F**k popular culture

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  • Published 20120605
  • ISBN: 9781921922534
  • Extent: 264 pp
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IN THE WINTER of 1980, in the last few months of her life, Queenie Leavis, wife of renowned literary critic FR Leavis, and co-editor of the dyspeptic pre-War literary journal Scrutiny, came to my school in England. A group of bug-eyed sixth formers were summoned to her presence, chaperoned by a squad of equally awed teachers. The burning question concerned the novelist Saul Bellow: Was he part of the Great Tradition or not? Hard to credit the trepidation with which our inquiry was put. I forget the answer; ‘Yes’, I think. The gathering was steeped in the high-church atmosphere of Literature as Religion, Leavisites the shepherds of the ever-straying masses, returning them to writing of True Value, separating sheep from goats. I bought it, of course, as only boys of a certain age will do, more comfortable reciting the poetry of Philip Larkin than chatting up girls. For years after (has it ended, this period?) my response to disaster has been to reach for a book, preferably a tome of skull-thumping complexity, the sort Leavis argued was a moral compass for life but I hoped was an antidote to it.

She was old. She was also dignified, knowledgeable, impeccably accurate in statement, not generous but carefully interrogative. In retrospect I see she was held together by two contradictory forces that make sense only in terms of each other: on the one hand, a passion for literature, for all that it can contain by way of experience, by way of life; on the other a detached interest in how it achieves its effects, its style and structuration. This was the basis for the ‘polemical sociology’ that was FR Leavis’ stock-in-trade. Queenie was more muted in approach, but fired by the same impulses. The dual gravities that pulled in opposed directions shaped the orbit of their engaged, sometimes enraged, critical analyses; provided for endless and empowered discriminations, in other words. A literature without such distinction-making was the sound of one hand clapping. It was inert, dead. The critic had to bring it alive, no matter what the cost, no matter the opprobrium that judgement incurred. And FR and Queenie incurred much, much opprobrium, always in the critical wars for Saying Something or for Not Saying Something, for adopting, in the huffy charge of Lionel Trilling, ‘a bad tone’.

The body of literature the Leavises considered it their duty to construe was unapologetically Modernist High Art. In 1980 this was still a permissible restriction (just). On the Right, a hundred University dons extolled the verities of New Criticism and the intentional fallacy. On the Left, the Frankfurt School kicked butt, dumping glittering vitriol on ‘affirmative culture’ for its rank inanity and US-sponsored crypto-fascism. Art’s job was to be abstruse, allusive, rebarbative and (key word) ironic. The last was not so much an intellectual value as a layer of consciousness, something that protected you against embourgeoisement. I practiced my ‘ironic look’ in the toilet mirror, angling my head and adopting an I’ve-seen-it-all-before lip dip. I bought a silver cigarette case from a flea market and read Marx. There was no disjunction between revolutionary socialism and maintenance of the literary canon in my mind. Wasn’t that the point of revolution? To put an end to pap, to the witless frivolity of what JB Priestly pejoratively skewered as ‘admass’? A Chaucer and an Eliot in every home was the goal. If you wanted entertainment, go to the pub. Art meant Thought and Thought was Good.

When did that change? Let’s leave that hanging for a moment, and ask another stumper: what are the consequences of the change, and are all of them beneficial?


FOR AUSTRALIAN CULTURE, the impact of Modernism in the years following the Great War was a splintering one, coinciding as it did with an emergent Anzac myth and a loosening of imperial ties. Four types of artistic response can be detected, each different in affect, politics and aesthetic implication: a traditionalist nationalism (best represented by the literary section of the Bulletin), a traditionalist cosmopolitanism (Norman and Lionel Lindsay et al.), a modernist internationalism (every artist who fled the country to join the avant-garde abroad) and, the runt of the litter, a nationalist modernism, ignored, derided, internally exiled. The last is what the Leavises would have regarded as Australian Culture, and its abject status is a matter of wonderment and despair. Why didn’t the new nation embrace its nascent cultural consciousness more fully? One explanation, fateful, sees the root of the problem as a split between high art and popular forms. Until the war, art came in two modes: local/simplex and imported/sophisticated. Australian culture was popular culture, full stop. After 1918 a new bifurcation erupted. The historian John Rickard observes of Vance and Nettie Palmer, for example, ‘the crux of the problem was that, unlike populist [writers], they were uncertain of their audience. Whereas the Bulletin… deliberately maintained a popular dialogue with its readership, the Palmers and their circle attempted to intellectualise this tradition, yet with expectations of retaining its mass appeal’ (129).[i] These expectations were quickly crushed:

The self-conscious attempts in the 1920s to found a national drama with which these writers were associated amply demonstrates the gulf between artist and audience. Louis Esson, whose particular ambition was as a playwright, had been persuaded by the… example of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre that what was needed were ‘plays on really national themes’… Yeats advised them to get a theatre going ‘no matter how small’, and this they did with the aptly named Pioneer Players. Although some productions had modest success, audiences were indeed small and the theatre necessarily amateur. The Players petered out after a few years, disappointed not so much in the size of their audience as by the lack of ferment in the stalls. (130)

Theatre is a signal example of the execrated state of Australian modernism because unlike the visual arts, music and literature it had almost no access to overseas markets and could not leap-frog the issue of local appeal. While other cultural forms shipped out, found success abroad, came back and paraded it, theatre, dependent on buildings, set machinery, actors who could remember their lines and people who would pay to see them do so, was stuck in its own back yard, literally and metaphorically. And there it died a thousand insulting deaths. Sumner Locke Elliot’s Rusty Bugles: banned and bowdlerised. Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly: dropped from production for the 1956 Olympic games. Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla: critically and popularly abjured, likewise The Ham Funeral and A Cheery Soul. Alan Seymour’s One Day of the Year: blocked by the RSL from inclusion in the 1960 Adelaide Festival. And these are the success stories, the playwrights who survived the odds. It does not include the stunted careers, wilted hopes, and paralysed souls of those who, sensing defeat at the hands of their own, gave up the theatre altogether.[ii] By 1965 Australia has gone backwards culturally – again, in Leavisite terms – less confident and creative than it had been fifty years before. It had acquired a chronic psychological stoop, AA Phillips’ ‘cultural cringe’, the mark of a collective bewilderment. Thus a situation transmogrified into a condition. No need to explain what had gone wrong: in Australia, it was simply the way things were.

When the resurgence came – theatre the fighting front of Donald Horne’s Time of Hope: Australia 1966–72[iii] – is it any wonder Australian drama presented itself as both ‘popular’ and historically minded? These two impulses, hand in glove with a relentless experimentation, provided New Wave playwrights with values, methods and assumed audiences. On stage they could be fused together. Marvellous Melbourne, the Australian Performing Group’s first production, and The Legend of King O’Malley, the show that kick-started the Nimrod Theatre, were both historical pastiche, borrowing the tunes, turns and structural whimsies of musical hall and vaudeville traditions. Thus was begat a love affair with ‘popular theatre’ and an unstated belief that 1970s drama was less something new than something true, an art form that had climbed back from outlier status to reclaim its podium in the public mind. A director like Jim Sharman seemed to incarnate in one extraordinary figure the popular culture incursion. The experimental developer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the authoritative reviver of the plays of Patrick White, he was also a scion of Jimmy Sharman of Sharman’s Boxing Tent fame and stager of smash hit musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. When in 1978 he joined forces with director Rex Cramphorne to found the short-lived Paris Theatre in Sydney’s Kings Cross, White backed him financially and rhetorically, announcing ‘the company could tap a public that has never known theatre…could perhaps even tempt the unfortunate western suburbs in which politicians are always talking. Theatre belongs to a city, not the institutions. It belongs to the night life, the streets and the lights and is not for people who come because they want to go back to the suburbs yawning.’[iv] This from the author of Eye of the Storm (1973), one of the most recondite novels of the twentieth century.

That the New Wave’s success was the result of energy drawn from the legacy of Australian popular theatre is an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged. The journal Australian Drama Studies devoted its first number (1/1: 1982) to exploring the theme. Likewise Meanjin’s performing arts issue (43/1: 1984), edited by cranky Pramocrat Jack Hibberd, underscored the debt contemporary drama owed to the cheeky, cheerful, whistle-able theatre of its colonial past. No mention of the Palmers and the Essons, or Sydney Tomholt, or Wal Cherry and the blighted Emerald Hill Theatre. These modernists were flawed progenitors at best, hobbled by foreign notions of what culture should be, blind to the untapped riches of their own past (an interesting metaphorical transposition of Australia’s mineral wealth). Now what had been divided was made whole again. By returning to its popular roots Australian theatre had recovered not only its appeal, but its soul.

The trouble with this view is that it is certainly overstated and very probably wrong. The best evidence are New Wave plays themselves, which are satirical, polemical, flamboyant, occasionally offensive, often with complicated agendas and world views. There are, it is true, a variety of styles on offer, from the retro-realism of Ron Blair, David Williamson and Alma de Groen, to the anarchic funstering of Bob Ellis, Steve Spears and Dorothy Hewett. But whatever forms these playwrights borrowed from the past, their investment of them, and the resulting sensibility, is entirely their own. And the word that best sums up that is: ironic. That is, the New Wave as a cultural phenomenon was less about history coming to the rescue of contemporary practice than contemporary artists retooling moribund historical forms to give them purpose, density and edge. A good example is Circus Oz, that came out of Soapbox Circus, that came out of the Pram. What we value in this company’s productions today are not the tricks – done better, for what they’re worth, in countries where traditional circus is extant – but the mood, the humour, the concepts. A form cramped by a restrictive athleticism and a fixation on customary outcomes is liberated into complexity and fuller meaning; is turned into an art. Popular theatre didn’t rescue the New Wave. High art, via 1970s artists, redeemed and transfigured popular theatre.[v]

This confusion between source and target, cause and effect, in the minds of critics and artists would itself be a historical curiosity if it had not fed the underlying Australian bias against anything that looks like minority arts practice. The sense of connection that came with the popular theatre trope (however illusory), of at last meeting expectations, of being at one with the community, was (and is) tempting for an art form long the object of suspicion and contempt. Australian drama as a ‘people’s drama’ offered (and offers) the hope of organic connection between an abject class fraction and a traditionally indifferent public.

But there are limits to this imagined state of gemeinschaft. If Sharman and the Paris represent the zenith of the New Wave’s popular theatre ambitions, and Circus Oz one of its surviving achievements, Manning Clark’s A History of Australia – the Musical might be considered a candidate for its most resounding failure. Peter Fitzpatrick calls the production, assembled for the 1988 Bicentenary and involving both Pram and Nimrod artists an ‘inconceivable conjunction’, but is adamant that the strange marriage between its form (toe-tapping musical) and its content (Clark’s magisterially stern magnum opus) was largely successful.[vi] Right from the start its artistic qualities as a show were gazumped by its political significance as a skirmish in the History Wars (the Herald Sun then beginning its campaign against federal Labor and their layabout associates, ‘the Carlton mafia’). Numbers like ‘Wentworth Samba’, ‘The Folly of Gallipoli’ and ‘Nance the Ferret’, together with a high-kicking chorus of historical figures – Ned Kelly, Caroline Chisholm, Queen Victoria, Robert Menzies, to name a few – make it as mind-bogglingly surreal as anything the New Wave got up to. Despite opening night accolades (Hawke and cabinet leaping to their feet in standing ovation) the show closed after seven weeks. The Herald Sun stuck the boot in again: ‘the sheer awfulness, the crudeness and epic dullness of this Bicentennial bash’[vii]; and the mythology of catastrophe, as Fitzpatrick calls it, was born. So what made the show a stinker, if indeed it was one? Or is retrospective assessment necessarily either partisan or beside the point? What are the grounds for judging the show, any show? Let’s leave this one hanging for a moment, too, and return to the Leavises.


FR LEAVIS, ONE of my teachers recalled (a six-foot Cornishman in a nailed-on graduation gown who informed me that Shakespeare was the greatest transcendent genius who ever lived), preferred to hold tutorials in his pyjamas and slippers. The book his students had been reading would be brandished aloft. What is its value? If, after discussion, judgment was adverse it would be hurled forcefully into the bin. Criticism was a serious business. Terry Eagleton notes the impact of this style of commitment: ‘In the 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else.’[viii] Leavis’s trenchant opinions got him into trouble with his peers though. When he refused to testify for the Defence in the Crown case against Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, despite having championed DH Lawrence as a writer for thirty years, reactions ranged from the quietly puzzled to the openly furious. Leavis was unrepentant. Lawrence was a great writer. But Lady Chatterley was an average book and the arguments put forward to justify lifting the ban on it were at best spurious, at worst misconceived. ‘Lawrence is henceforward the author of Lady Chatterley. This is what the new orthodoxy of the enlightenment reduces him to,’ he maintained in the pages of the Spectator.[ix] Leavis could be harsh and negative in his views, increasingly so as he got older. But he was always erudite and precise in articulating them. He was right about Lady Chatterley, though the world at the time told him he was not. He stood by his judgments and did not expect them to be either uncontroversial or uncontested. What was the point of that? To take literature seriously was to engage in open assessment of it. There was a cost to this, and in a life fully lived one had to be willing to pay it. Sean Matthews points out the sociability of this stance, Leavis’s belief in ‘the collaborative ground of the critical function’:

On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the trial Leavis was absolute and specific: ‘it is important this obvious enough truth be recognized – [it] is a bad novel’. Recognition of the ‘truth’, though, is not a matter of easy individual assent but requires intellectual effort, a struggle with evidence, conscience and the Other’s argument. Critical competence necessitates effort of resistance to conventions, preconceived ideas and personal relations that might disrupt or distort the response to a text. Such disinterestedness is a precondition of critical discussion… Throughout his work, value judgments are expressed in interrogative or consensual forms, contingent on a discursive currency for their force. Leavis maintains all critical statements are of the form ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ and presuppose a response ‘Yes, but’. This leads back to the importance of a vital critical environment, that other major theme in his writing, as the guarantee of the articulation of genuinely representative values.[x]

If someone tells me one more time ‘art’s meaning is subjective’, I’ll brain them with my copy of The Common Pursuit (1952), one of Leavis’s longer books. That the essence of cultural value lies in personal response is inarguable. Art is a singularity, if it’s any good at least. But personal response is the beginning, not the end, of having an opinion about it, the first step on a long road entailing both personal reflection and exegetical analysis. The Leavises’ judgements count for something because they are, in a larger, moral sense, going somewhere. This was the Modernist approach to life: committed, eristic, a little humourless. You sit up straight when you read Leavis, turn off the TV, knit your brows. You listen to what he has to say because you know he means it.

The transition from engagé ornery late Modernism to miasmically unstable postmodernism, with its diacritic flourishes and jokey mergers of form, has not brought with it an end to a concern with judgement, far from it. Star ratings, ‘expert panels’, thumbs up/thumbs down SMS juries, medals, awards, prizes of all kinds pervade our cultural world, turning it into a riot of preferment, a continual, enervating contest where there’s always a winner. In other words, the business of judgement has either been pathologised – outsourced to the Academy, whence no one can understand it – or trivialised – a talk-show-host Australia’s Got Talent opinion-fest with Kyle Sandilands as mad Maître de jeu. There’s no social transformation without there being something inconvenient about it. Losing the guts of the opinion-having process might be an acceptable loss but in Australia it compounds the felony outlined above: to whit, a rank populism that, in claiming a de jure equality of value, rapidly works its way to the bottom of the cultural barrel, catering to our worst proclivities, and putting itself beyond reach of censure by vitiating the criteria by which it might be judged. If people like it, that’s enough. When you point out that, historically speaking, people have also liked bear-baiting, witch-burning, torture lynchings and public executions but we don’t think this a reason for bringing them back, you get an exasperated look. Of course these things are wrong, just as of course in art there is no right or wrong. But there is. The Biggest Loser is a pile of crap. Face painting is not on a par with installation art. Interpretive dance is a genuine art form because it has a long tradition of practice, an exacting critical history and a community of past and present artists who mediate relations between the two. It is certainly the case that the broadening of the definition of culture in the last fifty years has brought with it a welcome loosening of high art–pop art boundaries, a plethora of new media and different conceptions of creative agency (though this last remains, to my mind, still largely aspirational). But it does not mean, nor should it mean, an abandonment of the search for standards by which to judge the results, nor an unwillingness to call a spade a blunt instrument for shovelling dirt when it puts itself forward as something more.

Why are qualitative criteria so important? Why were the Leavises right to champion a community-wide dialogue about them? Put another way, what’s so special about high art, since that’s the end of the playground concerned with such distinction-making? Again, theatre is exemplary because it is so vulnerable to short term perception. Paintings, sculptures and symphonies stick around. Live performance, however, a capitalised and collaborative enterprise, can only be prolonged or revived under certain circumstances – usually when it meets with strong approval in the first place. The struggle for integrity of judgement is not a distal matter for theatre therefore, and the regular exchanges of fire between critics and artists in the public arena bear witness to it. If absolute standards are spurious nonsense, ‘a vital critical environment’ is not. When judgements aren’t out in the open, they burrow underground and do real damage, becoming pockets of insidious in-group opinion considering themselves superior to the common view because, well, there aren’t the criteria to challenge them.

So here’s a thumbnail Leavsite analysis of Manning Clark’s History of Australia – the Musical. It’s a bad play. It is not bad in conception. New Wave dramatists did many out-of the-box things in their time, a high percentage successful (Tim Robertson, John Romeril and Don Watson were the writers on History and their list of achievements is a long one). Nor is it bad because of any imagined political agenda. Both earlier and later drafts of the text are available on-line and anyone but a Herald Sun editor would be hard put to find an offensive point of view in them. And there’s the rub. There is no real point of view in the play, no wider intellectual movement or operating principle.

It is ultimately a collation of narrative incidents bound together by the thinnest of conceits. Fitzpatrick argues that ‘its structural movement is consistently integrative and ameliorative’[xi], but this is only a virtue if an informing conflict is established to begin with. And in History it just isn’t. I could, as a dramaturge, put this technically and say ‘the play fails to find an adaptive metaphor whereby the agon of its source material is put to work as an effective dramatic force.’ But I can also put it in plain English: in a drive to develop a ‘popular’ vehicle the writers jettison the intellectual substance of their subject matter. Clark’s vision is, after all, a critical one. It is nuanced, complex, conflicted, ironic. The New Wave did many weird and brilliant things with popular theatre forms but History stands as evidence that the trope had, by 1988, exhausted itself. In trying to be something for everyone the play ends up nothing for anyone. Thus does the popular slide into the populist and a feisty cultural formation lose traction, shape and critical force.

Perhaps if New Wave dramatists had been more self-aware they could have gone on for longer, matured, achieved the full consciousness they always seemed on the brink of attaining. As it was, the movement fell to bits in an egregious romantic populism, unwilling to see the constraints behind its fantasy and take steps to mitigate its ultimately ruinous effects.


THAT’S THE PROBLEM with popular culture: it has to be, well, popular. And while ‘popular’ as a concept doesn’t lie in direct opposition to ‘critical’ it doesn’t sit snugly beside it, either. When Rickard talks about the Palmers’ ‘intellectualising’ of Australian cultural traditions, what he means is ‘making them critical’. And being critical (and criticised), in however edifying a fashion, is not what Australians have historically gone to their art for. That’s an issue because that is what high art does: ask the hard questions, the un-popular ones, the ones no one wants to hear. So, while there’s nothing wrong with popular culture there is a big problem with the belief that all culture must be popular. By valorising the first, you end up with the second. Or at least you do in Australia, with two centuries of oppressive conformism, intolerance of minorities and indifference to art behind it. In this context, seeing popularity as the mark of cultural worth risks raising old ghosts in new sheets and becoming another excuse not to do the hard work of both creating a diverse culture and critically understanding the diverse culture we are creating.

This was the Leavises’ goal: to illuminate our social and imaginative landscape by guiding and goading us to deeper cultural connections; to say what is good art not for the sake of grandstanding judgement, but because such judgements are part of a committed person’s life.

And what are we doing now, exactly? Or, as a Leavisite critic might polemically put it: what the fuck are we doing now?



[i] Both quotations from John Rickard’s Australia: A Cultural History. London and New York: Longman, 1996 (1988). The bifurcation is discussed at length by Peter Goodall in High Culture, Popular Culture: The Long Debate. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1995.

[ii] For detailed discussion of these and other playwrights of the period see Leslie Ree’s The Making of Australian Drama Volume 1. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1978; and, more recently, John McCallum’s Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Currency Press, 2009.

[iii] Australia: Angus and Roberton, 1980.

[iv] Week/end Australian 18-19 March, 1978.

[v] I deal with this issue in more detail in “Loved Every Minute of It: Nimrod, Enright’s The Venetian Twins and the Invention of Popular Theatre” in Nick Enright: An Actor’s Playwright ed. Anne Pender and Susan Lever. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008, pp 157-172

[vi] “The Historian in the Spotlight: Manning Clark’s History of Australia – The Musical” in Against the Grain: Brian Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark in Australian History and Politics”. Carlton, VIC: Melbourne University Press, 2007 (pp 240-257). For a quick overview of the history of History see http://historyofaustraliathemusicalahistory.blogspot.com.au/2009/02/1988-and-all-that.html

[vii] Quoted Fitzpatrick: p 253.

[viii] Literary Theory: An Introduction. USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2008 (1996, 1983) p 27.

[ix] Quoted Sean Matthews. “The Responsibilities of Dissent: F.R. Leavis after Scrutiny”. Literature and History. 13(2): 56.

[x] Matthews: 59-60.

[xi] Fitzpatrick: 243.

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