What does it mean to 'feel like an Australian'?

Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore" (PBS, Sept. 5-7, nightly 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is a love letter from renowned art critic Robert Hughes to his native land. "With a few recriminations, as there tend to be in love letters," he added in a recent interview.

Mr. Hughes is still an Australian citizen, though he has lived and worked in the United States since 1963, writing for Time magazine, and producing 16 books and dozens of TV documentaries mainly for BBC and other British companies.

His is a powerful voice in the art world, sometimes irascible, but always perceptive. His brilliant commentaries on the relationship of art to the culture from which it comes have won him prestigious awards.

Hughes became known to a vast American audience in 1981 with his television series on modern and contemporary art, "The Shock of the New," seen by some 52 million people around the globe.

Now he focuses on his own country - one he says has developed a high level of civilization and yet still labors under the illusions of an 18th-century monarchy.

A devoted republican, he investigates the Australian republican movement for home rule in the course of this fascinating six-hour documentary that covers much of the continent's culture: history, industry, farming, mining, art, education, politics, and social character.

It is a personal film in many ways. It was made as he was recovering from a car accident on a bleak Australian highway. It took extra fortitude and dedication to make the film, and the moving and meaningful results are well worth the effort.

"I'm always going on about how I feel like an Australian, but what does it mean to feel like an Australian?" he says via telephone from New York. "[Making this film] was in part to sketch an answer to that - to give myself an opportunity to say something coherent about the country and the people from which I come - warts and all."

The film is no reinforcement of the "Crocodile Dundee" stereotype. Nor is it, like so many documentaries about Australia, a portrait of the animal life. Instead, it is a complex picture of a people and of a country that is itself a continent - largely an uninhabitable wasteland in the interior, with one-third of its population (about 19 million) living within a 15-minute drive of the beach.

"It is very different from the picture Americans have of Australia," Hughes says. "America and Australia have some similarities, because they do share an English heritage. But they are very different.... One of the biggest differences is in their founding ethos. Australia began as a jail and America began as a series of attempts at Utopia."

Another big difference is the way Americans look at empty spaces - in America, great spaces suggest hope and faith in the future, he says. In America space is inherently optimistic - "Go west, young man," as Horace Greeley put it, meant opportunity. Whereas in Australia, space is confining and pessimistic, Hughes says.

"The idea of an imprisoning vastness is also played out in the history of exploration. In America, Lewis and Clark go out into the interior of America and find a beautiful, fertile land - a wonderful, if dangerous, world. Whereas in Australia, the poor old explorer goes out, finds nothing, and dies. No Mississippi, no great fertile plains, nothing to support life on the interior."

While American history is one of continuous immigration, Australia had only two big influxes of immigrants - the gold rush of the 1840s, and the "populate or perish" push by the Australian government after World War II to bring in the displaced of Europe.

Hughes points out that Australia discovered its vulnerability during the war and then sought out immigrants. Now immigrants from Asia and all over the world continue to seek asylum in Australia.

According to the documentary, there is a way that Australia is similar to America - and that is in the way the white population treated the indigenous peoples. Aborigines have lived in Australia for 50,000 years, and attempts to take their land, hunt them down, or "civilize" them have led to great suffering, as similar policies have done to native Americans in the history of the US.

But like the US, Australia is trying to make amends. Aboriginal societies have had lands restored, been accorded full citizenship, and had grievances redressed in the courts.

The arts are well-funded in Australia. But American popular culture has influenced Australian popular culture. Aboriginal art has also influenced contemporary Euro-Australian art, just as native-American art has influenced so much contemporary Euro-American art.

Hughes, who is not at all sentimental about the Aboriginal art being cranked out as tourist kitsch today, says that one of the most intense aesthetic experiences he ever had was in a cave in the outback.

"Some of the rock paintings predate Lascaux [cave paintings in the southwest of France] by 20,000 years.... They are very, very powerful images that are not associated with the cult of personality. They don't want to tell you so much about themselves in the way so much art that's being made today is.

"[The paintings] are trying to manifest something that's completely beyond the self - about spiritual presence in the world.... It is challenging for over-acculturated people like me to come across works with those aims.... You're looking down a tunnel that goes back thousands of years. You have the feeling you are looking over their shoulders."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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