Section 32 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 32

The “Norman” Conquest

It may be urged, by those who are more anxious to refute my thesis than to profit from its sincerity as an enquiry, that I am rebutted in the contention that Australia has exalted mediocrity by the fact that Australia has exalted Norman Lindsay! Here then is a challenge to the whole argument, indeed. Norman Lindsay is a genius, and he has been honoured. What can be said to that?

I admit that this is a ticklish question, because for many years, in a small way and whenever I have had an opportunity to do so, I have “defended” Norman Lindsay against those who “attacked” him: particularly in England, where his detractors are more subtle than they are here, confining the discussion to aesthetics and not obtruding “moral” issues. It is much more difficult to counter an aesthetic argument, such as that Norman Lindsay’s drawing is often careless, than it is to counter the “moral” argument (of the Wowser) that his pictures are “too nude.” Against this silly attack of the Wowser, I would still, of course, “defend” Norman Lindsay on any occasion that arose. I am doubtful, however, whether, despite his incomparable virtuosity, he could be defended entirely on “aesthetic” grounds. A great deal of his drawing is indeed far too hasty and “spontaneous” to satisfy an ultimate sense of the planned perfection which is Beauty. But that is not the main point.

It is to the eternal credit of Australian intellectuals that, when Norman Lindsay was under “moral” attack from the Wowsers, they defended his right as an artist to draw the nude, even if sometimes flippantly or rotundly, when he so desired. The attack of the Wowser is sheer howling barbarism, and ought to be beaten off, wherever it occurs. Unfortunately for the critique of Norman Lindsay’s work in Australia, the Wowser attack upon it made it incumbent upon all decent-minded persons to “defend” Lindsay, or at least to refrain from criticising him, lest the Wowsers be thereby encouraged. If you did not happen to like Lindsay’s work, you were ergo a Wowser, as it were.

The fact is that morality has nothing whatever to do with art, or with art-criticism: the howl of the Wowser made it almost impossible for a decent or friendly criticism and evaluation of Lindsay’s work to be made. I shall not attempt it fully here; for it would be a big job. But I must draw attention to the fact that appreciation of his work in Australia has been more in the nature of a defence of freedom itself than of Norman Lindsay. He was a precursor of sex-freedom, of a sort, within Australia, but that is a sociological rather than an artistic achievement.

And so, as I view it, the rich rewards, honours, jubilee medal, publicity, and apparent applause accorded, particularly by journalists, to what they call “Australia’s Number One Cultural Personality” is scarcely to be interpreted as a proof that Australia, contrary to my thesis, does in fact recognise its geniuses. A sane appreciation of Norman Lindsay has not been made. He represents, or is held to represent, “sex” freedom, which has nothing to do with art-criticism, whatsoever.

He has hands like Pavlova’s feet — of an incomparable lightness and dexterity: therein lies Norman Lindsay’s greatest faculty; one which will make his work for all time astonishing to connoisseurs. But, as though Pavlova had danced tangos in a cabaret show, Norman Lindsay has, for many years, appeared as a cartoonist in the public press, coining his gift of the gods. To be an artist, in the finest sense, and at the same time a successful public cartoonist, is an impossibility, even for genius. Newspaper cartooning is the parody, the anti-type, of the highest achievement in art. The slickness, the versatility, the satire, so desirable in a cartoonist, become qualities of negative virtue in an artist.

The incomparable and much-loved Norman Lindsay has flung his pearls before swine: and, because swine notoriously will not eat pearls, he has had to coat them with something that swine will eat, namely politics. So it was that, during the War, this sensitive man drew Recruiting Posters which would induce his fellow-Australians to enlist for mass slaughter: and so it has been that, in any real questions of public concern, Norman Lindsay’s point of view, as expressed in his cartoons, has been that of his employers for the time being: very frequently contrary to those which might have been expected from such a formidably advanced thinker.

He, too, thus becomes a Man of His Time rather than of all time. For forty years, during the period of Australian eclipse by imperialism, he too turned his thoughts, as evidenced even in his “serious” art, to Europe and the fantasies of Europe, to “fauns” and eighteenth-century “ladies” — rather than to the Australian realities. The nostalgia for ancient Rome, which caused him to illustrate Petronius, the nostalgia for the Middle Ages which caused him to illustrate Villon (and both, be it noted, with incompatible dexterity) merely added to European, rather than to Australian culture. He too appears to have suffered from the illusion, peculiar to that period, that European culture is “world” culture: overlooking the fact that European culture, in Europe, is “local.” It is therefore doubtful whether Norman Lindsay has, in the ultimate analysis, done anything profound to establish an Australian culture, in Australia. His illustrations to the poetry of Leon Gellert and Hugh McCrae can only be described as superb in execution as pictures, and almost incredibly naif in conception — poetry does not require “illustration,” being itself a picture. (Let him illustrate Kipling’s If!)

His clever caricaturing of Australian types — the city larrikin, the Wayback, the barmaid — however amusing in a newspaper, becomes grotesque when it is repeated in serious work: and has a tendency to stabilise the Australian type by its anti-type of the parody. Australian bushmen, in fact, bear very little resemblance to the “looney Dave” type depicted by Lindsay. And Australian women, most of whom, unconsciously driven by the racial need here to be fecund, are of the “domestic” type, have in fact little resemblance to the harlot, in appearance or manner. What with caricaturing and European culture-phantasising, Norman Lindsay’s work, in brief, is scarcely at all “Australian.” And lacking the “Australian” quality, it is scarcely of any more significance to us, ourselves, than are the novels of the émigré writers, which portray Australia as a desirable place — to escape from!

As for Norman Lindsay’s novels, they are, like his “sex”-caricature pictures, mainly notable in that, having incurred the wrath of the Wowsers, they were “banned” and must hence automatically be “defended” by the decent who object to banning, of Norman Lindsay or of anybody else. The pity of it is that literary criticism, like artistic criticism, of our delightful Norman Lindsay, should thus be sidetracked.

But don’t tell me, because Norman Lindsay is notorious, or famous, and has made a good living in this Commonwealth, that other genius, on that account, is not here neglected!

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 111-115

Editor’s notes:
fecund = fruitful; producing or able to produce many offspring (can also refer to producing an abundance of fruit, vegetation, etc., such as regarding farmland; as well as to people who are very creative or productive culturally or intellectually)

naif = [naïf] a variant of “naive” [naïve]; a simple, guileless, or inexperienced person, someone who lacks worldly experience or wisdom

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