The aesthetics of conservatism

Released in 1998, Rowan Woods’ The Boys (featuring David Wenham and Toni Collette) is one of the most important films ever made in Australia. An intense and claustrophobic study of working-class suburbia in inexorable limbo, The Boys depicts three brothers, one menacingly dominant, the others wretchedly submissive, spiralling toward the commission of a horrific crime that is only ever alluded to in the narrative.

The Boys begins superbly: a montage of blurred, late-night urban landscapes dissolving into desolate, furtive images from inside an empty house – a TV set; a power socket; a kitchen sink; a chandelier. This is followed by the initial appearance of the ascendant brother, Brett. On a sullen morning, he is shown being discharged from prison, whereupon he walks out to the highway fronting the jail, places down a wooden table he constructed while inside and sits, waiting for someone to collect him.

The film ends with another waiting. Now it is late at night. Brett and his brothers sit in their car in a deserted shopping precinct. A short distance away, a young woman waits too, perhaps for a boyfriend or family member to collect her. From his position in the back seat, Brett averts his gaze from the girl and utters the three most disturbing words in Australian cinema: ‘Let’s get her.’

The Boys is a production that endured controversy on two fronts. In February 1986, Anita Cobby was abducted near Blacktown train station in Sydney by five youths, three of them brothers, and viciously murdered. Woods’ film, like the stage play it was developed from, has been forever associated with the case even though he and playwright Gordon Graham both denied any explicit connection. Certainly, it may seem arbitrary to differentiate between this event and others that have haunted the country in recent decades; in particular, the gang abduction and killing of Sydney woman Janine Balding in 1988 bears many similarities. Nevertheless, the link persists, to the extent that the Cobby family spoke out publicly to condemn the film.

The second point of contention about The Boys aligns it with other Australian films from the last two decades. Upon its release, right-wing agitator Andrew Bolt attacked the picture directly, calling the script ‘cockroach droppings’ and lambasting local filmmakers for producing ‘black-hearted films for their black-skivvy mates’. It is a theme that has persisted in local criticism, with individuals as diverse as playwright Louis Nowra, former president of the Screen Producers Association Antony Ginnane and the Age newspaper’s Jim Schembri publicly lamenting the cinema industry’s supposed inability to turn out profitable, entertaining movies that justify the taxpayer funding they receive.

This mode of grievance has been regurgitated time and again in antipodean criticism of postmodern culture. The core language harks back to the obscurantist rants of 1950s US senator George Dondero who applied McCarthyism to aesthetics by declaring all modern art (though particularly abstract expressionism) to be decadent and communistic. Australia’s own postwar history of conservatism in the arts has ranged from the relatively quaint and somewhat ambiguous anti-modernist manifesto of the Antipodeans (a group of painters including such luminaries as Charles Blackman and John Brack) to the 1970 obscenity case against the publishers of Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint (with Patrick White appearing for the defence), the scandal of the Whitlam government’s purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973 and the unseemly dispute surrounding an exhibition by photographer Bill Henson in 2008. There has also been the ‘style wars’ in musical composition (post-Schoenberg atonalists versus the rest) and various minor offshoots of the British Stuckist movement (asserting the primacy of beauty and joy in the arts over the philosophical, the conceptual and the confronting). Even Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita managed to send conservative politicians into a lather of protest with claims that it condoned child abuse.

In this light, the objections raised against a film as bleak (and oblique) as The Boys are hardly surprising. What is astonishing, though, is the fundamental hypocrisy of ongoing reactionary attacks upon progressive art and artists in Australia. It is instructive to consider the reception of The Boys alongside that of a more explicit filmic portrayal of the Anita Cobby case that was broadcast first on subscription television and then on the Nine Network.

Presented by Steve Liebmann, the documentary series Crime Investigation Australia recounts infamous events from our recent past, including the backpacker killings of Ivan Milat (which in turn influenced Greg McLean’s 2005 film Wolf Creek) and the Snowtown murders (subject to its own cinematic rendering in 2011). The episode titled ‘The Anita Cobby Murder’ signals more than any other a new low in the already dysfunctional television documentary genre. Whereas The Boys approaches the notion of the unspeakable crime as testing the limits of representation, ‘The Anita Cobby Murder’ takes voyeurism to perverse extremes by depicting multiple re-enactments of the girl’s imagined final moments. Viewers are treated as if they were somehow witness to the slaughter, virtual accessories after the fact in their consumption of the atrocity. As one anonymous blogger said in praise of Liebmann and the show: ‘It’s bone chilling the way he narrates the story, like he was there when all the murdering, rape and torture happened.’

The Crime Investigation Australia episode could not be further removed from the aesthetic sensibility of The Boys. Whereas the latter flinches at nothing except the detailing of the ultimate offence, encouraging the audience to contemplate the everyday nature of malevolence, ‘The Anita Cobby Murder’ shields its gratuitousness beneath a carapace of moral indignation that such evil could exist in a nation as benign and welcoming as Australia. Yet whereas Woods’ film has been roundly censured for mingling the horrific with the imaginative, Crime Investigation Australia remains a popular, oft-repeated program that has not raised an iota of critical suspicion.

Though hardly unique in its caustic analysis of Australian male mateship – Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), Shame (Steve Jodrell, 1988) and Blackrock (Steven Vidler, 1997) all pursue similar themes – The Boys appeared at a time when reactionary views, egged on by the Howard government, were on the rise in Australia. Writing at the time of its release, Helen Garner noted that The Boys had gained a reputation as too awful to endure, an irony all too obvious in a decade when audiences were queuing to embrace ‘Tarantino’s flippant violence’. Our comfortable devouring of the Crime Investigation Australia series suggests that taste evaluations in Australia are underscored by a conservatism that is both deeply ingrained and decidedly hypocritical. It is also, when one considers the ease with which such a program is subsumed into the collective culture, a conservatism that is for the most part concealed. The show’s combination of spectacle and righteousness absolves its makers from the kind of traditionalist anxiety directed at those artists who, like Woods, open up space for an engagement with the horrific that is both contemplative and ambiguous.

Yet there is another side to conservatism in the arts, one that exposes an even less explicit, but just as significant, theme in contemporary Australian life. The musical component of The Boys comprises two parts. Sydney-based piano-bass-drums trio The Necks, an institution in improvised music since 1989, provide the core soundtrack, though the ensemble’s compositions appear only at a few key points in the narrative. To bookend the film, Woods employs the field recordings of the even less-heralded composer-scientist Alan Lamb who obtained his material by attaching contact microphones to abandoned telephone wires in the Western Australian outback. This music, in combination with the wider sonic palette of The Boys, raises the film’s sound design to among the finest in all Australian cinema, matched only by the likes of Phillip Noyce’s Heatwave (1982) and Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah (2009).

It is often remarked that while music that is used to great effect in horror films – for instance, the scathing violins of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Krzysztof Penderecki’s intensely atonal ‘Polymorphia’ in both William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – seems palatable in the cinematic context, when heard in isolation (in a cafe or shopping mall, say, or at a dinner party) such music inevitably provokes anguish and complaint. The sounds provided by The Necks (subtle, yet intimidating) and Lamb (alien and disorienting) – marginal presences in what is already a peripheral work of art – are nonetheless utterly compelling as an ancillary malevolent force in the context of the film. This is in stark contrast to the melodramatic soundtrack to ‘The Anita Cobby Murder’, its aural banality working to make sickening images easier for audiences to digest.

Interestingly, a few years prior to the release of The Boys there emerged a quite specific musical reference to the Anita Cobby case. Composed by Cathy Peters, now a producer with ABC Radio National, ‘Sonata No. 5: A Climate of Violence’ is an electro-acoustic work that combines excerpts of news reports on the crime (and others like it) with a chilling spoken-word narrative, incorporating various vocal tics and drones. Peters’ composition is evocative of American minimalist composer Robert Ashley’s controversial 1968 piece ‘Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon’, and no doubt it was only the obscurity of Peters’ work that prevented an outburst of orthodox rage at the time.

In the special case of aesthetic evaluations of modern-day music, it is characteristics such as dissonance, repetition, montage and ambiguity – by turns present in the work of Peters, Lamb and The Necks – that are most liable to trouble traditionalists. Western ideas of tonality and harmony comprise a mere fragment of the musical possibilities available in a global cultural milieu, and the primacy afforded these musical notions foregrounds two intertwining problems raised by a retrogressive attitude to music. Firstly, an overt conservative aesthetic cannot accommodate Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of the postmodern sublime, where an immutable aesthetics of beauty is augmented by that which inspires both astonishment and apprehension. Secondly, and more disconcertingly, a more covert conservative aesthetic discards entire swathes of musical culture on the basis of an otherness that is grounded not only in style but also in culture and ethnicity.

A single example illustrates both paradigms. In 1967, as every person who has even a vague interest in music knows, the Beatles record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. The album’s predominantly harmonic-melodic innovations and the timing of its arrival at the height of the countercultural movement has led to its constantly reinforced status as the supreme canonical achievement in contemporary music. What most would not know is that in 1974, in the former Czechoslovakia, a collection of musicians operating as The Plastic People of the Universe recorded an album titled (as a vague homage) Egon Blondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. Formed in Prague in 1969, the group had been evolving musically while at the same time coming into conflict with the communist regime over its anti-establishment philosophy. Songs such as ‘Magickè Noci’ (‘On a Magical Night’) and ‘Apokalyptickej Pták’ (‘Apocalyptic Bird’) burn with a fierce avant-garde rage that the Beatles themselves only occasionally manifested – due, of course, to the Plastic People’s music having developed under actual lived impoverishment and repression (two of its members were later imprisoned). There is no intrinsic reason why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is universally feted whereas Egon Blondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned has been lost to history (at time of writing its status on Amazon is ‘unavailable’) other than the notion that its pleasures are both aesthetically difficult and inherently ‘foreign’. The point, though, is not to argue whether Egon Blondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned is as significant as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but rather to ponder why discussions of this kind simply never take place.

The Beatles went on (unintentionally) to prove that any kind of music can provide a sonic backdrop to murder and mayhem, with Charles Manson adopting the band’s songs ‘Piggies’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ for his own maniacal plans. In truth, though, the Beatles have raised little in the way of righteous indignation since a fretful Paul Johnson lambasted their youth-corrupting music in a 1964 New Statesman article titled ‘The Menace of Beatlism’. The ‘classic’ rock of the 1960s and 1970s has instead become a bastion of conservative style, with reactionary ire now directed at such subgenres as post-punk (too abrasive), hip-hop (too primitive) and laptop music (too technological).

Antony Ginnane refers to the most challenging Australian cinema as ‘the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing’. The dialogue around music in this country might be described as, in effect, an aesthetic cleansing, where sounds that do not connect with the two dominant, nostalgic, Anglo-American metanarratives of pre-modern art music and mainstream pop/rock are more or less effaced. Jacques Attali has argued that what is termed music ‘is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power’ – a consumerist essence of standardisation and convention. Today, music is typically also the site of a dialogue of exclusion, where socially acceptable taste patterns evolve out of ingrained prejudices that preclude genuine stylistic and cultural difference. There is a near universal tendency – clearly evidenced by the bulk of radio programming in this country; by television shows like Australian Idol and The Voice; by general media chatter about music and musical events; by the entrenched sentimentality of the classical and rock music scenes – to discount entirely those sounds that do not conform to narrow, outdated notions of musical heritage.

All of this aesthetic insularity connects to an even more concerning cultural myopia. In embracing musical conservatism, the majority of the population rejects the shock of the new – unfortunately, the new happens also to incorporate most sounds that do not meet oppressively homogenous, occidentalist standards. To emphasise this point: in the CD booklet for the 1997 Celestial Harmonies compilation The Music of Islam there is a striking image in which the fifteen nations featured in the recording are represented by a single mauve brush stroke, smeared across a map of the world, beginning in North Africa, crossing Turkey, the Middle East and Pakistan before petering out over Indonesia. The image is an effective way of illustrating that this is a complex array of musical traditions innate to a quarter of the world’s population. Yet in a country such as Australia, it is remarkable how certain aspects of Islamism have made significant inroads into the collective culture, yet its music remains utterly alien to the mainstream.

So what are the wider implications posed for the communal culture by this absence of otherness? In a long-forgotten 1998 article in the journal Popular Music & Society, American musicologist Sammie Ann Wicks, writing in the context of music scholars failing to connect with concerns basic to the functioning of the human species, asks if ‘a deeper understanding of expressions like music might significantly contribute to the amelioration of our current intractable social predicaments’. Her primary objective here is to critique the perpetuation of an increasingly remote canon in the American educational system. Nevertheless, with these words she articulates an even weightier conundrum. It can be argued that music mirrors greater society in so many ways: people defend their own tastes with a near religious fervour; the borders between genres are permeable in some ways yet impregnable in others; a dominant mainstream all but conceals a disparate array of marginalised tributaries. Might it be that the rationale behind many of our musical predilections says more about us than we are prepared to admit? Could, to take just one example, American jurist Robert Bork’s deriding of all rap music as ‘impoverished [and] debased’ – a blanket impugning of an incredibly broad and varied, primarily black aesthetic – connect to the racial failings of the US justice system (where, for instance, approximately equal numbers of white and black citizens use illegal drugs yet blacks are incarcerated for drug crimes at ten times the rate of whites)? In Australia, too, to look at how music is valued and consumed is to gain insight into pervasive, largely hidden modes of isolationism.

To better understand how aesthetic conservatism might contribute to wider social exclusion, it is helpful to turn to American philosopher Richard Rorty and his concept of the ironist. The nature of the ironist comes down to a combination of three conditions pertaining to language – what Rorty refers to as a person’s final vocabulary. First, the ironist, realising that there are many competing vocabularies, maintains lingering doubts as to whether his or her own is the best available to them. Second, the ironist knows that such doubts cannot be quelled by recourse to their own personal vocabulary. Third, the ironist accepts that his or her vocabulary is not necessarily any more genuine than those that others might use. The ironist can therefore be seen as a person riddled with doubt, approaching culture not as something to be understood and conquered but as a field of play containing a range of alternatives. The testing of these alternatives leads to the ironist continually recasting themselves in a process Rorty terms ‘redescription’ – the basis of tolerance and understanding, of avoiding the kind of us-versus-them attitude likely to accompany overinvestment in any metanarrative central to one’s own beliefs.

To live with a broad aesthetic palette is to be acquainted with a multitude of cultures, styles and attitudes. If we connect musical taste patterns to the idea of redescription, each and every listener can potentially be seen as in the process of constructing his or her own, in Rorty’s words, ‘beautiful mosaic’. But an enduring conservative aesthetic discounts the idea of a global assortment of fluid and cross-pollinating styles, instead promoting a sonic monoculture that its adherents defend with unswerving conviction. What results is broad acceptance of the kind of sweeping claims made by writers such as Aldous Huxley (‘barbarism has entered popular music … from the music of barbarous people like the negroes’) and the Australian Clement Semmler (‘the path of popular music [since the 1960s] has been akin to that of the Gadarene swine – downhill and fast, to boot’).

In his influential 1964 book The Lucky Country, Donald Horne writes that it is barbarous to enforce limits on artistic ideas and concepts. Associating in any way this notion of barbarism with the appalling death of Anita Cobby may at first appear incongruous to the point of obscenity, an ill-advised recasting of Theodor Adorno’s suggestion that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. But recall that Hitler himself supplemented his own depravity with a professed hatred of entartete Kunst (non-representational, ‘degenerate’ art). Certainly, aesthetic value and cultural difference cannot be easily separated: thus while the Anita Cobby murder and other such atrocities upend the status quo of a social order rigorously defended by conservative value systems, a program like ‘The Anita Cobby Murder’ operates so diligently to restore that order that few notice how in doing so it actually aggravates the obscenity of the event. When a film like The Boys, on the other hand, tests the very foundations of that order, critics queue to condemn it.

In the final scene of The Boys, Brett observes: ‘We’re all gods in our own world.’ His words lay bare the enduring significance of the concepts of social and cultural difference. Australia is a society of convention and of originality, of harmony and of dissonance, of the comforting and of the unsettling, of good deeds and of selfish, unspeakable acts perpetrated by one human being upon another. A cultural outlook reinforced by an aesthetics of conservatism – practised, it must be reiterated, not only by avowed traditionalists but also by many who might otherwise consider themselves liberals or even radicals – fosters a sense of individuals reigning as gods in their own world. Conversely, a truly progressive aesthetic attitude is characterised by ambiguity and doubt, acknowledges the complexity of multiple vocabularies and encourages the acceptance of diverse points of view. The persistent lack of tolerance for otherness in art, in film and television, and especially in music, reveals a hidden defect in the Australian way of life that is as ubiquitous as it is disturbing.


Dean Biron

Dean Biron holds a PhD from the University of New England and teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology.

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