Artists and Philistines [20 February 1932]

Artists and Philistines.

Mr. S. Ure Smith has been taking the people of Sydney to task for their aesthetic insensibility. It is not the first occasion upon which he has done so, nor is he the first person to do so. Again and again the same reproach has been uttered — especially when sojourn abroad has given material for comparisons and contrasts — by artists, architects, and town-planners, and by others who, without pretending to technical skill in such pursuits, hope that Australia will have regard for the graces as well as for the necessities of existence. For example, not long ago, a professional man revisiting Sydney after an absence of twenty years, complained of what he termed the “higgledy-pigglediness” of this city’s aspect. The occupant of a chair of architecture at an Australian university has said that from a purely aesthetic point of view it would be no great calamity if Sydney were demolished by an earthquake. Another of his craft having travelled literally from China to Peru in the hope of finding a style that would satisfy his aspirations and be appropriate to local conditions, succumbed to despair at the sight of our dreary industrial suburbs and our uninviting waterfront. Wharves and their appurtenances are usually ugly, but the grim stone structures of, say, London and Liverpool, have a certain dignity which is not possessed by galvanised iron sheds. A frequent comment is that, although Sydney has been provided by nature with a unique site, it has not been put to the best advantage by man. The city boasts many impressive buildings, conceived in unimpeachable taste, but there is no harmonious design, no symmetry, no balance. Since, continues the argument, we allow our habitations to spring up at haphazard, we will obviously be indifferent to the claims of the fine arts.

These criticisms should not be dismissed as a cry of “stinking fish” or as emanating from that objectionable type, the self-conscious “high-brow.” Their authors are concerned that Australia, so rich in promise of every kind, should not be engulfed in materialism. National greatness does not consist solely in the production of super grades of wool or the maintenance of a comfortable, even a luxurious standard of living, and the country which devotes its energies to the acquisition of wealth, neglecting the things of the spirit, is not one which bequeaths any lasting legacy to civilisation. The temporal might of Athens has vanished; the golden prime of Venice is no more. Nevertheless, both have left imperishable gifts. This may be conceded. Yet it is possible to offer to the indictment against Australian cultural values certain pleas in extenuation. Our artists, at any rate,
should have no grievances on personal grounds. They cannot say that they have been denied practical recognition. The present season, of course, is one in which pictures are luxuries unattainable to most. But before the clouds gathered Australian artists could not assert that the local public refused to appreciate their talent. During the decade following the war, the market was buoyant and Australian work realised prices relatively higher than painters of equivalent status in other countries could obtain. The duty on imported pictures — which, incidentally, is now deprecated by many Australian artists — is evidence of solicitude for the native article.

However, it is true that Australia has not developed the cultural interests that are the possession of older and more settled communities. This is probably inevitable. There is some substance in the theory that the general diffusion of culture and a corresponding level of artistic achievement presuppose the existence of a leisured class. “The glory “that was Greece and the grandeur that “was Rome” are proverbial. But the Greek and the Roman societies were founded on a substructure of slavery. In many of the most brilliant epochs of literature writers have had affluent patrons to whom they dedicated their compositions in gratitude for benefits received or in the expectation of favours to come. In Australia there has never been a leisured class. Our people’s energies have been absorbed in taming a continent, and amenities which elsewhere are the heritage of centuries have had to be subordinated to the imperative demands of the job on hand. An instinctive feeling for the arts is rarely engendered in such circumstances. However, this excuse will not be available to us much longer. We have outgrown that phase of our history and we should realise that utilitarianism is a creed unworthy of a people with our traditions and opportunities. The Philistines have been lost in oblivion — the artist is immortal.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), Saturday 20 February 1932, page 12

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