TODAY IT WOULD be called a reality show, but in the early 1950s the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Incognito was billed as light entertainment. Alas, no recording of the radio program survives in the corporation’s vast audio archive. Nor does it earn a mention in Ken Inglis’s two-volume authorised history of the ABC. Yet Incognito is one of the most influential programs the national broadcaster has ever put to air, if only because it caught the ear of the Melbourne-based critic AA Phillips. The idea, thought Phillips, was quaint enough: to pit a local artist against a foreign guest, with the audience asked to adjudicate. Occasionally, listeners would favour the home-grown performer, thus producing ‘a nice glow of patriotic satisfaction’. The program, however, was founded on the belittling premise that ‘the domestic product will be worse than the imported article.’ Phillips coined a neat description for this ‘disease of the Australian mind’ and immediately his aphorism, described in a 1950 Meanjin essay of the same name, took hold: ‘the cultural cringe’.
Four years later, Manning Clark issued something of a rebuttal, arguing that Europe was ‘no longer the creative centre’ and rejecting the notion that Australians were philistines who had pitched their tents in the ‘Australian Cultural Desert’. In his 1954 essay ‘Rewriting Australian History’, he exhorted his compatriots to ‘drop the idea that our past has irrevocably condemned us to the role of cultural barbarians’. Clark was swimming against a rip. By the end of the 1950s, Patrick White’s more durable polemic The Prodigal Son described his miserable return from England to a country where in ‘all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness’. Robin Boyd weighed in soon after with The Australian Ugliness, which bemoaned the craven Americanisation of local culture; then Donald Horne published The Lucky Country, an even more excoriating attack. It was as if a team of scientists had unlocked the country’s DNA and found cultural inferiority imprinted in the molecular code. ‘Lucky country thinking’ came to have a similar emasculating effect as ‘cringe thinking’. Horne and Phillips framed the national debate so rigidly that it was hard for dissenting intellectuals to escape its confines. More depressing still, few seemed to want to – bagging Australia became a badge of sophistication: European sophistication. To be cultured in Australia was to deny Australian culture.
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