On Australia’s ‘lack of tolerance’ in art, film, TV and music

Dean Biron is an independent scholar who has taught, researched and published in areas such as media studies, child protection and welfare, popular music, Australian film, sociology and criminology. In 2011 he was co-awarded the ABR Calibre Essay Prize for his work ‘The Death of the Writer’. He is also a former police detective. We chat to Dean today about his essay ‘The Aesthetics of Conservatism’, which appears in the latest issue of Overland.

What motivated you to write this article?

Writing, for me at least, typically combines both aesthetic and political motivations. When I am sufficiently moved by a perceptual experience – such as discovering a piece of music or viewing a particular film – it often triggers the idea of writing, although this does not always develop into anything concrete. Similarly, when concerned by what I see as an important social, cultural or ethical issue, there is often a drive to respond to that through writing. Yet whatever the inspiration is to begin to write, the overriding goal is always to attempt to create something (in this case, an essay) that someone, somewhere might consider has artistic worth in its own right.

In your essay, you talk about Australia’s ‘lack of tolerance for otherness in art, in film and television and especially in music’. What do you mean by this?

It comes back to Richard Rorty’s idea of redescription that I discuss in the essay. I believe that in Australia many people are restrained by stable, unchallenged beliefs as to what constitutes art. These are usually based around taste patterns limited to vague notions of beauty or entertainment. Other legitimate and potentially rewarding aesthetic responses – to be troubled or disoriented or bewildered or transformed by art – are mostly avoided; as a rule, people are not interested in having their comfortable worldview threatened or ‘redescribed’. I guess this kind of insularity features in all cultures to some extent, but is more troubling in places such as Australia where there is a prevailing notion that we have ‘got it right’ in terms of being a civilised culture.

Intolerance manifests most insidiously in the maintenance of normative aesthetic standards that come to be considered as natural phenomenon, as inevitable as gravity or sunlight. In music, this can be seen in how that term is used to privilege extremely restricted, hermetic sound worlds. In supposed highbrow (really, middlebrow) circles, for example, music often stands as code for a very specific historical concept: namely, notated compositions by white European males born prior to 1900. In the so-called popular scene, to speak of music is to evoke a precise lineage of post-war mainstream Anglo-American pop and rock songs. Hence the common complaint when traditionalists are confronted by improvised or experimental music: ‘but that’s not music!’ At the same time, the music of many foreign cultures is either dismissed as unlistenable or cordoned off as some kind of exotic, incomprehensible other. This kind of conservatism manifests itself quite implicitly: it amazes me how people who otherwise think themselves broadminded liberals can comfortably dismiss entire styles or genres of music as irrelevant or unlistenable despite having next to no knowledge of the complex lineages (musical and cultural) behind such genres, nor any understanding of how today these intersect with and bleed into each other to the point where crude generic delineations make little sense to begin with.

You mention Donald Horne and his notion that ‘it is barbarous to enforce limits on artistic ideas’ and Adorno’s ‘suggestion that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz’. Do you believe one can strike a balance between censorship and artistic freedom? How?

Though a balance is never going to be achieved, there should nonetheless be an ongoing dialogue both generally and around individual cases. Presumably every person approaches an artwork and makes an evaluation of it based upon their own tastes and experiences; a similar thing will likely take place when it comes to judgements as to its ‘appropriateness’. What one can only hope is that people try to make these evaluations from as informed a position as possible. In 2008, when the Henson thing was in the spotlight, I felt having spent many years as a detective investigating child and sexual abuse cases that I could take up a useful middle position between artistic freedom and protecting children. And I did find myself somewhat conflicted. His collective output clearly shows that he is a substantial artist and his work seemed entirely defensible on artistic grounds – the cries of paedophilia and so forth were ridiculous. Yet I struggled with the idea that a 12-year-old could consent to being publically displayed in that way. A few months later I was at a panel discussion chaired by David Marr – a woman stood up and suggested that a compromise might be that he takes the photos of the girl now, but has to wait until she turns 18 to obtain her consent to exhibit them. And I thought to myself, that’s not a bad idea! So the most important thing is to retain some level of flexibility and to be open to considering all reasoned arguments.

Are there times when artists should censor themselves?

Anyone with pretensions to creating something new, whatever the aesthetic medium, should be in a perpetual state of self-censorship and self-appraisal. Whether it is taking a series of photographs, or directing a film, or writing a novel or a screenplay or a blog, the individual should be constantly asking themselves if what they are doing is worthwhile. In my opinion, with Lincoln Steven Spielberg has made perhaps his best ever film precisely because one gets a sense of a heightened level of introspection and subtlety and self-editing that has been absent in much of his work. Whereas for a documentary like Crime Investigation Australia, it is difficult to understand how anyone involved in making it didn’t stand up at some stage and say: ‘this is going too far – it’s offensive and it’s utterly uninspired.’ But because such a show is seen as mere entertainment, with a sole aim of attracting viewers, no one seems to care how beyond the pale it is. It is also important to emphasise that society (especially children) is at far greater risk from the largely uncensored methods of corporations and the media, the bombardment of junk food advertising being one obvious example.

As a rule, do Australians fear that taking artistic license on a real-life tragedy somehow invalidates or cheapens that tragedy?

Although my essay focuses on Australia, I would not want to suggest there is something intrinsically Australian about these kinds of attitudes. But as far as taking license is concerned, it is the media and not artists who should be under the spotlight, because that’s where unrestrained voyeurism and blatant exploitation are rampant. The recent handling of certain homicide cases in Australia by some news outlets has seen them take victim manipulation to its absolute nadir; this is the same media that specialises in self-righteous indignation whenever an artist or writer or musician or filmmaker is perceived to have crossed the line in representing deviance. Every single day we see politicians and tabloid pundits and religious spokespeople speaking out in ways that create a polarised, with-us-or-against-us society: these are often the same voices who weigh in to condemn an artist like Henson, or who complain about local directors producing harrowing, ‘black-hearted films for their black-skivvy mates’.

How could anyone argue with a straight face that Australia is somehow at risk from artists? Our collective endorsement of the ‘stop the boats’ mantra endangers more lives and breeds more intolerance than any artist could ever do. One hundred years from now, history will not record how The Satanic Verses or ‘Piss Christ’ or heavy metal music or The Boys contributed to the debasement of present-day civilisation. History – presuming, in light of our current predilection for environmental destruction, there is someone left to write it – will record the inhumanity of social policies towards the weak and disenfranchised of our time. It will show how in Australia we imprisoned children behind razor wire in the name of national security; how in the US policy makers were too gutless to act to curb massacres by civilians carrying assault weapons; how politicians the world over prevaricated over eradicating land mines or reducing pollution. It strikes one that many of the commentators who lead the charge whenever an aesthetician offends their sensibilities are far less vocal when it comes to condemning the true outrages of our epoch.


David Brun

David Brun is a Melbourne writer, editor and Overland intern.

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  1. Thanks for this and for the essay. Such a great read.

    I was thinking about the essay when reading some of the reviews of the Knife’s new album (appropriately titled “Shaking the Habitual”). While most reviews are positive there seems to be a commonly held wish that the album was a bit more convential: tighter, catchier etc. They seem to be missing the (pretty obvious?) point that the music, as well as the lyrics, is political. Others get it, but then make statements like this (from pitchfork):

    “The Knife would clearly like to use their music to incite the listener to rethink concepts taken for granted and challenge authority, but would a more effective method of shaking the habitual be, say, smuggling a subversive message into the greatest (and at press time, only) four-minute dancefloor anthem ever written about fracking?The Knife would clearly like to use their music to incite the listener to rethink concepts taken for granted and challenge authority, but would a more effective method of shaking the habitual be, say, smuggling a subversive message into the greatest (and at press time, only) four-minute dancefloor anthem ever written about fracking?”

    Anyway, thanks.

    1. Thanks a lot for that, Peter. Don’t know much about The Knife, though I thought Silent Shout was an interesting album … will have to chase the new one up.

  2. With respect I thought that, aside from being based on a few narrow examples in support of the author’s argument, this article suffered from a desire not to acknowledge some pretty obvious arguments and examples to the contrary. In regard to music, for instance, the fact that one of the most popular acts in recent years sings in an Indigenous tongue specific to just a small corner of the country. Or the popularity of festivals celebrating commercially underrepresented genres, or the existence of music-only public radio stations recognised internationally by musicians and music lovers, featuring music from around the globe and subsidised by enthusiastic listeners from all walks of life. These things don’t disprove the existence of conservatism or a lack of diversity in some quarters, but demonstrate those things for what they are, part of a larger picture in which support for more progressive and diverse aesthetics, while less visible, is strong, occurring, where it always has, in the sizeable and energised cultural margins. Without argument to the contrary reading this piece was like watching a two-headed coin spin in slow motion. Heads or tails. Your call. In this way it came across as, itself, a fairly conservative piece of writing, safe and secure throughout behind its barricades of assumed ‘political’ tropes; an intellectual strategy altogether as dissatisfying from the left as it is from the right.

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