Commentary [by Ian Tilbrook; re. Conditional Culture, by Rex Ingamells, 1938]

[Editor: A commentary by Ian Tilbrook, critical of the position taken by Rex Ingamells in the preceding chapters of Conditional Culture (1938).]


Mr. Ingamells, in assuming the role of critic on an Australian culture, has, together with his timely message, the depth of perception necessary for his task.

Perhaps, more than any other Australian writer to-day, his work is distinctly and uniquely Australian.

Unlike so many critics who, by a strange paradox, fall into the errors they see in others, he is, himself, remarkably free from the colouring of a traditional past.

Mr. Ingamells’ criticism is to the point and has the fervour of enthusiasm that some men can devote to the ideas in which they believe.

He may be regarded by some as a faddist so much does he emphasise the importance of environmental values, discrediting the jingoistic pre-war literature and denying it a place in true Australian culture. Nevertheless, be that as it may, he is a devotee of the universality of his field. His ideas of what is valuable and what is distinctly Australian — inseparable these terms must be if Australian culture is to be enriched — bear the hall-mark of universal truths.

To admit, as he does, that culture in Australia is singularly removed from conditions of environment, that what culture we have come to possess is permeated with exoticisms, is to arouse a deeper appreciation in the potentialities which await development.

Potentialities there are. But let us examine their significance to conditional culture. “There is no new thing under the sun,” but there is always a differentness. It is with this that we are concerned.

Now Australian people are not, as human beings, different from those people who have spread from Central Europe over the entire surface of the globe. One might choose men at random from any English-speaking country, place them in a small society of their own and then, when the shuffling is completed, find little or nothing, no peculiar characteristics apart from different complexions to distinguish any one from the other.

Australian people have no outstanding characteristics which make them uniquely a product of their environment, although Mr. Ingamells contends that they have. They have been, as this book reveals, influenced too strongly by the traditions around which their culture has entwined. This culture, at its best, is but imitative. Not only in the embryo, but in every stage of its development it reveals the trace of parodying. But can it be otherwise, now more than at any time past? If the early settlers failed to create a distinctive and original culture in the comparative isolation of their new environment, can we, who are relatively nearer the heart of the Old World by reason of communication now at our disposal, shake off our traditional fetters and free culture from its lamentable excrescences?

In consideration of this, one must, in analysing cultural tendencies, look less to the external and physical nature of men and more to the reactions they make to the environment in which they live.

It was to a land empty of achievement — virtually a desert quite barren of any trace of a familiar culture — that the colonists came, yet a land in which a primitive culture had already existed for centuries. To what extent was this aboriginal culture — not vastly superior or inferior but different from that of other races — to influence the civilization fated to find itself, as a seed in a field which had not previously been sown?

Now, just as it is impossible to eliminate from a seed those elements acquired in its previous environment, so it is impossible for man to dislodge himself from the old without permeating the new with that which is characteristic and inherent in his nature. Therefore, it is quite erroneous to conclude that Australia has yet attained a culture distinctly its own.

It may be contended that, so long as man is reproduced with all his attendant complexities — himself, as heredity and environment have chosen him to be — in a continuous, unbroken line, his cultural attainments cannot be other than those which are already observed to be coloured by the past. Quite true. But this is not to say that, at some period there may not have been influences calculated to establish a basis on which a culture peculiar to Australia has been laid.

To determine these influences, to define them is no easy task.

Mr. Ingamells has shown that the concern of the white settlers was to establish themselves, to build from the natural resources at their disposal, conditions which would ensure their material security and success. That they proved themselves capable and practical people there is no doubt. And it is well that it should have been so. Man must first adapt himself to the physical conditions of his environment, that is, the will to live must be paramount. Life must first be sustained and perpetuated before it can have any cultural significance.

In fact, so successfully did the people adapt themselves to materials ends, they quite over-looked indigent nature as a condition of the social life they were gradually to build up. In a word: they received munificently from nature and gave nothing in return.

Their philosophy, if this inevitable necessity of existing materially can be so-called — I doubt it — was obviously that of getting. They saw little or nothing in nature of spiritual significance and value. They had no philosophy commensurate to the environment in which they lived. Their philosophy, like their religion, accompanied them to this land and was introduced together with the paraphernalia of pioneers — picks and shovels and tinned meats.

Originality? It would be an immense pretension to believe it, or that originality in the aesthetic world could possibly have come from such trammelled minds. As there were no philosophers thinking in terms relevant to the spiritual values in nature so there were few writers — too few to influence the rising tide of agriculture and commercialism — concerned with their art in associating it with the environment in which they lived and wrote.

Mr. lngamells has already covered this ground in his essay on “Environmental Values.” It needs no further outline. The facts are obvious enough. The subject is worthy of consideration by those whose consideration is of importance and account.

May I ask, Mr. Ingamells, what form this new culture must take? It is agreed that originality is an essential of good literature and originality has been wanting. It is incumbent on Australian writers, then, to concern themselves with their art, for their field is unique and abounds with potentialities.

A new culture we will come to possess, but it seems apparent that it must be built not on the foundations already laid, lest it become too vividly coloured by that which it is desirable to avoid, but on the spiritual values that are, and remain for all time, impressionably a part of nature. Completeness is not achieved by similarity, but by contrast. Our culture is indistinct because art has not flourished nor been encouraged towards a synthesis of material and spiritual things.

The material world has been predominant, and art, being a corollary of it, has been too little responsive to the spiritual values. Without these culture must always suffer impoverishment. Nature has been denied her place in the seed-time of cultural tendencies.

Any amount of wealth cannot give a country or a nation culture. Australia has gained wealth and prestige in two and three generations of settlement. But as popularity is sometimes mistaken for greatness, let us not mistake wealth for culture.

Material acquisitions are an expression of life, but they are not necessarily a manifestation of the degree of culture attained. A country, a nation might be tremendously rich and yet possess no culture of merit.

The city of Johannesburg, South Africa, is a case in point. A wealthy city, it has in the space of a few years acquired almost everything with the exception of cathedrals and castles that has characterised the culture of Europe. The art gallery, universities, and many other public buildings are faithful reproductions of Roman and Grecian architecture, but the workmanship is shoddy. The buildings, beautiful as the designs make them, bear the stigma of mass production. This, I maintain, is not culture, but an expression of its deficiency.

So we in Australia have material manifestations of life. But these, I am happy to concede, have grown gradually in the building up of the dominion. They have been wrung from the soil, and because of the struggle which preceded them they are justly deserved.

There is culture in Australia — two cultures: they sprang from two pivotal points and have diverged along separate paths. The one, which has already been considered and acknowledged, has its roots in the traditions of England. It is colonialized. The other, of which but a vestige remains, primitive and true to conditions of environment, is the culture of the aborigines. Of the two, the last-named can alone be credited as being distinctly and uniquely Australian.

No, reader, you need not be surprised at this admission, nor outraged because you may not agree. You are proud of your Australian birth, you enjoy considerable status — even so, this, if your scale of values has not been distorted by prejudice, should occasion you no hurt. You would, if your reactions to your environment were adjusted according to these values, possess something of the universality of mind which sees things as they are and yet might be. You should be liberal enough to give credit where it is due. The broadness of mind, previously referred to, which characterises Mr. Ingamells and the Jindyworobaks, and gives his criticism the merit I believe it deserves, should be yours. If not, your attitude is that of betrayal to the culture you wish to defend.

When we speak of culture we must think of something which spreads beyond a material expression of it. Not what we have, but what we are. Culture concerns itself not only with things intellectual and polished — universities, cathedrals, academies, and town gardens — but with that stream of humanity which moves whether the influence propel. What the individual, the nation is, is the measure of culture, not what it has.

The individual, then, is to be considered as an important part of a country’s culture. And with the individual his philosophy, his religion and his whole aesthetic life comes into account.

We speak of the individual: but what do we mean? Does individual personality really exist to-day? Yes, I believe so — in the artists. By the artists I mean those people who are endeavouring to create aesthetically something of significance and value to Australian culture. You will grant that my question is reasonable if you hesitate and reflect for a moment on present tendencies in social life: a Saturday afternoon, for instance, on a racecourse, a football field, and in a betting shop. The individual is swallowed up in the crowd and he seldom leaves it. I said previously that the early settlers had no philosophy commensurate to their environment, so it is not surprising to find the typical Australians of to-day with none. Perhaps they do not require one, so long as they are inclined to gregariousness they won’t. Philosophy, like religion, is something for individual personality. It affects lives or it does not. The individual is the measure of his faith. For him it is a way of life. The individual sees in life an idea to believe in and live for. The remainder — the majority — need no way of life, it seems. They all go the same way. Religion has been referred to. The reference is justified, for where there is no spirituality — primitive or otherwise — there is no culture. I have mentioned primitive religion purposely. It belongs to the culture of primitive people, and, to mediaeval times with regard to the religion of Western civilisation. But it has no place in the cultural life of to-day. It must be, like philosophy, an ever-growing thing. Indeed, so closely is it to be identified with philosophy that they might be said to be branches of the same tree. They must grow together, nourished in the soil of universal truths. It is here that the spiritual values in nature, co-ordinated and made significant by philosophy, are to be recognised as essentials of true religion. Religion, then, can be said to be true only in so far as these values are related to the life of man. It means advancement, self-fulfilment, self-realization. In these only can human personality transcend the narrow limits imposed on it by conventionalized religion. Contemporary religion is conventional; therefore, it is incomplete as it stands. Its completeness will come only when those things now valuable in science — philosophy, ethics, and literature — are recognised as important elements in the structure of religious thought. Religion no longer occupies a special field of its own. It belongs, with the arts and sciences, to culture, to the universality of life. Any tendency .to dissociate it renders religion unimportant and meaningless. It would, by such dissociation, have historical significance, but then only as the fossilized remains of an earlier culture.

The individuals, the artists, are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water in so far as culture is concerned. And culture is necessarily slow if the position of many artists is a criterion of its growth. Great art is born out of struggle. The true artist does not mind the struggle, nor does he mind the precarious existence often forced on him by his devotion to art to the exclusion of pursuing material ends. They make their clothes last longer; they sell some of their books if the selling of them means a new publication, a picture or some philosophical or scientific research work. For them culture is paramount. For this and through this the struggle goes on. If they sometimes fail to achieve the ends they set themselves, it is that of a workman, who, having the desire to work, has yet no work to do. Their art, like the initiative of the workman, suffers for want of fulfilment. If he expresses his art under such handicaps it must always be, to a certain extent, subjective to his personal reactions. If art then is a corollary of life, it is comparatively easy to trace the vein of pessimism which Mr. Ingamells has referred to in the few great Australian novels.

He says that “the Australian novel must vindicate itself on the happy as well as on the pessimistic side.” Agreed. But is it possible if the circumstances surrounding the artist’s life causes a reaction of depression and despair? To vindicate the Australian novel on the happy side it is first required to assist, if assistance be needed, the artists who will produce the essential character, that uniqueness which must be if Australian culture is to out-grow its past and present tendency to exoticisms.

From time to time money is endowed on universities, churches and charitable institutions to assist them financially in carrying on community education and reform work. But the artists, having no institutional methods, nor establishments, fall just out of line with this community benevolence. It doesn’t reach him. His academy is the vast arena of life; his study is man and the conditions which surround his life. The artist is at school on the city pavements and in the solitude of bush environment.

His art is, and it seems must be, at all times, if he cannot live by it, subservient to the necessity of living. This is regrettable and is, unfortunately, too often the case. Their struggle is a conflict against, rather than with contemporary conditions of life. Thus their art, the supreme expression of their lives, seldom reaches a point that can be considered complete in the sense of self-fulfilment.

It would be a gesture worthy of the highest honour if some public-spirited gentleman with a love for the advancement of culture were disposed to institute a fund whereby the literary man would find some monetary assistance and incentive to create for Australian literature a place under the sun.

A Dumas, a Balzac we will have, writes Mr. Ingamells. I believe it: if not because of such consideration, then in spite of it.

If the artist in the writer believes, as he sincerely does, that he is as essentially a part of the community as the doctor, the lawyer, and the plumber, his requirements are none the less as important as theirs.

Not the least of these requisites is that his literary work should receive the best criticism available. At present, the monopolist reviewers of current literature — the press — provide, at best, but briefs about books. As criticism it is valueless. The reviewers have no opinion to express, or they are, in keeping the peace and pleasant security of the press intact, too conservative to express it. It is not what they say, as little as it is, but what they leave unsaid. In short, they are, like the press of which they are a singular and inglorious product, concerned only with the exterior, the superficialities of life. For them things are only skin deep. They see only the skin.

On the question and criticism of modern poetry they are remarkably silent. There is no precedence with which they may compare it. Modern poetry leaps ahead. It leaves a gap temporarily. The critics, so called, are unable to bridge it. They bow to the conventional by way of compromise — not too distinctly mind you, for they like it to be known that they are moderns in a modern age, bless them. But they want independence of thought and the courage to express it. It is useless to think independently and leave the thought unexpressed.

If “men talk only to conceal the mind,” their silence is sometimes an eloquent testimony of their thought.

If Australian culture needs good literature, so does it need capable critics.

Australia will produce its Dumas and Balzac, Mr. Ingamells, only when it produces critics comparably as great as the men they presume to criticize.

Wholly Set and Printed in Australia by Harman & Jacka Ltd., Printers, 20-22 Wyatt St., Adelaide. 20398

Rex Ingamells, Conditional Culture, F. W. Preece, Adelaide, 1938, pages 18-24

Editor’s notes:
gregarious = sociable, someone who enjoys the company of others

indigent = poor; impoverished

[Editor: Corrected “return,” to “return.”; “paraphenalia” to “paraphernalia”; “relevent” to “relevant”; “preceeded” to “preceded”; “effects lives” to “affects lives”; “cummunity” to “community”; “acadamy” to “academy”.]

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