficult a time as creative artists.

Economic rationalists would argue that pouring money into the arts is irrational unless the consumer considers the transaction to deliver a nett benefit to them.

The economic rationalist will buy the painting which delivers them the greatest pleasure for the lowest price, allowing that part of the pleasure might derive from the conspicuously famous name of the artist.

The economic rationalist will not be tempted to provide philanthropic support for the arts, because that produces no saleable return; the economic rationalist will not be tempted to commission music unless it has a good chance of generating royalties.

I want to explore briefly the assumption that Art matters, and set the argument against economic rationalism.

Vincent Van Gogh sold very few paintings, and those for very little money.  Cezanne was once booted out of his lodgings and the angry landlord hurled some of his paintings out of the attic window into the courtyard below.   Similar examples can be multiplied endlessly.

Would the world be poorer if Van Gogh had never painted Starry Night, or if Cezanne had not painted Les Bagneuses; or if van Gogh and Cezanne had never painted at all?

Would the world be poorer if Michelangelo had never painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or designed the Duomo in Florence;  if Leonardo da Vinci had never painted;  if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?

Imagine a world without Shakespeare or Balzac and ask whether it is better or worse than this world.

It is no answer that paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne now sell for tens of millions of dollars; that original scores of Beethoven are priceless, likewise the manuscripts of Balzac and Shakespeare.

We do not value these works because of their price tags: the price tags are almost entirely irrelevant to the value we see in these works.  Few people would accept that a person who buys an iconic painting could withdraw it forever from public view.

No-one would accept that the purchaser of a great work of art was entitled to destroy it.

The reason this is so is that we all acknowledge that a work of art is more than simply a physical thing capable of being bought and sold.

In profoundly important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and it is that fact which gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.

The destruction of the library at Byzantium in 1204 and the looting of the national museum of Baghdad in 2004 represent losses which not even the crassest economist has tried to measure in economic terms, because the calculation would be seen by everyone to miss the point completely.

In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man whose father was a judge.  He grows up with the unstated expectation that he will be a lawyer.  In his early adolescence starts writing poetry.  He is quite good a it, and keeps writing poetry when all his friends have returned to the cricket pitch.  He does well at school and is accepted into a law course, but keeps writing poetry. During his university days, he meets the girl he later marries.  She gently persuades him to forget about poetry and concentrate on law.  He abandoned a hopeful career as a poet for the much more prosaic career of a lawyer.  He prospers in his choice and is eventually appointed to the Bench.  Upon his appointment, he has to vacate his chambers and this leads him to the bitter-sweet task of going through the accumulated papers of decades to decide what may be disposed of and what should be retained.

“He had quite forgotten about his adolescent poetry and was astonished to come across a batch of it at the bottom of a cupboard.  He smiled – golly! – at the sight of it and took it out and started to read, for a laugh.  He expected clinching evidence of the folly of youthful pretensions.  His whole happy life had been founded on the assumption that he had been right to abdicate before his wife’s gentle, unmistakable judgment.  He sat on the floor of his chambers, boyishly grey, and prepared to be embarrassed by those unburnt embers.  Instead, the poems passed sentence on his life.  At last, he closed his eyes to escape their indictment, but the unblinking eye in the centre of his forehead gazed and blazed with unique and undeniable vision.  He cowered on the floor of the dusty cave and saw that the years of his life had escaped, like Odysseus’s men under the panicky sheep of the blind, deluded Polyphemus.  ‘Who are you, who are you?’ he cried.  And the voice of the man who had blinded himself replied ‘No-one.  No-one.’”

In that short, compelling paragraph the author shows the result of comparing the valuable with the priceless.

If we suspect that the world would be poorer without Beethoven and Mozart, without van Gogh and Cezanne; without Shakespeare and Balzac, we acknowledge the value of art for its own sake.

None of those people created material wealth.  None of them derived great material wealth in their lifetimes.  The value of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities:  the true value of the works is spiritual.

If the manuscript score of all of Beethoven’s symphonies were destroyed, it would be tragic but we would still have the works themselves and our cultural heritage would remain intact.

I recently heard an enchanting story from a friend of mine called Mary who works in a large Melbourne bookshop.  She told me about a middle-aged Melbourne woman who ventured shyly into the bookshop.  Noticing her bewildered hesitancy, Mary approached her and asked if she was looking for a book.  “Yes” she said, “I’ve never bought one before.”  This startling comment turned out to be literal truth.  She had never bought a book in her life, and was unsure how to go about it.  My friend helped identify a book she was likely to enjoy, and the transaction was settled.  A couple of weeks later she was back and bought another book.  And so it went for some months and as Christmas approached she confided in Mary that she had suggested to her friends that books would be welcome Christmas presents.  Mary asked her how she felt now that she had begun reading books:  “It is wonderful” she said, “I no longer live in a flat in Kensington – I live in the world.”

There is great force in that comment.

There is great force in the notion that art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know.  It affirms and reinforces our integral relationship to the rest of humanity.  The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes.

So art is valuable, in and of itself.

Human language has a vocabulary adapted to accommodate our daily needs and functions: the vocabulary of any human language maps approximately to the needs and activities of our mundane lives.

But few would deny that there is another dimension of human existence which transcends the mundane: call it the soul, the spirit, that part of the human frame which responds to the call of the non-rational.

In the domain of the human spirit, other vocabularies emerge.

Painting, music, poetry, sculpture are all different languages, each with its own unique vocabulary.  The vocabulary of each artform gives it access to areas of human experience which are not available to other sorts of language.

This is why works of art are considered less meritorious – at least less interesting – as they become more literal and narrative.  If an idea is best expressed in words, why bother expressing it in paint or music instead?

By contrast, some ideas can only be expressed in paint or music: the vocabulary of paint and music share little of the vocabulary of spoken language.  I once heard someone ask an abstract expressionist to say what one of his paintings meant. He said “No, I can’t tell you, but I will try to hum it.”

It is neither useful nor interesting to ask what Beethoven’s 5th symphony “means”, or what Carl Vine’s 4th string quartet “means”, if the questioner wants you to say in words what Beethoven  or Carl Vine said in music

This is the key to understanding why Art matters.  Every form of art is a unique way of seeing, and at its best each form of art says things which cannot be said, or said as compellingly, in any other way.

Deny this, and you close off part of the human spirit.  As Victor Hugo said:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

A history of the Weimar Republic speaks of the same things which occupied Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz, but their work reaches out to us in a quite different way.  The story of that time and place would be incomplete without their work.

Try to imagine this country if all practising artists perished overnight.  Imagine this country if, for the next generation, there were no new paintings made, no new novels or poems written, no new music, no new sculpture.

Imagine looking back on that bleak and wasted generation in 50 or 100 years time.  Like a layer of ash in the archaeological record it would stand as a silent marker of a period of desolation.

Culture is the accumulated record of artistic expression of a time and place.  It may present an unattractive picture, or a brilliant one, but it is an essential record unless we take the nihilist view that human existence itself is irrelevant.

The nihilist would see no point in having children.  If any one of us matters, then art matters and culture matters.  A Society without culture leaves no children; with no past it can have no future.

11 November 2018: 100 years on

The Great War ended on 11 November 1918.  It was to have been the war that ended war, but the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for the Second World War.

The Great War saw the start of brutal truth in poetry: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen wrote poems of terrible, brutal honesty.  Sassoon was born in 1886 and died in 1967, but Owen was born in 1893 and died on the western Front just one week before the Armistice.  He was 25.

A century later, it is worth remembering what Owen wrote.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

And even more shattering:

Dulce et Decorum Est
(a reference to the Latin phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which means “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country” )

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Ottomans abandon siege of Vienna, 12 September 1683

President George W Bush  never displayed much sensitivity for the nuances of language.  Even its basic rules elude him.  Consider a few of his famous blunders whilst speaking on public occasions, and try to imagine the qualities of his less-considered private discourse:

“More and more of our imports come from overseas”,

“What I’m against is quotas. I’m against hard quotas, quotas that basically delineate based upon whatever. However they delineate, quotas, I think, vulcanize society.”

“If you’re sick and tired of the politics of cynicism and polls and principles, come and join this campaign.”

“You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

He tended to speak in semantic near-misses, and his grammar lurches from one rough approximation to the next.

During the incumbency of this linguistic torment, the world changed permanently and catastrophically.  In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on the USA, President Bush said that America and the rest of the free world would embark on a “crusade against terrorism”.  He soon changed his choice of words.  It became a “war on terrorism”.  Bush may not be a master of the language, but his spin-meisters quickly saw that crusade had connotations which might give offence beyond the intended range.

Crusade is historically associated with the series of assaults by Christian forces against Muslim control of Jerusalem and the Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulchre.  There were 8 main crusades,  between 1095 and 1270.  The disastrous 4th crusade culminated in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, during which the great library there was looted and destroyed.  The only extant copies of many classical texts were lost to mankind.  It was an event of cultural destruction almost unparalleled in history.

Etymologically, Bush’s advisors were wise to drop references to a crusade.  The word came to English via French and derives ultimately from crux, the Latin for cross.  It was variously spelt croisad, croissard, croisada, crusada, etc.  Specifically it meant a military expedition by the Christians to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims; and, by transference, any military expedition blessed by the church.  In short: a holy war.

The equivalent expression in Arabic is jihad.   The Western world has reacted with understandable alarm when  Osama bin Laden declared a jihad on various nations, including Australia which managed to lift itself from safe obscurity to swaggering prominence in a single idiotic gesture.  But it was President Bush who first invoked the language of holy wars.

Our headlong rush into conflict has brought into common currency a number of words previously misused or unfamiliar: mufti, fatwa, sheikh, shah, and mullah among others.

A mufti is a canonical lawyer in Islam: he gives decisions on questions of faith.  The word is derived from the active participle of afta, which is the 4th conjugation of fata: to give a decision.  A decision so given is a fatwa. A fatwa may be benign or dangerous according to the subject matter.  Most English speakers first heard of a fatwa in connection with Salman Rushdie: it had been decided that, because he had written The Satanic Verses, he should be killed wherever he could be found.  Even those who are immune to the charms of Rushdie’s writings thought this was an unreasonable restriction on free speech.  This very harsh and public fatwa gave fatwas in general a bad name in the West.

Mufti is commonly used in the West as referring to civilian clothes worn by one accustomed to wear a uniform.  It is thought to derive from the passing similarity between the regalia of a mufti and the English affectation of dressing gown, smoking cap and slippers.

The mullah has various meanings in various parts of the Muslim world.  In North Africa, a mullah is a king, sultan or other leader.  Further east, and in the Indian sub-continent, a mullah is similar to a mufti.  He is a man learned in theology and sacred law.  The Qur’an uses mullah in reference to Allah.  Thus, it is a word which maps almost perfectly onto the English Lord, signifying a position of leadership territorial, legal or spiritual.

Allah comes from al ilah: where al is the Arabic definite article, and ilah is the Aramaic for God.  The holy book of Islam is the Qur’an.  Qur’an means “recitation”: it is a recitation of the various teachings of God as received by the prophet Mohammed over the course of 20 years up to his death in 767 AD.  It is composed of 114 surahs (chapters), arranged according to length, with the longer surahs first.  Since the earlier teachings were rather shorter, the book is arranged, roughly, in reverse chronological order.  Incidentally, Islam recognises Moses and Jesus as prophets, and the God of the Qur’an is the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians: the crusades were more an argument about the messenger than about the message.

An essential feature of the teachings in the Qur’an is the importance of unquestioning submission to the teachings of the prophet.  Islam means resignation or submission.  It  is the 4th conjugation of salama: “he was or became safe, secure, or free”; hence salaam as a greeting of peace, which is coupled with a gesture of submission.  Self-evidently, salaam is cognate with the Hebrew greeting shalom (peace).

Many muslim words incorporate the name of Allah:

Allahu’akhbar  “God is great”

Bismillah (bi’sim illah) “in the name of God”

Hezbollah (hezb = party) “party of God”: an extreme Shiite Muslim sect.

Inshallah “if Allah wills it”; God willing

Mashallah “what God wills must come to pass”

Like mullahsheikh has meanings which vary with geography.  Its original meaning was “an old man”: specifically a man of 50 years or greater.  (In times past, age and wisdom were seen as functionally related.  This philosophy was temporarily displaced when the baby boomers graduated from university, and was rediscovered when they began to collect their superannuation.  The process continues, with resistance from Generation X).  A sheikh is the chief of an Arab family or tribe; the leader of an Arabian village.  It is also applied to heads of religious orders, heads of learned colleges, heads of towns or villages, to learned men generally.   It is also accorded to those who have memorized the entire Qur’an at whatever age (a fair achievement, since it is about 300 pages long).

Although closely related in sound and meaning, the shah is etymologically unrelated to the sheikh.  Shah is Persian for King.  It has left one important trace in English.  In that most civilized form of warfare, chess, the game ends when one player places the opponent’s king in a position from which it cannot escape.  The King is not formally taken, but it is unable to move to a position where it could avoid being taken.  The victor announces “checkmate”.  That triumphant declaration is the anglicised shah mat: the King dies.

The crusade I began with was once a croissard, which is reminiscent of croissant.  They are not etymologically related, but there is a connection between them.  While croissade-crusade came from Latin crux (French croix),  croissant is French for crescent.  In 1683, Vienna was struggling to survive a seige by the Ottoman Turks.  A Pole named Kolscitzky, who was learned in Turkish, came to their rescue.  He escaped through enemy lines to reach the Duke of Lorraine, who hurried to relieve the city.  The Turks were repelled and Vienna was saved.  Kolscitzky became very popular and famous.  He persuaded a baker to produce a sweet bread roll in celebration of Vienna’s victory over the Turks.  It was shaped like the crescent on the Turkish flag.

We call them croissants because at some point the French took ownership of this Polish-Austrian idea.  The crescent they imitate refers originally to the new moon as it grows towards the first quarter: the word comes from the Latin crescere to grow (from which we also get crescendo, and increase).  As a new moon grows it is a waxing crescent moon (a tautology); after the first quarter it is waxing gibbous (from the Latin for hump) and then full.  As the full moon declines, it is waning gibbous, then after the last quarter it is waning crescent (a contradiction in terms).

Incidentally, during his perilous journey, Kolscitzky had learned how to make coffee.  After the seige ended, he came by  a sack of coffee beans abandoned by the retreating Turks.  He was the only person in Vienna who knew what coffee beans were for.  He opened a café which quickly became famous for the drink and popular for its croissants.  He served the coffee with milk and honey, a precursor of the style now known as Vienna coffee.  Although the French stole the croissant, they had the good sense to leave Vienna coffee to the Viennese.

Julian Burnside




Some random ideas to improve Australia

I don’t claim to have the answers to all our problems.  And I recognise that Australia has a lot going for it: great climate; great natural resources; great people.  Maybe our good fortune is the source of our complacency.  We’re a bit like Middleton’s Rouseabout (see the poem by Henry Lawson here).

It’s hard to go to any public function in an Australian city these days without the MC intoning recognition of “…the traditional owners of the land we meet on.  The people of the …Nation; their leaders past, present and emerging…”.

It is one-sided and self-indulgent.  It does not recognise that our ancestors took the land from them, and caused them immense harm.  And we don’t intend to give it back.  Then we added to the harm by taking their children from them.

It is easy to overlook that Aboriginal settlement in Australia goes back about 65,000 years.  Compare that with recent developments like ancient Egypt (about 4,000 years ago) and ancient Greece (about 3,000 years ago) and blow-ins like ancient Rome (a bit over 2,000 years ago).

Aboriginal people are about 2.8% of the Australian population.  So how about this:

  • A once-off tax of 2.8% of the capital value of the land we took. The proceeds would amount to billions of dollars.  Use that money specifically to fund programmes designed – genuinely designed – to repair the damage we did to members of the oldest, longest-lasting civilization on earth.

The Arts struggle to get genuine, meaningful support from governments and big-Australia.  Of course there are exceptions, but it is rare to see a head of government also holding the Arts portfolio.  And most practising artists in Australia can’t make enough from their art to cover the cost of surviving, so they take a job as a teacher or as a waiter.

But in the long sweep of history, it’s artists who are remembered.  Try this experiment:

Take a room of 50 or 60 people of fair intelligence and reasonable education.  Give them a list of names from the past 6 centuries.  They will recognise the names of painters, sculptors, composers and writers out of proportion to the number of practising artists from time to time.  They will not recognise the names of lawyers, accountants, sporting heroes…They will recognise the names of a few politicians, but mainly the ones who were tyrants.  By this experiment you will demonstrate the real, transcendent value of the Arts.

  • So: when governments at any level (from local to Federal) put out a request for tender, they could include this question: “What does your company do to support the Arts?”. It’s a fair bet that a lot of companies would want to be able to give a good answer and might just start supporting the Arts creatively – and generously.

In 1974 the parliament passed the Trade Practices Act which, by section 52, decreed that a corporation should not “engage in conduct which is misleading or deceptive”. It was  new norm of conduct for companies in Australia.  While it was resisted at first, it is, by now, a deeply ingrained idea of the way companies should behave.

But parliamentarians are not subject to similar restrictions. We accept without questioning that the norms of conduct, which parliamentarians set for commerce in 1974, do not apply to politicians.

Most people expect politicians to lie. Not many politicians have shown the capacity for dishonesty and hypocrisy which Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have displayed in connection with people seeking asylum.

But should we expect better?  I propose:

  • Parliament should pass an Act which provides that “A politician, in his or her capacity as a politician, shall not engage in conduct which is misleading or deceptive, or likely to mislead or deceive”.

Imagine how our politics would be transformed if politicians were expected to behave with the same honesty they demand of companies…

Kate Durham to open exhibition in Dandenong

On Thursday 16 November, Kate Durham will speak at the opening of the Home exhibition at the Walker St Gallery in Dandenong.  It includes works by Zia Atahi, Renee Dixson, Mahla Karimian, Pierre Mukeba and Zakiria Tahirian

Kate spoke at the opening of the Dandenong Annual Art Prize in 2015.

Defiant Dandenong

Dandenong Annual Arts Prize

Dear Dandenong,  Defiant Dandenong, look at you, how you’ve grown. I remember you, but not like this. Dandenong you are like a council of nations. Here in this intricate city is an Ark, as if from the bible, representatives of every breed, clan or culture are assembled here, a gathering has taken place, Moses would be pleased. What did this city know of the bewildering displacement, the loss of art and cultivation, the self-expression or the needs of the people of the world? Or how to welcome their tentative steps towards a cautious resettlement, in an often hostile terrain?

What is the purpose of the shelter, the vessel, the shield you have made here? The purpose is a very human one: to allow people to represent and to reproduce themselves, and their lives; to find passage to future generations, to stretch their allotted time and space on this ground, to leave the sea of turmoil. Like those animals in the Ark, people seek, if not deliverance from a place of evil, then a place to stay, the way a creature needs a habitat.

The people of the well-named Greater Dandenong recognised as an opportunity, other’s need to find a resolution to the search, a nest, a home, a full stop. With them, they also knew those exotic people would bring their freight of ancestry, their knowledge,,, their joke-bags, their grievance and losses, fears and expectations.

Their great enterprise will be to flourish, but also to pass on an indefinable essence, to pass it on, and to pass it on. Like the game Pass The Parcel: here is my gift, it may get smaller, but keep it, please keep it.

I’m picturing Dandenong, twenty years from now. Take yourself there now, on a little mental voyage. You may discover, that for the first time in a long while, white people, and certainly white females like me, even with the price of a ticket, can no longer travel to more than a quarter of the world’s surface, its prohibited or at least risky. White people are astonished, they have been the ones fussing over, visas, tickets and border control . We, no longer rule the world. we start to experience ostracism, mistrust and boundaries, like those immigrants only a generation ago.

The travel Industry, has not shut down, a vast commercial machine like that won’t rest or die, it will simply restrict or invent our horizons in a manner that suits its business model. They are already doing it. Travel is re-focussing, its offering has changed. In the 70’s the idea was to experience otherness, other cultures, other vistas. Nowadays its imperative to experience more about YOU. You, trekking, you on a mountain. you, snorkelling, you chilling on a beach, any beach. You taking a short trip around Europe within the sanitary and speedy confines of an ersatz Las Vegas: Disneyland for grown-ups, time – poor and afraid of anything but the highlights…

Some of you and some of these artists will remain here in Dandenong. Most of you will possess far more than highlights, you will have the fine grain, the memory, the advice of your former politics and parents. You will have a culture that is not thin, not dilute, but strengthened by its hybridity. Dandenong will be well known for its cultural curiosity and learning.

The artists in this show have something in common, mostly their otherness. In the future, artists like Valamanesh will not have such close, direct insight into Islamic Art and its cosmic gaze, but they’ll have this artist to guide them so the past won’t be so misunderstood. I’ve followed this artist for a while, admiring his cool austerity and wit.

I also know and have desired artworks by Guan Wei, also witty, with an out-sider’s idiosyncratic eye in relation to Australia.

Rhubaba Haider’s work spoke immediately to me of her feminine Hazara heritage. She has morphed that knowledge into something strong yet fragile and contemporary, and philosophical. Whilst retaining a great deal of typical Hazara woman’s discipline and personal restraint.

Khaled Sabsabi”s work turns like a Dervish on Sufi themes, that strange metaphysical branch of Islam which is becoming endangered. Thank you Khaled for preserving it.

Gosia Wlodarczak’s unsettled lines following and chasing life, restless and unfixable, charting her relationship to objects. She makes a cartographic record over time and space.

Kosar Majani’s work is highly symbolic and resonant. It speaks of unrelenting rituals and repetitions that we’ve never known or encountered, in our young country.

20 years from now we may find ourselves grateful that Greater Dandenong ignored the ”Team Australia“ slogans of some of the worst leadership known in this country. That Prime Minister tried to frighten us about the living and cultural aspirations of others, demanding to know whose side we were on, challenging us to mistrust foreigners or the unfamiliar.

Fortunately we barely remember that Prime Minister, he left no relics or artefacts. Unlike these artists who have joined us in a gathering just like this to fill this once slight and shallow space with all our lives, heredity, children, art, adventures and exploration on the vast subject of US and WE. Not THEM or THEY.

Thank you Dandenong, dear Dandenong: you are the Ark. Pass it on, pass it on.

Remember the war poets on Remembrance Day

Lest we forget.

The first World War produced remarkable poetry.  In earlier times, war poetry tended to valourise war.  Not so between 1914-1918.

The lacerating poetry of the First World War showed just how powerfully the truth can be told.  Wilfred Owen in particular, and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, showed how poetry can strip away the protective layers of delusion which protect us from the truth of what we do.

Good poetry sees the world in ways which are invisible to most of us – until we read the poems.  By doing that, it can smuggle uncomfortable ideas into complacent minds.

Wilfred Owen died just a week before the Armistice. Only four of his poems had been published.  In 1937, Siegfried Sassoon persuaded a publisher to publish a book of Owen’s poetry.  Two years later the second World War started.  It was a predictable consequence of the Treaty of Versailles: the Treaty had impoverished Germany; the misery experienced in Germany made it possible for Hitler to take power in 1933; Hitler made himself popular by blaming all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and he poisoned the public attitude to Jews by vilifying them grotesquely.

Something similar is happening across the Western world today: Muslims are the target these days.  Muslims are being vilified by people who should know better.  One person emails me regularly with anti-Islamic rants.  In one email he contrasts the Christian teaching “Love thy neighbour” with his assertion that the Koran preaches violence and hatred.  Apparently he thinks that Muslims are not our “neighbour”, despite Christian teaching.

He has even urged that Australia should create concentration camps and put all Muslims in them; and he has suggested strafing refugees in their boats.  It is the thinking of a person who has forgotten.  He has forgotten not only the core teaching of the Christian religion which he appears to espouse.  He has forgotten where hatred and vilification lead to.

Lest we forget, as that person has forgotten.

Here are a couple of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Peter Porter: a seminar


Peter Porter’s Creative Legacy
The National Library is proud to be the custodian of the personal archive of poet Peter Porter. From first drafts to page proofs, from notes to correspondence, the collection reveals the life of an Australian poet in London and is a treasure trove for research.
Join Porter’s family and friends for a day celebrating his legacy in all its diversity, and for a glimpse of the richness the archive offers.
For full program details, visit
Supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust
Friday 29 July, 9.30 am–5 pm
Theatre, $25 (includes collection viewing and light refreshments)
Book here or 02 6262 1111

National Library of Australia, Parkes Place, Canberra ACT 2600

An index to this blog (alphabetical order)

A Blunt Assessment
A Brief Account Of Australias Offshore Detention Regime
A Christmas Letter From Manus
A Classic Rant Against Peter Dutton
A Letter To Minister Dutton From A Refugee Advocate
A New Account Of The Ways We Manage To Mistreat Asylum Seekers. Read This And Blush
A Plea From Manus
A Proposed New Refugee Policy For Australia
Accomodation For Refugees
Ai Weiwei
An Alternative To Offshore Detention
An Angel Visits Malcolm Turnbull
And More Bad Goings On At Manus
Australias Offshore Torture Regime
Befriend A Child In Detention
Benaud Piano Trio Seeking Sponsor For Composition
Bigotry And Terrorism In More Than 140 Characters
Border Force
Border Force Cracking Down At Mita In Victoria
Calling Boat People Illegal Is A Lie
Cash For People Smugglers
Conditions In Immigration Detention Deteriorating
Corruption On Nauru Your Taxes At Work
Cruelty In Australias Offshore Detention Camps
Data Retention Legislation Act Now Before Its Too Late
Detainees In Manus Island Face Grim Prospects
Detention Australian Style
Detention Is Torture
Detention On Manus Illegal Supreme Court
Deterrents And Disincentives
Dutton On The Rampage
Fact Checking Pauline Hanson
Fare Go Report Rethinking Public Transport
From The Big Bang To The Present In 12 Months
Gillian Triggs, John Basikbasik, And Politicians Who Play God
Guards Conduct In Nauru Getting Worse
Haitch Or Aitch
Hal Wootten Lecture 2015 The Bludgeoning Of Chance
Islamophobia Rampant
Kate Durhams Speech At The Opening Of Home Here And Now
Keep The Arts Alive At Fortyfive
Let Them Stay
Lets Get Labor To Tell The Truth About Refugees
Letter From Manus
Letter From Manus
Letters To Nauru Now The Department Lies Again
Lnp Only Pretends To Be Compassionate
Magna Carta, 800 Years On
Manus Island: What Will It Take To Shock Us
Manus: An Emotional Rant
Manus: Bad And Getting Worse
Mistreatment Of Refugee Brought From Nauru For Treatment
Mohammad Albederee Update
More Bad News From Manus
More Bigotry From Sonya Kruger
More Horrors At Mita
More Misery Christmas On Christmas Island
More Mistreatment On Manus
Mourning And Weeping From Hell
Myki: Authorised Officers Behaving Badly
New Get Up Campaign To Get Dutton Out
News From Australias Gulags
News From Nauru
No Kindness For Mojgan
Norfolk Island
Not In My Name
Offshore By Madeline Gleeson
Rebranding The Nation
Refugees In Terror On Nauru
Refugees Write To Png Supreme Court
Remembering Refugees As Christmas Approaches
Schrödingers Refugees
Solitary Confinement In Manus Detention
Stopping The Boats Doesnt Stop The Deaths
Strip Searched In Lygon St
Strip Searches On Nauru
Supporting Human Rights Or What Is Left Of Them
Thailand Prosecutes Phuketwan Journalists
The Australian Border Force Act Labors Role
The Australian Border Force Act: Trying To Silence Health Workers
The Australian Now Quotes Twitter
The Border Force Hits Town: Operation Fortitude
The Drowning Argument
The Drowning Excuse
The Election
The Impact Of Cuts To Art Funding
Threatening Our Way Of Life
Tim Wintons Palm Sunday Plea: Start The Soul Searching Australia
Tom Ballard
Tom Ballard Writes About Refugee Stories
Tony Abbott Is A Bully Over Un Convention Against Torture
Turnbull Posing As Compassionate
Two New Projects Which Bear Witness To Mistreatment Of Asylum Seekers
Un Rapporteur Australias Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Breaches Torture Convention
Unrepresented Refugee Applicants
Update From Manus
What Manus Is Like
What Sort Of Country Are We
When People Bother To Ask Me Why I Support Refugees
Why Gag Doctors In Detention Centress What Are We Hiding
Why You Should Care
Wilson Security
Wind Farm Music Dedicated To Tony Abbott
Write To Federal Mps About Refugee Policy
Year 12 Student Taken From School And Put In Detention
Young Boy Held In Manus
Zaky Mallah, Steve Ciobo And Q & A

The election

The Guardian Australia today published the views of a panel on the effect of the election on various aspect of Australian life.  I was asked to contribute a bit about refugees.

The whole Guardian article is here.  My bit is set out below:

So far, the election result is too close to call with much confidence.

For refugees, it hardly matters which major party wins government, since both have struggled to keep their policies as close as possible.  The Coalition policy calls the exercise “border protection”.  Labor said it would “stand firm on maintaining a policy of offshore processing”, while claiming that it would be humane and compassionate to the innocent people it would lock up.

It looks as though the balance of power will not be held by the Greens, but by Pauline Hanson (whose attitude to refugees makes Nigel Farage look tolerant) and Nick Xenophon (who still needs to understand that calling boat people” illegal” is a lie).

Offshore processing and intentional cruelty seem likely to remain.

This  means that no-one seeking protection who gets to Australia  will be allowed to settle in Australia.  They will be taken, by force and against their will, to PNG or Nauru.  Their claim for asylum will be processed there (at Australia’s expense) but those found to be refugees will not be allowed to come to Australia.  Where they would be resettled is anyone’s guess.  How long they will be left on Manus or Nauru is anyone’s guess.

I expect a Liberal win by a narrow margin.  For several months I have been predicting the Liberal party room is likely to replace Turnbull with Scott Morrison.  Morrison’s track record for lying about boat people, and his strangely un-Christian attitude to them, means that the future for boat people (and this country) looks very bleak.

Keep The Arts Alive at Fortyfive

Here is a really worthwhile message from Fortyfive Downstairs: Melbourne’s most creative an vibrant arts venue:

Dear friends of fortyfivedownstairs,

You will probably have seen something in the press about the effect the massive Australia Council funding cuts have had on Australia’s arts community, and like all of us, you will have had many appeals for funds by post and by email.

We can’t say that our need is greater than that of homeless people, or refugees, or victims of domestic violence. The fact that the need is so great is an indictment of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But without the arts, we are a country without a soul. Our artists need our support now more than ever.

In the past couple of years, we’ve said that if everyone who comes to this venue for an exhibition, or a theatre production, could donate $10, we would be able to reduce costs for artists, and achieve our aim – to make money for artists, rather than from them.

Since 2002, fortyfivedownstairs has presented, produced or co-produced almost 200 new Australian theatre productions, and we’ve shown the work of literally thousands of artists.
The reality however is that it’s getting harder and harder to survive, let alone combat the current climate of Federal government indifference to the arts. So we are asking for your help to continue our efforts to bring exciting new work to audiences, and to reward the artists who create it.

Our artists hold up a mirror to our society, they illuminate the dark corners, they enrich our spirit. Imagine how poor our lives would be without them.

– Mary Lou Jelbart, Artistic Director


Fortyfive Downstairs is a curated gallery space and also a performance venue.  We showcase independent visual art, theatre and music.

fortyfivedownstairs is a Melbourne based not-for-profit theatre and gallery.

The Arts in Australia are suffering at present, because of changes to Australia Council funding.. Theatre productions in particular are difficult, if not impossible, without external funding. So people wanting to mount plays have a really hard time doing it unless they receive external funding.  That has an immediate impact on venues like Fortyfive Downstairs: if people can’t afford to put on a show, we have an empty space but we are still paying the rent.  We do what we can to help, but we need YOUR help as well.

If you feel like donating, click here

In the interests of full disclosure, I am the  founding chair of Fortyfive Downstairs. I do not have a financial stake in it; I donate to it each year. But like all Melburnians, I am enriched by the enormous contribution it makes to the arts in Melbourne.

Tom Ballard

I saw Tom Ballard’s show at the Mielbourne International Comedy Festival on Monday 11 April 2016.

It’s a great show: an astonishing mixture of comedy and information: information about what we are doing to asylum seekers.

It would have been easy for the show to degenerate into worthiness or “do-goodism”, but it does not.  Instea, it cheers you along and then hits you between the eyes.

It’s a great show.  You should try to catch it, especially if you think the government is doing the right thing with boat people.  It only runs until 17 April, so you will have to be quick.

At the end of the show, there are hand-outs.  I can’t even try to reproduce the hilarity of the show, but here are the handouts:

Ballard pages 2 & 3

Ballard pages 1 & 4

Ai Weiwei

Chinese  artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, has an exhibition of portraits in Lego at the National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Rd.

It runs from 10 December 2015 to 24 April 2016 and features the images of 40 Australian human rights activists.   The portraits are  made from hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made plastic bricks (in the style of Lego).  The portraits include Rosie Batty, Julian Assange, Archie Roach and me.

“It is about the activists or the people who speak out for human rights in Australia,” Ai said.

I am honoured to be among them.  His image of me comes from this photo Barry Jones took of me one day after a memorable lunch  (you can draw your own conclusions) and is included below the BJ original:




The quote he asked me for, which is across the bottom-left corner of the image reads:

“The greatest threat to Society is politicians who compromise our most basic principles in order to achieve a political advantage for themselves”





Benaud Piano Trio seeking sponsor for composition

The Benaud Piano Trio is a Melbourne-based piano trio, named after Australian cricketing legend, Richie Benaud.

The Benaud Trio was deeply saddened last April by the passing last April of Richie Benaud, their namesake and hero. Their plan is to commission a new work in Richie’s memory to open their 2016 concert season.

The Benauds have been in discussions with a high profile Australian composer (and cricket tragic) who is very excited by the project. Together they have had a great time brainstorming how such a work might evolve and how it might reflect Richie Benaud’s life and character.

The Benaud Trio are looking for a fan of chamber music (and cricket perhaps) who would like to make a significant contribution to the repertoire by providing the generous support needed to make this commission possible. If you would like to explore your potential personal involvement in this exciting project they would love to hear from you. Please call Lachlan on 0422 017 929 or email

$6,000 would make it all happen, and if you are the person who commissions the piece, your name will forever be linked to Richie Benaud’s name.

Poetry: Get Angry, by Oliver Hovenden

This is a poem written by Oliver Hovenden.  I heard him read it recently. It’s terrific. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon would have approved: they got angry.  He agreed to let me put it on my blog.




Get Angry – Oliver Hovenden

When old men scoff at your equality views

And politicians denounce a woman’s right to choose

When the fat cats gain and the thin cats lose-

Get angry.


When making money means more to them

Than saving the planet from the folly of men.

And we’ll axe a tax on carbon pricing

And ignore the fact sea levels are rising.

Get angry


When blue ties and red tape mean doctors can’t report child rape.

Child slaves in sweat shops and sexism in hip hop.


When women don’t get paid the same for playing what is an identical game


Get angry.


Our government lives in a world of hypocrisy

When they support invasions in the name of democracy.

But won’t support those that flee from the fire

And no one cares if the situation’s dire.

Because Stop the Boats- and we’ll get votes.


Get angry.


When the larger the company, the smaller the tax form,

And interest in politics is a novelty not a norm.


When left and right wing is no more than a position

On a football field, and we have a coalition,

That doesn’t think you deserve same rights if you’re gay

And argues that things should always stay the same way.


When a backwards step is a unanimous motion

And they base their beliefs on a preconceived notion

That the Australian people don’t want to see change,

The name ‘The Liberals’ seems a little bit strange.


Because liberalism’s all about acceptance and respect,

And with our ‘Liberal’ government that’s not what you get,

Because male still matters, and so does straight,

And the colour of your skin still determines your fate.


Get angry.


Don’t sit around and be keyboard warriors

If you feel for your opinion you need to be sorry is

There are problem with it, or a problem with them?

Don’t wait to act, don’t wait to condemn.


Because if he who is silent, consents

don’t be afraid to give your 10 cents.

It’s our future, it should be our word,

It’s time to get angry and make ourselves heard.

The impact of cuts to Art funding

Understanding the effect of cutting over $100 million from the Australia Council Budget

“The last time there were similar cuts, when severe budget cuts wiped out the entire middle sector of Australian theatre in the 1990s, the culture took twenty years to recover. I believe these budget cuts are much more serious.” – Alison Croggon, submission to the Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding

Mary Lou Jelbart, who runs fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne has sent the following newsletter to supporters of fortyfivedownstairs.  It shows plainly how the arts are being hit by Senator Brandis’ reduction of funding for the Australia Council.

Many arts lovers are finding it difficult to comprehend just how powerful an impact the Government’s 30% cut to the Australia Council will have, and it’s hard for non-practitioners to work out why it matters so much.
The opera, the ballet, the major theatre companies and the orchestras have been “quarantined” from the cuts, and their funding will not be affected. Instead, the cuts will have to come from grants to individuals, small to medium sized organisations, and independent theatre companies nationally. This amounts to a 57% cut of previous total funding. Already small grant programs for artists in their early years after graduation have vanished, and two of this years’ four funding rounds have been cancelled.
fortyfivedownstairs does not receive funding from the Australia Council or other public funding sources. However, arts venues have already been seriously affected by the cancellation of theatre seasons scheduled for 2016 due to companies’ inability to apply for funding support.

For example, in the past 9 years, fortyfivedownstairs has supported and/or presented over 70 new Australian productions and 40 readings of new plays. Literally hundreds of emerging and mid-career artists have exhibited there.  Some of the most remarkable exhibitions, and productions, have been made possible by relatively small grants from the Australia Council. All that is under threat, and with it the viability of fortyfivedownstairs, and other small, independent venues around the country.

Last week the Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding received submissions.  Many  arts practitioners attended and spoke to their submissions. I strongly recommend looking at them on the Parliament of Australia website.

Very important issues are raised in these submissions, including concerns about secrecy of decision-making by the newly established National Program for Excellence in the Arts. If you only read one or two of the submissions I would strongly recommend the impressive submissions from writer and critic Alison Croggan (no.116), curator David Pledger (no.172) and Professor Nikos Papastergiadis (no.4).
Australia Council Funding is not a perfect system, but it is open and transparent, and has evolved over forty years. The NPEA, set up by Senator George Brandis, will not publish names of those who make the decisions, those who receive the grants, or the amounts granted. As many have pointed out, in the wrong hands a secretive program could well become a vehicle for political control.